Friday, May 19, 2017

Expansion Draft: Six Strategies Available to Vegas and How Each Could Impact the Flames

When George Clooney orchestrated the most sophisticated and elaborate heist in the history of Las Vegas in 2001, his character Danny Ocean had three rules:
  1. Don't hurt anybody.
  2. Don't steal from anyone who doesn't deserve it.
  3. Play the game like you've got nothing to lose.

Sixteen years after the big screen premiere of Ocean's 11, intricate backroom scheming is once again underway in Sin City, only this time it's a different George as the ring leader.

In just over four months, the NHL's newest franchise will play its first preseason game. But there is obviously much work to be done before then as the Golden Knights organization, as of today, consists of just two players.

The mastermind in charge of the plan is general manager George McPhee, who has carefully assembled his front office team. As part of their preparations for the upcoming expansion draft, they're now perusing the blueprints of every NHL roster and deciding on what to steal. In each instance, they need to decide whether they will keep the merchandise after or try to fence it.

Expansion Draft Looms

On June 17, the protected list for each NHL team will be submitted. Teams can choose to protect either 11 players (7 forwards, 3 defencemen, 1 goalie) or 9 players (8 skaters, 1 goalie). Generally speaking, players in their first or second pro season are exempt from needing to be protected.

Following that is a 72-hour deliberation period for Vegas for them to decide exactly which combination of 30 players -- one per team -- they will select. The final results will be unveiled to the public on June 21.

On the surface, this may seem like a straightforward enough exercise. Look at the exposed lists for each team and grab the best player. But for McPhee, there's way more to it than that and to best set up his hockey club for success down the road, this is a great opportunity to do some maneuvering with other GMs to extract long-term value out of the expansion draft process.

To begin, here are five considerations McPhee must keep in mind when assembling this initial group of 30 players.

1. Position Breakdown
There are minimums at each position Vegas must adhere to. Of the 30 players taken, they must select at least:
  • 14 forwards
  • 9 defencemen
  • 3 goaltenders

That leaves four extras. One thought process would be to use those extra spots to stockpile some additional young defencemen. Another strategy could be to take a couple extra goaltenders with the purpose of auctioning them off after to the highest bidders. There is expected to be some quality back-ups available, some of whom have the potential to be a No. 1, and there are other teams looking for that exact thing.

2. Salary Requirements

The cumulative cap hit from the players selected must be somewhere between $43.8 million and $73 million. That range is 60 percent to 100 percent of the 2016-17 salary cap ceiling. This basically means you can't go with all young players on thrifty deals, you will need to absorb some larger contracts also. In fact, they have the option to take on a bunch of large contracts if they were incented to do so, which is a point I elaborate on below.

Worth noting also is one thing they don't have the option to do is buy players out. Any contracts that come in via the expansion draft, must remain intact for at least one year. First buyout period for Vegas isn't until the spring of 2018.

3. NHL Rosters are a Maximum of 23 Players

Let me save you from doing the the long division. The math doesn't add up. Vegas will select 30 players in the expansion draft, yet an NHL roster can be a maximum of 23 players. That means barring injuries and any other transactions, eight of the players selected would theoretically need to be assigned to the Chicago Wolves, which is Vegas' new AHL affiliate. Why eight and not seven? Don't forget that Vegas already has Russian free agent signing Vadim Shipachyov on its roster.

But there's a catch when it comes to building organizational depth through players selected in the expansion draft -- see my next point.

4. Majority of Available Players will be Waiver Eligible
The criteria for what makes a player exempt (less than three seasons of professional experience) for expansion draft purposes aligns almost perfectly with the period in which a player is not waiver eligible. The flip side of that is generally speaking, skaters available in the expansion draft will be waiver eligible starting in 2017-18. As a result, it's not as simple as Vegas assigning its extra players to the AHL in September. Most, if not all, of the skaters would first need to be put on waivers where their old team (or any other team) could claim them right back again. 

The one exception is goaltenders, who typically end up on a slower path to waiver eligibility. Columbus' Joonas Korpisalo and Buffalo's Linus Ullmark are two examples of goalies who are not exempt but also are not waiver eligible next season so could be selected in the expansion draft and subsequently assigned to the AHL without any risk of losing them.

