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Seattle’s expansion challenge: Vegas is a tough act to follow

The Golden Knights scored a winning roster and prospects aplenty in the expansion process. Seattle, the NHL’s anticipated next new team, won’t be so lucky.

(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the 2018 NHL Playoff Preview issue of The Hockey News. It has been edited for online purposes.)

When the NHL decided to expand to Vegas, most GMs were faced with a pick-your-poison scenario when it came to managing their rosters. Either they were going to lose a pretty good player or they were going to have to part with assets to keep that from happening. Some teams did the former, others the latter, and we’re seeing the results in a Golden Knights team that has both set records for expansion success and built up a cachet of futures that is the envy of many NHL clubs.

When the NHL expands – yes, we said when, not if – to Seattle, likely in time for 2020-21, teams will once again be faced with the same vexing decisions. But unlike last summer when GMs had to navigate the first expansion in 15 years and the most generous terms, they will have the benefit of hindsight this time around. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has already made it clear that should Seattle be chosen, it will receive precisely the same expansion rules the Golden Knights did, which should come as a surprise to no one. Or as New Jersey GM Ray Shero put it, “For $650 million, they certainly weren’t going to get anything less.”

So what will be the end result? Will teams be less inclined to make deals to protect players and instead allow Seattle to simply choose a player and move on? Will teams realize the Knights got Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault from Florida, along with Erik Haula and Alex Tuch from Minnesota, and perhaps shy away from making those deals?

Like last summer, it will depend on the situation the team is in with its roster. For the Wild, they couldn’t protect both Mathew Dumba and Jonas Brodin, so they dealt Tuch to Vegas as an incentive to take Haula and received a third-round pick in return. It’s a move that hasn’t been popular in Minnesota, but Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said he’d do it again. “We felt it was worth it to pay a price to keep those guys to go with (Jared) Spurgeon and (Ryan) Suter,” Fletcher said. “Three years from now we could be in a very different spot, but our goal was to protect our top four defensemen. They’re the strength of our team and the foundation of our team. We knew we had to pay a price, and we were willing to pay that price.”

St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong knew he was going to lose a good player and elected to expose David Perron, an above-average offensive player with a friendly cap hit, but one who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. “I think we would take the same approach of not giving assets away,” Armstrong said. “In the case of Vegas, for half a billion dollars, you probably should get some good players. Nobody expected Vegas to do what they’re doing, but I also think nobody wanted to see Vegas finish their first year with 45 points. That’s not good for anybody.”

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What GMs want more than anything is information, and they’ll have much more of it this time around. While it’s impossible to determine where the league’s finances will be at that time, chances are they won’t be dealing with an essentially flat salary cap the way they were in the summer of 2017. With more cap space at their disposal, they might not have to give up assets to get the new team to take on a contract. That’s what Tampa Bay did in trading a second- and fourth-round pick and prospect Nikita Gusev to Vegas for taking Jason Garrison’s contract. Gusev, meanwhile, finished second in KHL scoring this season and was the Olympic Athlete of Russia team’s top scorer in the Olympics. He has a year left on his deal, and the Golden Knights are very interested in having him in their organization when it expires. Columbus gave Vegas a first-round pick and William Karlsson to pick up David Clarkson’s salary, and Karlsson has emerged as one of the league’s biggest surprises and most dangerous goal-scorers.

Another aspect of player management that might be affected is no-move contracts, something the GMs were stunned to learn had to be protected in the last round of expansion. That forced a number of teams to protect players that they would rather have left exposed. It certainly won’t deter a team from offering John Tavares a no-movement clause if he hits the open market this summer, because the reality is that star players such as Tavares are always going to be protected anyway. “I don’t think it will give pause on no-movement clauses,” said Detroit GM Ken Holland, “but I do think it will give pause on no-movement clauses on middling players. I don’t think it will affect the high-end players at all.”

The Vegas situation has been a perfect storm for the NHL. It has been a great feel-good story, and players who were buried in other organizations are getting a chance to shine. Armed with more information and a history, GMs this time will be more prepared. “I guarantee you, we all learned something from this,” Armstrong said. “Probably the worst job in hockey will be the GM of Seattle.”