So, let’s say you’re an NHL team. There’s another NHL team coming into the league, and they are allowed — required, really — to STEAL one of your players. You can’t stop it, but you do have some say in which one you have to part with. How do you decide who stays and who could potentially go?
That’s what we’ll look at today: the tactics that teams will be using to help them craft a roster that follows the requirements laid out by the rules of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, but also steers the expansion team towards certain players and away from others.
I’ll take a quick break here to remind you that we’re pretty far into explaining the expansion draft process, and if you missed the preamble to today’s article you can catch up by reading about the rules and vocabulary, and also on players’ tactics. Ready? Onward!
In looking at team tactics we’re quite lucky in that we have a very recent example of this same phenomenon. The (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights were conjured from the aether during an expansion draft just a little more than 2 years ago. Seattle will come into being by similar sorcery, and by studying the tactics that teams employed in 2017 we can get a feel for what kind of strategies they will be using in 2021.
We’re going to do this two ways. First: the most obvious trail of bread crumbs for us to follow is the list of transactions between the end of the 2016-17 regular season and the day the expansion draft roster freeze went into effect at 3:00 pm Eastern time on June 17th. This tells the story of which teams were jiggling and juggling to try and craft a roster more palatable for their ongoing plan, even when the expansion draft dust settled. So we’re going to look at several transactions in that time window to see who did what and why.
The other way we can learn about what teams will likely be doing in 2021 is by looking at teams’ rosters specifically: how they responded to the 2017 expansion draft, and what steps they are taking now to try to get themselves in a good position come the spring of 2021. Let’s begin there.
Flexibility In Ottawa
There is a clear path to a team having little or no exposure when it comes to the expansion draft. The rules are clear up front. You have your choice as to which players, and how many players, you can protect: either 8 skaters regardless of position and 1 goaltender; or 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goaltender. Configure your core players — and your contracts — around 1 of these 2 frameworks, and you’re golden! So why is this so hard?
Because in the intervening time period you still have to try to put a competitive team on the ice to continue to sell tickets. So at the end of the 2020-21 season, ideally your 23-man roster consists of 11 players under contract that you want to stick with the team (and will protect), and 12 guys who either aren’t eligible for the draft due to age or contract status, or that you can take or leave. That’s not so easy.
After the carnage wrought on the league’s rosters by George McPhee and the (not Las) Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft, teams realized just how critical managing their contract situation is. Some teams in the league got really conservative about their long-term contract situation right away. A good example of that is the Ottawa Senators.
As of this writing, the Sens have just 4 (count them, four) players under contract for the 2021-22 season. There are two restricted free agents that will likely be qualified, so their total players needing protection as of right now is 3 forwards and 3 defensemen. Next summer will see a number of player moves in Ottawa, and should the Sens be able to keep or attract players that they want to keep beyond the end of the season in 2021, they have left themselves plenty of flexibility to do so.
Trouble In Washington
On the other end of the spectrum is the Washington Capitals. Again, currently (and things do change very quickly in this environment), the Caps have 11 players under contract. They also have Richard Panik on long-term injured reserve, and one expects that he will return sometime before the 2021 expansion draft, so now they’re up to 12. Beyond that, there are 2 RFA’s that will need to be qualified, both of whom are draft eligible. Yikes!
Washington is already in a position where they are facing the loss of one of the players they have under contract right now. They also do not have a goaltender under contract past the end of the 2021 season, and starter Braden Holtby is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the close of this season. So Washington is faced with having to sign a starter — either Holtby or another #1 — and then figure out whether they will roll the dice on the possibility of losing their promising young backup Ilya Samsonov. We’ll get to the specific complications concerning goaltenders in a moment.
Oh, but I neglected to mention something. Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2021. None of these numbers include protecting him beyond his current contract. So if Ovi signs an extension with the Caps, then their expansion draft exposure gets even more challenging.
Central Division Setup
Another team with a lot of decisions to make is the Minnesota Wild. The Wild only have 8 players under contract beyond the 2020-21 season, but 4 of them have no-movement clauses! If you recall, players with an NMC are required to be protected by their team. So beyond the players they are required to protect due to their NMC, the Wild can only protect 5 forwards and 1 defenseman. I would not want to be in the meetings where they’re deciding who stays and who goes.
