Tod Leiweke probably doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s got a big problem.
We’re about 18 months away from the 2021 Expansion Draft, when the NHL Seattle ownership group will finally get to put a team together. Half the city is busy trying to predict what the team name and logo will be; the fantasy dorks are busy playing armchair GM with their mock drafts; and the construction crews are busy digging a hole in the ground under Key Arena so they can fill it in with a hockey rink.
I’ve been busy too. And I’m not happy with what I found.
First I’ll say that if you’re unfamiliar with what is happening during the 2021 NHL Expansion draft, you should circle back to the first article in this series to get familiar with the rules and terminology. For those of you who are already caught up, here we go…
History of NHL Expansion
The “Original Six” (don’t get me started…) teams were joined by 6 others following the first expansion draft in 1967. The Kings, Penguins, Flyers, and Blues all joined the league at that time, in addition to the ill-fated California Seals and the first iteration of the Minnesota North Stars. This was followed by expansion drafts in 1970, 1972, 1974, and 1979 which brought an additional 6 teams into the league.
The way each of these drafts worked was that every team in the league could “protect” some of their players, and the remaining players on every team’s roster would be “exposed” to potentially be drafted by the new teams. The key word in the previous sentence was “every.” All teams participated in the draft. All of them. Every draft, every team.
Jump forward to 1991 when another draft is on the horizon, and we see a change in the landscape. There is a team location/ownership boondoggle having to do with the Cleveland (formerly California) and Minnesota teams, which are allowed to merge; at the same time the league is minting a
brand- new team in San Jose. The following year Ottawa and Tampa Bay are joining the fray; the year after that the NHL will expand yet again to include Anaheim and Florida. So the NHL adds 5 (and enhances a 6th) teams over three years, encompassing three separate drafts.
In this instance, it is determined that the fragile San Jose franchise could not afford to lose any talent from their roster, and the Sharks (formed in 1991) are given an exemption from the 1992 draft. They have been in existence for only one year, the prevailing wisdom posited; let’s give them a break. Okay, fine.
That sentiment doesn’t last, however. The draft in 1993 includes not only the Sharks, but the Senators and Lightning are forced to give up a player as well! What changed? I have no idea. But the “one year rule” that seemed to apply to San Jose no longer applied 52 weeks later at the next expansion draft.
But what’s this? We get to the 1998-1999-2000 drafts, when the league adds another 4 teams over 3 years, and the “one year rule” is in force again, and has put on a little weight. The 1999 league entrant Atlanta Thrashers are given an exemption for the 2000 draft (adding Columbus and the Minnesota Wild); and what’s this! Nashville — added in the 1998 draft — is exempt from both the 1999 and 2000 drafts!
Even with this exception being made, and Nashville being exempt from the draft after 2 years in the league, we need to stick a pin in the following: To this point, dating back to the first expansion draft in 1967, no team has been exempt from a draft after having been in the league for more than 2 years, ever. That’s the limit. 2 years. Not. One. Team.
A Different World
It should be noted that to this point in the history of the league, existing teams basically wrote the expansion draft rules, and did so to benefit themselves — to hell with the new team coming on board. So they crafted the rules so they could protect more or less every decent player they had on the roster. The 2017 and 2021 drafts are much different; the rules were written largely by outside experts, who were given the instruction to maximize the competitiveness of the incoming team.
We must also remember that starting in the 2005-06 season teams are saddled with a salary cap. To this point, no expansion team nor the remaining teams in the league have had to be concerned with player salaries, maximum payroll, maximum number of contracts, or any of the shenanigans that affect teams today. As we will soon see, this makes all the difference in the world.
This brings us to 2017, when the (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights and GM George McPhee lay waste to the league with a favorable set of revised expansion draft rules, carving up existing teams’ rosters like a toddler with a meat cleaver, and acquiring a roster good enough to send the Golden Knights to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Howls of protest rise up from the other 30 teams in the league about the way the draft was conducted, and the leeway McPhee is given in crafting a team that turns out to be not just immediately competitive, but brutally effective in the notoriously ruthless Western Conference. However, one tiny detail is overlooked in the melee surrounding the creation of the Golden Knights: (not Las) Vegas will be exempt from the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
When 2021 rolls around, the Golden Knights will have played 4 full seasons in the NHL. Four. Years. Plenty of time to build a team, establish a fan base, maybe even have some star players as part of their roster. Never mind the fact that they came within inches of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in their first season.
This is a first; there is literally no precedent for this, as we have already seen. So why is it happening? Because Gary Bettman said so.
“So what? What difference does it make? So they get to keep one player, who cares? It’s one player!”
Nobody, least of all George McPhee, cares two hoots about losing one player. Then what’s the real issue? The (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights are going to become the “Protected Player Hotel” for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. And it’s going to screw our new Seattle team with a weed-whacker.
