An expansion draft is more or less the NHL’s answer to a yard sale. The items on offer are inexpensive and potentially of no interest to anyone. Or, they are overpriced baubles that the owner wants to get rid of because they take up space in the house.
Whichever type of players the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights select on Wednesday will begin to shape the brand-new team’s roster. The team will take one player from each NHL team in the league’s first expansion draft in nearly two decades. This week, the 30 existing franchises submitted their protected-player lists — teams could shield a designated number of players from the draft1 — and the Golden Knights will get their pick of the rest.
To get a sense for what kind of talent is available at the Knights’ perusal, we plotted out each player’s goals above replacement2 against his salary-cap hit from last season:
To nobody’s surprise, the best players — expensive or not — tend to be protected by their current teams. With 15.7 goals above replacement, Washington’s T.J. Oshie was the most productive unprotected player last season, though he’s also an unrestricted free agent and the Knights will still need to reach a deal with him (which may be a hard sell for a team that’s unlikely to compete). At the other end of the spectrum, we can also see teams trying to pawn off unproductive players with bad contracts on the Golden Knights. The Boston Bruins, for instance, would love nothing more than for Vegas to claim Matt Beleskey and his $3.8-million-a-year salary, which equated to only three goals last season. The other 30 teams are basically using the expansion draft as an NHL version of the NBA’s “Allan Houston Rule.”3
It remains to be seen if any of those gambits end up working. For what it’s worth, most of the various online mock drafts call for the Golden Knights to focus mainly on relatively young, inexpensive talent — aside from the popular picks of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, forward James Neal and defenseman Marc Methot (each of whom will be 30 or older when the season starts and not particularly cheap). The Knights are also reportedly accepting trades that will net them draft picks in exchange for avoiding certain players in the expansion pool. The strategy of building a team from scratch is always fascinating, particularly for the first expansion club of the salary-cap era.
If Vegas is anything like its expansion ancestors of the 1990s and early 2000s, it won’t be very good in its inaugural season. The average expansion club since 1991 won only 34 percent of the points available in its games and was outscored by 1.0 goals per game. But those teams have also occasionally managed to snag some pretty good players in the expansion draft, both in terms of skaters (Brian Bradley, Geoff Sanderson) and between the pipes (John Vanbiesbrouck, Guy Hebert). Just as Fleury lost his job in Pittsburgh to Matt Murray, Vanbiesbrouck became expendable to the New York Rangers with the emergence of Mike Richter. Twenty-four years later, maybe the Golden Knights will find similar steals with their picks Wednesday night, turning Fleury into the next Beezer.