Just one more day, hockey fans, until the GM George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights announces the coveted names on the team’s expansion wish list.
The Golden Knights have until 10 a.m. on Wednesday to select 30 players, one from each team and including a minimum of 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies from the lists of unprotected players.
The list will be revealed at the 2017 NHL Awards and NHL Expansion Draft at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at 8 p.m. eastern time.
The speculation of just who McPhee will tab on his list has gone beyond rampant. The permutations and potential trades aren’t infinite, but they could make rival GMs a little antsy come Wednesday.
The biggest name on the board, by far, is Nashville’s James Neal, who, should he not be selected, would come as a huge shock to fans, hockey scribes and executives everywhere.
We have made our own list of the 20 essential players including 12 forwards, six defencemen and two goaltenders that should form the nucleus of the team (with an eye to the salary cap). We’ll put honorable mentions below the last of each position noted (another 10 players).
20. Petr Mrazek, G – Detroit Red Wings
Building a team from the net out won’t be a problem for McPhee, as a host of decent goaltenders are available. High on his list should be Mrazek, who at a $4 million cap hit for the 2017-18 season is his best option. It’s downright puzzling that the Wings even made the 25-year-old Czech netminder available, in our humble opinion. While he didn’t put up the numbers he did in 2015-16 (27-16-6, 2.33 GAA), he could hardly be blamed for a downturn in 2016-17, as the Wings swooned and missed the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century. With his age and the fact he has played just two full seasons, Mrazek should be the type of goalie to anchor what could be a fairly dynamic expansion team.
19. Antti Raanta, G – New York Rangers
Not only can George McPhee solidify his netminding corps by fleecing the Rangers of back-up Raanta, he’ll be able to do it on the cheap. Raanta, 28, will cost the Golden Knights just $1 million against the cap and brings solid credentials to a fledgling organization. He started 26 games in 2016-17 for the Blueshirts and posted a 16-8-2 record, 2.26 GAA, .922 save percentage and career high four shutouts. Should the no. 1, like Mrazek, falter or be injured, the fourth-year Raanta has proven to be one of the most capable and consistent back-ups in the league, capable of starting if need be. Honorable mentions: Anton Khudobin (Boston); Steve Mason (Philadelphia); Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh).
18. Matt Dumba, D – Minnesota Wild
It was a watershed year for Wild rearguard Matt Dumba. The 22-year-old former first round pick showed the promise he hinted at when drafted seventh overall in 2012, scoring a career high 34 points (11 goals) in 76 games, while maintaining a +15 and averaging over 20 minutes of ice time. With a cap hit of just $2.55 million in 2017-18, he is just the kind of young, powerplay quarterbacking defenceman that McPhee can slot in on the top pair. While he didn’t score in the playoffs this season (0 points in five games), Wild coach Bruce Boudreau felt comfortable enough to put Dumba out for almost 24 minutes per game.
17. Brayden McNabb, D – Los Angeles Kings
McNabb is the kind of no-nonsense second to third pair defender McPhee will need to stock his roster with come Wednesday. While he does have some offensive upside (50 points in 238 total NHL games), McNabb can be counted on more to make good first passes, lay the body on trespassing forwards (491 career hits) and block shots (205 career). His cap hit of $1.7 million is fairly friendly and at 26 years of age is just entering his prime. While he only played 49 games due to injury in 2016-17, he did come back forcefully, posting a 60.1 Corsi For and 60.3 Fenwick possession stats.
16. Alexei Emelin, D – Montreal Canadiens
In George McPhee’s defensive mix, there should be room for plenty of sandpaper and a defenceman who will force opposition forwards to keep their head up coming into the offensive zone. Alexei Emelin is that guy, a punishing rearguard who has been incredibly consistent in his six seasons in Montreal. Not a big scorer (72 points in 380 games), Emelin is always among the leaders in hits, having thrown 241 last season, good enough for ninth in the NHL. Emelin has 1,235 hits overall in those 380 games. He also blocked 127 shots in 2016-17, part of 618 career. His possession numbers have improved over the years and he can be counted on to hit and block shots in the playoffs, too. The only potential drawback is his $4.1 million cap hit.
15. Nate Schmidt, D – Washington Capitals
Schmidt announced himself to the masses during this year’s playoffs, displaying the kind of speed and smarts that caused George McPhee to sign him as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota in 2013. Schmidt put the requisite work in with Hershey of the AHL over the next two seasons, earning extended call-ups, before getting the nod full time in 2015-16. He scored 16 points and was +12 in 72 games that season. In 2016-17, Schmidt blossomed further, scoring 17 points and a +22 in just 60 games, while logging just over 15 minutes per game. He was given over a minute per game more ice time in the playoffs and contributed a goal and three assists and a +6 in 11 post-season games. McPhee’s hurdle to clear would be getting RFA Schmidt re-signed.
