Building Las Vegas
Every GM is hired for the same purpose: to build a Stanley Cup winning franchise. While that’s no easy feat, George McPhee has an even more daunting task – how to build a cup-winning team from scratch. Sure, there are a few built-in advantages – there are no bad contracts on the books, and the expansion process could provide a bevy of quality options in goal and on the blueline. But the key to building a competitive team in the NHL today revolves around the young talent available at the NHL Entry Draft, and McPhee hasn’t had a crack at that just yet. The entire process starts on Tuesday, when McPhee will pick Vegas’ initial roster, followed by a grand unveiling on Wednesday night at the NHL awards.
Vegas’ Expansion Strategy
If McPhee wanted to make a competitive team right out of the gate, there would certainly be enough talent available in order to do. There will be several veterans, most of whom carry ‘overly generous’ contracts will be available, like Bobby Ryan, Mike Cammalleri, Marian Gaborik, Tomas Plekanec, and Eric Staal (available due to Minnesota’s depth). Each of them as put up 20+ goal, 70 point seasons in their careers. (Staal even once had 100 points back in 2005-06!) And while none of them remain in their prime years, they’re likely among the best options available to be selected from their respective teams. (Gaborik aside). When combined with the talent available on D & G, there’s enough there for a quality roster. Despite this, chances are that most of, or perhaps none of the players named above will be selected, and that’s because George McPhee isn’t picking the best players from each team, he’s selecting the best assets, so that he can trade them for draft picks and prospects. He’s also saving cap room so that he can take on other teams’ bad contracts in trades, which will garner even more picks and prospects. Vegas isn’t looking to maximize their depth chart in the expansion draft, they’re trying to gauge player value and select the ones who have the most value to the rest of the league.
In economics, the key to value is scarcity; things have a lot of value when they’re in high demand, and short supply. Last summer’s Taylor Hall, Adam Larsson swap was a stark reminder of the scarcity that exists for top-4 NHL defenders – especially those who are young, locked up to a reasonable contract, and right-handed. It just so happens that there could be several intriguing defenders available to McPhee in the expansion draft. However, it’s been widely reported that Vegas has deals in place with Anaheim, Columbus, and New York (Islanders) in order to pass on their most desirable targets. As a result, Vegas won’t be adding the likes of Vatanen, Manson, J. Johnson or de Haan, but in not selecting these quality defenders, they’ll be getting what they truly desire – first round draft picks. There are other teams who may look to make similar arrangements with Vegas – Minnesota is exposing Matt Dumba, Ottawa is reluctantly offering Marc Methot, and Nashville has forward James Neal up for grabs. Thus far, no side deals with Vegas have been reported for those three teams. On a related note, it’s believed that Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay also have deals in place with Vegas.
Many have floated the idea of Vegas selecting far more than the required 3 goaltenders in order to hold them as trade chips. While in some cases, the goaltenders may be the best assets available on their teams – Antti Raanta (Nyr) and Calvin Pickard (Col) are good examples – but the idea of Vegas snapping up as many goalies as possible doesn’t make much sense. For one, there aren’t very many teams looking for starting goaltenders this off-season. Arizona and Philadelphia both have vacancies, but they’re both in rebuild mode, and will probably make due with what they find in Free Agency (i.e., Elliot, Mason, Condon, and Bernier) rather than give up an asset in a trade; Vancouver is in a similar position, and may be re-signing Ryan Miller in order to split time again with Jakob Markstrom. That leaves at most three teams who may look to upgrade in goal – the Buffalo Sabres, who have one decent, young goalie already (Robin Lehner), the New York Islanders, who have a competent goalie with a reasonable contract (Thomas Greiss), and the most desperate of the group, the Winnipeg Jets. Even if we assumed that each of Buf, Nyi, and Wpg made deals with Vegas to upgrade their goaltending, Vegas could only draft 5 goalies before they’d risk losing the next one to waivers. And for each team that opts to sign a UFA instead of make a deal, that’s another goalie that Vegas would be stuck with, and potentially lose for nothing. As a result, it’s a risky strategy for McPhee to draft more than 4 or 5 goalies.
As for forwards, there will be a few big names exposed – James Neal is the most desirable one – but for the most part, it will be unproven or bottom-6 forwards, and overpaid or aging middle-6 forwards. Vegas is likely to dodge a minefield of bad contracts, unless those teams are willing to part with high draft picks or blue-chip prospects. Even so, they won’t be taking on long-term deals like those of Bobby Ryan, Dustin Brown, or Marian Gaborik, which will create financial pain 4 or 5 years down the road; they’ll mostly take on shorter deals of 1-2 years. Vegas may opt to select the fewest number of forwards possible (14) – partly because they’d rather take defencemen and shop them around, but also to save cap space for a few very talented UFA’s, like Alexander Radulov and T.J Oshie.
