Over the next four days, Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee will chart a course for his expansion franchise that will be crucial to both the short- and long-term futures of the organization. He could choose to load up on established NHL talent to be respectable right away, he could swing deals for futures and picks that will hurt in the short-term and may pay off in the long run or he can straddle both worlds to build his team.
Having the most favorable access to players gives McPhee the ability to do as he pleases. And it also gives the Golden Knights the option of having it both ways by putting together a competitive NHL roster and stocking up picks and players for future use. It’s a great position to be in, one that probably at least a third of the established teams in the league wish they were in right about now.
If reports are correct, the Golden Knights could have as many as three picks in the first round of this year’s draft, simply by agreeing to stay away from certain players who have been left unprotected. (Although we’d recommend he defer those picks to 2018 or beyond if he can.) McPhee has already said he has at least a half-dozen such deals in place and will manipulate the process so the Golden Knights extract as much out of this exercise as they can.
There seems to be a notion out there that McPhee should take advantage of the honeymoon period his team has and wheel and deal his way to 31st place in the NHL for the next couple of seasons to maximize his chances of winning the lottery and getting the first overall pick. Yeah, that’s one way to do it, but it’s a dangerous game in a non-hockey market, one that has the potential to set a team up for years and years of losing and a really, really bad product.
And here’s the thing, it doesn’t even really work. The only time you want to tank is when there is a truly generational talent on the line such as Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. Because if it were simply a matter of being bad and stockpiling high draft picks, it would not have taken the Columbus Blue Jackets almost two decades to have a consistently competitive team. If that were the case, the Arizona Coyotes would be a league powerhouse instead of an outfit wandering through the desert with a perpetual plan for the future but zero direction for the present.
Let’s put it this way. Ask any fan of the Blue Jackets whether he/she would rather have his/her team’s overall record or that of the Blue Jackets’ expansion brother, the Minnesota Wild. It’s funny because you would have thought that being a market with established hockey roots, the Wild would have had the luxury of a slow build, with the Jackets needing to be better early. But the opposite was the case. The Wild went out and hired one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jacques Lemaire and built a roster that could compete in the NHL with many others and the result was that they were in the Western Conference final in their third year of existence. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, took the bad-to-be-good route and ended up missing the playoffs in each of their first seven seasons. In 16 seasons of play, their fans have no idea what a second-round playoff game resembles. The Blue Jackets had top-10 picks in each of their first eight drafts, got a guy who was supposed to be their franchise player in Rick Nash in Year 2, then proceeded to stumble around for more than a decade.
And these generational players don’t come along every couple of years, otherwise they wouldn’t be generational players. And we usually know they’re on their way to the NHL long before they get there. People had identified McDavid as a future NHL star when he was a bantam-aged player playing midget hockey in Toronto. Sidney Crosby was on everyone’s radar at a time when he was firing pucks at his family’s dryer in Cole Harbour. To be able to time you’re cycle to take advantage of a true franchise player is almost impossible to do.
So if McPhee does indeed straddle between putting a competitive team on the ice and building for futures, that’s absolutely the best way to go. Because the success or lack of success the Knights ultimately have are going to be on the strength of two things – ownership and management. Has always been and will always be that way. To be sure, that’s going to dictate the future a lot more than tanking a couple of years for a high pick in the draft.
The Golden Knights should not only not be afraid of success, they should embrace it.
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