Hockey Thinking is Medieval, and the Expansion Draft is Exposing That

Although the results of the 2017 Expansion Draft are still more than two full days from being revealed to the public, the lists of protected players have already been announced. All 30 teams protected one goaltender, and 24 clubs elected to go with the conventional method of protecting seven forwards and three defenseman, while six (Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins) protected eight skaters. Due to the nature of this expansion draft compared to the ones that took place in the past, there was guaranteed to be more talent available to George McPhee and the Golden Knights than ever before.

No matter what the thirty general managers who fielded hockey teams this past season did, most of them would be losing a player of value for nothing to Vegas. There were ways for certain teams to minimize the damage, and some teams took advantage of those possibilities. However, a number of teams made head scratching decisions when they assembled their protection lists. As the game of hockey has evolved and statistical analysis has become a more important tool in player evaluation, it has become easier for the public at large to scrutinize decision making around the league. Thankfully, Jeff Gorton didn’t throw any curveballs and elected to use his protection slots in the most sensible way he could.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your rooting interests) not every team decided to go with who conventional wisdom would say to protect. That’s fine in some cases, as there could be valid reasons to opting to prioritize one player over another depending on the circumstances. However, if history is anything to be learned from, we can assume that NHL general manager don’t always make the best choices for their clubs, and the expansion draft seems to be the worst, league-wide case of sub-optimal decision making.

Almost one third of the teams in the league made inexcusably poor decisions with their protection lists. Breaking down the possibilities of how and why teams made the decisions would require Olympic-level mental gymnastics, so we’re going to skip that part. What we won’t skip are the three most egregious examples of teams erring in terms of expansion protection, and how poorly it reflects on the men tasked with doing whatever it takes to bring a championship to their city.

We’ll begin in the State of Hockey, where the Minnesota Wild left former Rangers legend Eric Staal exposed, along with 22 year old defenseman Matt Dumba. Staal experienced a major bounce back season with the Wild, posting 65 points en route to his best full season since the most recent lockout. As for Dumba, although he may not be panning out to be the top flight defenseman many projected him to become since being drafted 7th overall in 2012, there is still value to be gained from protecting him over a player like Jonas Brodin, who was the third defenseman Minnesota protected.

Dumba’s status as a 22 year old with upside along with the fact that he is a right handed shot is all it takes to be a valuable trade chip if Chuck Fletcher has lost faith in Dumba’s development. Without even diving into the fact that Dumba is possibly better and definitively more value for his cap hit than Brodin, the move makes no sense. When looking at the two as players rather than just assets with value, it becomes even more clear that the Wild have shot themselves in the foot barring a side deal with Vegas. Even if the Golden Knights pass on Staal and Dumba, or if the two teams have a handshake agreement, the fact that Minnesota protected Brodin over Matt Dumba speaks volumes about the people who make decisions there.

Another curious decision that emerged yesterday was one made by the reigning Western Conference champions. While the Nashville Predators may be in good shape heading into next season, exposing a regular 20+ goal, 40+ point scorer in favor of a player who’s never scored more than 31 points isn’t something a team does to help itself out. But for some reason, that’s what David Poile decided to do, as he protected Calle Jarnkrok in favor of James Neal. Poile was primed to lose a valuable forward no matter what he decided upon, as risking the loss of any one of his top four defenseman was too dangerous. However, that doesn’t make his decision to leave one of the league’s premier goal scorers available for free, especially when Poile opted to protect a bottom six forward in Neal’s place.

To put it simply, James Neal is an elite player in the NHL. Since arriving in Nashville in the summer of 2014, Neal ranks in the Top 20 in Goals/60 at even strength, which puts him ahead of players such as Joe Pavelski, John Tavares, and Phil Kessel. In addition to his elite goal scoring, Neal’s 1.49 Primary Points/60 puts him in another stratosphere compared to Jarnkrok, whose 1.31 Points/60 (1.02 Primary Points/60) isn’t particularly impressive. While Jarnkrok’s contract (five years, $10 Million remaining) suggests that he’s more likely to have a future in Nashville than Neal, (one year, $5 Million remaining) Nashville is clearly in a win now mode. Even if they weren’t, Neal has infinitely more value as an asset than Jarnkrok, both in terms of one-ice performance and off ice trade interest.

While we can’t nail down any particular reason as to why Poile could have chosen this route, the usual ideas are always play. Jarnkrok isn’t necessarily a hard-nosed, gritty player who’s sole purpose is hitting whatever he sees. Players like Matt Martin and Ryan Reaves (both of whom got protected, but that’s for another day) don’t offer much on-ice value, so comparing him to them isn’t fair because Jarnkrok is a capable hockey player. He plays a similar game to players of that ilk minus the fighting, so seeing a general manager have an overblown soft spot for him isn’t surprising. But compared to James Neal, there isn’t even a comparison. Neal blows Jarnkrok out of the water, but hockey’s inflated value of players who “work hard” and “give 110%” leads to decisions that are bad as soon as they get made.

While Minnesota and Nashville appear to have made mind-numbingly dumb decisions, there could be an explanation for both teams. Since the league has encouraged teams to keep any side deals quiet until Vegas’ roster is announced on Wednesday night. both clubs could have arrangements with George McPhee to insure they don’t lose a valuable piece. However, the same can’t be said for Ken Holland and the Detroit Red Wings, who have been adamant about not giving up assets to sway Vegas one way or another:

Not wanting to give up assets to Vegas is a smart idea in a vacuum, and teams like the Rangers were wise to stay away from the negotiating table. The Red Wings could have been smart aswell, as they were essentially guaranteed to lose a serviceable forward such as Darren Helm or Riley Sheahan to the Golden Knights, so giving up a draft pick to steer Vegas towards one or the other was nonsensical. However, Ken Holland made the most shocking decision of the weekend by electing to protect Jimmy Howard instead of Petr Mrazek.

There have been trade rumors surrounding young goalies without much experience that could be ready to break through as starters, like Philp Grubauer and Anthony Stolarz. There have been trade rumors around older, more proven goalies that could be looking for an expanded role, like Antti Raanta and Chad Johnson. So Ken Holland decides to go and take the one goalie in the league who fits in both categories, and leave him available for free.

It doesn’t take a hockey savant to know how badly Holland messed up here. Mrazek is 25 years old, makes $4 Million for one more year, and is still under team control afterwards. Jimmy Howard is 33 years old, makes $5.3 Million for the next two seasons, was benched multiple times for Mrazek of the last two seasons, and has a contract so toxic that Holland couldn’t even give him away at the trade deadline. But Howard is a trusted veteran, one who’s guided the Red Wings through years of mediocrity since the team made back-to-back Cup Finals appearances in 2008 and 2009. Common sense would say choose the younger, cheaper player who can help turn your franchise around rather than aging player who has already passed the torch on.

Those three decisions weren’t the only frustrating things to see happen yesterday morning. Florida’s decision to leave players like Jonathan Marchessaul and Reilly Smith exposed in favor of Alex Petrovic was another head scratcher driven by sub-par decision making. Toronto and St. Louis opting to protect Martin and Reaves over any of their numerous skill players are two more egregious examples, but seeing teams overvalue players of that mold isn’t unexpected at this point. As long as “good hockey men” run teams they way they currently, don’t expect to see the sort of paradigm shift the NHL needs in order to make the game a higher quality product. And hockey fans across the globe will be worse off for it.