So, there really will be hockey in the desert come October.
Last Wednesday the Vegas Golden Knights took the first firm steps — and a couple wobbly ones — toward franchise stability with a flurry of picks and trades at the expansion draft/NHL awards banquet at T-Mobile Arena in Sin City.
As in expansions past, there was a lot of hype entering this event, and some of it was even lived up to.
The Golden Knights, helmed capably by GM George McPhee, made Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury the centerpiece of their acquisition activity, followed closely by forward James Neal.
Otherwise, McPhee wheeled and dealed to add players through trades (some of which were salary dump) and draft picks.
On Friday night, the Golden Knights had the sixth overall pick in the entry draft and selected Cody Glass of the Portland Winterhawks, followed by the 13th pick (Nick Suzuki) and the 15th pick (Erik Brannstrom).
The make-up of this team is intriguing and we have given grades to who we think could be starters on this team going forward (also-rans listed as honorable mentions). There will be 12 forwards, six defencemen and two goaltenders.
20. Marc-Andre Fleury, G – Grade B+
The selection of Marc-Andre Fleury was a foregone conclusion before the dispersal draft. He had to waive the NTC on his $5.75 million per year contract, however, the writing was on the wall long ago. We are only giving this acquisition a B+, however, based on Fleury’s age (32, he’ll be 33 in November) and for the mild decline in his game. He was a middling regular season netminder, going 18-10-7 in 38 games, with a very pedestrian 3.02 goals against average and .909 save percentage. The six-time all-star played well to start the playoffs, with a couple of cracks, but lost the starter’s job to Matt Murray after game three of the Eastern Conference finals, when he was beaten on four of nine shots in the first period. He’ll start in Vegas, but it remains to be seen how he’ll perform in a new situation.
19. Calvin Pickard, G – Grade C
The starting job may not automatically go to Marc-Andre Fleury, if Calvin Pickard has anything to say about it. However, we thought the Golden Knights would have at least taken a run at Detroit’s Petr Mrazek or at least New York’s Antti Raanta (now with Arizona). Mrazek was more expensive at $4 million, but the excellent back-up Raanta cost the same as Pickard ($1 million cap hit). Pickard stacks up all right, but posted below average numbers on a defensively suspect team in 2016-17. He lost a league high 31 games (15-31-2) and had a 2.98 GAA and .904 save percentage. Raanta, for the record, was 16-8-2, 2.26 and .922. Worth mentioning: Third goalie Jean-Francois Berube is Chicago Wolves (AHL affiliate) fodder, for the time being.
18. Marc Methot, D – Grade B+
Getting Marc Methot to play D in Sin City was a move for the now. He is Vegas’ highest priced rearguard, but doesn’t hurt them in any way going forward. The team is on the hook for his $4.9 million cap hit for the next two seasons, taking him to age 34 and either another one/two season deal, or left to UFA uncertainty. He’s a solid yet unspectacular defenceman who does the little things right and will be an assistant captain, at minimum. In 68 games this past season, he had 12 assists, was +13, logged 164 hits and blocked 77 shots. He was a workhorse in the playoffs, too, scoring twice and adding two assists in 18 games for the upstart Senators. He played over 22 minutes per game and had 80 hits and a +5. A good, solid selection.
17. Shea Theodore, D – Grade A
As a consolation prize for not selecting one of either Sami Vatanen or Josh Manson from Anaheim, the Ducks’ young Shea Theodore was a good consolation prize. The Ducks traded Theodore to the Golden Knights so that they wouldn’t pick Vatanen/Manson. As it was, Vegas had already taken cast-off Clayton Stoner, who will either be packaged up and moved out or start the season in the minors. Theodore is very intriguing, in that he is just 21, has decent size (6’2″, 195 lbs.) and can be a power play quarterback. After nine points in 34 regular season games, Theodore had eight point (two goals) in just 14 playoff contests. He was +1 and blocked 19 shots in 17:25 average ice time. He is a puck-moving stud for the future.
16. Nate Schmidt, D – Grade A-
For now, the Golden Knights’ selection of Schmidt gets an A-, as he played on a very good team in Washington and will be tested severely with a middling squad in the desert. In the last two seasons, the former NCAA free agent signee has taken his game to another level and at age 25, he’s entering his prime. He’s got wheels to spare and showed it in the playoffs, making opponents back off when he lugged the puck up the ice. At 6’0″ and 191 lbs. he is averaged sized and may take more pounding in Vegas, as he’s sure to get top-four minutes (well past his 16 minutes average in the regular and post-seasons). He had 17 points in 60 games (+22) and then another four points in 11 post-season tilts (+6). Another solid puck-mover for coach Gerard Gallant.
15. Colin Miller, D – Grade B+
Kudos to George McPhee for pilfering the inexpensive, but sound Colin Miller from the Boston Bruins. For just $1 million this season, the Golden Knights get a second/third pair defender capable of playing in all situations. In 103 regular season games to date, the 24-year-old former fifth round pick has nine goals and 20 assists, along with an even rating in just under 16 minutes average playing time. He’s not a big hitter (130 career) but did log great possession numbers in 2016-17 (60.3 Corsi For). There is much to like in this young blueliner, who pushes fellow fringe acquisitions like Griffin Reinhart (Edmonton) and Jake Bischoff (Islanders) down the depth chart.
