House Money: How Golden Knights were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.

Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.

[How the Capitals were built]

It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.

Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.

The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now

Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.

Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.

Anyway, stockpiling defensemen and futures was a huge part of the gameplan. At the time, it seemed like any bit of first-season success would be the gravy. Instead, a nice first entry draft (despite bad draft lottery luck) and a bucket of picks ended up being the cherry on top of this beyond-Cinderella run.

Fleury and other established players

Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.

But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.

Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.

James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …

Karlsson is to Forsberg …

In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.

When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.

While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.

Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.

[What Vegas success says about NHL]

Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.

Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …

via Getty

Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans

An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).

To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)

You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.

Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.

/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.

Speaking of former Panthers

Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.

Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.

It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.

Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.

Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.

A fairly clean slate

You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.

Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.

Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.

That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.

As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?

Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.

***

No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.

Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.

You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• How Washington was built

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Locking up Evander Kane is smart business for Sharks (Updated)

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The San Jose Sharks arguably got the best bang for their buck at the trade deadline when they acquired Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres. No one was really sure how Kane would fit in with his new team, but he made enough of an impact that the Sharks are reportedly about to hand a new seven-year contract extension, according to Irfaan Gaffar of Sportsnet.

The report suggests that Kane’s new contract will come with a cap hit in the $7 million range. Locking up the enigmatic winger for that long could be seen as risky, but the fact that he’s going to be 27 years old when the season starts takes some of the risk out of the new deal.

When the trade between the Sharks and Sabres went down in February, many speculated that Kane would be nothing more than a rental. After all, if San Jose extends him, the second-round pick they’re sending to Buffalo becomes a first-rounder in 2019. Kane fit in so well on the top line with Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi that it appears as though they don’t mind giving up their top selection in next summer’s entry draft (can you blame them?).

Oh, and by the way, the 2019 pick is lottery protected, according to the Associated Press. So if the Sharks were to fall apart next season, they could push the selection to 2020.

Kane hit a bit of a rut during his time in Buffalo, but it’s hard to blame him? No one should be making excuses for a millionaire on skates, but these guys are human, too. The Sabres haven’t played meaningful hockey in so long that daily motivation is probably hard to come by.

In San Jose, it became clear pretty early on that Kane was going to be comfortable in his new surroundings. He had 20 goals and 20 assists in 61 games before the trade and nine goals and 14 points in 17 games with the Sharks. In the postseason, he added four goals and one assist in nine contests.

As you’d expect, all of his advanced metrics went up after he moved to the West Coast. According to Natural Stat Trick, his CF% went from 49.94 in Buffalo to 53.60 in San Jose. His FF% 50.80 to 55.03, his SF% went up by almost six percent. When Pavelski was on the ice with Kane, his CF% was 56.11. When Pavelski was on the ice without Kane, his CF% was 46.27 percent. Playing together clearly made both players better.

There’s a risk anytime a team hands out a long-term contract. In this case, Kane hasn’t been the most consistent player over the course of his career, so there’s a little cause for concern. But it’s also important to note that power forwards that can skate and that are under 30 rarely hit the open market. Even if they do hit free agency, you never know how well they’ll fit in with your current group of players. This situation is already different in that respect because the Sharks had a couple of months to evaluate him in their building, with their players. He fits.

Handing over roughly $50 million over to Kane likely means that they’ll be out of the running for John Tavares, but there’s no guarantee that the Islanders captain will go there if he hits the market anyway.

GM Doug Wilson is making the right decision here.

UPDATE: The Sharks made the signing official on Thursday morning. The financial terms of the deal weren’t officially released, but many insiders have speculated the it will be worth $49 million.

“At only 26 years old, Evander has established himself as one of hockey’s true power forwards and an impact player,” GM Doug Wilson said in a release. “We think his abilities mesh perfectly with our group of skilled, young players and veteran leaders. It’s extremely heartening to have Evander join a trend of elite players who have chosen to remain in San Jose. It speaks volumes as to how players view this organization and further illustrates the continued commitment to our fans by our owner Hasso Plattner.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

USA tops Canada to claim bronze at hockey worlds

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The United States topped Canada 4-1 to claim the bronze medal at the world ice hockey championship on Sunday.

Chris Kreider led the U.S. with two goals.

Forward Nick Bonino scored the winner on a rebound during a power play in the final period. Anders Lee and Kreider added empty-net insurance goals to give the U.S. its third bronze in six years.