14. Ben Lovejoy, D – New Jersey Devils
To put a new team on the ice will require veteran help on the blueline, as much for stability as for skills that these players can still bring. Lovejoy, 32, is on the hook for a cap hit of $2.67 million until 2018-19, but is the kind of rock hard defender McPhee should covet. The Concord, NH, native played all 82 games for the first time in his career last season, logging a career high 20:46 in ice time. He chipped in seven points and was -7 for a Devils team in transition. His greatest value is in blocking shots, where he registered 149, while dishing out 82 hits. He’s also got playoff cred, having played all 24 games for the Penguins during Pittsburgh’s 2016 Stanley Cup run (six points, 45 hits, 37 blocked shots).
13. Ian Cole, D – Pittsburgh Penguins
Cole hasn’t been in the league forever, but it sure feels that way. The 28-year-old blueliner won his second Stanley Cup in a row with the Pens, playing exactly 200 regular season and playoff games in the last two seasons. Like former teammate Ben Lovejoy (above), Cole played his most games in 2016-17, falling one short of the maximum 82. In those 81 games Cole posted career highs in goals (5), assists (21), average minutes played (19:49), hits (164) and blocked shots (194; third most in the NHL). He also played a significant role on the blueline in the absence of Kris Letang (and others) during Pittsburgh’s superlative playoffs, chipping in nine assists, 44 hits and 62 blocks in 25 games. Honorable mentions: Roman Polak (Toronto); Calvin de Haan (Islanders); Patrick Wiercioch (Colorado); Robert Bortuzzo (St. Louis).
12. James Neal, F – Nashville Predators
Of all the forwards — never mind players — available, James Neal is the guy McPhee should order his team around for the near future. He is the big scorer with a fairly big paycheque (though not too big), who will bring leadership, tenacity and smarts to the forward corps. At $5 million a season until the end of 2017-18, Neal brings scoring down the wings (29 goals in 92 total games; 238 regular season goals in 632 games) and an absolute beast on possession who has logged a career 54.0 Corsi For rating. His playoffs this year weren’t huge, but he did score six goals and add three assists, along with 49 hits in 22 games.
11. Patrick Eaves, F – Anaheim Ducks
The only thing standing in the way of George McPhee from taking surprise scoring wiz Patrick Eaves would be a new contract. A 32-year-old UFA, Eaves blasted his way to prominence this past season, scoring a career high 32 goals and adding 19 assists in 79 games split between the Dallas Stars and the Ducks. After a trade from the dismal Stars, Eaves pumped in 11 goals and three assists in just 20 games in Anaheim. He chipped in two goals and two assists in seven playoff games and was left unprotected at season’s end (probably due to his status and an ankle injury during the playoffs). If healthy, though, Eaves is the kind of everyday player who McPhee can count on to score and keep the puck (he has 228 career takeaways against just 165 giveaways in 624 games).
10. Bobby Ryan, F – Ottawa Senators
If George McPhee has any designs on making the playoffs during the Golden Knights first year in, might as well swing for the fences and grab Ryan off the Senators roster. Much maligned for not living up to his considerable paycheque ($7.25 million per season until 2021-22), Ryan was a beast in this year’s playoffs and at age 30 looks like he’s got some gas left in the tank. After 13 goals and 25 points in 62 regular season games with Ottawa, Ryan went on a tear in the playoffs, scoring six goals (three of them game-winners) and nine assists in 19 playoff games. He did all that, despite playing just over 17 minutes per game. He’s definitely capable of scoring 20 and recording 50 points in a full season.
9. Jonathan Marchessault, F – Florida Panthers
Whether or not Marchessault’s 30-goal output this past season was a fluke should be immaterial to McPhee, come time to add the 26-year-old Quebecer to his list. Why? Because at $750,000 for next season, Marchessault is a bargain. In his first full season in the NHL, Marchessault ripped home an unexpected 30 goals and added an additional 21 assists in 75 games. Fully 22 of his 30 goals came at even strength, while he played under 17 minutes per game. Not the biggest guy (5’9″, 174 lbs.) Marchessault is a waterbug who also threw his body around (105 hits) and stole the puck more often than it was taken away from him (64 to 46, takeaway vs. giveaway).
8. Josh Bailey, F – New York Islanders
Bailey would represent another bread and butter guy who McPhee can slot in to perform a number of roles. First of which could be a move back to center, where he played the majorit of his first four seasons of his career. Bailey really stepped it up in 2016-17, playing in all 82 games for the first time, as well as scoring a career high 56 points and going +5. The Golden Knights would only be on the hook for $3.3 million for the 2017-18 season, too. Still just 27, the Bowmanville, Ontario native has played in 639 NHL contests and has 106 goals and 200 assists. A valuable asset, whether down the wing or through the middle.