14. Brayden McNabb, D – Grade B
There will be a battle at Vegas’ training camp for third pair and reserve defence positions and McNabb will fight it out with the likes of Luca Sbisa (465 games experience), Jon Merrill (216 games), Deryk Engelland (469 games) and maybe even Alexei Emelin if he isn’t traded before the season starts. We like McNabb among all these similarly skilled defencemen, in that he is still just 26 and plays a great all around game. In 201 games with the L.A. Kings over the last three seasons, McNabb has scored six goals and 36 assists, played just under 17 minutes per game, recorded 491 hits, 205 blocked shots and a +23. He has excellent size at 6’4″, 212 lbs. and has been a possession hawk logging a 58.1 Corsi For.
13. Jason Garrison, D – C+
Jason Garrison will be the kind of veteran defenceman the Golden Knights can lean on to be a player-coach type, particularly for first round draft pick Erik Brannstrom (15th overall), once he makes the big club. We are giving Garrison’s selection only a C+, in that the Knights could have had up-and-comer Jake Dotchin, who had 11 assists in 35 games with Tampa and was +10. Garrison, who scored 30 points for Tampa just three seasons ago (2014-15), dipped to a career low nine points in 70 games this past year, along with a -8 rating. He is still a valuable defenceman, but will be pushed hard by fellow veterans Deryk Engelland, Alexei Emelin and Luca Sbisa for third-pair/seventh defenceman minutes.
12. Cody Glass, F – Grade B+
With the sixth pick in the entry draft, GM George McPhee made a solid pick, even though higher ranked North American skaters and centermen Gabriel Vilardi (11th to Los Angeles), Casey Mittelstadt (eighth to Buffalo) and Michael Rasmussen (9th to Detroit) were still available. We will give McPhee, who had a pretty decent track record selecting players not in the top 5 during his time in Washington (i.e. Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetzov and Tom Wilson). In Glass, the Golden Knights, sure to be a bit offensively challenged, might have a NHL-ready player. Glass, who scored 94 points in his sophomore season with Portland and has the size 6’2″, 180 lbs. and the two-way ability (+31), will get a long look in training camp down the middle and most likely the nine-game tryout. He’ll be tough to send back to junior, we think.
11. James Neal, F – Grade A
Ladies and Gentlemen, your Vegas Golden Knights’ captain, James Neal. The veteran left winger will be asked to carry the mail for the Knights in their inaugural season and we can’t think of a better candidate. After a good, but not great, regular season, we envision greater things for the veteran of 632 NHL games. With just one year left on a deal that pays him $5 million annually, Neal will likely get a playing time boost from the 17:42 he logged this past season, where he scored 23 goals and added 18 assists in 70 games. In just over 19 minutes of playing time in 2015-16, Neal had 58 points in 82 games. It’s an “A” grade for George McPhee, in that it was pretty much a given and that he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on selecting the best forward available.
10. Vadim Shipachyov, F – B+
Before the expansion draft, McPhee made one of those free agent signings who could turn out to be very “Artemi Panarin-like.” Shipachyov, 30, has been toiling in the KHL since 2005-06. Never drafted, the native of Cherepovets is a late bloomer who has only gotten better as he’s gotten older. In 50 games for powerhouse St. Petersburg SKA, the talented pivot scored career highs in goals (26), assists (50) and points (76). Shipachyov also chipped in 20 points in 17 playoff games and another 13 points in 10 games at the IIHF world championships. Gerard Gallant’s job going forward will be to get Shipachyov the proper linemates (i.e. Russian national team linemate Nikita Gusev) to complement him.
9. Nikita Gusev, F – Grade A-
While Shipachyov cost the Golden Knights nothing in terms of trade value, his IIHF World’s linemate Gusev brought even more value in an expansion day trade. For not picking the likes of Slater Koekkoek or Jake Dotchin, McPhee got Gusev, 2017 second rounder and a 2018 fourth-rounder in a deal with Bolts’ GM Steve Yzerman. Gusev, who was drafted 202nd overall in 2012 by the Lightning, is one of those late bloomers like Shipachyov, albeit five years younger (Gusev will be 25 in July). Since being drafted, the smallish Gusev played six seasons in the KHL, the last two with Shipachyov in St. Petersburg. The two were linemates and Gusev enjoyed a career year in 2016-17, reaching highs in goals (24), assists (47) and points (71) in a career best 57 games. He was a beast in the playoffs, recording 23 points in 18 games and then finished fourth at the IIHF worlds with 14 point (seven goals) in 10 games. A nice pick-up for McPhee and the Knights.
8. Reilly Smith, F – Grade B
The deal to get Smith at the expansion draft would have netted a better grade from us had he posted 2015-16 numbers. However, the Golden Knights did relieve the Panthers of two premier playmakers in Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, so it is a win. Smith, though, will cost the Golden Knights $5 million under the cap until 2021-22. They better hope then, that his mediocre 2016-17 season was an aberration. After scoring 25 goals and 25 assist in 82 games (+19) in 2015-16, Smith regressed this past season, scoring just 15 times and adding 22 assists in 80 games (-13). Just about every number was down for Smith in 2016-17, yet he’s still just 26 with plenty of upside. He’ll be on one of the top two lines, for certain.
