The announcement was a mere formality, but it was still exciting to hear NHL commissioner Gary Bettman make it official Tuesday: Seattle has 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 a number between 60 and 100 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, the playing field is the same as it was in 2017, meaning Seattle’s future GM will have a chance to build a surprisingly competitive squad just as George McPhee did.
But will the similarities stop there? When the actual expansion draft arrives, there’s reason to expect significantly tougher sledding for Seattle. 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 landing 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 away Josh Manson or Sami Vatanen. Tuch and Theodore are now crucial long-term building blocks for Vegas, both signing seven-year extensions this season. Meanwhile, Minnesota traded away Marco Scandella and Anaheim dealt Vatanen.
Might we thus see GMs play things more conservatively this time 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 no teams dangle their 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 in a phone conversation Wednesday.
“We’re in a business where we have to predict the future performance of human beings, and that’s a very inexact science,” added Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen over the phone Wednesday. “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.”
The Golden Knights didn’t just benefit from side deals, of course. They 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 when the Florida Panthers 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. They weren’t going to protect a then-unproven Karlsson at the expense of a player like Josh Anderson, for instance.
“We were able to move away 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. Heck, look at Josh Leivo. He took one game to go from Toronto Maple Leafs fourth-liner to scoring a goal as a first-liner in his first game as a Vancouver Canuck this week. It's entirely possible if not probable Seattle unearths a few more gems like that.
So while, in theory, we can expect GMs to be more cautious negotiating with Seattle’s next 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 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.
“My philosophy about my team is going to be similar to the one I had in Las Vegas, but I can’t tell you it’s not going to be different if all of a sudden many of our young players turn out to be much better than they are today, and you might want to try and protect them,” Holland said.