More than five years on, the 2017 Expansion Draft for the Vegas Golden Knights remains a popular talking point and with good reason. Thanks to the expert stewardship of then-general manager George McPhee through an unprecedented franchise-building opportunity, the draft served as a jumping-off point for the Golden Knights’ success – not only for the expansion Stanley Cup Final run but in all the years since.
As such, it’s understandable that fans would have a strong attachment to those core franchise originals, reacting strongly to the departure of draftees and draft-related acquisitions like Marc-André Fleury, Nate Schmidt and Alex Tuch. Given the roster churn in the club’s first five years, you could be forgiven for adopting the perspective that the organization has been cold and disloyal. In reality, though, the presence of the original roster remains strong within the current group.
Currently, there are still seven players still present from the expansion roster, including four (Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Brayden McNabb and William Carrier) taken directly from the draft. Remarkably, all seven have played key roles in Vegas’ return to contention here this season. Let’s break down the contributions of the “original seven” in helping the Golden Knights to their lofty status atop the Pacific Division standings:
Acquired: Expansion Draft, Los Angeles Kings
With McNabb, you know what you’re going to get. The rugged defenseman won’t score a lot of points, but he delivers hits, block shots and generally impede opponents. Those skills, which currently have the 31-year-old ranked third on the team in hits and tied for second in blocks, are well worth the $2.85 million in each of the next three years that he signed on for back in January.
On the surface, McNabb looks like a viable trade candidate. He’s south of 30, plays a position in which Vegas is plenty deep and holds a role that could probably be filled by allotting bigger roles to Zach Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague. However, the value of his contract, coupled with a style of play that should continue to age gracefully, gives GM Kelly McCrimmon little incentive to get rid of McNabb.
Acquired: Expansion Draft, Florida Panthers
There aren’t many all-time categories in which Marchessault doesn’t presently lead the franchise. The 31-year-old ranks first in games played, goals and assists, totals that only stand to go up as he continues to contribute at a high level. This year, he’s got seven goals and eight assists in 20 games as part of the reunited all-original ‘Misfit’ line with Reilly Smith and Karlsson.
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Marchessault will be the next Golden Knights original, whose future is up in the air, with a contract set to expire after next season. The winger will be 33 by then, but if he remains productive and can be retained at a reasonable cap figure, you’d have to figure that the club would love to have him finish his career in the desert.
Acquired: Trade, from the Florida Panthers in exchange for a 2018 fourth-round pick.
No one got hit as hard by the expansion draft as the Panthers, who dealt Smith to Vegas, largely to encourage them to draft Marchessault ahead of Jason Demers. Read that sentence again.
The long-time linemates have been franchise cornerstones over the past half-decade, both choosing to sign new contracts to remain with the Golden Knights. Smith was just re-upped this past summer, agreeing to a new three-year, $15 million deal. The 31-year-old is holding up his end of the contract thus far, sharing the team’s goal-scoring lead with Jack Eichel at 10 apiece. Even more importantly for a guy who missed 26 games a year ago, Smith has played in each of the team’s 20 games to date.
Acquired: Trade, from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for draft considerations.
When all is said and done, Shea Theodore may well be the last original left standing, owing to both his age (27) and outsized impact on the back end. It really makes you wonder what the Anaheim Ducks were thinking when they gave him up for nothing so that Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson wouldn’t be taken. Vatanen only played 15 more games in Anaheim and is now plying his trade in Switzerland, while Manson recorded 36 fewer points than Theodore last season in a year spent between the Ducks and Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
Focusing on Theodore, the offensive defenseman has three goals and 14 points this season, serving as one-half of one of the league’s most dynamic pairings alongside Alex Pietrangelo. But arguably his most significant value comes in a cap hit of just $5.2 million per season that carries through the 2024-25 campaign. Next up, perhaps an All-Star selection?
Acquired: Expansion Draft, Buffalo Sabres
Fresh off the first multi-goal game of his career on Monday, it’s time to give Carrier his due. It isn’t common to commit four-year contracts to fourth-liners, as Vegas did in 2020, but Carrier isn’t your typical fourth-line player. Whereas most grind line types are accustomed to playing without the puck and generally defending, the 27-year-old has been praised by head coach Bruce Cassidy for his puck possession and aggressive approach in the offensive zone.
The Golden Knights don’t really need Carrier to score goals, but they’ll certainly accept his six in 19 games thus far as a nice, welcome surprise. Even with two more seasons on his contract, the former Buffalo Sabre, whose expansion selection included a sixth-round draft pick sweetener so that Vegas would pass on Linus Ullmark, would seem relatively expendable as a depth forward. That said, being a favorite of the coach can only help.
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Acquired: Expansion Draft, Columbus Blue Jackets
Okay, so the 43 goals that Karlsson scored in that 2017-18 season were probably never realistically going to be replicated. Even with more modest offensive numbers, the Swedish center has brought value through his speed and defensive, two-way play. Sure, that eight-year, $47.2 million extension signed back in 2019 looks like an overpay after two sub-40 point seasons, but that felt like more of a problem last season when injuries and losses kept piling up.
This season, not only has the team seemingly turned the corner, but Karlsson has, as well. The team’s No. 2 center has four goals and 13 points in 20 games on the newly reunited ‘Misfit’ line. If the 29-year-old can keep up the pace, he will surpass the 50-point mark for the first time since 2018-19.
On most defensive depth charts around the league, Whitecloud would already have made a home for himself among the top four. In Vegas, however, he and Hague form something of an over-qualified third pairing, as there’s simply no space with a healthy blue line corps in front of them. That would seem to make them movable – and certainly, other clubs have attempted to pry them away – but Whitecloud remains a few days shy of his 26th birthday, and Hague is just 23.
In other words, there’s little incentive to move two young rearguards who provide valuable defensive insurance and can fill a void once McNabb, Pietrangelo or Alec Martinez eventually move on. To date, Whitecloud has managed just a goal and four points while averaging a shade over 16 minutes per night, an unfortunate byproduct of the organization’s tremendous in-season injury luck thus far.
While blockbuster additions like Eichel and Mark Stone and big-ticket free agents like Pietrangelo may dominate most categories among the club’s scoring leaders, the foundation of this team is very familiar to those who witnessed the unlikely rise of half a decade ago. Life moves fast, and NHL rosters constantly evolve, but these seven mainstays are still here and still contributing to a pretty good Golden Knights team.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.