Yesterday’s release of expansion protection lists gives us a unique insight into what are each team’s priorities. For some, it’s protecting their core and little else. Others want to make sure they leave little-to-nothing of value for Las Vegas. Most fall between those two extremes.
Over the next three days, I’ll look at some of the stranger choices that were made and what options they present for the Golden Knights. To start, let’s look at some of the surprises available among the unprotected goalies.
Okay, this one isn’t a surprise at all since it was made clear Fleury waived his no movement clause months ago. What might be the surprise here is that I believe Fleury has been earmarked as the Golden Knights starting goalie since the moment he made that February decision to waive or shortly thereafter. If so, it’s a good call by the fledgling team as Fleury is a charismatic leader who can be their “face of the franchise” for the team’s first years. What’s more, with only two years left on his deal, it’s not a long term marriage for either party and they can choose to re-up at its end or go their separate ways. For a team that will probably have a lot of young players and will struggle to score goals, this might be the best move Golden Knights GM George McPhee makes for his team and I believe we’ll find out it was one that, for all intents and purposes, he made months before the draft.
That Mrazek is available is one of the biggest surprises, but might only be the third least sensible decision made by any of the teams (behind, I’d argue, Florida’s leaving Jonathan Marchessault exposed and whatever the hell it was the Islanders were thinking). My guess is that, with Calgary trading for Mike Smith and the expectation that Fleury was already destined to be the Last Vegas starter, Detroit GM Ken Holland thought he could safely expose his younger, less humble goaltender after a disastrous season. Where I think he may have miscalculated is that there is now a team desperately in need of a new starter — Arizona. Smith is too far along in his career to be the goalie around whom the Coyotes’ young talent develops, which is why he was dealt. But, 25-year-old Mrazek is the perfect age to provide solid goaltending now and a veteran presence when the young team has bloomed into a contender. This move seems like an unusual misstep for the Detroit GM. Another way to look at it, though, is that, with more that $9 million in salary committed to goalies the next two seasons, a move needed to be made by Detroit to free up cap space. This might have been the easiest or even only way to make that happen, especially with a safety net in Jared Coreau seemingly ready to be the backup or even 1b to Jimmy Howard.
Antti Raanta and Calvin Pickard
The tricky bit about building an NHL team is that you have to plan for the now, the short term future, and for the long term. Fleury, as mentioned above, has two years remaining on his current contract, after which he will be an almost 35-year-old and likely no longer capable of being the workhorse starter for the team. In turn, it’s almost guaranteed that Las Vegas takes at least one goaltender in the upcoming entry draft to be their goalie of the future, which means, with the way goalies develop these days, about five or so years. But who’s going to be the stopper in between those two? That’s where Raanta can come in. I suspect the Rangers thought their backup might be made safe by their leaving goal scorer Michael Grabner exposed. Goals will be hard to come by for the Golden Knights and Grabner had a renaissance in that department last season. But, how clever would McPhee be if he not only took Raanta, but then also traded Pickard to the Rangers for Grabner himself. That would work out well for New York, too, since Pickard is a younger goalie who can be the team’s backstop for years to come once Henrik Lundqvist decides to call it a career.
As for Colorado leaving Pickard exposed… well, maybe Joe Sakic isn’t so good at this “being a GM” thing.
Again, this one wasn’t so much a surprise that he’s exposed as much as it is that he might not be taken. Grubauer provides Las Vegas with another option if they can find a team that wants him to shore up their crease. Perhaps Calgary or Carolina might want some insurance in case their newly acquired keepers falter. Or, maybe Buffalo wants another option with a few more years of team salary control in case Robin Lehner proves not to be their answer in net. Another option would be to move Raanta, whose existing contract provides cost certainty, to such a team and sign Grubauer to be the heir apparent in Vegas. Or, if no one’s interested in playing, the Golden Knights can find someone else to take from Washington. Nate Schmidt would be a good choice.
Dallas and/or Carolina
The last surprise isn’t so much the goalies that the Stars and the Hurricanes have left unprotected. Instead, in the case of Dallas, it’s the other players that are on their exposed list. It would not surprise me at all if the Golden Knights have agreed to use their cap space to take one of Dallas’s extraneous and expensive goalies, with the intention of burying him and his exorbitant paycheque in the minors (or, at least, $1,025,000 of it, since the rest would still be applied to Vegas’ cap). I could see McPhee agreeing to such shenanigans for a package that includes the swapping of the #6 overall selection in the upcoming entry draft for Dallas’s #3 selection.
For the Hurricanes, GM Ron Francis did an effective job of all but scorching the earth that is his roster to make sure there is nothing of significant value to go to Las Vegas. Still, with a plethora of young talent, it might be worth parting with a prospect to entice the Golden Knights to take one of Ward or Lack, again with the intention of burying the contract.
In addition to the options above, the Golden Knights can also choose among several minor league goalies, some of whom are solid-or-better prospects. Any one of those could provide additional depth at the position for the Golden Knights. No matter how things play out, though, Las Vegas will have no shortage of goaltenders for the upcoming season and beyond.
Tomorrow, I’ll look at the strange choices and ensuing options on defense available to the Golden Knights.