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Lists Are In, Waiting Begins

June 18, 2017
Somewhere in Las Vegas, George McPhee and the hockey operations staff of the nascent Vegas Golden Knights franchise – the newest member of the NHL’s Original 31 – are huddling up and poring over 30 lists from which they will cull the inaugural edition of that team. Each of the 30 established NHL clubs submitted its protected list on Saturday afternoon, and McPhee and his staff are now beginning the process of assembling the complicated puzzle that will culminate in a roster of 30 Golden Knights players – one from each existing team – by Wednesday evening. 

Expect McPhee and company to go through a lot of coffee between now and Wednesday.

There were no surprises on Washington’s list of protected players – seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender. Among forwards, the Caps protected Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. The Caps also protected blueliners John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov along with goaltender Braden Holtby. 

Washington could have opted to protect four defensemen, but in doing so would have been able to protect only four forwards. The Caps are certain to lose a good player they’d prefer to keep, but that’s the case for the other 29 teams as well. The Caps’ braintrust believes its protected list gives the team its most optimal collection of assets going forward.

Aiming to make the Golden Knights a competitive entity right off the hop, the NHL crafted the expansion rules in such a way that Vegas will be able to accumulate a number of quality assets before playing its first game. The Golden Knights are in a position where they should be able to threaten the league’s record for most wins by a first-year expansion team (33). 

Who will the Caps lose? We’ll find out on Wednesday. Like many of the league’s elite teams, the Capitals left several good players exposed. The good news is they will only lose one of those players to Vegas in this week’s expansion draft, and McPhee has said he’ll touch base with every team and give them an opportunity to talk/trade their way out of losing the player he wants to take. 

Vegas could opt to take one of Washington’s handful of unrestricted free agents – Karl Alzner, T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk or Justin Williams – but that route seems unlikely. The NHL has granted the Golden Knights exclusive access to every unrestricted free agent in the league, so McPhee has the ability to huddle up and talk contract with any of the aforementioned four pending UFAs from Washington, and it’s possible Vegas could come to terms with one of those players on a contract for the upcoming season. But the Golden Knights could also lay the groundwork for such a deal, then choose another player from Washington’s list. Once all the impending UFAs become actual UFAs who are able to negotiate with all 31 teams on July 1, the Golden Knights could then touch base with one or more of those players and bring them on board. 

Since Washington is at risk of losing each of the aforementioned four players on July 1 anyway, it made no sense for the Caps to protect any of them in the expansion draft process. For this reason, there aren’t many – if any – impending UFAs on the protected lists of the 30 established clubs. Teams can protect UFAs if they like, but Vegas or any other team would still be able to sign them should they remain unsigned on or after July 1. 

It seems more likely that Vegas will pluck another player from the Caps’ list. In that scenario, the Golden Knights can take a (non UFA) player from Washington in the expansion draft, and then simply wait until July 1 to sign one or more of the Caps’ impending UFAs.

The most likely players to be chosen from Washington in the expansion draft are probably goaltender Philipp Grubauer, defenseman Nate Schmidt and center Jay Beagle. All three players began their pro careers in the Washington organization – Grubauer as a fourth-round draft choice in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and Schmidt and Beagle as undrafted free agents – during McPhee’s 17-year tenure as Washington’s general manager. McPhee has a great deal of familiarity with each of those three players. 

Good teams are built from the net out, so starting life with strong goaltending is of paramount importance. Grubauer’s .922 save pct. over the last three seasons (40 or more appearances) is the second best among all goaltenders available to Vegas, trailing only the .924 mark that the New York Rangers’ Antti Raanta fashioned over that span. Vegas goaltending coach Dave Prior also worked with Grubauer during his time in DC, and Prior has been an advocate of Grubauer’s ability going back to before the 2010 draft. The 25-year-old Grubauer has shown himself to be more than capable as a backup, and seems ready to embrace the larger role of a No. 1 netminder somewhere in the NHL. 

A strong and diverse blueline corps is also critical for success in the modern NHL, and the Golden Knights will have access to a significant number of them in the expansion draft process. Because NHL teams can only dress 20 players and can only carry 23 players on their rosters, and because the league has generously allowed the Vegas club to draft 30 players (four more than any other previous expansion team), McPhee and company are likely to draft more than the required nine defensemen. 

The Golden Knights are certain to field a number of calls from defense-starved teams seeking to strengthen their rearguard corps, and the Vegas entry is likely to come up a little short on scoring in the expansion draft. But by hoarding a number of defensemen in the draft, McPhee can then talk to any of a number of teams (think Colorado and Toronto, among others) who have some desirable forwards but have needs on the blueline. The Vegas GM can then move some of his accumulated stock on defense for some help up front. 

This scenario is what makes Schmidt, also 25, attractive to the Golden Knights. He’d make a fine addition to the Vegas blueline brigade, but it’s also possible that he could help land some scoring help from another team out there interested in acquiring his services. 

Finally, the 31-year-old Beagle would be an excellent foundational addition to an expansion team. A self-made player with a tireless work ethic, sound penalty killing acumen and a strong defensive compass, he’d be a great piece for Vegas’ bottom six and a prime candidate to wear a letter for the inaugural edition of the Golden Knights.

Whatever McPhee and the Golden Knights decide to do, Washington will be losing a good and valued player, and one it would prefer to keep. But that’s what the process was designed to do. Over the course of their four-plus decades in the league, the Caps have had to expose assets in an expansion draft on several occasions, and they’ve gotten off lightly more often than not. That won’t be the case this time around.

Washington Capitals

Protected players
Nicklas Backstrom (F)
Andre Burakovsky (F)
Lars Eller (F)
Marcus Johansson (F)
Evgeny Kuznetsov (F)
Alex Ovechkin (F)
Tom Wilson (F)
John Carlson (D)
Matt Niskanen (D)
Dmitry Orlov (D)
Braden Holtby (G)

Available players
Jay Beagle (F)
Chris Bourque (F)
Paul Carey (F)
Brett Connolly (F)
Stanislav Galiev (F)
Tyler Graovac (F)
Garrett Mitchell (F)
Liam O'Brien (F)
T.J. Oshie (F)
Zach Sill (F)
Chandler Stephenson (F)
Christian Thomas (F)
Nathan Walker (F)
Justin Williams (F)
Daniel Winnik (F)
Karl Alzner (D)
Taylor Chorney (D)
Cody Corbett (D)
Darren Dietz (D)
Christian Djoos (D)
Tom Gilbert (D)
Aaron Ness (D)
Brooks Orpik (D)
Nate Schmidt (D)
Kevin Shattenkirk (D)
Pheonix Copley (G)
Philipp Grubauer (G)

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