The second round of the post-season has only just begun, but in less than two months, the on-ice action will be complete for another year, a Stanley Cup champion crowned and the summer will be upon us. For the Vegas Golden Knights, that means preparing for their own personal off-season frenzy, with the team’s debut appearance at the entry draft and a chance to dip their toes into the free agent waters for the first time as a franchise.
Before any of that can be completed, though, the Golden Knights will have to assemble a roster to add draft selections and free agents to, and that will happen in mid-June with the official roster announced on June 21 during the NHL Awards ceremony. However, in the days, weeks and months leading up to the expansion draft, Vegas GM George McPhee and his staff will have their ears open, listening to any and all trade offers that could come there way.
The offers McPhee is seemingly most interested in hearing are those that include draft choices changing hands with an agreement that pertains to the expansion draft, which is to say some teams could influence the Golden Knights’ inaugural season roster if they pay the right draft-pick price.
“If (other teams) want to give us draft picks to encourage us to take a certain player or leave another player alone, we're open-minded and we're going to listen to everyone," McPhee told the Associated Press. "You usually build your team, historically, through the entry draft, so we'd certainly be interested in acquiring picks.”
With that in mind, which teams could potentially send a pick or two Vegas’ way in order to protect an unprotected player or ensure the Golden Knights are taking a certain skater or netminder? Here are five teams to watch as the expansion draft approaches:
Few teams are entering expansion territory with more to lose than the Wild. While some teams aren’t at a great risk of losing any impact players, Minnesota is in a position to see at least one player from the middle of the lineup head to Vegas.
Among the forwards who could reasonably go unprotected are Jason Zucker and Erik Haula, while defensemen Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Christian Folin might be available to be scooped up by the Golden Knights. All five players played a part in the Wild having the best season in franchise history in 2016-17 and losing any would be a tough pill to swallow, especially given each could have fetched something of decent value in return via trade.
It’s then up to Minnesota to decide. If they value the defenders, maybe a deal can be made to ensure it’s a forward that’s selected in the draft. If the Wild think someone such as Zucker has potential to break out even further, they could decide to make a pact that protects the speedy winger in expansion. No matter what Minnesota does, however, they aree bound to lose a high quality player.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Unless Columbus can manage to get Scott Hartnell to waive his no-movement clause, the Blue Jackets are at risk of losing a young, skilled forward. Due to expansion draft rules, Columbus is forced to protect Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno up front. That means only four other forwards can be protected.
Running down the list, there are some locks for protection. Brandon Saad is the Blue Jackets’ highest paid player and a star winger. Cam Atkinson had yet another sneaky-good season and continues to be an underrated scorer. There’s also a good chance Boone Jenner fits the bill as a protectable player, too, which leaves Columbus one more protection spot and a list that includes Matt Calvert, Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson, among others.
We can’t read McPhee’s mind, but if at least one of Wennberg or Karlsson are available, selecting a roster player from the Blue Jackets isn’t a tough decision: take one of the young, up-and-coming centers and hope he blossoms into steady top-six pivot. However, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen could see the risk in losing one of Wennberg or Karlsson and pull the trigger on a deal that ensures it’s Calvert, or another player, that gets selected. Without a deal, though, Blue Jackets could lose a skilled youngster.
This one doesn’t fall into the protection category so much as it does the encouragement grouping. That’s not to say Nashville doesn’t have players worth spending picks to protect — they do and there are a few who fit the bill — but rather that there are two deals that are eating up a significant amount of cap space without producing nearly enough or taking on big enough minutes to make a difference.
Combined, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson cost the Predators nearly $8.2 million this past season. For their dollars, Nashville got 24 goals and 64 points in return, and neither Smith, who earns $4.25 million, or Wilson, who carries a $3.94 million cap hit, skated more than 15 minutes per night. It’s also worth noting that both have come in around the 13-minute mark in average ice time during the playoffs.
In the coming off-season, Nashville has to sign Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Austin Watson, as well as potentially work out a new deal with captain Mike Fisher. It doesn’t end there. At the end of the next season, James Neal’s deal is up. So, having an extra $8.2 million to spend could go a long way. Vegas can’t take both Smith and Wilson, but the Predators could benefit from ensuring at least one heads to the Golden Knights at the expansion draft. Sending picks to Vegas might be the only way to make that happen, though.
The Blackhawks need to clear cap space. The Blackhawks are in a salary cap crunch. This is not a recording.
You can forget dimes, because Chicago GM Stan Bowman finds himself entering another off-season barely having two pennies to rub together. The Blackhawks, who were swept out of the post-season by the Predators, are currently projected to have less than $3 million to spend in the summer and some areas that need improving. No matter how much the cap increases, Chicago is going to be in tough.
But losing Marcus Kruger might help.
Kruger is an incredibly underrated defensive center and while there isn’t another Blackhawk who could do his job as well as he does, the $3.08 million Kruger earns per season is quite the sum to pay the pivot. He scored five goals and 17 points this past season while skating roughly 14 minutes a night, and that’s just too much for too little for a cap-strapped team. Bowman would be wise to toss a pick or two to McPhee to get Kruger off the books. The money saved there could be spent elsewhere and really help a Chicago club that had a disappointing end to a promising season.
It’s no secret that Pittsburgh wants to keep Matt Murray, the 22-year-old netminder who has already become a star, over the veteran Fleury. But the difficulty comes in the way the expansion draft is structured. So, in order for Murray to stay, GM Jim Rutherford might need to work some serious magic. We’re talking high quality picks and maybe even a roster player to ensure Murray gets to remain in Steel City.
However, the Penguins’ inclusion on this list comes with an asterisk because Pittsburgh could avoid the entire situation by shipping Fleury out before the expansion draft even takes place. There’s a real possibility that’s what happens, too, because Pittsburgh is going to want to set Fleury up with the job he wants out of those that are available. This is to say if he doesn’t want to waive the clause to go Vegas, he doesn’t have to.
Calgary and Dallas are two teams with an obvious need for goaltending and Fleury could end up in either locale if the option is presented to him. There will likely be some other suitors for Fleury’s services, as well, especially as it’s likely he can be had for cheap given Pittsburgh’s need to move him. And if Fleury is traded before the expansion draft or waives the clause, the Penguins don’t need to worry about any deals with Vegas. It’s a tricky situation, but a winnable one for Pittsburgh.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.