What Can Vegas' 2017 Expansion Draft Picks Tell Us About Seattle's 2021 Plan?

Much of the Golden Knights' excellent expansion draft was executed thanks to side deals and helping cap-crunched teams. With the current flat salary cap putting teams in a bind again, expect the Kraken to have a fun time with their draft, too.
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Dare to dream of a “normal” 2021-22 season. It’s what the NHL wants. We should certainly embrace the temporary fun-factor of realigned divisions and a 56-game sprint season for 2020-21, but the hope is, with COVID-19 vaccines trickling into North America, the NHL can roll out its traditional calendar next season, with fans returning to stands and league revenues rebounding.

That dream, of course, is all about Seattle. The league desperately and justifiably wants the league’s 32nd franchise starting strong after paying $650 million to join up. The expansion draft looms for 2021. Who will populate the Kraken’s first roster?

While the pandemic obviously threatens the team’s financial success early on, the league’s current topsy-turvy state stands to benefit the Kraken from a hockey perspective. We’ve already seen the flat salary cap force NHL teams into binds, so don’t believe anyone who claims the Kraken won’t have it as easy as the Vegas Golden Knights did. Thanks to the flat cap, all those take-a-bad-contract side deals should be back in play for GM Ron Francis. Teams might be even more desperate to dump salary than they were in 2017 before the Vegas expansion draft. As one prominent player agent told me a few weeks ago, the 2021 off-season looks promising for his clients because “We know Seattle will be spending to the cap” and freeing up money league-wide for teams to chase UFAs.

In forecasting the Kraken’s expansion picks, then, we can expect them to shell out north of $80 million to build their roster. I’m also predicting Seattle will eat some bad contracts with relatively short terms left to make side deals that net first-round picks, prospects, or both. The Golden Knights made 30 selections at the 2017 expansion draft, but then-GM George McPhee also walked away with two additional first-round picks plus trades for Shea Theodore, Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch, among others. Outstanding.

So can the Golden Knights’ 2017 expansion draft provide hints on a possible Seattle plan for 2021? Since so many teams will be cap crunched, I predict we’ll see plenty of parallels between 2017 and 2021.

Here’s a glance at the Golden Knights’ actual picks in 2017.

First, a mini legend:

* Waived no-movement clause
** One season away from unrestricted free agency
*** UFA who pre-negotiated a new contract

The picks:

1. Calvin Pickard
2. Luca Sbisa **
3. Teemu Pulkkinen
4. Jon Merrill
5. William Carrier
6. Tomas Nosek
7. Cody Eakin
8. Jonathan Marchessault **
9. Brayden McNabb **
10. Connor Brickley **
11. Chris Thorburn
12. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
13. Jason Garrison **
14. Jean-Francois Berube
15. James Neal **
16. Deryk Engelland ***
17. Brendan Leipsic
18. Colin Miller
19. Marc Methot
20. David Schlemko
21. David Perron **
22. Oscar Lindberg
23. Griffin Reinhart
24. Alexei Emelin **
25. Clayton Stoner **
26. Erik Haula
27. William Karlsson
28. Trevor van Riemsdyk
29. Marc-Andre Fleury *
30. Nate Schmidt

Key observations:

1. Vegas picked nine pending UFAs. Some, like Emelin, were flipped before the season even started. Others were likely positioned as safety nets to trade for picks or prospects at the 2018 trade deadline, but Vegas, of course, ended up being a top contender during the greatest expansion season in major pro sports history.

2. Vegas only picked and signed one UFA in the expansion draft using the earlier-than-early exclusive negotiating window: Deryk Engelland. It made sense to primarily pick players still under contract or, in the case of RFAs, under team control. There was no leverage in targeting players whose teams were going to lose them anyway, especially since Vegas still had the option to negotiate with UFAs in the normal window when the other 30 teams did.

3. Vegas did take on a pile of salary dumps the night of the expansion draft, but the most prominent, David Clarkson’s contract, was accomplished in a side deal, not using an actual expansion pick. The Golden Knights took on Clarkson for a first- and second-round pick.

While Francis is his own person and won’t necessarily mimic everything McPhee did, the Golden Knights’ blueprint was resoundingly successful, so why not at least borrow some elements from it? It thus wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Kraken (a) load up on expiring contracts that can be flipped as rentals at a later date; (b) target very few UFAs for new contracts; and (c) explore side deals to eat albatross contracts in exchange for draft picks and more.

Armed with the Vegas blueprint, it's time to forecast a 2021 Seattle expansion draft. That’ll come in part 2 of this story. Stay tuned.

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