George McPhee remembers how surreal the moment was. He clicked one button with his mouse the morning of June 21, 2017 and completed the largest player transaction in NHL history. He’d officially picked a 30-player team from scratch. The Vegas Golden Knights were born as the NHL’s 31st franchise.
McPhee, now the Golden Knights’ president of hockey operations, was their GM for the 2017 expansion draft. How daunting was it to build a roster player by player after teams finalized their protected lists only four days before the expansion picks were due?
A lot and a little, McPhee explains. On one hand, the final grind was gruelling. Since the Golden Knights had to communicate with 30 different teams to broker side deals and get a sense of which players would be available, he and then-assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon divided the workload. Each handled talks with 15 of the teams. If a certain player target turned out to be protected, it could “change the whole matrix,” McPhee said, because any tweak of a player pick would have a ripple effect on the cap number and Vegas’ positional needs.
For the most part, however, he remembers the days leading up to the expansion draft as relatively calm. The reason: the Golden Knights were not winging it. They had spent the entire year mock drafting and staying in touch with other teams. The hockey-loving public may have felt a sense of mystery and anticipation heading into the expansion draft, but McPhee and McCrimmon didn’t. They had a strong sense of who would be available and what side deals were in play.
“I thought we were extraordinarily well prepared,” McPhee said. “We had worked hard at this all year long, so it’s almost like being a student. If you’ve worked hard all year long, the final exam, you should be able to handle it. There weren’t surprises.”
As for the process of picking the team: it was multi-faceted. The easiest element to predict was the loading up on expiring contracts. Vegas picked nine of those and ended up flipping one, Alexei Emelin’s, before the 2017-18 season started. It was also not a massive surprise to see Vegas secure only one UFA: defenseman Deryk Engelland. Because any UFA signed in the window before the expansion draft would count as a player picked from another team, there was less leverage in adding someone who might be available on the open market anyway. Targeting players under contract put teams in tighter spots and better facilitated side deals.
At least, that’s how things appeared to an outsider. The truth is McPhee didn’t view UFA signings that way.
“We were just trying to get the best asset, whether it be a player or a draft pick or something from each team from what was available,” McPhee said. “With Engelland specifically, he played really well for Calgary. We liked the way he played. He just happened to be from Vegas, which was attractive. He’d be a guy that could help all of our other players. We knew a lot about him as a person, and in that particular case we were interested in signing him, and he really set the tone here for a long time.”
One reason rumors continue to swirl about the Seattle Kraken selecting Carey Price in the 2021 expansion draft is the idea that an expansion team needs a face. Marc-Andre Fleury became that for Vegas, after all. He was the 2017 expansion draft’s highest-profile selection. He became the franchise’s first star, but Vegas took him for his ability first and his intangibles second.
“We didn’t pick him to be the face of the franchise,” McPhee said. “He certainly became that in a hurry, but we were looking for a good veteran goaltender because we wanted to be a good team. We were trying to avoid the traditional path of not being very good for a while, and we were committed to trying to be the best team we could be. He’s a good goaltender, and we thought that he could be for a while. I had great discussions with (then Pittsburgh Penguins GM) Jim Rutherford at the time, who said, ‘He’s going to play for a while. He’s got lots left in the tank.” So that was the best piece we thought we could acquire from Pittsburgh. We were really interested in having our logo be the face of our franchise. We were going to have 23 captains and weren’t going to name one captain. It was part of our culture. That one player became really popular isn’t a surprise. We have several guys who became popular. But that’s for our fans to decide, not us.”
The night Vegas picked its team, no one could’ve predicted it would demolish every-expansion record, finish with 109 points and reach the Stanley Cup final in Year 1. But McPhee and the Golden Knights management team were probably a bit less surprised than everyone else. They did their homework all year. The night the team was announced at T-Mobile Arena, they hopped on a charter plane to Chicago to prepare for the entry draft later that week, and McPhee couldn’t sleep. His heart was racing, not just because he had another big task in the days ahead, but because he felt so good about Step 1.
“I just felt that we did our job that first night,” he said. “We were well organized, well prepared and executed well. But there isn’t a whole lot of time to reflect. It goes onto the next thing.”
2017 EXPANSION DRAFT AT A GLANCE
* Waived no-movement clause
** One season away from unrestricted free agency
*** UFA who pre-negotiated a new contract
The picks (in order of selection):
1. Calvin Pickard
2. Luca Sbisa **
3. Teemu Pulkkinen
4. Jon Merrill
5. William Carrier
6. Tomas Nosek
7. Cody Eakin
8. Jonathan Marchessault **
9. Brayden McNabb **
10. Connor Brickley **
11. Chris Thorburn
12. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
13. Jason Garrison **
14. Jean-Francois Berube
15. James Neal **
16. Deryk Engelland ***
17. Brendan Leipsic
18. Colin Miller
19. Marc Methot
20. David Schlemko
21. David Perron **
22. Oscar Lindberg
23. Griffin Reinhart
24. Alexei Emelin **
25. Clayton Stoner **
26. Erik Haula
27. William Karlsson
28. Trevor van Riemsdyk
29. Marc-Andre Fleury *
30. Nate Schmidt
This is an updated version of a story that appeared in the 2021 Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine.