By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
Now that they have a name, the Vegas Golden Knights have to put a team on the ice.
The newly named franchise will get its first 30 players through the expansion draft in June, and Vegas general manager George McPhee and colleagues around the NHL are already deep in preparations and mock-ups.
Even though McPhee ran the Washington Capitals for 17 seasons, GMs around the NHL don’t have any clue how he’ll piece together the Golden Knights.
“I don’t have any inside knowledge what kind of team they’re planning to have, if it’s going to be younger or older — no idea,” longtime rival GM Ray Shero of the New Jersey Devils said by phone Wednesday. “He’s been a GM for a long time in Washington — I don’t think that comes into play at all in terms of where they’re going to be in Vegas and what kind of player they’re going to be looking for. … Maybe his opinion of some players has changed and the game where it is now, who knows.”
McPhee knows. And he knows that even as his front office does monthly mock drafts to prepare, things will change at the March 1 deadline and again before teams must submit their protected lists on June 17.
Vegas won’t be able to pick from top stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, and first- and second-year pros like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are exempt. The NHL also sent out a preliminary list of 66 players who must be protected because of no-movement clauses in their contracts.
Knowing each team’s top six or seven players are off the board, McPhee said the Golden Knights’ scouting staff has certain “bubble players” to focus on. That could be a moving target as GMs make trades and signings to be expansion-draft compliant and not give up a top player.
“There’s going to be a massive player redistribution before the expansion draft in the weeks leading up to it,” McPhee said. “We understand teams are going to try to not give us anything, and that’s the way expansion goes. There are a few teams that have expansion stress and we might be able to get a good player from them, and there’ll be some teams that don’t have anything and rather than take a bad contract we’ll take a throwaway pick.”
That’s one hint from McPhee’s past: He won’t take on burdensome contracts. So don’t expect Vegas to rid the Los Angeles Kings of the final five years and $5.875 million salary-cap hit of former captain Dustin Brown’s deal, the Devils the final four years and $5.75 million cap hit of center Travis Zajac’s and the Philadelphia Flyers the final three years and $5 million cap hit of defenseman Andrew MacDonald’s.
Each team can protect seven forwards and three defensemen, or eight skaters of any position, plus one goalie, and all 30 will lose exactly one player. Even though the best will be protected, it figures to reason that the deepest teams are in the most danger of losing a quality player to Vegas.
Take the Chicago Blackhawks, who have eight players with no-movement clauses they must protect and could lose someone like center Marcus Kruger or young defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Or the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will protect goaltender of the future Andrei Vasilevskiy and won’t be able to keep 6-foot-7 pending free agent Ben Bishop, whether he’s traded, taken by Vegas or signed by someone else.
“It adds another team for you, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all,” Bishop said of the expansion draft. “Even if I wasn’t a free agent, there’s just that many good goalies in the league now and there’s only so many spots.”
Chicago, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, which will have to do something with Marc-Andre Fleury to keep 2016 Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray, and other contenders like Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals intend to worry about this season now and the expansion draft later.
“I think some of ours is contract related and will we be able to bring guys back or not bring guys back,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. “We’re constantly looking at it, but we’re not making decisions yet because our immediate priority is having a winning season here.”
One advantage for Vegas is that it’ll be able to acquire draft picks or prospects in exchange for not selecting certain players. That’s right up McPhee’s alley, too, as he tries to make good on owner Bill Foley’s goal to win the Cup within six years.
“It all comes down to trying to build a good base but really doing well in the entry draft and getting our top players from the entry draft,” McPhee said.