5. The Need to Build up a Farm System

Further to the above points, Vegas will need to build up a minor league system and sooner than later. While this can be built up eventually through the entry draft, there's a one or two-year lag between when a player is drafted and when, based on their year of birth, they are old enough to be assigned to the AHL.

For next season and even the year after, Vegas' minor league roster will need to be stocked through free agent signings or trades. It makes picking up pieces in the expansion draft, which could be leveraged in trades for younger players, another factor to consider.
With all this in mind, here's a look at six different approaches McPhee could take with each team, when assembling his initial group of 30 players.

Six Expansion Draft Strategies 

1. Pick the Best Guy
     Alex Chiasson

This is the approach fans typically take when doing their mock expansion drafts over beer and a platter of salt and pepper wings. Look at the list of players available from each team and simply select the one player with the potential to contribute the most to the Golden Knights in the years to come.
In this scenario, considering Vegas won't be in win-now mode for a few years, you're looking at guys that either: (a) Are under contract for two or more years so can be had for a while. (b) Are restricted free agents, who are still relatively young and could be under team control in terms of their salary for at least a couple more seasons.

Flames Slant – From this perspective, Troy Brouwer (three years of term remaining), Alex Chiasson (RFA), Brett Kulak (RFA) or Tyler Wotherspoon (RFA) would be the most logical candidates.

2. Agree to Not Take That Guy

Curtis Lazar
For teams that have hard decisions due to having too many no-move clauses and/or too many good players, they will be forced to expose someone they don't want to lose. In this instance, there is still a way to keep that player without protecting them. McPhee has said he's open to making side deals that involve acquiring draft picks and this would be a situation where coming to such an arrangement makes sense.

It sounds like organized crime but it's completely allowed. Vegas would be essentially paid off by a team (hush money) in the form of a draft pick or prospect, to look the other way and pass over a particular player that is on the exposed list.

Flames Slant – There is not an obvious player this applies to. Had Brouwer had a more impactful season and if Calgary had seven other forwards they also wanted to protect, this could have been an example where the Flames protect Brouwer and expose someone like Curtis Lazar but then buy McPhee's cooperation to not take Lazar with a side deal that involved sending Vegas a draft pick. But I don't think this applies in the team's current situation and I'd expect Brouwer to be available.

3. Agree to Take This Guy

Troy Brouwer
Similar to the above, only rather than bribing Vegas to not select a particular player, this time the ask of Vegas is to select a certain player and avoid all others.

If a team has a contract they're trying to get out from under, this is a golden (pun intended) opportunity. But this life preserver that McPhee would be tossing a team would certainly come with a price in the form of draft pick(s) and/or prospect(s).

Flames Slant – Finishing the year on the fourth line and with $4.5 million owed for the next three seasons, Brouwer is unlikely to be the first name on Vegas' short list for Calgary. Sure, McPhee traded for him when he was Washington's GM six years ago, but Brouwer was 26 then. Now he's on the wrong side of 30. That said, Brouwer does bring those leadership qualities McPhee has stated he'll be seeking to help bring together a team of castaways. It's possible Brad Treliving can coax him into taking Brouwer by offering up a prospect or draft pick.

4. Trade-In Program

Brett Kulak
Vegas needs to build up a minor league system but as mentioned, it's going to be really difficult to stock their AHL club through the expansion draft. To get their hands on younger prospects that have bigger upsides but are exempt, they'll need to trade for them.

A scenario is Vegas likes a particular prospect on a team but that player is exempt from being taken in the expansion draft. Meanwhile, that players' team is in win-now mode and would rather have a player closer to contributing to the NHL level and would be willing to add that at the expense of a younger prospect with potential, but whose future is less certain.

In this spirit, what you could see happen is one of two things:

1. Vegas selects a player then promptly flips him to another team in exchange for a younger, non-waiver eligible prospect they can stash in the minors.

2. A team proactively trades one of their exempt prospects to Vegas in exchange for 'future considerations'. The future considerations is McPhee agrees to not take anyone from that team in the expansion draft. Taking nobody is something easily enough facilitated as Vegas can waste that pick by selecting one of the pending UFAs that will be a free agent on July 1.

