The NHL is in the midst of a roster freeze for all teams except the Vegas Golden Knights. They’re eligible to initiate and consummate trades with other organizations, but only the Knights can officially announce all transactions during the expansion draft on Wednesday.
This is the first expansion draft in the salary cap era, which makes all general managers uneasy about what will take place. All of them are unsure of what players will be losted in the process. Thus, it could become the most unpredictable offseason in the history of the NHL.
Up Next is the Pacific Division
The Knights are studying the protected lists of their Pacific Division rivals, and each team is willing to make a side deal to prevent a key performer from leaving without getting something of value in return. Golden Knights GM George McPhee wants to stockpile assets because he envisions the core of the franchise being selected through the entry draft. Let the games begin.
Here are my flawless expansion draft predictions for the Pacific Division:
The speculation prior to the league-wide trade freeze last Saturday centered on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen and where he’ll play in the 2017-18 season. The talented offensive blueliner appears to be expendable, but the Orange County Register reported the Ducks have a deal in place with the Golden Knights for them not to select Vatanen or Josh Manson in the expansion draft. Vegas would receive a package of draft choices and prospects.
The Ducks have plenty of young talent, but its unrealistic to think they can protect them all. The Knights would be wise to select Nate Thompson, a solid two-way forward that elevates his game in the playoffs. The 10-year vet has scored 48 goals in 550 NHL regular season games, but he has netted seven goals in just 58 playoff games.
Thompson can help lead an inexperience expansion roster by showing the youngsters how to be productive and not a liability on the ice. Chances are good that he’ll be dealt at the trade deadline to a contender looking for much-needed forward depth.
The Edmonton Oilers would love to hand over a bad contract to the Golden Knights, but players like Benoit Pouliot show their value to a franchise come playoff time. Pouliot has two years remaining on his contract, and his ability to consistently put the puck in the net will keep him as a second-line performer in Edmonton for at least another season.
The Knights will pluck Griffin Reinhart from the Oilers, as he was the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The lure of Reinhart is that he’s a long-term fit on the blueline for many years to come in Vegas.
McPhee believes an expansion team needs a strong line of defense to give them any chance of success. Reinhart is getting rewarded with the opportunity of more playing time, which should help him develop into his true potential of a top-tier defenseman.
San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks are poised to lose a player not named Burns, Couture or Pavelski in the expansion draft. The roster is a disciplined group that can compete in any situation they found themselves on the ice. However after their top two lines, the Sharks roster isn’t very appealing.
The Golden Knights might have their eyes on a savvy veteran, who can help build the sport in a new town. McPhee will attempt to sign one of the most intriguing unrestricted free agents on the market today. Signing Patrick Marleau would be a smart decision for Vegas, even though his days of dominating in the offensive zone are over. Marleau’s value would be assisting with building the local interest in the franchise, and possibly replicating his past scoring production in brief spurts throughout the season.
The Calgary Flames did themselves a huge favor by leaving few enticing veterans available for the taking in the expansion draft. Each player isn’t flashy enough to catch the eyes of the fans, but their contributions each night do help preserve a win The only problem with this approach is the Flames also exposed some decent prospects that only need a chance to excel in the NHL.
The Golden Knights will select Hunter Shinkaruk, one of the few gems in the expansion draft. Shinkaruk was Calgary’s first-round draft pick in 2013, and scored 15 goals in the AHL last season. He has shown tremendous upside in the minors, now its time to see what he can do in the NHL. The Flames might have more players available that are prepared to play right now, but none of them have the high end potential like Shinkaruk. Plus, his contract is more cap friendly than a player like Troy Brouwer, who is an expensive ($4.5 million per year) salary cap hit until 2020.
Los Angeles Kings
At the first glance of the Los Angeles Kings unprotected list, you salivate at the quality of blueliners available in comparison to their forwards. McPhee has little interest in selecting Dustin Brown or Marian Gaborik because of their age and contract status.
In continuing to build a solid defense, the Knights will select Brayden McNabb, a prototypical clear-out defenseman in front of the net. Immediately, McNabb becomes a top-four defender with Vegas, and at 6’4″ and 215 pounds he isn’t afraid to mix it up with opponents or use his size advantage to break up scoring chances near the crease. McNabb’s biggest impact could be on the Knights penalty-killing unit as he knows how to clear the puck of the zone. Plus, Vegas needs at least 20 of their player selections to be under contract for next season, and McNabb helps fulfill that requirement.
The Golden Knights learned very quickly that the Arizona Coyotes unprotected list didn’t offer much value to their cause. The Coyotes top players are young and exempt from the expansion draft, but they took a major risk by making several key veterans available, which doesn’t make much sense. The Coyotes challenged the new divisional foe to choose carefully by going with the four forwards, four defensemen and one goaltender protected list format.
McPhee understands this selection screams out to select a bonafide goal scorer, and there’s no better candidate available than unrestricted free agent Radim Vabata. The 15-year veteran is coming off a 20-goal scoring campaign, and he’ll get plenty of opportunity to equal that number in Vegas next season. At least, the potential of this partnership is worth a meeting during the Golden Knights exclusive 72-hour negotiation window with free agents. You could see an agreement come quickly between the two parties for at least a two-year deal.
Three words describe the Vancouver Canucks protected list: no-move clause. The Sedin Twins and Loui Eriksson were exempt from the expansion draft because of they have no-move clauses in their contracts, but the Canucks had plenty to debate over the remaining spots. In the end, their protected list was straightforward, with little element of surprise.
The Knights will select Brendan Gaunce off the Canucks unprotected list. He’s a former 2012 first-round pick that has struggled badly in the NHL. Gaunce has been a solid goal scorer in the minors, but it hasn’t materialized in his time with the Canucks. Still, it’s worth to take a chance on him because of his versatility and the way he contributes in multiple roles on the ice. Gaunce doesn’t have to be flashy to stick in Vegas because having quality forward depth will be a key to surviving their inaugural season.
Thomas Conroy covers the Vegas Golden Knights for The Hockey Writers Network He has been writing about sports since 2007, first as a contributor for Bleacher Report and Football Nation. Recently, Conroy was a co-editor for the Bolts Beat website on Fansided. To read more his work, please him on Twitter @tsconroy