It’s finally time to get to the star of the show at the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft — the new Seattle franchise, and what they will be doing in the days leading up to the draft. As the title suggests, this is the 4th part in our series covering the various aspects of the expansion draft. If you need to catch up, you can review our articles on expansion draft rules and vocabulary, players’ defensive tactics, and tactics employed by the other 30 teams in the league. That will get you up to speed on where we are, and help you understand what we’re about to go over in this article.
But before we begin, we need to backtrack a bit. We have some interesting news, and it happens to concern this very topic.
(not Las) Vegas Update
We have a brief update to our expansion draft article on the Golden Knights. In short, we outlined the problems surrounding the fact that (not Las) Vegas will not participate in the 2021 expansion draft, and the fact that Seattle stands to be harmed in a multitude of ways by this oversight. Somebody appears to have woken up and, at the very least, recognized that this is an issue.
On November 22nd NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman issued a warning to teams, stating that he would be on the lookout for “parking players” with the Golden Knights to avoid exposure in the 2021 expansion draft. He suggested that he could “nix” trades that he believed fell into this category, and also hand out punishments to the participating teams.
This completely empty threat is a pathetic remedy to what is a much, much bigger problem; one that can directly affect the Seattle franchise in a decidedly negative way. It also allows Little Napoleon complete discretion as to which teams’ transactions warrant punishment and which teams’ transactions he ignores — for the right price.
Plainly more must be done than just a “now now, boys…” from the homeroom monitor. Our article makes that abundantly clear, and describes the only solution we feel offers Seattle the benefit of a level playing field for the 2021 expansion draft. Hopefully there is enough pressure on Der Kommissar to implement a solution with prescribed restrictions — and delineated punishments.
And, when you think about it, Bettman’s declaration really screws the Golden Knights as well. Teams bring back former players all the time. Look at Chicago — they’ve been trying to “get the band back together” since the 2011-12 season. Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell, Andrew Shaw — all of these guys got traded away and then showed up back on the Blackhawks’ roster a few years later.
(not Las) Vegas needs to be afforded the same flexibility any other team has in their roster decisions. Giving Bettman enhanced discretion over any deals that include the Golden Knights above and beyond the normal course of business simply isn’t fair. I would expect (not Las) Vegas to be complaining about this “solution” as loudly as Seattle does.
To that end, let this be a renewal of our warning to Tod Lieweke: crank up the pressure on the Board of Governors. Seattle needs a workable solution to this problem; not some toothless, cockamamie scheme based on the biased whims of the egomaniacal twerp at the NHL head office, and the sooner the better.
Okay, let’s get to the fun part.
Starting Out Simple
In order to put together our beloved Seattle hockey team, there are three ways that the club will acquire players. The main one is the expansion draft; additionally there is the 2021 version of the annual NHL Entry Draft that all teams participate in, during which young players from high school, juniors, college, or other amateur programs here and overseas are selected. The final one is free agency.
The Golden Knights acquired oodles of draft picks in the days leading up to the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. Using their own picks plus the ones they received in trade, they selected 12 players in the entry draft. As these are young players, most of whom are years away from beginning their NHL careers, it should come as no surprise that none of the players selected by the Golden Knights in 2017 played for the team that season. It will likely be the same for Seattle in 2021.
As a matter of trivia, the first Golden Knights draft pick ever to play for the club is a kid named Cody Glass. He was selected by (not Las) Vegas 6th overall in 2017 — using their own pick in the draft, not one they acquired via trade — and he made his debut with the Golden Knights on opening night this current season — October 2, 2019. Glass notched his first goal that night, and has 4 goals and 11 points through 34 games on the left wing this season. He’s a minus-6 though; gotta hustle on the back-check, kid.
For those of you down Stumptown way who are wondering where you might recognize the name from; Cody Glass played junior hockey for 4 seasons with the Portland Winterhawks.
If we use (not Las) Vegas as a means of predicting how things will transpire for Seattle, we can quickly see that the majority of the players that were on the Golden Knights opening night roster were selected in the 2017 expansion draft. 17 players were acquired in the expansion draft; 2 were acquired in deals in the days just prior to the draft; and 1, backup goaltender Malcolm Subban, was claimed off waivers from Boston a week before the first game of the season.
To my surprise, not a single player in a Golden Knights uniform for their first-ever game against Dallas was signed as an unrestricted free agent in the off-season. (not Las) Vegas did sign 7 players when signing season opened up on July 1st, all of whom were signed at league minimum, and all of whom played nearly the entire year in the minors. This tells me that (not Las) Vegas GM George McPhee was quite pleased with the haul he was able to rake in on draft day.
