Let’s go ahead an assume you’re all familiar with the law of unintended consequences. Well, that’s exactly what happened when the NHL drew up its expansion draft rules for the Vegas Golden Knights. In an effort to repeat the mistakes it made for every other new team– and in large part because Vegas paid $500 million to join the club – the NHL gave the Golden Knights a chance to become competitive right away by making it almost impossible for teams to protect all their quality players. It was meant to give Vegas a fighting chance, but here we are three years later and there’s a good chance the Golden Knights will be in the Stanley Cup final for the second time.
It would be easy, and pretty lazy, to opine that the NHL gifted the Golden Knights an instant contender. But it would also be wrong. Yes, Vegas was given an opportunity to probably be an average to above-average team coming out of the gate, but to credit that to the league’s expansion rules would completely disregard the outstanding work that has been done by GMs George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon over the years. And it would also leave a good number of current GMs off the hook for botching the process completely.
Of the 30 players the Golden Knights took in the expansion draft, nine of them – Jonathan Marchessault, Nate Schmidt, William Karlsson, Brayden McNabb, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jon Merrill, William Carrier, Tomas Nosek and Deryk Engelland – are on the current roster and seven of them are making a regular contribution. That’s a pretty good group of players. No doubt about it. Much better than the scraps expansion teams were receiving prior to Vegas coming into the league.
But the unintended consequence came from McPhee and his absolute mastery of the process, one that allowed the Golden Knights to go from instant credibility to being a serious contender. Nobody from the league told the Anaheim Ducks to gift McPhee defenseman Shea Theodore so he would stay away from Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen. The Florida Panthers, for goodness sake, gave the Golden Knights Reilly Smith to get them to take Marchessault. Columbus gave its first-round pick so the Knights would take the David Clarkson contract off their hands and take Karlsson. And the Minnesota Wild wanted to protect their young defensemen so badly that they gave the Golden Knights Alex Tuch in order to select Erik Haula. And all the Knights did with Haula was get a 29-goal season out of him before dealing him to Carolina for Nicolas Roy.
It also helps that the Golden Knights have been sucking on the fumes of their expansion draft moves ever since. The deals for both Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone were possible because of all the assets Vegas piled up early in the process. If not for the trades McPhee made, the Golden Knights don’t have three first-round picks in their first draft and don’t have the likes of Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom to trade in order to get Pacioretty and Stone. The Knights have dealt draft picks for Robin Lehner, Alec Martinez and Chandler Stephenson, but they’ve received picks in other deals they’ve made and are in pretty good shape when it comes to their future. Their prospect list is solid, but not spectacular, and they have yet to trade their own first-round pick for immediate help.
And that’s where things are going to get interesting for the Knights because the same expansion rules they used to their benefit may very well be the same ones they use to preserve their own roster. It’s pretty apparent right now that Robin Lehner is the No. 1 goalie in Vegas and, barring an injury, will carry the team to whatever it accomplishes in these playoffs. If that’s a Stanley Cup, how do you not sign him long-term? And if that happens, what do you do with Fleury?
Well, one possibility is they ride the Lehner-Fleury tandem out for next season, and then convince the Seattle Kraken to take Fleury in the expansion draft. By that time, he’ll be 36 with one year left on his deal at $7 million. For the Kraken to take on that contract, the Golden Knights would have to give them a little something for the trouble, such as, say, a first-round pick or another player off their roster. And if that happens, it will be a case of what goes around comes around.