Fifty years ago at this time, the NHL was preparing to double in size from a six-team outfit to a 12-team operation. As it prepares for its centennial season this fall, the NHL will add a 31
st team to the circuit when the Vegas Golden Knights embark upon their inaugural season in 2017-18.
The Golden Knights are the league’s first expansion team in 17 years, the longest the league has gone between expansions in the last half-century. Apparently, the league has learned from its past foibles in these situations, because the Vegas team will be given easily the best chance to succeed of any NHL expansion team ever.
Look no further than the local hockey team if you want an example of how miserable the league used to make things for nascent teams. The league expanded so swiftly and so frequently from 1967-68 through 1974-75, tripling in size in less than a decade. But the ’74-75 expansion to add the Caps and the Kansas City Scouts was an unmitigated disaster.
Washington and Kansas City had no chance to succeed. Established teams were permitted to protect 17 players for that 1974 expansion draft, leaving virtually nothing for the Caps and Scouts to choose from. The two teams combined for a dismal 23-121-16 record that first season, and the misery continued for both clubs for the better part of the next decade.
Over the years, the league has tried to make first-year expansion teams more competitive, but the Vegas entry will have easily the best shot at icing a competitive team more quickly than any of the 25 expansion teams that came before it.
The 1993-94 Florida Panthers stand as the best first-year expansion team in league history, posting a more than respectable 33-34-17 mark and missing the playoffs by a single point. The ’93-94 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim also won 33 games as a first-year team that season, matching the Panthers for the all-time record for wins by a first-year NHL club.
Eight of the previous 25 expansion teams are no longer in the city where they started their NHL existence, and a couple of those clubs have changed locations more than once. Other teams such as Washington, Nashville and others were on the brink of departing for greener pastures at one time or another during their existence. The average of each of those previous 25 expansion teams’ first-year performances is a 23-45-11 mark. That’s not good, and many spent the better part of a decade spinning their wheels before finally getting to a point where they could be competitive on a night-in, night-out basis.
In the interests of avoiding a similar scenario with the Vegas entry, the league has crafted easily the most onerous expansion rules for existing teams, and the least onerous for the expansion club. Established NHL clubs will be able to protect no more than 11 players, and virtually all 30 existing teams will lose a valuable asset to the Golden Knights.
Looking back at the last expansion in 2000-01 when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild came into existence, established teams were permitted to protect nine forwards, five defensemen and a goaltender. This time around, the established clubs will only be able to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one netminder. Teams wanting or needing to protect more than three defensemen (Nashville, for example) can do so, but those clubs will be limited to a total of eight skaters and one goaltender.
Additionally, each established team must expose two forwards who are under contract for 2017-18 and who played at least 40 NHL games last season or 70 NHL games over the last two seasons. Established clubs must also expose at least one defensemen who is under contract for ’17-18 and who has met the 40/70 games played requirement illustrated above. Finally, each established team must expose at least one goaltender who is under contract for ’17-18 or who will be a restricted free agent this summer. Clubs opting to make a restricted free agent available for this requirement must issue a qualifying offer to the goaltender prior to the submission of the team’s protected list.
The Las Vegas team has to draft some salary; it must come out of the expansion draft with between 60-100% of the 2016-17 NHL salary cap figure ($73 million), which means it must draft 30 players whose combined cap hit for the upcoming season is at least $43.8 million. Vegas must also draft at least 20 players who are under contract for 2017-18, limiting the number of restricted and unrestricted free agents it can select. The Golden Knights must have at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders among its 30-man expansion roster, leaving four “at large” berths for McPhee to work with. Expect him to choose defensemen and goaltenders with those at large choices, and expect some of those players to be immediately flipped to other clubs around the league.
The only good news for established teams is that they’ll each lose exactly one player, no more and no less. The Vegas entry will come away from the expansion draft with 30 players, four more than any previous expansion club in league history.
These requirements are leaving several of the established teams with some difficult decisions ahead of this Saturday’s (June 17) deadline to submit protected lists. And the Capitals are one of those teams with some decisions to make. Days away from the deadline for submission, here’s how the Caps look in terms of their likely protected/exposed lists.
As far as goaltending is concerned, the Caps will certainly protect Braden Holtby. He has three years remaining on a multi-year contract extension, and just became only the third goaltender in NHL history to reel off three consecutive seasons with 40 or more victories.
Protecting Holtby means the Caps will expose 25-year-old netminder Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer is a restricted free agent coming off his best season in the NHL, and many believe he is ready to take the reins as a No. 1 netminder in the NHL after a couple seasons serving as Holtby’s understudy. Grubauer will be a tempting player for the Golden Knights to secure. Vegas GM George McPhee drafted Grubauer for the Capitals in 2010, and Golden Knights goalie coach Dave Prior served in the same position here in the District for many years. Prior worked with Grubauer here in Washington, and has always had a lot of belief in the goaltender’s ability.