I am going to go out on a limb and predict that this will not be the case for Seattle. In 2017, teams had just a year’s warning before their rosters were plundered by the Golden Knights. This allowed them essentially no time to manage their contract situation ahead of the day when George came calling.
With the 2021 expansion draft, teams have been preparing for a year already, and have another year to get their roster and contracts aligned with their future plans. For this reason there is very little chance that Seattle will be able to field a team exclusively from the players they acquire in the expansion draft. In fact, I would hazard a guess that fewer than half of the players wearing a Seattle uniform for puck drop in October of 2021 will be ones selected in the expansion draft. The 30 other teams in the league had their asses handed to them before; they have shown very clearly in their signings and contract management since the 2017 draft that they won’t let that happen again.
There is one caveat to that statement, and it pertains to free agency. Let’s take a look.
The Starting Goaltender Problem
There is a part of the draft rules that, because of the juicy menu of players (not Las) Vegas had to choose from on teams’ exposed lists, they didn’t take advantage of at all. That rule has to do with players that will become free agents on July 1st following the expansion draft. The rule gives the selecting team first crack at any free agent players before the draft begins. Let’s look at an example.
I don’t think too many people would argue with me when I say that the individual player that is going to have the biggest impact on the success or failure of the Seattle team going forward is the starting goaltender. Now, there isn’t a single team that is going to be foolish enough to expose a well-performing starting goalie that they have under contract. It’s just not going to happen.
So how is Seattle supposed to get a #1 netminder that will allow them to be competitive? By signing one as a free agent. To help facilitate this, Seattle can make use of the built-in advantage in the area of free-agent bargaining that the expansion draft rules affords them.
As of right now, the most attractive goaltenders who will be unrestricted free agents on July 1st, 2021 are as follows (current contract terms in parentheses):
- Tuuka Rask, Boston Bruins ($7 million AAV)
- Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs ($5 mil.)
- Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues ($4.35 mil.)
- Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild ($4.33 mil.)
Some of you would argue that Jordan Binnington is the St. Louis goaltender I should be more interested in. Well, look at what happened in the Blues’ game against Toronto on December 7th and you’ll see why Allen is the better choice. I’m also excluding starters Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne from this list, both of whom will be eligible for Social Security at the time of the draft. Just kidding. Almost. Except, not really…
At any rate: players get hurt, players’ performance goes downhill, players sign contract extensions, and meteors fall out of the sky. Anything can happen between now and June 2021. But as you read this, those 4 are the goalies that I would expect Seattle GM Ron Francis to be having dreams about signing to a contract. Here’s how he can get one of them.
First to the Bargaining Table
The nomenclature gets a little confusing here, so were going to define our terms first. The draft “begins” when teams submit their protected lists. The draft “ends” when Seattle submits their list of selections. This may or may not comport with what other outlets define as the “beginning” or “end” of the draft, but it seems to make the most sense to me. Okay? Onward…
According to the draft rules, the expansion draft lasts 3 days. Teams submit their protected lists, and there is a 24 hour waiting period. Teams can protect any players they wish, even players who will be unrestricted free agents the following week. But for any player who is UFA and not protected, starting 48 hours before the end of the draft Ron Francis and his management team will be able to negotiate with that player.
Once this bargaining window opens, Seattle — and only Seattle — has until the end of the draft to reach a deal with any UFA players they want to sign. Any players they do sign go on their list of selections, and that player becomes the player selected from that club. So if Seattle reaches a deal with Tuuka Rask, for instance, then they will not be selecting another player from the Bruins’ list of exposed players.
Now: Seattle doesn’t have to do this. They could choose a different player from Boston and still go after Rask in the free agent market on July 1st. But then they’re competing with every other team looking to upgrade their goaltending, and arguably the price for Rask’s services will go up. There is also no guarantee that Boston will expose him for the expansion draft. Furthermore, Rask might not even want to talk to Seattle during this negotiation window. He may want to see if he can get more money on the open market, or he may prefer to stay in Boston, either of which is perfectly understandable.
It is mainly for those reasons that Rask, in my opinion, is a long shot. But the two that are the most mouth-watering to me are Andersen and Allen. Both will be just 32 years old as they start the 2021-22 season. With their current deals offering plenty of room for a good-sized raise, providing their play continues to be starter-quality, Seattle could offer 4 to 6 years at $7 or $8 million AAV to entice them away from their current surroundings. For either player, that could be a difficult deal to turn down.
