The announcement was a mere formality, but it was exciting to hear NHL commissioner Gary Bettman make it official in December: Seattle had been awarded the league’s 32nd franchise. Thanks to some construction demands at the Seattle Center Arena and, reading between the lines, the threat of a 2020-21 lockout, we won’t see the yet-to-be-nicknamed squad on the ice until 2021-22. But speculation will swirl immediately on what that team will look like when it finally does debut.
We already know Seattle will be subject to the same expansion draft rules as the Vegas Golden Knights were in 2017. The Knights are exempt, so Seattle will choose players from 30 teams, eventually paring that list down to 14 skaters, nine defensemen and three goaltenders. The AAVs of its player claims must add up to at least 60 percent of the league’s salary cap. The other 30 teams will have the same options for protecting players: seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goaltender. Theoretically then, under the same rules, Seattle’s future GM will have a chance to build a competitive squad just as George McPhee did.
There’s reason to expect significantly tougher sledding for Seattle, however. Teams went out of their way to protect certain players in 2017, mortgaging some valuable roster capital and seriously augmenting Vegas’ roster in the process. To assist the Minnesota Wild by not plucking away any of its blueliners, McPhee “settled” for Erik Haula and a trade gifting Vegas right winger Alex Tuch, a 2014 first-rounder. And McPhee did the Anaheim Ducks “a solid” by acquiring 2013 first-rounder Shea Theodore as a side deal in exchange for not stealing Josh Manson or Sami Vatanen. Tuch and Theodore are now crucial long-term building blocks for Vegas, both signing seven-year extensions this season.
Might we thus see GMs play things more conservatively this time around and try to avoid loading up Seattle the way teams did Vegas? Well, it’s not that simple. Sure, Tuch and Theodore stand out as big mistakes, but in each case, they were casualties from contending teams that didn’t want to destroy their ability to win in the moment. Neither player had secured a heavy-responsibility role on his team yet. So we can’t assume that no teams will dangle prospects to protect their veterans in 2021. Similar situations will arise. “Maybe some teams who spent some assets in the last go-around choose not to spend assets, but then teams that didn’t spend any assets might have more assets and then choose to spend to protect those assets,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland.
Added Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen: “We’re in a business where we have to predict the future performance of human beings, and that’s a very inexact science. Whether you regret some of the decisions you made in the Las Vegas expansion draft doesn’t mean you can make better decisions in the next one and learn from the past.
“I’ve been in amateur scouting for 15 years before this job, and I know it’s even harder to predict the future with (prospects). You have to make a decision on players based on the performance they’ve had and what your projection is for them. It’s not always going to go exactly how you planned.”
Vegas didn’t just benefit from side deals, of course. The Golden Knights also struck gold with their actual expansion-draft picks on castoffs such as Jonathan Marchessault. He’s a rare case in which foresight was 20/20, as he’d already hit the 30-goal plateau with the Florida Panthers when they inexplicably exposed him. But for every Marchessault, there was also a William Karlsson, who’d never topped nine goals in a season before exploding for 43 after the Golden Knights claimed him. How can we predict that Seattle won’t find another Karlsson when no one could’ve predicted him doing what he did? As Kekalainen puts it, find him someone who wrote down 43 goals before last season and that person should be hired immediately. He also doesn’t believe his team could’ve done anything differently. Columbus wasn’t going to protect a then-unproven Karlsson at the expense of a player such as Josh Anderson, for instance. “We were able to move David Clarkson’s contract, which is now, today, crucial for us when we’re looking at some of the future contracts we want to fit into our budget and salary-cap structure,” Kekalainen said. “If we still had that on the books, we’d be in deep trouble right now.”
In two-and-a-half years, bad contracts will still exist on many teams, as will talented players teeming with potential but failing to blossom in limited roles. So while, in theory, we can expect GMs to be more cautious negotiating with Seattle’s future GM, we must remember that many of the “wins” Vegas got at the expansion draft weren’t considered as such the day they happened. We couldn’t predict the future then, so why would we gain clairvoyance next time around? Plenty of NHL GMs will find themselves in roster pickles by 2021 – that’s something we’ve always been able to predict – and will thus likely seek some quid-pro-quo dealings with Seattle.