7. Cody Eakin, F – Dallas Stars
It was pretty much misery all around for anyone wearing the green, black and silver uniforms of the Dallas Stars last season. Which is why rescuing Cody Eakin from that squad should be on McPhee’s mind. Despite his team’s — and his own — struggles, Eakin logged a career high 52.3 percent face-off efficiency percentage, winning 524 of 1,001 draws. His offensive output in 60 games was tepid (12 points), but given a full season with a new team could easily get back to the 37-point average of the previous three seasons. Eakin is also a good penalty killer and adept at stripping opponents of the puck (224 career takeaways vs. 182 giveaways).
6. Michael Grabner, F – New York Rangers
Even if Grabner is just a stop-gap while younger players develop, he’s an inexpensive ($1.65 million cap hit) winger that McPhee can’t ignore. At 29, the Austrian is hardly over the hill and with his scoring resurgence this past season he’s attractive. The speedster scored 27 goals, the highest total since firing 34 with the Islanders in 2010-11 and added 13 assists for 40 points in 76 games. A penalty-killing wiz, Grabner had three shorthanded points (one goal, two assists), while all his other points came even strength, which is pretty impressive. Even better, he scored 27 goals while playing just over 14 minutes per game. Grabner didn’t slow down in the playoffs, either, notching four goals (including a shorty) and two assists in 12 games.
5. Shane Doan, F – Arizona Coyotes
The Golden Knights are going to need captain material. And there are no more qualified captains available than Doan, who was let go by the Coyotes this week. Having played the last 20 seasons in Arizona, the 40-year-old should be recognizable enough to hockey fans down there. Doan still made a decent contribution to a terrible team in Arizona, scoring 27 points and recording just a -3 in 74 games. He played over 15 minutes and dished out 101 hits too. We think he could be had cheap and if he gives the Golden Knights a year or two of leadership and grit, Doan would be a very useful captain — if he doesn’t retire first.
4. Marcus Kruger, F – Chicago Blackhawks
Good, young two-way centers with a few years of experience aren’t easy to find and with Kruger unprotected by the Blackhawks, McPhee has an option in the 27-year-old Swede. A two-time Stanley Cup winner, the Stockholm native has been a reliable presence up the middle for Chicago. In 70 games last season, he scored 17 points and was +7 while playing a smidge over 14 minutes per game. He won 49.1 percent of his face-offs (357-for-727) and is 50.4 percent efficient lifetime. Kruger is also a plus on the possession side with a lifetime Corsi For of 51.9 and he is a puck hawk, having taken the puck away 143 times in his seven-season career, while coughing it up just 72 times. His cap hit is just over $3 million per season.
3. Brian Boyle, F – Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs haven’t signed Boyle yet and unless McPhee has his head stuck in the sand, the Massachusetts native would fit in nicely with a new team looking for identity. The Golden Knights would do well to have the savvy veteran taking key face-offs, as h owns a career 50.1 percent efficiency rating on the dot. In 75 games split between Tampa and Toronto this past season, Boyle scored 13 goals and 12 assists and was +3. He played on the second powerplay unit, typically, and threw 115 body checks between the two teams. The 6’6″ pivot had a $2 million cap hit last season and as a free agent that figure shouldn’t change much going forward.
2. Matt Read, F – Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers weren’t very good last season and a change of scenery for once potent scorer Matt Read might not be a bad thing. He did score 10 times in 63 games last season (with nine assists), but his ice time was down five full minutes from the last time he was a 20-goal scorer in 2013-14 (he scored 22). At just under 14 minutes per game, it was the 30-year-old’s lowest average in his career, yet he still maintained a +3 and chipped in two power play and one shorthanded marker. Read is a versatile forward, too, having started as a centerman with the Flyers in 2011-12. Possession-wise, Read was well above scale with a 54.5 percent Corsi For in 2016-17. He has one year left on a contract with a $3.625 million cap hit.
1. Mikkel Boedker, F – San Jose Sharks
Still just 27, Mikkel Boedker has plenty of experience to offer an expansion club, with enough left in the tank to make the remaining three years on a four-year, $16 million contract palatable. The reliable and durable Dane (he’s has missed just three games the past two seasons) played well in a third-line role with the Sharks in 2016-17, scoring 10 goals and adding 16 assists in 81 games, while maintaining an even plus-minus rating. With added responsibility and a boost in ice time, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for him to get back to the 51-point plateau he reached in 2015-16 with Arizona and Colorado. However, Boedker played a more well-rounded game this past season so a point total somewhere between 26 and 51 would be a bonus.