Having a solid #1 goaltender to build a team upon will be critical to the success of the Seattle franchise. Having any of those 4 guys in goal on opening night would be a solid choice; using that advantage in bargaining with free agent players ahead of the expansion draft is the most likely way to achieve that.
The Devil You Know
As we covered in Part 3 of this series, contract management on the part of the 30 participating teams can only go so far. The entire principle of the draft is that Seattle *is* going to snatch one of your players. You don’t know which one, and you can’t plan ahead for the loss until you know who it is. And some teams will run out of space on their protected list and still face losing one of the key pieces on their roster.
For those teams, the available option is the “Deal with the Devil.” In 2017 it was the Golden Knights playing the part of the Devil, making deals with teams to select a specific player and acquiring a certain payment in return — either another player, or draft picks, or both.
For review, let’s give a quick example from 2017. The Tampa Bay Lightning decided they needed to get a specific player off their roster, and were willing to pay for the service. So in advance of the draft they traded 2nd and 4th round picks to the Golden Knights plus the signing rights to a European prospect named Nikita Gusev. In exchange for that, (not Las) Vegas agreed to select aging (and expensive) defenseman Jason Garrison during the expansion draft, who they relegated to their minor league club. That’s a pretty straightforward example of how such deals are structured.
In 2021, it is Seattle who will be holding the pitchfork, and these deals will be a considerable part of what Ron Francis is going to be looking at in advance of the draft. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that such discussions have already begun with one or two teams who know they are in a tough position.
Montreal, for instance, might already be on the phone to Seattle. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Joel Armia, and Jeff Petry are all set to become free agents just after the draft, and the Canadiens have too many players signed beyond that date to protect any of them. Montreal GM Marc Bergevin might be thinking he’d better start feeling out which one of those guys Seattle might be interested in — or, if they’re interested in somebody not on that list at all. He can then start talking about nailing down who Seattle would want to select, and what price Montreal would be willing to pay for either arranging that in advance, or enticing Seattle to select a different player.
See, the Deal with the Devil has distinct advantages for both sides. For Seattle, obviously, they have the opportunity to leverage more value from a given team. But look at the Montreal example we just laid out. Let’s say Danault has a career year in 2020-21, and Bergevin wants to start talking to his agent about a contract extension. Without some kind of certainty about who Seattle might select from his exposed player list, Bergevin might sign Danault and then have to expose him — and lose him — in the expansion draft. But if Bergevin is able to put a deal in place with Seattle, he can breathe easy and start looking forward with his business dealings instead of taking a defensive posture until after the draft is complete.
There were 10 deals in the hours leading up to the end of the 2017 expansion draft that involved “future considerations” — the Deal with the Devil’s calling card. I fully expect to see at least that many, if not more, as events unfold in June of 2021.
Just prior to the 2017 expansion draft there was one team who was really up a creek when it came to protecting players. To a degree it would be difficult to blame them, since there was so little time to plan between when the Golden Knights franchise was awarded and when the expansion draft was held. But the situation basically put the New York Islanders over a barrel, and they had some serious begging to do with George McPhee. This example gives us a good way to look at a special case that Ron Francis may use in 2021.
The Islanders decided to focus on keeping as many of their young crop of talented defensemen as possible. So they chose “plan B” for their protection scheme: protecting 8 skaters regardless of position, and one goaltender. I won’t go through everyone that they did protect, but here are the highlights of who they couldn’t protect: Cal Clutterbuck, Ryan Strome, Calvin DeHaan, and Jaroslav Halak. So no matter how they structured their protection list, they were right and truly screwed. They needed an “out”.
It was time for yet another Deal with the Devil. In the Islanders’ case the Golden Knights agreed to choose goaltender Jean-Francois Berube, who was to become an unrestricted free agent 9 days later, and who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 1st.
The other key parts of the deal were the 1st- and 2nd-round picks that (not Las) Vegas acquired from New York. There was another living, breathing, skating soul sent to the Golden Knights: defenseman Jason Bischoff, who is still under contract and playing for the (not Las) Vegas’ AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves. But a player by the name of Mikhail Grabovski was also included. Or more accurately, his contract.