”It’s important for the team but it’s also important for USA Hockey,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”Now, we can build up off this level and try to keep being better and better.”

Kane had an assist in the game to finish the tournament with 20 points for eight goals and 12 assists, the first player to do so since 2008.

”Obviously I’m here to produce and try to create offense and make plays out there,” Kane said. ”Overall, I’m happy … it was a fun tournament and a great experience for me and I hope it will help me with my career going forward too.”

Canada had to settle for a disappointing fourth-place finish.

”We wanted to win gold,” Canada forward Bo Horvat said. ”We wanted to be in the final. It’s not a result we wanted. But we have to take the positives from this experience and bring it to next year.”

Kreider scored the go-ahead goal for the U.S. in the second period, capitalizing on a mistake by Canada captain Connor McDavid.

Canada answered with a Marc-Edouard Vlasic shot that went in between the pads of goaltender Keith Kinkaid.

Sweden plays Switzerland for gold later Sunday.

Captained by McDavid, the NHL scoring leader, Canada was considered a contender for gold.

Chasing its third title in four years, Canada suffered losses in the preliminary round to the U.S. and Finland and was stunned by Switzerland 3-2 in the semifinals.

The U.S. had a great start to the tournament with six straight wins. It knocked out the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals but was trashed 6-0 by Sweden in the semis.

Kane leads U.S. into semis, Canada knocks out Russia

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals to lift the United States to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the ice hockey world championship on Thursday while Canada beat Russia 5-4 in overtime.

Switzerland pulled off a surprise by eliminating Finland 3-2 and defending champion Sweden edged out Latvia 3-2.

Kane claimed the third-period winner to take the outright lead in the scoring table on 19 points, a U.S. record, with eight goals and 11 assists and set up a semifinal against Sweden on Saturday.

”It’s my job to produce,” Kane said. ”It’s always nice to contribute offensively.”

The U.S. is looking for its first medal since picking up bronze in 2015.

”We came here to put ourselves in a position to try to win the gold,” Kane said. “We’re on the right path.”

The U.S. took control with a couple of goals in the span of 1:43 midway through the first period in Herning.

Kane beat goaltender Pavel Francouz from the right circle before Nick Bonino fed Cam Atkinson in front of the net to stretch the lead with a backhand shot.

The Czechs hit back in the second period. Michal Repik reduced the advantage on a slap shot and Martin Necas netted the tying goal on a power play.

”It’s a pity,” Czech forward Tomas Plekanec said. ”We created enough chances to win.”

In Copenhagen, Ryan O'Reilly scored 4:57 into overtime to knock out Russia while captain Connor McDavid had three assists, including on the winning goal.

Hunting its third title in four years, Canada will face Switzerland in the semis.

”Canada are a great team, they always are,” defenseman Roman Josi said after his Switzerland team beat Finland for the first time since 1972.

Defenseman Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past goaltender Igor Shestyorkin on a power play to give Canada a 1-0 lead in the first period before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doubled the advantage on another power play.

But Alexander Barabanov and Ilya Mikheyev scored in the second period to tie the game.

Kyle Turris made it 3-2 to Canada in the third before Sergei Andronov leveled. Pierre-Luc Dubois put Canada ahead again but Russia answered with a goal from Artyom Anisimov.

Finland looked to be heading for victory after Markus Nutivaara‘s first-period goal, but Switzerland rallied with goals from Enzo Corvi, Joel Vermin and Gregory Hofmann in less than four minutes midway through the second.

”We didn’t start the way we wanted but we reacted in the second period and played very well from then on,” Josi said.

Mikko Rantanen cut the deficit to one goal in the third period.

”This wasn’t what we were looking for,” Finland captain Mikael Granlund said. ”They had the momentum in the second period and we were not able to turn it around.”

Sweden, which won all seven of its preliminary round games, beat Latvia thanks to goals from Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Teodors Blugers and Rudolfs Balcers replied.

Long-term extension would make sense for Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson

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The Arizona Coyotes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are in talks about a possible eight-year contract extension that would carry a cap hit of a bit more than $8 million per season, according to Craig Morgan of ArizonaSports.com.

Do note that, whether a deal is actually close to be agreed upon or the situation is fluid, an extension wouldn’t become official until July, when “OEL” is first eligible for such a contract. (He’ll enter the final year of his current deal in 2018-19).

