After the Vegas Golden Knights made their final selection of the expansion draft on Wednesday night, the new NHL franchise's general manager George McPhee explained to the fans inside T-Mobile Arena and to viewers watching on TV that he'd had two objectives for the night. The first, he said, was to ice a team that's entertaining and competitive, and that the league and city could be proud of. The second was to acquire prospects and additional picks so that the franchise can ultimately "draft our way to success."
Of course, anyone familiar with the concept of an expansion draft understands that the second of those objectives is more important -- and more realistic -- than the first. Even expansion-draft rules that are generous to the team doing the selecting make it difficult to assemble a roster with many impact players. And so the best hope to build a solid, competitive team is to stockpile as many assets with as much upside as possible and hope that some pay off.
As it looked on Wednesday night, the Golden Knights roster isn't necessarily unwatchable: James Neal, for instance, surpassed 30 goals as recently as two seasons ago, and Jonathan Marchessault hit 30 this past season. Oscar Lindbergh has potential, as does Nate Schmidt. And Marc-Andre Fleury is already a fan favorite, receiving a nice welcome when he was introduced to the fans in Vegas at the expansion draft. But this team also isn't likely to be very good in the short term.
And for now, that's fine. This roster is something of a placeholder. Via Cap Friendly, ten players selected will be unrestricted free agents after this season (including Neal and Marchessault). And so McPhee will have considerable flexibility to reshape his roster beyond this season.
The expansion draft itself was mostly anticlimactic, as the names of many of the new Golden Knights had already leaked out. But the event capped an interesting couple of days in which the only transactions allowed were ones involving Vegas. Because teams were limited in how many players they could protect heading into the draft, Vegas could negotiate deals in which they'd agree to avoid taking certain exposed players in exchange for assets. One can imagine McPhee slipping into his best "Sopranos" impression during negotiations: "Boy, it'd be a real shame if something were to happen to Brock Nelson."
And so by the time the draft ended, the Golden Knights had made their 30 picks, added a few additional players, and perhaps most importantly, obtained a bevy of extra draft picks. As of Wednesday night, Vegas had 12 picks in this year's draft, including three in the first round. And they currently own 16 more in total in the next two drafts after that. (Props again to Cap Friendly.) Here's what Vegas' draft looked like:
It's worth remembering that McPhee isn't necessarily done dealing. Now that he has an actual roster to work with, he can make additional trades beginning on Thursday to stockpile even more prospects and picks, looking ahead to a not-so-distant future in which the Golden Knights can actually contend in their division. Neal may have immediately become one of the faces of the young franchise, but if McPhee can deal him to a team looking for some offensive punch in exchange for an attractive haul, he'd be foolish to pass it up. By the time you read this, the Golden Knights roster could look very different than it did on Wednesday night.
Earlier this week, Deadspin noted that the Atlanta Thrashers -- the last expansion team to enter the league alone, and a team that also made a bunch of deals in addition to selecting players in a draft -- had a 90-point team in their sixth year and were a division winner in their seventh. That's a fair goal for McPhee. It's enough time for him to shape the roster using more than what he could get in the draft (or as a result of players chosen in the draft). But in theory, it's also enough time for the first batch of draft picks to develop into NHL players. Vegas fans have waited long enough to have a major professional sports team; waiting a few more years until that team contends should be a breeze, by comparison.