Mikhail Grabovski had his best years with Toronto in 2010-11 and 2011-12, when he racked up 51 and 58 points respectively. Some time later he signed a 4-year, $20 million deal with the Islanders for whom he played two injury-hampered seasons. Lingering concussion symptoms forced him to sit out the 2016-17 season, and it was reasonably certain that he would never play in the NHL again. That proved to be correct.
So why would (not Las) Vegas agree to take a player they knew would never put on a Golden Knights jersey? Especially when they knew he likely couldn’t be traded, and he had a $5 million AAV cap hit? Because of something called Long-Term Injured Reserve, or LTIR, and its effect on a team’s salary cap. This gets a bit geeky, so I will try to keep it simple.
When a player goes on LTIR, the team for whom he plays for gets salary cap relief. So if Nikita Kucherov has to undergo emergency gallbladder surgery tomorrow and is deemed out for the remainder of this season, then the Tampa Bay Lightning will place him (and his $9.5 million salary) on LTIR. Once they do that, they get to add players to their roster (within the 23-man limit of course) up to a maximum of $9.5 million in AAV salary (or the pro-rated equivalent based on days remaining in the season, games played, yadda-yadda-yadda, let the accountants figure it out).
If you’re interested (and have a good supply of coffee at the ready) the folks at CapFriendly.com have an excruciatingly detailed overview of long-term injured reserve cap relief for your information and amusement.
The intention of LTIR was to accommodate situations like I have just explained: making sure a team whose star player goes down with some form of debilitating condition wasn’t totally screwed while he was recuperating. What it has turned into, however, is something quite different. It has created a “grey market” for players — their contracts, really — who have multiple years remaining on long-term deals but will never play again. Teams acquire these contracts in order to get cap relief they are not in any way entitled to.
The most flagrant example of this is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Right now Toronto has two of these LTIR contracts on the books, totaling $10.55 million dollars, for players that have not put on skates in years. Nathan Horton is the most idiotic of these — he hasn’t played a game since the 2013-14 season, and yet his contract is part of the reason why Toronto sits a full $10 million over the salary cap even as you read this. Horton’s contract and that of David Clarkson (which Toronto acquired from the Golden Knights, coincidentally) are the reason that the Leafs were able to sign Mitch Marner to a 6-year, $10.89 million AAV contract back in September — while still retaining Auston Matthews ($11.6 million AAV), John Tavares ($11 mil.), William Nylander ($6.9 mil.), Morgan Reilly and Frederik Andersen ($5 mil. each), and the other 17 players that fill out the roster.
The deal that brought David Clarkson is the most egregious example of this kind of cap manipulation I’ve ever seen. Toronto acquired Clarkson and a 4th round draft pick for minor league goaltender Garret Sparks, but the pick and the goalie were just cover. The purpose of the deal was, specifically and exclusively, to make sure Toronto had enough LTIR cap relief to sign Marner when GM Kyle Dubas reached a deal with Marner’s agent. If that’s not the very definition of cheating, I don’t know what is.
What makes this even more absurd is, cap relief is only given to the team when a player gets assigned to LTIR during the season. But the teams have written themselves a rule to let them “prepare for the start of the regular season” by making roster moves on the last day of training camp. The league implemented this salary cap restriction to prevent rich teams from loading up with expensive star players and beating the crap out of less wealthy medium-market teams; then the teams wrote themselves a loophole big enough to drive a Zamboni through allowing big market teams to load up on expensive star players.
So one day before the start of the 2019-2020 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs official roster contained Nathan Horton and David Clarkson — who likely didn’t even bother showing up for their physicals, let alone take part in training camp. They were then assigned to LTIR, and other players were then added to the roster to replace them. See how idiotic this is?
According to the rules of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, what I’ve just described is perfectly legal. But it’s one of the most absurd ways that teams cheat the system by either using the afforded cap relief to sign players above and beyond the salary cap limits that teams are supposed to adhere to, or go the other direction and take on the huge contract for a player they know will never lace up skates again merely to get themselves above the required cap minimum.
It’s surprising to see how many players whose names you know but who you haven’t seen in ages are currently “under contract” for one team or another. Marian Hossa? Plays for the Coyotes, apparently. Henrik Zetterberg, he’s still with Detroit. Ryan Callahan? Marian Gaborik? Clarke MacArthur? All with Ottawa. And there were nearly a dozen more similar contracts that just expired on June 30th that were being bought and sold for the same purpose.