Flames Slant - Take Kulak for instance. Near-NHL ready, Vegas might like his upside but with the other defencemen available around the league, they're not sure if he would crack the NHL team in October and if he doesn't, they risk losing him on waivers for nothing if they try to demote him. Instead, McPhee can propose to Calgary the future consideration of not taking Kulak. In a related transaction, the Flames, for example, could trade to Vegas the rights to college player Brandon Hickey. That sort of thing.

5. Brokering Inner-Division Player Trafficking

Josh Manson
Remember how San Jose got Martin Jones from Los Angeles in 2015? Through the Boston Bruins. For obvious reasons, the Kings would not trade the budding No. 1 goalie to their California rival but after trading him to Boston, the Bruins then promptly traded him to the Sharks.

Fast forward two years and one of the teams you would think that would definitely have an interest in Marc-Andre Fleury is Philadelphia given Steve Mason is a pending unrestricted free agent and Michal Neuvirth has not proven to be anything more than a back-up. However, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford would never trade Fleury to the state-rival Flyers. Only once in the last 25 years have the Penguins traded a roster player cross-state and that was a swap of fourth liners (Kent Manderville for Billy Tibbetts) at the 2002 trade deadline. 

Enter McPhee, who much like the Morgan Freeman character Red in Shawshank Redemption, he's a guy that can get things. It's conceivable that McPhee selects Fleury in the expansion draft then deals him to the Flyers for a nice return. Will be interesting to see if McPhee uses his potential power as a middleman to broker some transactions between teams that normally don't trade with each other.

Flames Slant - Depending on what the Ducks end up doing and if they find a way (e.g. Buying out Kevin Bieksa) to protect the more conventional 7-3-1 breakdown, 6-foot-3 right-shooting defenceman Josh Manson, could be the most coveted guy left exposed. Might Calgary have interest in the rugged, right-shooting 25-year-old as they look to add some physicality to their back end? Why not. While Anaheim GM Bob Murray isn't dealing him to Calgary, McPhee, on the other hand, could select Manson and then deal him to the Flames in exchange for a prospect and/or a draft pick. 

6. Retain and Flip

Mike Cammalleri
For some veteran players expected to be available in the expansion draft, their salary is the major issue. In many instances, these are still useful players, but they're making too much money for what they contribute. Again, this is an opportunity for McPhee. Per the CBA, a team can retain salary (up to 50 percent of their cap hit) on as many as three traded players. Not expected to be a cap team immediately, McPhee could use this option to extract a bigger return for a player that otherwise would have far less value, if they could even be traded at all.

For example, New Jersey's Mike Cammalleri has two more years on a deal that pays him $5 million annually. Coming off a down season, there won't be too many teams interested in the 34-year-old at that price tag, but if he could be had for $2.5 million? Now we're talking. He's just one year removed from being a guy you could count on to score 25-30 goals.

Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot is another. The defensive defenceman is making $4.9 million the next two years. If he could be had for half that, there would be a ton of interest around the league. Similar story for Sharks blueliner Paul Martin, who carries a $4.8 cap hit the next two years. How about Martin for $2.4 million? Now there's interest.

Flames Slant - Washington had Brouwer for four seasons and you know the Capitals have to make some changes after yet another early playoff exit. His $4.5 million price tag won't interest them but what if he could be had for $2.25 million? Or maybe a return to St. Louis where he scored eight goals in leading them to the Western Conference final last year? I'd suggest both are a long shot but the ability to retain salary and flip a player to another team to acquire some assets is yet another one of McPhee's options.

Final Word

It's going to be fascinating to see this play out. The NHL making the expansion lists public will be great, but what won't be known when those lists come out is the various agreements that have been made, or end up being made, to influence McPhee's player selection.

In a year where the Flames pick in the middle of the first round in the NHL Draft and at this point have no picks in the second or third round, the expansion draft is of far greater interest for me right now. Although this lack of draft picks for 2017 could also hamstring Treliving's options in any dealings with McPhee.
In particular, I'm especially interested to see how McPhee leverages this expansion draft because there really are a ton of different ways to extract more value out of it while also setting up Vegas for future success.

For more on the expansion draft, I highly recommend the expansion draft page at Cap Friendly. For a hockey fan, it's a good way to kill a long weekend. That, and re-watching the Ocean's Trilogy. 

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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