How It Works
Let’s start with some facts. An NHL team roster consists of 23 players. But that’s the active NHL roster during the regular season. In total, a team can have no more than 50 players under contract at any one time, and in the off-season it doesn’t matter who they are or where they play. And, surprisingly, there is actually a limit to a team’s off-season salary cap position as well. A team cannot exceed the salary cap by more than 10% during the off-season. That gives (not Las) Vegas plenty of room to do some serious damage.
As of this minute, the (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights have 25 players under contract for the 2020-21 season. That’s 25 out of 50 possible contracts. Their projected cap hit for those 25 contracts is in the neighborhood of $65.5 million dollars. Even if the salary cap doesn’t move for the next 2 years, that gives them 25 open contract positions and $15.6 million in salary cap space at the time the expansion draft occurs.
Oh, but we’re forgetting something. The salary cap can be exceeded by 10% in the off-season. So add $8.1 million to that available cap space, and all of a sudden it becomes 25 open contract positions and $23.7 million in cap space.
It is this roster and cap space, combined with their exclusion from the expansion draft, that allows (not Las) Vegas to steal the food off Seattle’s plate by executing one-sided trades, holding players hostage, and running a black-market protection scheme for the other teams in the league. Let me show you how.
McPhee Cleans Up
I’m going to pick on the Islanders for no particular reason, but any team can do this — and George McPhee is going to be calling every single team, you’d better believe it. Let’s say the Islanders want to protect both their starting goalie and their backup, who they have been grooming for the starting job. They can only protect one goalie. What do they do? They can make a deal with George.
The Islanders trade their backup goalie to (not Las) Vegas along with a second round pick, for the Golden Knight’s first round pick. The first-round pick is an insurance policy to make sure the second half of the deal gets consummated. The Islanders then sign Darren Pang to be the goaltender they expose in order to comply with expansion draft rules. The draft comes and goes, Darren Pang doesn’t get selected and is put on waivers (sorry Panger…), and the Islanders’ back-up goaltender is still a member of the Golden Knights.
The Islanders then trade the first round pick back to (not Las) Vegas in exchange for their goalie, with the Golden Knights keeping the Islanders’ second round pick as payment for services rendered. The Islanders keep both goalies, McPhee says “Thank you very much, next please!”, and our Seattle team loses out on a talented young goaltender.
“NO WAY! The league will never allow this!” Oh, really? I submit to you, having researched this question extensively for weeks, that there is no way the league can stop it. With (not Las) Vegas having the cap space and the contract flexibility, what could the league possibly do to prevent this from happening? How are they going to differentiate between a legitimate trade and a “Protected Player Hotel” transaction meant to circumvent the rules of the draft?
From a practical perspective, the league’s hands are tied — by the failure to craft rules prohibiting this kind of transaction, and additionally by the absence of any delineated means of enforcement. The expansion draft rules as written contain only a vague reference to rules violations in a completely unrelated section, referring to “…additional players who may be acquired as the result of violations of the Expansion Draft rules.” But there is no section of the rules outlining specific prohibited actions, nor any section outlining potential punishments for rules violations.
So how is the league going to enforce anything they view as a “violation”, and what could they possibly impose as punishment? Without the rules and associated punishments explicitly outlined and published, any actions on the league’s part would immediately land them in court.
So the crux of it is, when it comes to these kinds of transactions, it’s the Wild West — except there’s no sheriff. With 25 roster spots and over $23 million of cap room, the Golden Knights could put literally an entire starting roster out of Seattle’s grasp, making out like bandits in the process. And, unfortunately, I’m just getting warmed up…
Just The Beginning
Picking on the Hurricanes this time, for no good reason whatsoever. Let’s say Carolina has protected everybody they want to, but they still have a player that they know is worth something, and they are sure will get selected. Any player chosen in the draft yields no compensation to the team from which he is drafted. But Carolina can’t just trade him anywhere, all of the other teams have their protected lists already set, so they’re not going to trade for a player they know will have to be exposed and taken away from them after the trade. So how can the Hurricanes get something for this guy?
“Hello, George? Yeah, I was wondering…”
(not Las) Vegas doesn’t have to worry about a player getting snitched away from them by Seattle — their entire roster is protected! So any legitimate trades they execute prior to the draft, they get to keep all the players.
By trading the player to (not Las) Vegas, teams can get legitimate (albeit meager) return in exchange for a player that they know will get gobbled up by Seattle, instead of losing him for nothing. This makes the Golden Knights the first phone call for any and all trade discussions in the lead-up to the draft in 2021. And because each team making the call to McPhee’s office is over a barrel, the Golden Knights are going to rip off everyone who dials their number.
With their immunity from the draft, (not Las) Vegas can pull this scheme over and over, trading away prospects or draft picks until they literally run out, and loading up their roster with quality young players who were the odd man out from their team’s protected list in the expansion draft. Those players would have been exposed in the draft and potentially be picked up by Seattle. And again, there is absolutely nothing the league can do to stop this from happening.