It is the Law of Unintended Consequences at work; yet another way that the salary cap is making problems worse that it was put in place to try to fix. But, since it’s one of the tools that is available, Seattle can’t ignore its benefits. This is something that will be part of the discussions leading up to the expansion draft as teams start to sort out how they are going to manage their rosters, and as Seattle wants to figure out how to afford the players they want to acquire.
Do I think Seattle will make use of this trick for some purpose? My guess would be no. With a robust budget and a good amount of time to plan, I doubt Seattle will be in a position either to need the cap relief, or to bring their salary cap position up above the salary cap floor.
The one possibility that is most likely is that, just like the Tampa Bay example above, an LTIR player will be thrown in as part of a larger “Deal with the Devil” trade ahead of the draft. Chicago, as an example, has just had veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook — well past his prime, and a frequent target of ire from Blackhawks fans — go on LTIR with pending surgeries on one shoulder and both hips. Anybody hoping he’ll be back in game shape before his contract expires (in 2024) is probably fooling themselves.
I can see Chicago trying to work a deal with Seattle to hand over one of their up-and-coming forwards plus a high-round draft pick in exchange for Ron Francis agreeing to take Seabrook and his $6.875 million AAV contract on LTIR. The only hitch in that plan: Seabrook’s full no-movement clause. Now: Seabrook is from Richmond, BC, a bridge away from Vancouver, and still makes his home there. Seattle might just be to his liking if Chicago makes it clear his days wearing the Indian Head are over. Watch this space for further developments.
What Finally Happens?
When all the dust settles, irrespective of whatever other deals are made, at the close of the draft Seattle turns in a list of 30 players chosen from 30 teams: a minimum of 14 forwards, 9 defensemen, and 3 goaltenders. Seattle will have its choice on the other 4 players above and beyond those minimums. 20 of those 30 players must be under contract for the 2021-22 season. The total value of those 30 players’ contracts must be between 60% and 100% of the prior year’s salary cap limit. And Seattle may not buy out any of the players chosen in the expansion draft until the buyout window for the 2022-23 season opens.
So this isn’t just a Supermarket Sweep spending spree: Ron Francis actually has to build a team. The other thing to remember is, any players he acquires in trade deals or signs as free agents don’t count towards those requirements, either the number of players at given positions or salary cap totals. Which makes this quite a puzzle, when you think about it.
When you make a Deal with the Devil trade with a team to acquire a player you want, you are also agreeing to select a given player from that same team that you don’t want. The player you want is the one who’s going to be on the roster; but the one you don’t want is the guy who counts against your salary cap and player/position numbers. So, really, you’re keeping track of two rosters: the one you are required to select in the draft, and the one that is actually going to make up your team when the puck drops in October! You have to pick position players for both, and manage cap limits for both.
I would not want to be the guy whose job it is to update that spreadsheet.
This gets especially difficult when the differences between who you acquire and who you select are substantial. Take the Tampa Bay example above, where (not Las) Vegas acquired 2 draft picks and the signing rights to a prospect, but selected defenseman Jason Garrison. That’s $0 cap hit for your real team, but $4.6 million AAV against your cap restrictions for the draft. Too many of those transactions and you’re going to be in trouble with your expansion draft restrictions, even though you’re being very frugal with your real-world cap management.
Is There More?
At this point we’ve covered pretty much everything there is to cover regarding the expansion draft itself. But that’s not to say we’re finished…
You see, about 20% of the players in the league will be signing new contracts between now and October 1st. Unrestricted free agents will sign deals with their current team, or with a new team. Restricted free agents will get new deals, or be traded. Teams will be making trades to sort out their cap situation, and looking ahead to how they are going to handle the expansion draft when it happens the following spring. And some surprises will pop up during training camp that nobody expects to happen. They always do.
All of that jostling and jousting will more or less settle down when the season starts. And that’s when the fun really begins.
If you’ve been reading our Game of the Weekend articles, you’ve seen that for every team that’s playing we have been taking a look at which of the players could potentially be selected by Seattle in the expansion draft. At this point, all we can do is make educated guesses — the picture for any team is still quite blurry. But once the 2020-21 season starts, the picture comes into much clearer focus. At that point, pinning down which players will be available and which ones are potential expansion draft targets becomes much easier.
So as next season begins, we will start looking at each team in the league, narrowing down which players are the most likely to be exposed in the expansion draft, and giving you a peek at who the best ones are and why they might be a good fit for our new franchise. And, with any luck, we’ll actually be right about a few of them.
I wouldn’t get my hopes up, though…