If the Golden Knights were to choose Grubauer, no one will be surprised. But it’s not necessarily going to go down that way, either.
The Caps will protect 30-year-old Matt Niskanen, 27-year-old John Carlson and 25-year-old Dmitry Orlov. That leaves 36-year-old veteran Brooks Orpik as the defenseman who meets the exposure requirements listed above. But the Golden Knights will also be able to choose 25-year-old Nate Schmidt, soon to be a restricted free agent.
As mentioned earlier, the Golden Knights must ascend to a certain combined salary threshold with their 30 choices. Selecting Orpik would account for a significant chunk of that figure, but don’t expect the Knights to go in that direction. They’ll have little difficulty reaching that salary threshold organically, and they will also have a plethora of younger and cheaper options available to them on the blueline. If anything, the Knights will overdraft at the defense position and will then made some trades to turn that blueline surplus into some help up front.
This is where things get a little tricky for the Capitals. It’s easy to project the first six forwards on Washington’s list of protected forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. But the Caps must also expose two forwards that meet the requirements listed earlier, and currently the only other two forwards who meet those requirements are Jay Beagle and Lars Eller.
Brett Connolly meets the requirements from a games played standpoint, but he is a restricted free agent who has not yet signed for the upcoming season, so until and unless he does so between now and the Saturday deadline for the submission of protected lists, the Caps are in a position where they must expose both Beagle and Eller.
Given the utter dearth of forwards and centers expected to be available to McPhee and the Golden Knights, Eller or Connolly might have some appeal to the Vegas team. If things were to shake out that way, the Caps would once again be in need of a third-line center, as they were before last summer’s deal to bring Eller to the District.
Here are the Caps’ options at this point:
1) Sign Connolly and expose any two of him, Beagle and Eller.
2) Expose Eller and Beagle as outlined above, and use their seventh protected forward slot on RFA Connolly.
3) Make a minor trade with one of the other 29 established teams that has an extra forward or two on hand that meets the exposure requirements.
As of right now, all three of the above scenarios are in play to one degree or another, but if Washington opts for the third choice, it has only until noon on Friday to get a deal done. A trade moratorium kicks in at that point and extends until next Thursday morning.
The Caps must submit their protected list to the NHL and the NHLPA on Saturday, and the protected lists for the 30 established teams will be made public on Sunday. Vegas will have 72 hours with which to work the puzzle, taking one player from each team, maximizing their overall asset base and coming out of it all within the mandated salary range.
Between now and next week, here are the key dates to keep in mind related to expansion and the trade freeze:
Thursday, June 15 First Buy-Out Period begins.
Deadline for Clubs to ask Players with “No Move” clauses whether they want to be placed on Waivers for purposes of Buy-Outs prior to Expansion Draft (11:59 am ET).
Friday, June 16 Last day to place Player on Waivers prior to Expansion Draft Trade/Waiver Freeze (12 p.m. ET).
Deadline for Players to agree to “waive” their “No Move” clauses for purposes of Expansion Draft (5 p.m. ET).
Saturday, June 17 Commencement of the Expansion Draft Trade/Waiver Freeze for all NHL Clubs with exception of the Expansion Club (3 p.m. ET).
Commencement of Expansion Draft Signing Moratorium on NHL SPCs (standard player contracts) for all NHL Clubs with exception of the Expansion Club (3 p.m. ET).
Deadline for each Club to simultaneously submit its Protection List to Central Registry and the NHLPA (5 p.m. ET).
Sunday, June 18 Deadline for Central Registry to approve and simultaneously distribute the Protection Lists to all NHL Clubs (including the Expansion Club) and the NHLPA (10 a.m. ET).
Opening of the UFA/RFA Interview Period (only applies to Players who are available for selection in the Expansion Draft) for the Expansion Club only (10 a.m. ET).
Wednesday, June 21 Deadline for the Expansion Club to simultaneously submit its Expansion Draft Selections to Central Registry and the NHLPA (10 a.m. ET).
Deadline for the Expansion Club to submit SPCs for any pending UFA/RFAs who are selected by the Expansion Club and signed to a new contract (10 a.m. ET). The Expansion Club is permitted to sign a current or pending Free Agent on a Current Club’s list of Available Players during the period between 10:01 a.m. ET on Sunday, June 18, and 9:59 a.m. ET on Wednesday, June 21, and in so doing will be deemed to have made its Expansion Draft selection from such Current Club. If the Expansion Club signs a Restricted Free Agent from the Available List of a Current Club during said period, the Current Club will not be entitled to any compensation from the Expansion Club.
Official distribution and announcement of the Expansion Club’s Selections in conjunction with the 2017 NHL Awards presented by T-Mobile (8 p.m. ET).
Thursday June, 22 Expansion Draft Signing Moratorium and Trade/Waiver Freeze are lifted (8 a.m. ET).