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Knights' expansion draft strategy wisely prioritizes value of defensemen

June 22, 2017, 9:02 PM ET [1 Comments]
Adam Proteau
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In the wake of the NHL’s first expansion draft in 17 years, two things became clear about the team-building plan of Las Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee: No. 1 – there will be no fast-tracking the competitive process in Nevada; and No. 2 – despite a plethora of available high-calibre goaltending, the most valuable asset in today’s game remains a deep and reliable defense corps.

Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship run just proved there are exceptions to the notion you need a pack of solid blueliners – and it certainly helps having a trio of talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to make up for an injury-depleted D-man crew – to win it all. But in the short-and-long-terms, McPhee’s interests were best-served by selecting as many quality defensemen as possible.

In the present day, relative greybeards Marc Methot and Jason Garrison will be around to serve as leaders and the voice of experience in the Knights’ dressing room. In the future, the franchise expects youngsters including 21-year-old Shea Theodore and 25-year-old Nate Schmidt will develop into vital contributors. And in between, McPhee will be able to move veteran D-men on expiring contracts – Vegas currently has five such players, including Garrison – for draft picks and prospects near the trade deadline to continue the organization’s growth.

You can’t really do the same thing with goalies or forwards. McPhee could’ve added netminders like Rangers backup Antti Raanta, Red Wings veteran Petr Mrazek or even Panthers star Roberto Luongo, but the netminding market is hardly red-hot. Once Dallas and Calgary moved to address their needs between the pipes prior to the expansion draft, there wasn’t going to be a bidding war among the teams that wanted an upgrade in net. So McPhee acquired his clear starter in former Penguins cornerstone Marc-Andre Fleury, a goalie-of-the-future in former Avs prospect Calvin Pickard, and a serviceable depth player in former Isles goaltender J-F Berube. Straightforward enough in that department.

Up front, although he could’ve chosen bigger-ticket, established NHLers such as Minnesota’s Eric Staal or Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan, McPhee only bit on Nashville’s James Neal and Florida’s Reilly Smith as players with a salary cap hit of $5 million or more. (Former Blue Jacket David Clarkson technically earns the most at $5.25 million, but he’ll likely never play again and will have a fraction of that count against the cap – and the Knights wound up getting Columbus’ first-round pick and useful young forward William Karlsson in the deal.) Neal is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and could be moved before then, while Reilly’s acquisition was part and parcel of Vegas selecting centre Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft. Smith is signed for five seasons, but he’s still just 26 and has scored at least 20 goals in two of four full NHL seasons.

So, clearly, the Knights have a long ways to go at forward. But that’s fine, and preferable to going the route of hurrying up the construction of a consistent Cup competitor by trading furiously to land recognizable names on the back nine of their NHL careers. Strengthening his group up front is what McPhee will have to do with the draft picks he’s amassing. He wasn’t ever going to do that by taking the least-wanted components of 30 other teams. He might’ve had a little leverage during the expansion draft period, but McPhee has been around long enough to understand the real leverage will happen over time, as rivals lose players to injury and become more desperate.

When that happens, the players most teams will be on the lookout for are the same ones they want in this and in every off-season: sturdy defensemen who can be relied on to eat up significant minutes and/or step in during a post-season run. McPhee now has a small army of those players, and even after he moved two of them the day after the expansion draft – sending former Flame David Schlemko to Montreal, and former Blackhawk Trevor van Riemsdyk to Carolina – he’ll have the wherewithal to peel away a few more in exchange for additions to his pool of youngsters and draft picks.

McPhee’s strategy means the Knights almost assuredly won’t make the playoffs in their inaugural season. However, he’s properly assessed the reality of the draft rules, the types of players available to him, and maximized the return the franchise will be able to get on its $500 million expansion fee.

You can’t really call it a home run, because expansion drafts make a point of never loading the bases for you. But you can call it a wisely-contested series of at-bats that should raise the Golden Knights’ overall hitting average in the years ahead.
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