7. Jonathan Marchessault, F – Grade A-
A mere $750,000 against the cap (for one season) could net the Golden Knights at least 20 goals in 2017-18. The only downside to drafting Jonathan Marchessault off the Panthers’ roster is the fact he’s another small body like Lightning cast-off Nikita Gusev. Marchessault, all 5’9″ and 174 lbs. of him, fired a career high 30 goals and added 21 assists in 75 games for the ‘Cats in 2016-17. A bargain, any way it’s sliced. The downside is he was a terrible -21 and at a size disadvantage, he’ll need to be placed with huskier linemates to shield his defensive deficiencies. This transaction would have netted a much better grade (like an A+) as we believe Marchessault’s numbers could go either way. It was just his first full season and on a non-playoff team, those lofty scoring totals may be a mirage.
6. Cody Eakin, F – Grade B+
Of all the players made available by Dallas, Vegas got the one we believe had the most value. Eakin is in his prime at 26, plays a solid two-way game down the middle and is ideally suited for third-line minutes. He had a bit of a down year offensively with a moribund Dallas franchise, scoring just 12 points and a -7 in 60 games. Yet, the six-year veteran had his best season on the face-off dot, winning 524 of 1,001 draws. With a renewed commitment to defence (and better goaltending behind him than Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen), Eakin should get back to the average 37 points he had in the three previous campaigns to the last one. A very astute pick-up, in our opinion.
5. William Karlsson, F – Grade B
Swedish import Karlsson had a career year in 2016-17, blossoming in a third/fourth line role for coach of the year John Tortorella in Columbus. His grade would be higher, for the fact that his numbers could have been inflated due to the Blue Jackets having a monster year. He scored 25 points and was +10 in 81 games, one year after recording 20 points and a -9 in the same number of games. As a center, the 24-year-old native of Marsta, Sweden has a lot of work to do on the dot. He won just 435 of 960 draws (45.3 percent) and holds a career face-off percentage of 45.4. For a decent sized guy, too, he’s not overly physical (just 35 hits last year). He’s still a work-in-progress who will slot as the fourth line center, most likely.
4. Erik Haula, F – Grade B
Erik Haula won’t hurt the Golden Knights, nor will he really electrify that many paying customers. He was a nice quiet pick-up, however, we can’t help but feel McPhee could have hit more of a home run with his pick off the Wild roster. Giant center Martin Hanzal (6’6″), is a free agent they could have plucked (though they might yet) who made $3.1 million last season and scored 20 goals (39 points) in 71 games. Haula, 26, did score a career high 15 goals in 72 games, along with a +5 and will cost Vegas $2.75 million against the cap until 2019-20. He is a centerman and did win 53.9 percent of his face-offs (404 of 750). It will be interesting where the Pori, Finland native slots in to the mix (third line? fourth line?) when all is said and done in training camp.
3. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, F – Grade C
French national Bellemare could be considered one of those picks who’ll never rise above fourth-line status, but give the Golden Knights a premier checking line center (or winger). At 31, he’s a bit on the old side and will make $1.45 million a year for the next two seasons to play a checking role. In 237 games with the Flyers, he scored 17 goals and 17 assists and registered a -12. He is a puck hawk, having stripped opponents of the disc 93 times, while giving it away just 56 times. The grade is low here because Vegas could have had more offensively gifted players in 28-year-old Michael Raffl ($2.35 million cap hit), or UFA Chris VandeVelde (who was making league minimum).
2. David Perron, F – Grade B-
We think there is a reason the Blues left David Perron open to being selected in the expansion draft and it has to do with the fact he’s played for four different teams in the last three seasons. However, for $3.75 million until the end of the 2017-18 campaign, he will provide a robust presence down the left side for the Golden Knights. He did have a bounce back year in 2016-17, playing a full 82-game slate for the first time since 2009-10 and ringing up over 40 points for the first time since 2014-15. Perron had 18 goals and 28 assists, while logging a -2 for the Blues. The long season must have wore on him, though, as the 29-year-old registered but one assist in 11 playoff games. Thus, the Golden Knights will need to be careful where he is slotted in the line-up, so as not to burn him out.
1. Oscar Lindberg, F – Grade B
Lindberg, yet another center, was a good selection by McPhee, but there is a wild card and it’s his prospective salary. An RFA who made league minimum, he’ll be due a fairly sizable raise. In a fourth-line role with the Rangers, he scored 20 points in 65 games (averaging under 11 minutes per game) and won 299 of 575 draws (52 percent). The 25-year-old Skelleftea, Sweden born Lindberg was +14 career for the Rangers and ended up with 48 points in 134 games. He was pretty good in the post-season for the Blueshirts this spring, scoring three times and adding an assist in 12 games (+3). Lindberg will battle it out with a few up-and-comers for ice time this fall.