Want more? Imagine that the Panthers and Penguins have arranged a trade between them for two players that they can’t include on their protected list. They want to execute the trade, but their protected lists are set — how can they do that without one player or the other of them getting picked in the expansion draft and spoiling the deal? By trading them both to (not Las) Vegas a week before the draft, and then acquiring the other team’s player from the Golden Knights after the draft is completed. Oh, let’s not forget Mr. McPhee will take each of your teams’ 4th round picks next year for the service, nice doing business with you. Again, these are legitimate transactions, the league is powerless to stop any of it. And, once again, Seattle suffers.
And how about this. Say the Bruins trade one of their would-be unprotected players to the Golden Knights for a 3rd round pick, then (not Las) Vegas turns around and offers that player to Seattle following the draft — for a 1st or 2nd round pick! George McPhee could have his staff identify a dozen players that Seattle would potentially covet, trade for all of them, then hold them hostage for a higher price!
Etched In Stone
Here it is in plain English: as a result of (not Las) Vegas’ unprecedented and completely unnecessary exclusion from the expansion draft, any players that have any value whatsoever are going to end up staying with their original teams, or playing for the Golden Knights in 2021-22, instead of being drafted by Seattle. If no changes are made to the status quo, the (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights are positioned to be the big winners in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, and the gains they make will come at Seattle’s expense.
This is a staggering oversight on the part of the league. The league brought in statisticians, lawyers, even logicians and game theory experts to spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars crafting the rules for the expansion drafts in 2017 and 2021, with a definitive mandate: ensure that the expansion teams are more competitive.
Then, with one idiotic move, Gary Bettman flushed all that work down the toilet. Bettman has, once again, been making important decisions while sucking on a crack pipe full of hubris, and made Seattle the unexpected victim of what is just the latest in a long list of absurd and inexplicable mistakes.
The plain and simple fact is this: The final rules for the 2021 Expansion Draft will be finalized by the NHL Board of Governors in the early spring of 2021. In the absence of any action by the league at that meeting to remedy this problem, this scenario is etched in stone and has the potential to play out precisely as I have explained here.
I am not optimistic that any action will be taken at that meeting to reverse the Golden Knights non-participant status. Why? Do you know who the NHL Board of Governors is? It’s the 32 owners, 32 General Managers, plus their accountants and attorneys. Of those, 31 teams stand to benefit from keeping (not Las) Vegas exempt from the draft. How likely is it that 31 foxes will voluntarily close up their entrance to the hen house? Not very.
Fortunately there is a lot of time for Seattle to assert themselves in this process and start pressing the league to make a change. If the NHL is unwilling to reverse course and include the Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft, there is one alternative that perhaps they will go for.
Seattle should lobby hard — and I mean, HARD — to freeze the Golden Knights’ roster at the 2021 trade deadline, permitting only entry-level contract signings and promotions/demotions with their minor league affiliate, with the freeze to remain in effect until noon on the second day following the expansion draft. This would put a stop to any kind of hijinx George McPhee could instigate, and would allow the Seattle franchise the same kind of opportunity that (not Las) Vegas was afforded in 2017.
Freezing the Golden Knights’ roster will not only prevent player sheltering, but will also prevent teams from using (not Las) Vegas as a trade option for players they would otherwise be forced to expose. It also frees the league from the obligation of having to scrutinize every trade involving the Golden Knights for potential draft rules violations — however vaguely that might be defined.
This, really, is the only reasonable option. Gary Bettman made a demonstrably horrific decision — not just for Seattle, but the entire league — and due to his easily-bruised ego I doubt he will never go back on it. But that doesn’t mean George McPhee should be the one making the choices as to who Seattle gets to draft. Freezing the Golden Knights’ roster levels the playing field, just like it was for the 2017 expansion draft, and puts the Seattle franchise back on stable footing to draft a competitive team.
Gary Bettman At His Moronic Best
Let’s just call this what it is: a goat-fucking screw-up. All the league had to do was follow the precedent set in prior expansion drafts — no team in the league for more than 2 seasons gets an exemption from an expansion draft. It was just that simple.
Because they deviated from this 50-year-long standard, and additionally neglected to envision the scenarios we outlined above, they’ve created a landscape overflowing with the potential for fraud and abuse — to the detriment of Seattle’s fledgling franchise.
So let this serve as a full-volume wake-up call to the NHL Seattle organization. The (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights position as a
non-participant in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft allows them to assist teams in circumventing the draft rules, enriching their own team in the process, while reducing the pool of quality players Seattle can draft.
This situation has the potential to damage the NHL Seattle franchise in a way that could take more than a decade to recover from. Given the investment of nearly $2 billion that NHL Seattle and the Oak View Group have made in bringing an NHL team to Seattle, this matter should be the only task on Tod Leiweke’s desk until the situation is resolved in Seattle’s favor.