So, Seattle, you’ve finally gotten that hockey team. Let the interminable wait begin for a name, a logo and a uniform.
Congratulations. Now comes the fun part.
For anyone bringing sports fandom to the Seattle NHL experience, you probably love the whole “how a team is built” conversation. You’ve seen Jerry DiPoto gut and stuff your beloved Seattle Mariners down at SafeCo (or whatever they call that building these days) through trades and savvy free agent picks, turning a perpetually overrated disappointment into a plucky bunch of wallbangers. In addition, if you’re also a Seattle Seahawks fan, you’re likely a draftnik to boot, huddling up every April watching as picks come rolling out of Mel Kiper’s impossibly shaped jaw. You elbow your buddy as the name is announced, whispering mournfully in his ear:
“Another free safety in the six-round?”
“Right?” Your friend replies. “What are they trying to do? Literally kill what’s left of your soul?”
Your Seattle hockey team is going to come together with a little bit of both. Let me try that again. Actually, to start with, your Seattle hockey team is going to be a lot of all of hallelujahs and head scratches.
Right now there is no one on the roster. Not a soul. Not even in the late-March, we’re out-of-the-playoff sense where a shell-shocked fan says: “We’ve got no one on this whole God forsaken team.”
No, right now, your Seattle hockey franchise roster is that proverbial small town after sundown. There is no one anywhere.
Luckily though, over the next two years, that roster is going to fill up. In order to prepare you for all the player acquisition mechanisms to come, we’re going to go through the four primary ways your new Seattle franchise comes to life.
The Amateur Draft
As I alluded to earlier on, you’re probably familiar with the idea of an amateur draft from the NFL. Or, as my old college roommate opined, “that’s the world’s only televised corporate job recruitment”.
The NFL draft has become a primetime pop culture phenomenon. While this much is true, the NHL draft will more closely resemble the Major League Baseball draft.
Wait? There’s a draft in baseball. Right, there is.
How is the NHL more like one than another? More importantly, why?
One of the primary differences is that every in-coming NFL player has been to a college and is therefore older and more physically mature. Straight out of the stage lights of the NFL draft, players are expected to come in and start (at least most of those picked in the early rounds). Franchises can expect immediate help on the field from picks in the first round, all the way down through, in some cases, the late rounds and free agency where young players carve out back-up, practice squad and special teams jobs.
Precious few draftees make on-ice impacts for their NHL teams during their first professional year. Most are 18 years old. Some are drafted out of Europe (where people are born older — its a fact, look it up) and others are out of American and Canadian colleges, but most early picks come from Junior Hockey (the level which the Seattle Thunderbirds participate in) where players are draft-eligible at 18.
What are the odds we get a star though?
I did some research. Out of the top half of the 2018 NHL Draft, only four players made an impact on their franchise in their first professional season. Outside of Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo, Andrei Svechnikov in Carolina, Jesperi Kotkaniemi in Montreal and Brady Tkachuk in Ottawa, most of that upper draft crust of players went back to their junior team, stayed in Europe (where they added more strange consonants like J or K to their names) or bumped into the legit minors AHL for a cup of coffee (because they’re not old enough to get a beer).
That’s just one year out though, right?
Well, if you take the same sample of the 2017 draft, the top half of the first round of draft picks, the most talented, cream of the crop, still more than half — 9 of 16 — had yet to establish themselves as full-time players.
Sure, there is a chance that Seattle will be picking when a wunderkind like Connor MacDavid or Auston Matthews are available (anyone but New Jersey or Edmonton, am I right?) but the cold reality is that those players are more exception than the rule.
Actually, as likely as drafting a MacDavid or Matthews is you end up with a player like Cody Hodgson — try that jersey on for size, Canuck fan.
Seattle’s first franchise defining superstar player will almost certainly come to the team via the amateur draft. The expansion draft and free agency will certainly yield a few surprise players, but I would willing the bet my autographed, game used Pat Falloon Spokane Chiefs road jersey that the first team sweater you run out to buy comes out of the first draft.
The Draft – Expansion Version
Expansion Draft? Now that sounds intriguing?
Of course it’s intriguing. But it’s intriguing like trying to assemble a high tea service with what you cobble together out of Saturday yard sales in Renton is intriguing. Oh, this is rubbish, but when we get it home it becomes our rubbish, dear.
Here is what the NHL Expansion Draft really boils down to: these are either fringe players no one wants, guys too expensive to keep, or those who are too young to have proven themselves already.
Oh, I see you have a set of four tea cups and only three of them are chipped. How much do you want for that again?
I’m sure someone is having a laugh at me. Hey, you forgot about the Vegas Golden Knights, dude. Those guys scored Antique Road Show level stuff at their rummage sale.
Well, first off, no, I haven’t. And second, Antique Road Show isn’t a show as much as a conspiracy on the part of junk stores to swindle housewives out of their botox money (if so, thank you).
