As much as it seems counterintuitive to admit, it feels like NHL general managers actually learned some lessons during the four years between the respective expansion drafts of the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken.
Despite continually dealing for (see Keith, Duncan) or handing out long contracts (see Hyman, Zach) to older players with heavy cap hits (hey, maybe it’s just the Oilers), it does seem like the majority of the league’s executives came into this week’s Seattle expansion draft with something of a plan.
Because the obvious follow-up question that comes to mind when one gazes upon Seattle’s roster is something to the tune of: Okay, so how many picks and prospects did they get in side deals?
But it has to be said that the original Vegas expansion draft wasn’t that impressive either. Most if not every pundit had the team penciled into last place in its division. The difference was the Golden Knights’ insane side deals and collection of picks and prospects they were able to accumulate.
The Knights were able to get two-thirds of a scoring line from Florida with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. They stole Shea Theodore from Anaheim; they swindled Alex Tuch out of Minnesota.
And while the Kraken reportedly have some deals in place to move players they selected to other teams, they didn’t hold any teams for ransom and gather draft picks in the process. Apparently, teams balked at the incredibly high price Seattle GM Ron Francis placed on handshake deals to not take players.
But the most important aspect of this is that teams had a long time to prepare for the draft. They knew what to expect and made moves like keeping a player in the minors for slightly longer so as to make sure they’d be exempt from expansion. Some, like the Vancouver Canucks, took the liberty of purposefully assembling teams with no depth so as to stick it to their new rivals (yes, that's a joke—well, kinda).
Even if you want to rake Francis over the coals for not getting at least a few deals done (it really does feel like the Flames would have given up something to keep their captain Mark Giordano, for instance), there’s no denying teams simply had fewer conundrums going into the draft.
The differences start at the top
Another key difference to note here is the management style of the two men at the top of their respective organizations. Vegas general manager George McPhee spent several years with the Washington Capitals making risky trades and signings while he pursued a Stanley Cup during Alex Ovechkin’s prime years.
Meanwhile, Francis showed a much more methodical approach with the Carolina Hurricanes. He built through the draft and hoarded prospects with a front office that heavily valued analytics (so does the Kraken, unsurprisingly).
Francis also repeatedly talked about the importance of cap space in advance of the draft, billing it as any team’s top asset. And he’s certainly onto something there—many clubs, including Vegas, have found themselves in salary cap hell, especially as the pandemic meant that the cap will likely stay flat for a few years.
So it makes sense then to see Francis not chase some of the bigger names like Carey Price or Vladimir Tarasenko. Apparently, conversations were had with unrestricted free agents Dougie Hamilton and Gabriel Landeskog, but those players likely wanted contracts that Francis deemed too rich.
Vegas may have had some luck early on
The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t who we all thought they were in the squad’s inaugural season. But despite becoming a powerhouse in the years since, the original team Vegas drafted was very much not that, on paper anyway. Some would even say they got quite lucky in their first season.
After a down year in Pittsburgh, goaltender Marc Andre Fleury found his form in a huge way, posting a .927 save percentage, a number he didn't even come close to hitting during his entire career as a Penguin. And while William Karlsson was definitely an absolute steal for Vegas GM George McPhee, he shot an absurd 23.4 percent in that first season, good for highest in the league. The team actually had something of a ragtag blueline (Canucks’ castoff Luca Sbisa was playing 19 minutes a night!) that was bailed out by Fleury en route to a history-making Stanley Cup Final appearance.
It was the moves Vegas made after that first season, like acquiring Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny the following year and Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo later, that really spurred Vegas into the unrelenting contender the team is now.
In fact, some analysts have deduced that there really isn’t a whole ton separating these expansion drafts in terms of on-ice talent.
But that’s because players like Karlsson, Theodore and Tuch hadn’t broken out before they were picked. If, say, the likes of Jared McCann and Vince Dunn just needed a bigger role to truly succeed, and goalie Chris Dreidger finds the form he displayed for most of last season with the Panthers, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Seattle in contention in what projects to be a particularly weak division.
And, of course, Francis can only stay quiet and methodical for so long. He’s eventually going to have to use his biggest asset, whether that’s in trade or through free agency. Especially as teams get more desperate down the stretch to become cap compliant, you have to think that Seattle’s GM will have many opportunities to add pieces, perhaps as soon as Friday’s draft.
We don’t know enough to proclaim whether Seattle can contend this coming year—the team could still look a lot different in October—but like the NHL’s GMs, we’ve learned our lesson in doubting expansion teams.