In putting my Vegas Mock Draft together, I assumed that McPhee and co. would select 4-5 goaltenders, as many defencemen as they could get their hands on, and as few forwards as possible. I certainly struggled with a few decisions, as certain teams have so many good options which make it tough to narrow down, most notably Washington and Florida. Will Washington be losing promising back-up goaltender, Philipp Grubauer, or swift skating defender, Nate Schmidt? Will Florida be without top-4 defender, Jason Demers, or dirt-cheap 30 goal scorer, Jonathan Marchessault? On the other hand, things were also tricky on the opposite end as well, as a few teams have so little to offer that it can be equally difficult to predict who Vegas will select. Vancouver came down to two fringe NHL forwards – Brendan Gaunce and Reid Boucher (Vegas won’t be suckered into Luca Sbisa’s $3.7M anchor), while Toronto was a choice between two AHL’ers who are almost too old to be referred to as prospects – Brendan Leipsic, and Kerby Rychel.
I’ve laid out the most contentious/interesting choices below, along with the logic:
Winnipeg – Toby Enstrom vs. Marko Dano
The focus of Monday’s article.
Dallas – Cody Eakin vs. Dan Hamhuis
Dan Hamhuis is a reliable veteran defenceman with just one year left on his deal at $3.75M. At 35, he isn’t the top-2/3 d-man he was in his prime, but he still has value as a solid #5, and might fetch a 2nd round pick at the trade deadline in February. Meanwhile, Cody Eakin is coming off a disastrous season where he scored just 3 goals and 9 assists in 60 games, due in large part to injury struggles. He’s locked up for another 3 years at $3.85M per season. Based on all that, Hamhuis is probably the safer pick. However, prior to last season, Eakin posted three straight, 16+ goal seasons, and was looked upon as a very solid and versatile top-9 player, playing both centre and left wing. A hard worker with a great attitude, this 26-year-old forward is a good candidate to have a bounce-back season. And while it was acknowledged earlier in this article that each selection will be looked at as an asset first, and a roster player second, McPhee probably would like to have a little bit of continuity over the next 2-3 years as he tries to establish a core. Given Eakin’s age and versatility, I think he’ll be one of those players for Vegas.
Florida – Jonathan Marchessault vs. Jason Demers
Many are expecting Marchessault to be the pick from Florida – he scored 30 goals last season, and makes just $750,000, how can you go wrong? And if he was being selected from about 20 other rosters, I would agree. But when I look at Marchessault, I see a young P.A Parenteau – a very good complementary scorer, but one who needs to play with a very good centre in order to put up numbers. Parenteau didn’t make the NHL until he was 27, and then became a first-line right winger playing alongside John Tavares. However, he struggled after leaving Tavares’ side, and has bounced around on one-year contracts ever since, even being claimed on waivers last year. Marchessault’s career has followed a very similar trajectory – an AHL’er until his mid-20’s, he was able to land a two-year contract with Florida and excelled last year in a top-6 role. However, given his lack of pedigree, his trade value will evaporate if he isn’t able to put together another strong season. Given that he won’t be playing with a centre as talented as Alex Barkov or Vincent Trocheck next season, and he is due to regress from his 15.5% shooting percentage of 2016-17, I’m betting he struggles if Vegas does pick him. By contrast, Demers would give Vegas a 29-year-old, right-side d-man who consistently posts 25-30 points and plays an effective top-4 role. He’s not cheap – 4 years and $4.5M per – but he isn’t overpaid either. I’ll take a top-4 right-handed d-man under 30 over a late-blooming, 5’9 scorer who rode a 15.5% shooting percentage into a career year.
Washington (with influence from Detroit)
Philipp Grubauer is seen by many as a goaltender on the rise. His numbers have been pretty stellar throughout his development in the pros, and his .926 save % last season was actually slightly better than Braden Holtby’s. He’s as good a bet to be a future starting goaltender as any other goaltender available to Vegas. Then there’s Nate Schmidt, an undrafted defenceman out of the University of Minnesota who skates as well as just about anyone, can help run the powerplay, and can really help a team exit the zone and transition quickly to offence. Prior to Detroit’s mini-bombshell which saw them exposing Petr Mrazek, I had Vegas selecting Grubauer, and grooming him to be their future starter after Marc-Andre Fleury’s contract expires (two years from now). However, when you examine Mrazek, he’s posted very similar numbers to Grubauer for most of his pro career, and only last year did his stock suddenly drop, as he had a rough year behind a very weak team, with an even weaker defence. Mrazek is also a year younger than Grubauer, and it would be a great chance to buy low on a guy who could recapture a lot of value playing alongside an affable veteran in M.A Fleury. Ultimately, given the value defencemen have these days, and the abundance of other goaltending options, Schmidt was too good to pass up.
Montreal – Tomas Plekanec vs. Brandon Davidson
Most people think that Vegas will not select Tomas Plekanec, and I don’t fully disagree with their logic. At 35 years of age, and with just 10 goals and 28 points last season, Plekanec did not earn his $5M salary. By contrast, Brandon Davidson is a 26 year old top-6 d-man who only counts $1.425M against the cap. However, I actually think that Plekanec has more value to a team at the NHL trade deadline than Davidson. In the two seasons prior to last, Plekanec had 60 points and 54 points, and was a steadying two-presence presence at centre-ice. Yes, he dropped off last year, but if he bounces back to 35 or 40 points next season, he’ll be a nice deadline addition for a team looking for depth at centre. By contrast, Davidson was traded by Edmonton to Montreal in exchange for diminutive centre, David Desharnais. Desharnais was once a very productive centre, but he fell off the map this year with just 14 points in 49 games. If that’s all the Oilers got for Davidson, that tells me that he has very little value around the league. And given the abundance of quality defensive options, Vegas will probably have access to at least 12 options who are better than Davidson. Sure, Vegas could take young players like Charles Hudon or Jacob De La Rose, but they risk losing either one on waivers if they don’t make the team. Plekanec might actually end up being the best choice, as well as a fairly safe choice.
New Jersey – Mike Cammalleri vs. Ben Lovejoy
Mike Cammalleri would be an easy choice if he only had 1 year left on his contract; in a full season, he’s typically a lock for 20 goals. However, given his age (35), injury history (extensive) and salary (2 years at $5M per), there are too many obstacles to overcome. So what made this a difficult choice? Because Ben Lovejoy may not even be a #6 defenceman on Vegas’ roster, and at $2.667M per year for 2 more years, a 33-year-old with 1 goal and 7 points in 82 games probably doesn’t have a lot of trade value. Perhaps a young defender like Jon Merrill or forward like Devante Smith-Pelly could end up as the pick, just because someone needs to be, but the fact that Lovejoy is right-handed, and has some playoff experience (2016 Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh), may make him just desirable enough to be selected.
Teams With Side Deals
It was reported weeks ago that Vegas will draft 26-year-old, right-handed d-man, Trevor Van Riesmdyk, and will take on Marcus Kruger’s cap hit (just over $3M), in a side deal. If Vegas had not agreed to take Kruger, Chicago may have simply dealt Van Riemsdyk for picks to someone else. If this plays out as expected, it seems to work for both teams.
New York Islanders
Despite the minor fiasco that saw the Islanders protect bottom-pairing defender Adam Pelech over top-6 forward Brock Nelson and top-4 d-man, Calvin de Haan, it sounds like it won’t matter in the end. The Islanders have reportedly agreed to send a first-round pick to Vegas, with Vegas selecting declining Russian winger, Nikolay Kulemin, as well as Mikhail Grabovski’s salary (he’s on long-term IR with a concussion). The Islanders are in “win-now” mode in order to show John Tavares they’re for real.
So much for the rumours of Ryan Murray potentially being left unprotected, or Jack Johnson (available in expansion) being selected. Based on the rumours, Columbus will also be sending a 1st round pick to Vegas, while the Knights will be taking Swedish centre William Karlsson, or former Brandon Wheat Kings winger, Matt Calvert. The Knights will take on David Clarkson’s contract, which has 3 years, and a cap hit of $5.25M per season. If the rumour is accurate, expect Karlsson to be the forward picked by Vegas.
Anaheim GM Bob Murray may need to pony up more than just a first round lot to keep McPhee off of Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson. No specific trade package has been leaked to the media, but you have to think that high-end prospects like d-man Shea Theodore, or WHL scoring leader Sam Steel could be in play, along with draft picks.
Word came out very recently that Tampa was one of the teams who made a side deal with Vegas. If so, it’s likely to protect young d-men like Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek. Both are valuable, but not valuable enough to give up a first rounder.
No leaks on this one. Vegas will pick Fleury, but details of the side deal are a mystery.
Teams Without Side Deals (as of Tuesday night)
As it stands, Ottawa will lose shut-down d-man Marc Methot unless they made a deal at the 11th hour. You can plug him into Vegas’ top-4 on the left side, if not the top pair. Ottawa would love Bobby Ryan to be the pick, but with over 37M left on his contract for the next 5 years, there’s almost no chance.
Many thought that Minnesota would expose 25-year-old scoring winger, Jason Zucker – a Las Vegas native – and trade defenceman Jonas in order to protect Matt Dumba. Instead, the Wild made no trades, and protected Zucker over Eric Staal, and Brodin over Dumba. Staal had a bounce back year in 2016-17 with 65 points, and he’d be nice to have as a 1st line centre for the next 2 years, but Dumba is a talented, right handed defender of just 23, so he’s almost certainly Vegas’ pick unless Chuck Fletcher coughs up some picks/prospects. Update: There was a report after this was written indicating that Erik Haula, not Matt Dumba, could be Wild player on the move to Vegas.
The Preds decided to keep 26-year-old, middle-6 centre, Calle Jarnkrok, over 30-year-old sniper, James Neal. Unless David Poile has a deal in place, Neal will be the most gifted offensive player available in expansion, and with just 1 year left on his contract at $5M, this former 40-goal scorer will be highly sought after at the trade deadline in February.
Mock Draft Results