Is Vegas’ success bad for NHL?

Golden Knights sweep Kings in 1st round of playoffs

On Tuesday, the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Los Angeles Kings 1-0 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles to finish off a series sweep of the Kings, and advance to the second round. This was a historical game in several ways. Vegas became the third team in NHL history to sweep their first-ever playoff series, and the first team to do it in their inaugural season. The team continues to set records as they head into their second-round matchup with the San Jose Sharks, and questions have been raised about whether this success is bad for the NHL as a league.

On ESPN’s ‘Pardon the Interruption’ on Wednesday, hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon discussed this idea, and came to the conclusion that this indeed is bad for the NHL in terms of a competitive standpoint. They even referred to Vegas’ success as “embarrassing” for the league.

On the surface, does it seem a little strange that the team is able to experience so much success in just one season? This time last year they only had two players, forwards Reid Duke and Vadim Shipachyov. Duke played 14 games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, recording zero points, and Shipachyov had a messy divorce from Vegas after only playing three games, and is now playing back in the KHL. Many people have accused the NHL of setting the expansion draft rules too tight on opposing teams, which allowed Vegas to collect a plethora of talented players. However, this isn’t exactly true.

The rules for the expansion draft were as follows (courtesy of NHL.com):

Clubs will have two options for players they wish to protect in the Expansion Draft:
 

a) Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender

b) Eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goaltender

* All players who have currently effective and continuing “No Movement” clauses at the time of the Expansion Draft (and who to decline to waive such clauses) must be protected (and will be counted toward their club’s applicable protection limits).

* All first- and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward their club’s applicable protection limits).

Vegas wasn’t granted a list of All-Star players when it came time to draft the team, they were given options of mostly middle-of-the-road players or younger guys (3rd or 4th year) who hadn’t quite lived up to their former organization’s expectations. Sure, there were some very talented players, but there will be a few in every expansion draft. The Knights made their team mostly out of completely ripping off opposing teams in trades. Several teams just made absolutely horrendous deals that gave Vegas key players. For example:

  1. The Florida Panthers traded forward Reilly Smith and a 2018 4th-round pick to Vegas for selecting forward Jonathan Marchessault.

This is probably one of the worst trades I have ever seen. The entire thing just makes absolutely no sense. I get that Florida had to protect four defensemen, and thus had to leave some good forwards unprotected, but it just makes absolutely no sense to give them another talented forward in exchange for already taking one. Marchessault had 30 goals and 51 points in 2016-17 with Florida, in his first full NHL season. But Florida didn’t stop there, also giving them forward Reilly Smith, who had a bit of a down season in ’16-17, but is still a definitive top-6 forward. And then they go on top of that and also throw in a draft pick. Just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. By the way, both Marchessault and Smith skate on Vegas’ top line, with another player who we will soon mention.

2) The Anaheim Ducks trade defenseman Shea Theodore to Vegas for selecting defenseman Clayton Stoner.

Another one that doesn’t make any sense. Stoner wasn’t even a full-time player in Anaheim, playing only 14 games in 2016-17 and 50 in 2015-16. He likely was not going to make the team at all, so why on earth would you give up a guy who was sure to crack the roster in addition to that? Theodore played a huge part with this Vegas team this season in a top-4 role, and also skates on their top power-play unit.

3) The Minnesota Wild trade forward Alex Tuch and a conditional 3rd-round pick to Vegas for selecting forward Erik Haula.

This is one that makes the Wild front office look somewhat bad in hindsight, but only on the surface. Maybe they just didn’t believe in Tuch anymore, and would have rather Vegas select Haula than Eric Staal or Matt Dumba. Now clearly that’s reasonable, because Staal scored 42 goals this year, and Dumba is one of their top defensemen. Vegas general manager George McPhee obviously used this to his advantage, and asked for a high-end prospect in exchange for leaving Staal and Dumba. Tuch played a key role for Vegas this year, and is currently skating on the team’s second line. Haula put up a career-high 29 goals this season, and skates with Tuch, centering the second line.

4) The Columbus Blue Jackets trade a 2017 1st-round pick, a 2019 2nd-round pick, and forward David Clarkson to Vegas for selecting forward William Karlsson.

This one honestly is somewhat funny now, looking back on it. The deal in place here was that Columbus would give Vegas draft picks and a young penalty-killer in Karlsson if they absorbed David Clarkson’s massive $5.25 million contract. Vegas just made the Blue Jackets look so bad in this one. They obviously have an insane amount of cap space, being a new team, and they turned Karlsson from a 3rd or 4th line defensive forward into one of the premier scorers in the entire NHL.

In addition to these trades, they also traded away several players that they selected immediately after the expansion draft, most notably defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marc Methot, Alexei Emelin, and goaltender Calvin Pickard. Now the situation with Marc-Andre Fleury has nothing to do with the league setting the draft in Vegas’ favor. It would be absurd for teams to be able to protect multiple goaltenders, and would leave Vegas with literally nobody even NHL-level. Pittsburgh had a unique situation where they had two unbelievable goalies, and it’s a pretty easy choice to go with the 23-year-old over the 33-year-old.

Vegas didn’t get handed a team of All-Stars. They got handed a team of average players, and made several great trades, and coached these guys into a premier team. For example, we’ll look at production of several players in their first year with Vegas compared to the previous season:

Jonathan Marchessault (2016-17 w/ FLA): 30 goals, 21 assists, 51 points. (75 games played)

Jonathan Marchessault (2017-18 w/ VGK): 27 goals, 48 assists, 75 points. (77 games played)

 

Reilly Smith (2016-17 w/ FLA): 15 goals, 22 assists, 37 points. (80 games played)

Reilly Smith (2017-18 w/ VGK): 22 goals, 38 assists, 60 points. (67 games played)

 

Erik Haula (2016-17 w/ MIN): 15 goals, 11 assists, 26 points. (72 games played)

Erik Haula (2017-18 w/ VGK): 29 goals, 26 assists, 55 points. (76 games played)

 

David Perron (2016-17 w/ STL): 18 goals, 28 assists, 46 points. (82 games played)

David Perron (2017-18 w/ VGK): 16 goals, 50 assists, 66 points. (70 games played)

 

Colin Miller (2016-17 w/ BOS): 6 goals, 7 assists, 13 points. (61 games played)

Colin Miller (2017-18 w/ VGK): 10 goals, 31 assists, 41 points. (82 games played)

 

Nate Schmidt (2016-17 w/ WAS): 3 goals, 14 assists, 17 points. (60 games played)

Nate Schmidt (2017-18 w/ VGK): 5 goals, 31 assists, 36 points. (76 games played)

 

William Karlsson (2016-17 w/ CBJ): 6 goals, 19 assists, 25 points. (81 games played)

William Karlsson (2017-18 w/ VGK): 43 goals, 35 assists, 78 points. (82 games played)

Saving the best for last here, one of the most startling transformations in recent memory. Karlsson went from a checking forward and a solid penalty killer to top five in the NHL in goals in just one season. To put it in perspective, Karlsson had 18 goals in four seasons TOTAL entering this year. He nearly tripled his goal total from four seasons in just one year.

All of these are proof that Vegas was not handed a Stanley Cup-caliber team, they built it. Obviously having a 3-time Cup champion in net in Marc-Andre Fleury helps, but that was not the fault of the NHL’s expansion draft rules, just a fortunate situation for Vegas. The genius of GM George McPhee and head coach Gerard Gallant is to blame for this team’s success, not the NHL. And it is certainly not embarrassing to the league in any way.

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