The NHL’s version of Jan Brady, the Golden Knights (whose once repugnant logo is still growing on me) made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals after completing the same chemistry experiment your team is about to. They were electrifying and dominant.
So, yes, I’m saying there is a chance.
First off, the Golden Knights (maybe I should get that hat…) did an extremely good job of scouting players in the Expansion Draft. They picked diamonds out of the rough (like William Karlsson) in the late rounds of the draft, which is amazing for anyone.
What the Golden Knights really had though was a savvy-as-a-fox General Manager in Sir George McPhee. The way that man parlayed the Expansion Draft’s enabling rules and the salary cap against various teams’ relationship to the current cap, they should give the guy a gold medal (check that, they gave him GM of the year, so, he’s not sweating it at all).
The Seattle GM is going to have his work cut out for him. Make no mistake about that fact. However, it will be critical to look ahead at what the Expansion Draft rules will be. Who can teams protect? Is there a “Wild Bill” Karlsson out there to be had? Is someone going to be willing to give up a HOF level goaltender in Marc-Andre Fluery? Maybe.
Alright, bottom line time?
Opening night, Seattle. Most of the guys on the ice will have gotten there from the Expansion Draft. These guys may not be Crosby or Kane, but they’re established players. They know the game.
Odds are your Expansion Draft is going to more closely resemble the red carpet to the playoffs (err, Stanley Cup finals) that the NHL rolled out to the darling Las Vegas Golden Knights a few years back. You can never really be sure, though. Those rules are not in place.
Of course, the Expansion Draft rules could also lead you to the same honor that the Ottawa Senators got in 1992: your #1 pick, Peter Sidorkiewicz who was more a punchline than competent backstop.
Blech. At least they eventually got Erik Karlsson… uhm, sorry.
Right, you’re not buying that jersey. But maybe I am buying the Golden Knights hat. What do you think, Tim?
Good old capitalism, where have you been this whole blog? If the Amateur Draft is socialistic in nature (best draft picks going to the worst teams, a blatant redistribution of wealth) then free agency is all about the Benjamins (or, if this was a Canadian blog, all about the Loonies).
By all accounts, signing a veteran free agent is Seattle’s best chance at a box office draw right out of the gate. They will (likely) be playing with the same deck of cards as the rest of the NHL. They will need to fill their roster with player salaries totaling between the salary cap and floor.
For reference, the salary cap in 2018-19 was $79.5 million with a floor of $58.8 million (or about what the New York Islanders still owe Rick DiPietro).
The list of available free agents is public knowledge. Seattle’s GM can, once he is named, begin watching player movement and planning his moves to assemble a team around players that fit their coach’s style.
Let’s just throw this out. Colorado Avalanche winger Gabriel Landeskog is a free agent in 2020. If Seattle is determined to fill its roster with spindly, doe-eyed Swedes then they can bid for his services once free agency opens.
If you think it’s unrealistic that an established veteran would want to play with a bunch of plucky upstarts in a rainy weather city, you’re dead wrong. Expansion teams are a great opportunity to prove it on the ice.
Expect Seattle to make a move for at least a few veteran free agents.
The thing about free agency though… I mean, boy, I could write a novella about where free agency can bites you in your fanass. If you’re a casual sports fan, you may read that and learn something.
Ask an Edmonton Oilers fan where Sheldon Souray can stick that $27 million dollars Kevin Lowe gifted him ten years ago.
If I was a betting person (and I’m not, uhm, so don’t even try) I would say the first guy to catch the ire of the fans is a free agent. You know the score, right? Guy signs a monster deal, scoops his wavy blonde hair out of his face and tells the city he’s ready to play for the Cup.
Then he two years later, he’s a bum… and that sound you just heard was a Dallas Stars fan throwing his phone at an effigy of Sean Avery.
College Free Agents
This may be the most obscure of the four ways to build the Seattle NHL franchise, but it is one worth noting. It involves a quirk in the rules.
College hockey players whose amateur eligibility has been expended, but that still have not had their rights drafted by an NHL team are unrestricted free agents. This is why, at the end of the season, while teams are fighting it out in the NHL playoffs, you see players signing contracts.
It’s not the NHL Amateur Draft. It’s not big-boy free agency. It’s like brunch. It’s the appealing something in between two far better things.
A few really good players have come into the NHL this way. Adam Oates. Blake Wheeler. My co-host of this blog Tim sleeps with his head on an Ed Belfour pillow every night and he was a free agent like this.
And so did Drew LeBlanc, right Tim? Can’t win all of them.
I don’t know how the Seattle GM will approach the top three team building methods, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t at least sign a few guys out of this unherlded pool of players
No, your Seattle NHL team won’t be a collection of old Thunderbirds. No, they won’t (likely) get the same pampering that the Golden Knights got.
Free Agents are a fickle muse, stay away.
Whatever happens over the next two years will be fun though.
What are your thoughts? Are you a fan of a recent expansion team? Horrified by the idea of an Ed Belfour pillow?
Leave it in the comments below.