Inside the Vegas Golden Knights' NHL expansion draft war room
- Mere hours from the franchise's NHL expansion draft, the Vegas Golden Knights opened their war room to Sports Illustrated.
LAS VEGAS — At the horseshoe-shaped table inside the war room, amid the jangling cellphones and a whiteboard updating more often than Penn Station departure screens, Bill Foley watches and waits for history. From his perch next to general manager George McPhee and assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon, the Vegas Golden Knights’ owner is probably more enthusiastic fan than professional talent evaluator, more bystander than decision-maker. But he contributed millions for the front-row view: $500 million in expansion fees, to be exact, mostly pulled from his many business coffers.
So he will enjoy the process as he pleases. “This is a lot of fun,” Foley says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to be down there and be in the middle of this.”
Over the past two-plus days, at the team’s temporary headquarters in suburban Summerlin, an NHL roster has booted into existence. As Foley retreated to his upstairs office, roughly 40 hours remained until Wednesday morning’s submission deadline. But the Golden Knights have been preparing ever since McPhee became the franchise’s first hockey operations hire in July 2016. McPhee likes to compare it with studying for a test. After almost one full year geared toward this moment, Foley says, “we’re trying to not to wait until the last minute. No one wants to stay up all night, and we’re so far along.”
Certain names were no-brainers once the protection lists arrived Sunday, all but scribbled in Sharpie on the whiteboard. Some crystallized after discussion among the scouts and hockey analysts in the room, just like they had at five previous mock drafts spread throughout the season. “The knowledge base down in that room is pretty phenomenal,” Foley says, “relative to knowing every player that’s available and what they’re like, down to who their family is, are they married, do they have kids, what their parents are like … it’s a pretty sophisticated operation we’re running.”
Others resulted from side deals brokered by McPhee, the soft-spoken Juris Doctor who pretty much plopped 30 horse heads onto his colleagues’ pillows by delivering this message through reporters: “You can negotiate your way out of this if you wish.”
Plenty GMs indeed tried to save players from getting claimed; might as well see how Don George can help you in return. So far, as the venerable Bob McKenzie recently tweeted, several are believed to have succeeded. “He’s the most important guy in the NHL right now,” Foley says. When he called SI.com, the owner estimated that Vegas had already decided on 15 teams, whether including a trade or simply a straight-up selection. “We’ve circled them and done the deals,” Foley said. “Now we’re moving down the line.” (McPhee declined to comment at his most recent daily gaggle, citing the desire to preserve mystery before the names get announced during the NHL awards ceremony Wednesday night.)
And the further Vegas moves down the line, the more its roster’s makeup takes shape. The Golden Knights should be strong in goal, particularly provided they draft and keep Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, as expected. The capabilities of their blue line somewhat hinges on agreements with Anaheim and Minnesota, both of whom left young, talented defensemen unprotected. But McPhee told reporters that he anticipates winding up with a surplus of them anyway, and could flip some immediately after the expansion draft. “We’re not going to be a contender next year or the year after,” Foley says, “but we’re going to have a respectable team.”
The greater challenge for McPhee comes in balancing a short-term desire to compete during Vegas’ inaugural season—if not for a Stanley Cup, at least in individual games—with long-term goals to construct a sustainable winner. “I think we’ve all decided jointly and independently that we’re going to build for the future, we’re going to build from the goal out and the bottom up,” Foley says. “We’re trying to stock the team with 20-year-olds, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. We’re going younger if anything, with a few veterans, That’s where we’re lining up.”
Side deals will accomplish this too, of course. And if draft picks were poker chips, McPhee will soon be sitting behind a nice stack. According to Foley, discussions with teams about getting extra selections have ranged from this weekend’s entry draft in Chicago, all the way out to 2020, for which no spots have yet been swapped. “It’s complicated,” Foley says. “But we’re harvesting from every team. It’s a chess game.”
The rest of the organization, meanwhile, is chugging along just as fast. Down the hall from the war room, the amateur scouts hold meetings about prospects, so McPhee often pops by to chat. Not far away, the practice facility is slated to finish construction before the start of September. Last month, ROOT Sports was chosen to televise Golden Knights games. Their gray and white jerseys were unveiled Tuesday night. Almost exactly one year after the NHL’s Board of Governors voted to approve Foley’s expansion application, announcing their decision in a ballroom at the Wynn Las Vegas, he will join them for his first meeting on Wednesday. And...
...Foley cuts himself off.
“Hey, listen, I’ve got to run back down there,” he says. “We’re in the middle of talking to a team.”