Beginning next season, the NHL will welcome a new team: The (don’t call them Las) Vegas Golden Knights. That is assuming the trademark issue the franchise is currently embroiled in is resolved without a name change. Regardless, this is exciting news on several fronts. First, the NHL will be the first major American sports league to have a franchise in Las Vegas, beating the NBA, MLB and NFL to the market. Second, and most importantly for our purposes, with a new team comes an expansion draft.
Expansion drafts are a powerful and strange wrinkle, even in the bizarre landscape of professional sports. For the low, low price of $500 million, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and his team of executives have purchased the right to handpick a player from each of the thirty existing NHL teams to create the first Golden Knights’ roster. Of course, the rules for the expansion draft put restrictions in place and protect certain players from being drafted based on contract status and other factors. Players with no-move / no-trade clauses have to be protected by their teams. Vegas is also being given a two day window prior to the expansion draft to speak with unprotected restricted and unrestricted free-agents. If a team loses a player to Vegas during this window, they will not be subjected to having another taken in the expansion draft.
The rules give clubs two options for filling out their “protected lists” of draft-exempt players: (1) Protect eight skaters and one goalie; or (2) protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. Practically speaking, most teams are going to take for the second option, as it enables them to secure two more players than the first. However, this means that the majority of teams will be exposing their fourth best defenseman. While this may not be a major concerns for most clubs, teams like the Anaheim Ducks, who have an abundance of young and talented defensemen, will likely end up losing a player who otherwise would have been part of the team’s long term plans for nothing. Additionally, because teams can only protect one goaltender, Vegas is going to have its pick of a number of quality goaltenders that will be available to them on draft day. This is surely by design. Allowing Vegas to draft a solid goaltending tandem and defensive corps gives them a solid foundation for future success and will ideally allow them to be competitive right away.
The last two NHL expansion teams finished last in their conference their first two years in the NHL.
Vegas will also have odds equivalent with that of the team with the third-worst record in the NHL for getting the top overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and are guaranteed to draft no later than the sixth selection in the first round, and will have the third pick in each remaining round. Again, this is also not by accident. Ensuring that Vegas is drafting towards the top of the draft gives them a good chance to draft a franchise-type player in their first year. This is key not only to the short-term marketing of the team, but for positioning the team for long-term success in an unproven sports market.
In the past, expansion teams in non-traditional hockey markets like Florida and Columbus have had difficulty creating and maintaining a fan base due to limited success (i.e. playoff appearances) and/or few star players to market the teams around. It appears that the NHL is doing its best ensure that that this does not happen with the Vegas team.
The NHL’s last expansion draft was in 2000, when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets entered the league. In that draft, teams were also given two options for protecting their own players: (1) one goaltender, five defensemen and nine forwards; or (2) two goaltenders, three defensemen and seven forwards. 52 players were chosen in that draft, two from each existing team, with the exception of the recently formed Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers. Because teams were allowed to protect the vast majority of their quality players, the Wild and Blue Jackets were left to choose from a short list of draft-eligible players, mainly consisting of veterans past their prime and inexperienced younger players. Unsurprisingly, both teams finished last in their conference their first two years in the NHL.
What is really going to be interesting, as we close in on this season’s trade deadline and into 2017 NHL draft, is the league-wide effect the expansion draft is going to have on player signings and trades. We should expect more than the usual player transactions Who ends up getting protected or exposed will be fascinating, and we can look forward to some good old fashioned backroom deals and loophole exploitations by general managers seeking to avoid or take advantage of the position the expansion draft is putting certain teams in.
While we have until the end of February for trade deadline, don’t be surprised if we see teams start making moves in the weeks prior.