From the conference rooms in suburban Las Vegas, to the 30 rinks around the league, clocks are ticking toward June 20, 2017. Until 5 p.m. EST, the submission deadline for expansion draft picks, the newest NHL roster remains an imaginary idea, confined to projections. Inside the hockey operations department, in particular, this has made for an overflowing eagerness. “I wish it were tomorrow,” GM George McPhee says. “It’s going to be exciting. We’re a real organization now. We want to be a real team.”
Over the next seven-plus months, preparations for that Tuesday should adequately occupy the wait. The staff held its first mock draft in early October, working alphabetically through every team and picking one player from each. McPhee plans to conduct another in December, so the pro scouts can first make their rounds for the 2016-17 season, and dates for a third are reserved in January too.
“I just think the repetition of going through it over and over and over again should eliminate most of the questions, if not all,” McPhee says, because the rules do not allow for much dawdling. Las Vegas will receive the list of protected players—and, by extension, those available for selection—from the 30 other NHL teams on June 17. Three days later, its choices are due. “That’s not a lot of time,” McPhee says.
The biggest challenge is what McPhee calls “the moving target.” The first mock served as a worthy icebreaking event among staffers, both for the draft rules and with each other, but McPhee saw little predictive value in the results. “I just don’t believe what we’ll end up doing will be even close to that,” he says. “I think we’re more interested in the exercise itself. There’s just so much that’s going to change between now and next June. I think we’ll pay more attention to what’s produced down the road than what we’re doing right now, which is try to be really comfortable with how the process works.”
In other words, McPhee expects what many do: activity sparked by the looming threat of the draft. More so than when Columbus and Minnesota drafted together in 2000, the current rules should help the unnamed Vegas team field an initially competitive roster; at least one exposed defenseman and two forwards, for instance, must have played in 40 games this season or at least 70 over the past two. Teams can choose between two options in protecting their players—eight skaters and one goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie—but will look to recoup assets rather than lose others to expansion for nothing.
“Things are going to look a lot different in June than they are now,” says Andrew Lugerner, Las Vegas’s director of hockey legal affairs and its resident cap specialist. “Obviously teams are going to make moves based on the draft. Last time they had expansion draft, there wasn’t a salary cap. I think that will change the dynamic of things.”
Also potentially beneficial: In the window leading to the draft deadline, Vegas can speak with and sign pending unrestricted and restricted free agents who have been left unprotected, though McPhee expressed hesitance at traveling that road too far. “We haven’t put a lot of stock into that,” he says. “I don't know how many free agents we want to be signing. There’s a time for that. You build teams with good drafting, not overspending or giving too much term.”
According to the rules, Las Vegas must pick $43.8 million in total salary, or 60 percent of the current $73 million cap, which McPhee says “isn’t a hard number to hit.” Besides, it’s expected that other teams will propose side deals to Vegas, offering other assets in exchange for certain unprotected players going undrafted. “We will be [talking], certainly,” McPhee says. “There will be a lot of discussions. It’ll be a busy time.”
Indeed, Vegas will actually draft twice in four days, first from its offices northwest from downtown, and then on June 23-24 in Chicago. There, with lottery odds equivalent to the third-worst team, McPhee’s outfit will pick no lower than sixth overall at the entry-level draft. In the event of a jackpot, the likely No. 1 choice would be Brandon Wheat Kings forward Nolan Patrick, whose coach last season, Kelly McCrimmon, now works as McPhee’s assistant GM.
Last week, McPhee, McCrimmon and the amateur staff convened in Plymouth, Mich. for the under-18 Five Nations Tournament, holding daily meetings until 2 p.m. before the games started at 3. “A lot of experienced people, just good veteran scouts that know what they’re talking about, and a lot of low-ego people who speak their minds and give us their opinions on players,” McPhee says. “They’re comfortable in their own skin. They don’t argue. There’s no grandstanding. They get to the point, and they do it well.”
The tasks never stop coming, either. A week ago, McPhee called while riding on a southbound Amtrak from New York City, having met with NHL officials on a variety of topics. “Just talking about plane service, which charter, which company we’ll use,” he says. “Touching on uniforms a little bit. Clarification on expansion rules.”
Back at team headquarters, according to McPhee, both Lugerner and Tom Poraszka, the founder of GeneralFanager.com recently hired as a hockey operations analyst, have been paying particular attention to the expansion draft process. “A lot of issues come up on a regular basis that I’m constantly fielding questions about,” says Lugerner, a former lawyer who interned with the Washington Capitals for two seasons during McPhee’s tenure as GM. “Wouldn’t want to give away my hand too much. Interpretation, strategy, all sorts of things.”
Still, the element of unpredictability remains. Who will be available on June 17? What will be pitched after? And what will Las Vegas look like come 5:01 p.m. on June 20? As the clock ticks, then, the only thing to do is keep preparing for the future. “What we don’t want are surprises,” McPhee says. “It all has to be automatic.”