Look up the standings in the Central and you find the Nashville Predators, who are flirting with a difficult decision or two come expansion draft time. They didn’t make the mistake Minnesota did — the only NMC on the books is when Roman Josi’s new $9+ million deal kicks in at the start of next season. But they do have 8 forwards and 3 d-men under contract, meaning even now they are looking at losing one of their contract players. Fortunately, due to the absence of all but one NMC, they can move players out in the next two years in exchange for picks and prospects to try to alleviate this problem.
Trades A-Plenty: Goaltenders
Now we turn our attention to the trades that took place in the lead-up to the 2017 expansion draft. We will also look at some curious trade-related events that warrant discussion and dissection. The first order of business is looking at the guys who will be the hottest commodity in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft: goaltenders.
A standard team roster during the regular season consists of two goalies. Occasionally you will see a “tandem” approach with two netminders sharing the 82-game load more or less equally during the season. But most common is the starter/backup arrangement, with the starter usually carrying between two-thirds and three-quarters of the load over the course of the season.
Just as in 2017, teams will only be able to protect one goaltender. This presents a conundrum of sorts: as long as you’re happy with his performance, it goes without saying that you are going to protect your starter. But what if you are also really happy with your backup? Are you grooming that guy to take over the starting role in a few years? Or is it a smart idea to try to get something for him now, before potentially having him snitched away in the draft with no compensation? And, horrors, what if your starter is actually the one you’d like to get rid of? How do you manage that?
Two teams were in similar positions at the conclusion of their season in 2017, and got straight to business with trades. Chicago had Corey Crawford as their starter, but backup Scott Darling had two very solid seasons in goal as backup for the Blackhawks, and appeared ready to take on a starting role with another team. The ‘Hawks knew he would definitely be snitched in the expansion draft, and they wanted to see if they could cash in before that happened. So once the Blackhawks were knocked out of the playoffs, they pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Darling to Carolina for a 3rd round pick in the 2017 draft.
Carolina signed Darling to a 3-year deal, and protected him in the expansion draft. Chicago protected Crawford and exposed minor league goalies Mac Carruth and Jeff Glass. Carolina exposed the prior year’s tandem of Eddie Lack and Cam Ward — the latter of whom, ironically, signed with Chicago in the off-season to play as Crawford’s backup the following season.
(not Las) Vegas ignored the Carolina goalie tandem, and instead chose UFA left wing Connor Brickley — a league-minimum forward with unimpressive statistics who never ended up playing for the Golden Knights… Whaaa? There’s something fishy going on here, and we’ll come back to Connor Brickley later.
[Editor’s note: We’ll leave you to dig into just how badly the Darling deal ended up for both the player and his new club. Ouch. In fact, we can ask Seattle GM Ron Francis, who was the guy on the receiving end of that transaction!]
The other team with designs on a goalie was Dallas. They had suffered through a season with aging (and expensive) veterans Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, allowing the second-most goals against in the Western Conference, and were looking to make a change. Kings netminder Ben Bishop was set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of his deal on July 1, but Dallas wanted first crack at him. So they arranged a deal to bring Bishop to Dallas for the remaining few weeks of his contract, signed him to a new deal immediately, and protected him in the draft.
They then left Lehtonen and Niemi exposed for (not Las) Vegas to snatch if they wanted to. They passed, instead selecting plucky forward Cody Eakin. Lehtonen stayed on to back up Bishop the subsequent season; Niemi was bought out of the last year of his contract with Dallas, then signed with Pittsburgh, but was traded through Florida up to Montreal. Eakin is in the last year of his deal with (not Las) Vegas, having been a consistent contributor to the Golden Knights’ unlikely Stanley Cup Final run in the 2017-18 season. Seems to have worked out pretty well for everyone.
Deal With the Devil
Look down the list of trades in the days leading up to the expansion draft and you will find no fewer than 9 teams with deals on the books, sending either players or draft picks (and sometimes both) to (not Las) Vegas on June 21st, 2017 in exchange for “Future considerations.” We’ve heard that term before, it’s been around since the beginning of pro sports. But 9 teams making more or less identical deals, all on the same day, with only one team on the other side of all of these transactions? What’s going on here?
It is simply this. Teams couldn’t stop George McPhee from taking one of their players; but they could pay McPhee to select a specific one. This is what I’m basically calling the Deal With the Devil. You’re probably going to see it happen again during the 2021 draft.
If you had a dozen or more draft-eligible players you wanted to keep on your roster, you could make a deal with George to keep all of them. Pay George’s price, and you could name the player he chose. The better player you gave him, the better price you would likely get. But you’d still be paying a premium for him to ignore all of that juicy young talent you were holding on to.
