Thoughts On Thursday: Best Of Three, Toxic Contracts, and Options

1. With only two or three games left in the 2016-17 NHL season, there’s still plenty of intrigue remaining in the Stanley Cup Finals. After outplaying the Pittsburgh Penguins throughout the first two games of the Finals, the Nashville Predators found themselves in a dire spot, down 2-0 heading back to Bridgestone Arena. Rather than overreact and make drastic changes, Peter Laviolette opted to stick to his guns, and his squad has turned the series into a best of three. Recent history is on Nashville’s side as well, as two of the last three teams to turn a 2-0 Finals deficit into a 2-2 tie have gone one to win the series.

With all that being said, the only thing that has prevented the Predators from gaining a stranglehold on this series has been goaltender Pekka Rinne. Rinne’s excellent performance through the first three rounds of the playoffs was bound to come to a crashing halt, and after Game 2 it appeared the magic worn off. But after Games 3 and 4 have been a return to recent form, which version of Nashville’s Finnish netminder will show up at PPG Paints Arena tonight.

The one that gave up eight goals on 36 shots in Pittsburgh to singlehandedly put Nashville in a 2-0 hole? Or the one that allowed two goals on 52 shots to bring the Predators’ Stanley Cup hopes back to life? We’ll find out tonight, but as long as the rest of the team plays like they have throughout the first four games, then Rinne shouldn’t have a difficult time in net.

2. Once the Cup Finals are over, the next event on the calendar will be the Expansion Draft. George McPhee, the Vegas Golden Knights’ general manager, has been unusually forthcoming with his plans on how he will handle the first NHL expansion draft since 2000. With a variety of different options available to him in literally building a team from the ground up, McPhee has seemingly settled on hoarding assets through the expansion draft and building for a better tomorrow. Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review-Journal got a chance to hear from the Golden Knight’s GM at the Scouting Combine, and McPhee’s words confirmed what has been widely speculated for months:

As the June 21 draft nears, McPhee has been fielding calls from fellow GMs desperate to unload dead weight and gain salary cap relief. “We have a lot of teams offering us big contracts,” McPhee said Saturday at the NHL Scouting Combine. “We’ll take a few of those, for the right price.”

McPhee said the price is draft picks. He wants a surplus of picks for 2017 and beyond. Because, as important as the expansion draft is, he thinks the entry draft is the pathway for long-term success. McPhee said the desperation of some NHL teams to dump bad contracts and aging players might be more bountiful for the Knights than he initially anticipated.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, and a lot of the guys (GMs) have been forthright about what they’d like to do and who they’d like to protect,” McPhee said. “We’re trying to find ways to accommodate each other.”

With McPhee acknowledging the benefit of taking on toxic contracts in exchange for assets, it should be interesting to see what it will take for Vegas to select some notoriously putrid deals in the expansion draft. Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik in Los Angeles are two that come to mind immediately, but there’s no shortage of bad deals around the NHL.

There was already a rumor floating around that Vegas would take on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger in exchange for also acquiring Trevor Van Riemsdyk, but a move like that is pointless from Vegas’ perspective. Not only could the Golden Knights select Van Riemsdyk if they wanted to with no repercussions, Chicago will be leaving better players exposed in all likelihood. McPhee would be stupid to pass on somebody like Ville Pokka, who could very well be better at the NHL level if he ever receives the chance.

Shifting away from the most notable scenarios, there are plenty of teams around the league willing to pay Vegas to not select a given player under certain circumstances. The most obvious example of this can be seen with the Penguins, who will have less than a week between the end of their season and the day to finalize their protected players. If they can’t find a suitor for one of Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray, then the team will be forced to expose Murray. Could either the 30th or 31st pick be enough to deter McPhee from selecting him? The amount of risk vs reward the league’s 30 general managers have to weigh is staggering, and Pittsburgh’s conundrum is only one of many high-pressure situations taking place in war rooms around the league.

3. Once the expansion draft comes and goes, the entry draft will be right around the corner. Vegas’ selections will be announced during the NHL Awards on June 21st, while the 1st Round of the draft takes place on the 23rd. Jeff Gorton finds himself in uncharted territory, as the Rangers are primed to pick in the top 40 for the first time since selecting Brady Skjei 28th overall in the 2012 draft. Although there isn’t a marquee name at the top of the draft, there is still a surplus of talented prospects slated to be available when the Rangers are on the clock with the 21st Overall Pick.

In terms of using the pick on a draftee, Kailer Yamamoto (WHL, LW, Spokane Chiefs) and Erik Brannstrom (SHL, D, HV71) are two of the most appealing options that should still be on the board when New York steps up to the podium. Yamamoto is coming off an excellent season, posting 99 points on a less than stellar Chiefs team that failed to qualify for the WHL playoffs. There are some red flags with Yamamoto, most notably the fact that he’ll be one of the oldest first-time eligible draftees, but his point production puts those concerns somewhat to rest.

Brannstrom presents an alternative option to help shore up the team’s lack of defensive prospects. With Ryan Graves and Sean Day being the only blueliners in the system with realistic hopes of an NHL future, it’s clear that Brannstrom fills an organizational need. Drafting based on team need is usually not the right way to go, but Brannstrom’s talent level is tantalizing. There’s an argument to be made that if he is still on the board when the Rangers make their selection, he would be the best player available regardless of need.

4. If Jeff Gorton elects to continue New York’s longstanding tradition of trading away first round selections, there are some enticing options being dangled on the trade market. Vancouver’s Chris Tanev and Colorado’s Tyson Barrie have both been rumored to be available by reputable sources:

Acquiring either of these players would be a boon for New York, assuming the price is right. While adding Kevin Shattenkirk to solidify the top pair seems to be the most likely move as of now, Barrie and Tanev could be savvy backup options. Tanev would be the more likely option, due to the lower speculated trade cost as well as lower cap hit, but either player would step onto the ice at Madison Square Garden and immediately improve Alain Vigneault’s defense corps. And if Gorton wants to get really creative, having Tanev and Shattenkirk both on the team wouldn’t be an impossible task. Granted, it would take all sorts of salary cap gymnastics to create the room for it, but removing enough dead weight from the team should create the necessary space.

Whatever the team decides is the right plan of action, it should result in a very different Rangers team next season. One way or another, the defense corps will be revamped, and that could be all it takes to bump New York back into the upper echelon of Stanley Cup contenders. If it doesn’t, than Jeff Gorton, Alain Vigneault and many of the organization’s powerful people could find themselves looking for work at this time next year.