So, things could fall apart between now and then.

Still, such an extension could make a lot of sense for both the Swedish defenseman and the fledgling Coyotes. Let’s dive in under the assumption that an eight-year deal would cost (slightly?) more than $64M, which is essentially the extension Brent Burns signed with the San Jose Sharks in November 2016.

Peace of mind (and maybe some control?) for OEL

Ekman-Larsson (26, turning 27 on July 17) is currently on a deal with a $5.5M cap hit and $7M salary heading into 2018-19. OEL’s contract lacks a no-trade or no-movement clause, so if negotiations fell through, he could find himself in a less-than-desirable situation as a “rental.”

By signing a deal in that Burns range, he’d carry one of the biggest cap hits of any NHL defenseman, at least as of this writing (trailing P.K. Subban, but slightly more than Burns, Shea Weber, and Aaron Ekblad). Of course, as of this writing is the key phrase, but we’ll get to that in the Coyotes’ section.

OEL opting to sign that contract brings plenty of benefits:

  • Not needing to answer a bunch of questions about his contract year.
  • Avoiding the risk of an injury derailing/lowering his prospects of getting a new deal. Eight years is the maximum term, so OEL would land the most security possible, covering the next nine years of his career.
  • Speaking of years, the Coyotes are the only team that could sign him for eight. This could be advantageous for Ekman-Larsson even if things actually turned sour with Arizona, especially if he …
  • Possibly gets a no-trade or no-movement clause, gaining more say in his future, even if he loses the ultimate freedom of exploring the free agent market.

Yes, there’s a lot to like from OEL’s standpoint. So, what about the Coyotes?

Getting ahead of the gold rush for defensemen

Now, it’s worth noting that some key moments for soon-to-be-richer defensemen could happen in late June by way of trades at or around the 2018 NHL Draft on June 22. For all we know, Erik Karlsson could be traded from Ottawa, possibly accelerating his own schedule to sign an extension.

Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson are far from the only prominent defensemen who will enter 2018-19 as contract years (assuming they don’t sign extensions themselves). Karlsson and Drew Doughty aren’t shy about possibly driving up their own prices, maybe together. Ryan McDonagh isn’t setting the world on fire with the Lightning, but the market could still send piles of money his way consider the demand for defensemen and the scant supply of capable ones. Ryan Ellis is another defenseman worth watching if he rides things out with Nashville next season.

From OEL’s perspective, he’d avoid the threat of a potential buyers’ market. The Coyotes, on the other hand, might look at the very real potential for Doughty and Karlsson to command deals at or above Jack Eichel‘s extension, thus making $8M a reasonable, risk-reducing price.

Question of worth

Now, it’s fair to wonder if OEL would actually be worth $8M per season. Ekman-Larsson’s mostly been a strong possession player on a bad team, and his 85 goals since 2013-14 ranks second among defensemen. Still, he’s only passed the 50-point plateau once (2015-16), so he hasn’t necessarily had that “huge” year one might demand from a player seeking that big payday. (None of this is to say that he isn’t very good; instead, it’s just a reminder that big cash inspires big-time nitpicking.)

It’s tough to imagine him not being worth it for the Coyotes, though, so the debate feels a bit moot. Perhaps they’d be on firmer ground to grind something out if they won the draft lottery, but the fifth pick likely means adding another nice piece rather than a revolutionary one as Rasmus Dahlin is hyped to possibly be.

The Coyotes showed that they wanted to make the next step by trading for Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, and Niklas Hjalmarsson last summer. While the results weren’t quite what they hoped for in 2017-18, would they really want to take a step back by letting their best defenseman/player* go after next season?

Yes, with just about any big extension or contract, there are risks to consider, especially in a sport where a career-derailing injury could always be one hard collision away. It’s also plausible that Ekman-Larsson might buckle under the pressure of such a contract. Being labeled an “albatross” can really mess with an athlete’s head, even if they don’t get the reference.

All things considered, if the Coyotes and OEL agree to a deal along the lines of what Morgan reports, it would probably rank as an “everyone wins” situation.

Bonus points if Ekman-Larsson can actually, you know, help the Coyotes start winning.

* – Hey, for all we know, Clayton Keller could become “The Guy” in Arizona by next season.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.