An expansion draft is a time of change in any sports league. Adding a new franchise shakes up the routine, creating immediate buzz, speculation, and hype about what the future will be for not only the new guys but also your team of choice.
The Vegas Golden Knights expansion was an interesting time for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite missing the 2017 Playoffs by a single point, the Bolts were still seen as one of the franchises to beat, with a roster full of talent that carried them to at least Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2015 and 2016.
Due to this depth, the franchise had some prime talent for the Golden Knights to draw from. From budding first-round picks to veteran players who could start on day one, there were a number of Lightning players that could have been the right choice for Vegas at the time.
Knowing this, then Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman decided to be proactive, swinging a trade with the Golden Knights to help influence their final selection. This wasn’t uncommon, of course, with many general managers using Vegas to shed unwanted contracts.
As the Golden Knights approach their fourth year in the NHL, let’s look back at how the Lightning handled the expansion draft and see what they can learn while planning for the Seattle Kraken to enter the league.
Lightning Traded Futures to Shed a Contract
Heading into the expansion draft, it was clear that Yzerman wanted to keep as many young prospects as possible while shedding a veteran contract to open up some valuable cap space for the future. To do this, he traded forward Nikita Gusev, a 2017 second-round pick, and a 2018 fourth-rounder to Vegas so they would select veteran defenseman, Jason Garrison.
The thought process behind this move was simple for Tampa Bay. Garrison was an aging defenseman who no longer looked ready to take on NHL ice-time for a competing team. In Vegas, however, he could act as a veteran bottom-pairing defender for a team that was expected to go through some growing pains.
As far as the picks, these were extras from the trade deadline. Heading into the draft, the Lightning had two second-rounders after they dealt Brian Boyle to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and two fourth-round selections when they shipped Mark Streit to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The biggest loss was Gusev, who had the trapping of a late-blooming Russian star after he had spent years playing against men in the KHL. However, there was uncertainty about if he would leave a lucrative career in Russia to take a chance on the NHL, meaning he was far from a certain thing for the Lightning.
In all, this was a costly move just to get out of an expensive contract, but it made sense in order to prevent the loss of a key starter.
How Has This Trade Aged for Tampa Bay and Vegas?
While the Lightning appeared to pay a steep price to rid themselves of Garrison’s contract, the move ultimately worked out for the team, especially when you look back at some of the trades made by other franchises at the time.
First up is Garrison, who spent the majority of the 2017-18 season in the AHL and only played in eight games with the Golden Knights. After that, he would join the Edmonton Oilers for 17 games in 2018-19 before spending some time in the SHL.
The other named player in the deal, Nikita Gusev, also didn’t stick with Vegas. After he led the KHL in scoring and won the 2018 most valuable player award, he briefly joined the franchise for their 2019 playoff run.
However, Gusev wouldn’t start in any games and was quickly traded to the New Jersey Devils in the offseason for a 2020 third-round and a 2021 second-round draft pick. In his first NHL season, Gusev played well for a bad Devils team, posting 13 goals and 44 points.
Now for the picks, the 2017 second-rounder was traded by the Golden Knights to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Keegan Kolesar, who is still playing in the AHL and developing his game. Finally, Vegas kept the 2018 fourth-rounder, using it to select Paul Cotter, who is also playing in the AHL.
Lightning Navigated the 2017 Expansion Draft Wisely
As always, hindsight is 20/20. If the Lightning knew then what they knew now, they would have just kept their assets and let the Golden Knights take one of their exposed players, as none of the names on that list would develop into a star.
However, looking back on the move the Lightning made, it worked out relatively well. Garrison was at the end of his career, and instead of eating the final year of his contract, they managed to clear that cap-space.
The assets they did give up were meaningful, but mainly involved assets that Tampa Bay had multiples of anyways. Plus, it seems unlikely that the Lightning would be able to afford a player like Gusev right now, meaning that he would have been traded or never come to play in North America anyway.
This all means that Tampa Bay have an idea of how they should approach the 2021 expansion draft. They know that there is an opportunity to shed a big contract, but they also know that they shouldn’t overpay for this service.
Because, as we now know, you can give up a lot at the expansion draft to protect a top-prospect, only to look back a few years down the road and realize that you paid someone else to select the best player available.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.