One of the most prominent examples of this was the arrangement between the Golden Knights and Anaheim. The Ducks made a deal with (not Las) Vegas on June 21st for “Future Considerations,” paying the Golden Knights to select wounded duck Clayton Stoner. Stoner had missed close to 100 games over the prior two seasons with Anaheim, and the deal was as much to rid themselves of Stoner’s $3.25 million AAV contract as it was to avoid McPhee feasting on the rest of the roster.
But Anaheim ended up paying a King’s ransom for this arrangement. The price George McPhee demanded to turn a blind eye on the rest of the Anaheim roster was the young but immensely talented defenseman — and former Seattle Thunderbird! — Shea Theodore. Stoner played 0 games in a Golden Knights jersey, and is now retired. Theodore is now a top-pairing defenseman for (not Las) Vegas, and is in the 2nd year of a 7-year, $36.4 million contract.
This is an option for teams in 2021 also. Teams paid pretty steeply in 2017, so as we saw earlier they’re already trying to put themselves in a position where they don’t have to make this kind of deal. But if, for instance, one of their players unexpectedly starts turning into a NHL-caliber sniper after 3 years slugging it out in the AHL, they’ve got a problem. The Deal With the Devil then becomes an option.
Most of the future considerations deals in 2017 involved draft picks. (not Las) Vegas stocked the cupboard full before the draft was over, and they used those picks to amass a mountain of young talent to build their franchise on. You can expect Seattle to reap at least some of the same benefits through this tactic.
A couple of teams during the 2017 expansion draft took another approach with respect to the Golden Knights’ roster raiding: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Let me show you what I mean.
The Chicago Blackhawks had a nice tasty morsel exposed during the expansion draft in the form of defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Chicago didn’t make a deal with the Golden Knights to try to hang on to him; they just accepted that he was going to be leaving and adjusted their plans accordingly. But (not Las) Vegas wasn’t the only team with their sights on TVR.
Remember earlier we talked about Connor Brickley? He had spent the entire 2016-17 season in the AHL for Carolina, had scored only a single goal in his 23 NHL games to that point, and yet this was the guy the Golden Knights chose in the expansion draft from the Hurricanes? He turned around and signed with Florida for the 2017-18 season, he never played a game in a Golden Knights uniform. He’s now playing in Austria.
Carolina did make a “future considerations” deal with (not Las) Vegas, but it’s obvious that the price they paid — a 5th round pick that Carolina had acquired from Boston — was WAY below the 1st and 2nd round picks that other teams were handing over for the same privilege. So what on earth happened here?
What happened here was, there was a larger deal in place. In discussing who the Golden Knights would choose from Carolina, the other discussion was, “Hey — how about that van Riemsdyk kid? You’re thinking about grabbing him out of Chicago, right? Well, what do you want for him?” A deal was struck to cover all aspects of the interaction between Carolina and (not Las) Vegas as it pertained to the expansion draft.
So when you look at the overall picture, taking into account deals both before and after the draft took place, what you get is this. The Golden Knights acquired 5th and 2nd round picks from Carolina, selected van Riemsdyk from Chicago, and also agreed to select Connor Brickley from Carolina in the expansion draft. Carolina acquired van Riemsdyk and a 7th round pick from the Golden Knights.
Between you and me, Carolina made off like bandits on that deal. The draft picks they gave up weren’t even theirs; they had been acquired in deals with Boston and Pittsburgh. TVR has been a steady contributor on the Carolina blue line, posting modest point totals but respectable plus-minus numbers at a cap-friendly $2.3 million AAV.
This kind of conspiratorial back-door, three-way trade is something else you may see happen during the 2021 expansion draft. Teams may decide to work with the fox, instead of just waiting for him to get into the hen house. When you think about it, it’s kind of likely that we will see at least one deal with that kind of structure. After all, Seattle GM Ron Francis — formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes — was one of the architects of the van Riemsdyk deal. So he knows how to make that kind of thing happen, and he may choose to work that angle to his club’s advantage.
Star of the Show
This is just a smattering of the kinds of things we will see in the run-up to the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. All 31 teams will be in unique situations — some with easy solutions, some in rather serious pickles — and there are a number of creative and unusual paths they may take to get through the process without getting fleeced.
We’re not done yet, either. Next up: the star of the show at the expansion draft will be Seattle! In our next article in the series we’ll take a look at what kind of strategies Seattle might attempt to employ in crafting a team. Keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks…