Thoughts on Thursday, Friday Edition: The Inaugural Golden Knights, ”The Pledge”, and 2017 Entry Draft

1. Towards the end of the NFL season, the league likes to schedule one or two games of Thursday Night Football on Saturday and call it “Thursday Night Football: Saturday Edition”. It’s one of the dumbest things about the way the NFL brands their events, and it makes no sense. Why not just go a game without branding it, or just call it “Saturday Night Football?” And yet here I am, writing a Friday edition of “Thoughts on Thursday”. C’est la vie.

2. Vegas had the opportunity to do something special on Wednesday night. With the rules regarding players that must be exposed, as well as the threat of turning around and auctioning off exposed players to the highest bidder, George McPhee had an opportunity that no NHL general manager has ever had before. And despite the fact that the Golden Knight GM made a number of deals to accumulate future assets, he could have done a lot more. The storm of trades prior to the draft that most of the hockey world expected never materialized, and McPhee could have used that to his advantage, but opted not to.

Let’s start with the Anaheim Ducks. In exchange for not selecting Josh Manson or Sami Vatanen, Vegas acquired Shea Theodore in a trade after taking Clayton Stoner as their selection in the expansion draft. Theodore is already an NHL-caliber defenseman, and still has room to grow as he only turns 22 in August. If he develops as planned, then this could turn out to be a win for Vegas. But Josh Manson is already an elite shutdown defenseman, and Sami Vatanen is a capable puck mover who has the reputation of an offensive dynamo that can anchor a defense corps.

What was stopping Vegas from selecting Manson or Vatanen, and using them as trade bait? There’s an argument to be made that Anaheim would have protected them if had a deal with Vegas not been reached, but that would have required them exposing Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg, both of whom are quality players on the ice and valuable assets at the negotiating table. Whatever happened behind the scenes, it’s hard to understand why McPhee would let the Ducks off the hook, but he made savvy deals with other teams.

While the bevy of draft picks and prospects in exchange for taking on toxic contracts from Columbus, New York, and Tampa stand out as the best deals Vegas made, McPhee swindled the Florida Panthers. After taking Jonathan Marchessault as his team’s draft selection, McPhee also landed Reilly Smith in exchange for a 4th Round Pick. With a new regime coming into power in Florida led by former NHL defenseman Bob Boughner and Chris Pronger, the Panthers didn’t see much value in players like Smith and Marchessault, opting to protect bigger, grittier players like Nick Bjugstad and Alex Petrovic. Vegas was able to take advantage of that and land themselves two quality pieces at a minimal cost, and McPhee deserves praise in that regard.

3. Due to the leverage he had over the other 30 teams during the days leading up to the selection of the Golden Knights, McPhee was able to single handedly freeze the trade market and ensure teams wouldn’t do anything to hinder his plans. Frank Seravalli of TSN detailed how McPhee was able keep his ducks in a row around the league, while also striking deals to pool future assets for his organization:

McPhee said he was expecting a “mass redistribution of players.” That redistribution never occurred, mostly because McPhee refused to let it.

Taking advantage of his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build an NHL team from scratch, McPhee made some managers feel like they were “held hostage” because he not only held firm on his task to “harvest assets” if they wanted to protect certain players, he also paralyzed the entire league’s trade market leading up to the freeze before the protection lists were due.

Only one trade with expansion impact occurred: Tampa Bay trading Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for Mikhail Sergachev, who was exempt from the draft and allowed the Lightning to protect another forward.

According to sources, McPhee did it by not agreeing to side deals with teams unless they also pledged to not make deals with other teams. He lined most deals up early, essentially closing off the other escape or pressure-relief valves for those teams, restricting their ability to find help elsewhere - and then in turn the rest of the market.

The end result was an unprecedented collection of valuable future assets.

There were two smaller trades that impacted the list of protected players, (Mirco Mueller from SJ to NJ and Tyler Graovac from MIN to WSH allowed for the Devils and Capitals to have more options) but Seravalli is correct in identifying the Drouin-Sergachev swap as the only one that might have had major implications on the expansion draft. Seeing as how McPhee opted to select Jason Garrison from the Lightning in exchange for future assets, there’s a chance that even that deal didn’t throw a wrench in Vegas’ prior plans.

As a result of trading frenzy that never was, things have already begun happening ahead of the Entry Draft. The Oilers already ran Jordan Eberle out of town, as Peter Chiarelli managed to get fleeced by Garth Snow for the third time in less than three years by swapping Eberle for Ryan Strome. The Islanders are doing everything they can to appease John Tavares and get him to stay in Brooklyn, so scooping up a talented winger to ride shotgun with him is a good start.

Vegas has already begun flipping some of their draftees as well, as Trevor Van Riemsdyk and David Schlemko have been shipped off to Carolina and Montreal respectively for draft picks. The Golden Knights still have a bevy of defenseman to dangle as trade bait, as the team still have eleven of the thirteen they  selected Wednesday night, plus Shea Theodore. Seeing some of their name brand defenseman like Marc Methot, Alexei Emelin, and Luca Sbisa on the move to some poor mark before July 1st wouldn’t come as a shock.

4. While those moves are likely to happen over the course of the next few days, there is plenty of buzz surrounding what could happen today and tomorrow during the Entry Draft. Matt Duchene, Tyson Barrie, Jonas Brodin, and Derek Stepan headline the list of names that could be on the move over the weekend. Colorado makes sense as a trading partner from the Rangers’ perspective, but the Blueshirts lack the future assets that Colorado would want back in any sort of deal. Whether it’s Duchene, Barrie, or even Nathan MacKinnon, the price will be sky high to land one of Colorado’s stars, and a blockbuster featuring multiple pieces like the one suggested by Larry Brooks doesn’t make sense for either side.

Outside of Stepan, New York doesn’t have anybody prominently featured in trade rumors, so it should be a quiet year for them. What Jeff Gorton does have is the 21st Overall selection, and the team is slated to make a pick in the top 40 for the first time since 2012. While the team’s decision makers might be chomping at the bits to draft a potential blue chip prospect, they must keep an open mind to trading the pick in an effort to accumulate more selections this year.

Kailer Yamamoto and Erik Branstromm stand out as the two best options for the Rangers to select if they are still on the board when New York is on the clock. However, if the two high upside skaters are gone by the time the Rangers are up, trading down becomes the most sensible option. With the 21st pick being the team’s only selection in the top 100, looking at any and all options to acquire more draft capital would be prudent. The Chicago Blackhawks hold the 26th pick, and as hosts of the draft, are expected to make a move at the draft. If they’re willing to part with a second or third round pick to move up, there could be a match there. Vegas could be an ideal trading partner as well, as they hold three second round picks, including the 34th and 45th overall selections.

Regardless of what happens, the draft always proves to be one of the most exciting times on the hockey calendar. Free agent negotiations open up shortly afterward, so crunch time is nigh for Gorton, Glen Sather, and the rest of the Blueshirts’ management. This is the team’s most important offseason in quite some time, and it’s one they can ill-afford to mess up.