Yesterday, we looked at some of the unusual choices made by NHL GMs regarding goalies they chose to leave unprotected and the options available to the Golden Knights that they present. Today, let’s do the same thing with defencemen.
If you thought there were some odd decisions made about goalies… well, the defencemen are even more head-scratching.
The Young and the Unprotected
There were an awful lot of good young defencemen — the kind of players that every team is said to covet — left unprotected by their teams. One doesn’t have to be particularly creative to imagine a scenario where Vegas picks up a number of them just to trade them off to other teams. In fact, that’s almost certainly what McPhee has planned.
After months of speculation as to how Anaheim would protect four good young defenders when they had veteran Kevin Bieksa taking up a protection slot due to his no movement clause, the Ducks opted for the NHL equivalent of “throwing money at it” and have reportedly promised some package of picks and/or players to the Golden Knights.
The question remains, though, as to what it was, exactly, that they’ve protected. Most reports indicate that it might be both Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson who are off limits, but I have a hard time imagining McPhee could be bought off cheaply, so protecting both would be an expensive proposition. Moreover, Anaheim has enough young talent in the pipeline that I’m sure Vegas wants to tap into. It would make more sense to me that Anaheim’s first rounder is used to protect Vatanen, while either Manson goes to Las Vegas or another young defenceman goes in his place. Others, however, have posited alternative viewpoints.
Similarly, Minnesota has five defencemen worth protecting and only three protection slots to do so. There aren’t the same reports of a side deal between the Wild and the Golden Knights as their are with the Ducks, because Minnesota has no first round pick.
Instead, it looks like Minnesota chose the slight of hand method of protection by putting something shiny among their unprotected forwards, if you can call Eric Staal “shiny”. I’ll talk more about Staal in the forwards edition of this series, but suffice it to say that his resurgence in Minneapolis this season could be distracting enough to Vegas to steer them away from a defenceman like Matt Dumba.
Then we have Boston, the source of so many head scratching moments over the past few off seasons that I question if it’s a strategy being used by GM Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely to get their names in the papers as often as possible. (“There is no bad press” and all that.) This time, they elected to leave unprotected 24-year-old right shot defenceman Colin Miller in favour of Kevan Miller (no relation), who is five years his senior. Kevan Miller is a perfectly fine defenceman, but not someone with any upside. He is what he is, while Colin Miller is still developing and could still become a solid top four puck moving defenceman. If the younger Miller is not part of the plan for next season in Las Vegas, there are no shortage of teams who will want his services. Just not the Bruins, apparently.
The Old Timers
Arguably the most talked about protection conundrum leading into the unveiling of the lists on Sunday was the situation on Ottawa’s blue line. With Dion Phaneuf automatically protected by his NMC and unwilling to waive it, plus Erik Karlsson being Erik Karlsson, there were no fewer than five defencemen left on the roster for whom Vegas would have a solid justification for taking in the draft. In the end, the Senators elected to protect just one of them: Cody Ceci.
That decision leaves Marc Methot, Karlsson’s long-time defence partner, exposed for Vegas to take. And, they probably will. After all, can McPhee turn down a top pairing defenceman with only two years left on a relatively affordable deal, especially when he could be a candidate to be the Golden Knights captain? It remains to be seen if Ottawa goes the route of Anaheim and coughs up something of value to protect Methot or if they just let him go and move on.
Buffalo also made the choice to expose a key member of their defence corps when the left Zach Bogosian off their protected list. Having traded for Nathan Beaulieu a day before the lists were due, someone among their defenders was going to be exposed and Bogosian with his $5+ million contract over three more years and 42 points in 141 games for the Sabres was the most reasonable candidate. Like Methot, Bogosian is a solid stay-at-home defenceman and he shoots right, which always increases a blueliner’s value. But, the contract is ugly in a way Methot’s isn’t and Bogosian hasn’t played a single playoff game in 10 years in the league. So, yeah… he’s probably safe.
The Kids Are Alright
While the league’s general managers have left Vegas many good and established defenders from which to choose, they’ve also, by necessity of the expansion draft rules, exposed many good blue line prospects, as well. Vegas, like any team, will need depth on their blue line for when injuries happen. They could (and probably will) sign a few veteran journeymen to provide that depth, but McPhee could also choose to stock his team’s cupboard with one or two young, yet to emerge, names.
Players like Brett Kulak or Tyler Wotherspoon in Calgary, Ludwig Bystrom in Dallas, Gustav Olofsson in Minnesota, Scott Mayfield with the Islanders, and Slater Koekkoek in Tampa all offer, at worst, middling upside and could provide depth now and solid play in the future. But, they also are all on teams that offer better options from which Vegas can choose.
But Edmonton really doesn’t offer better options. There’s little more than fringe NHLers at all positions on their list of exposed players when you exclude the UFAs and Benoit Pouliot’s ugly contract. Edmonton does, however, have three prospect defenders on their list that might provide the best risk-return ratio for George McPhee. Any of Griffin Reinhart, David Musil, or Dillon Simpson could develop into a solid NHL defender and might be worth spending a selection on rather than picking any of the scraps left for him at forward. While Reinhart has the pedigree, my money is on Dillon Simpson and he would be my choice.
As shown, the options among the defencemen available to the Golden Knights is even better than most expected it to be thanks to some odd decisions made by other teams’ general managers. McPhee should have no trouble selecting a collection of defenders that provide both attractive trade bait and a solid foundation for the team he ices in October.
Tomorrow, I’ll finish up this series with my look at the outright bizarre choices that teams made over their forwards.