Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The expansion draft that welcomed the Golden Knights into the NHL this summer strained the league’s other 30 franchises.
In an attempt to create a more competitive expansion franchise, teams were allowed to protect far fewer players than in past drafts, leading to some marquee players being left available for Vegas.
Many teams lost key players that are now contributing to the Golden Knights’ early-season success, but no team lost more than the Florida Panthers, which visit for a 5 p.m. game tonight at T-Mobile Arena.
It was their own doing, starting last season when they surprisingly fired coach Gerard Gallant less than a year after he led Florida to the best record in franchise history.
“He’s a great coach,” said Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault, who played under Gallant in Florida. “He wants you to be loose, make plays and have fun around the rink. He’s always joking and messing around the locker room and at practice, and saying hi to everyone. He has amazing respect for us and it makes for a great atmosphere to be around every day.”
Gallant and the Golden Knights have the fifth best record in the NHL at 20-9-2, while the Panthers are the fifth-worst team in the league at 12-15-5.
Marchessault, whom the Panthers left unprotected in the expansion draft despite scoring 30 goals last season, has continued his success in Vegas. The 27-year-old has 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points already.
“I wanted to prove that that wasn’t just a one-season deal,”
Marchessault said. “I wanted to prove that but I always knew I could. Last season was my first full year, so I knew that if I had the opportunity that I would help out my team and I think it’s just fun that I can have the chance to do that here.”
Meanwhile in Florida, Nick Bjugstad, whom the Panthers protected over Marchessault, has 11 fewer points. Third-pairing defensemen Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk were also protected, and have combined for only six points this season.
Losing Gallant and Marchessault would have hurt enough, but the Panthers also traded up-and-coming forward Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights for a fourth-round pick this offseason.
Smith has joined Marchessault on Vegas’ top line, and has 23 points on the season. He’s also served as one of the Golden Knights’ most versatile players.
The line of Smith, Marchessault and William Karlsson is the eighth highest scoring line in the league.
The Panthers got the worst of it, but many other teams also wish they could change their approach. Here are five other teams likely wishing for an expansion draft do-over.
Minnesota has one of the deepest defensive units in the league, and because of that it was forced to expose young blue liners Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba.
In an attempt to keep their defense intact, the Wild worked out a deal with Golden Knights general manager George McPhee to instead select forward Erik Haula. In exchange, the Wild gave Vegas their top AHL prospect, Alex Tuch.
A third of the way through the season, Haula has moved into the top line and Tuch appears to be a star in the making.
“It’s really good to see Erik coming out of that bottom-six position he had in Minnesota,” Tuch said. “I thought that with the depth they had, especially at center, it was tough for him to dig his way out of there but he’s done that in Vegas and is playing really well.”
Haula has 11 goals and 10 assists, and has jumpstarted the line with Neal and David Perron since being moved up. He would currently be third on the Wild in points, and is only five points away from his total last year in Minnesota.
Tuch has seven goals and eight assists for the Golden Knights, and has been one of the best fore checkers on the team and an integral part of the power play. The 21-year-old is almost certainly one of the major building blocks for McPhee to build around in the future.
In Minnesota, Dumba has struggled severely this season with turnovers.
“You know, (Dumba) just hasn't been playing that well,’’ Wild coach Bruce Boudreau told the Star Tribune. “He's a good player that maybe I've set the bar pretty high for him, and he hasn't reached that bar. I just thought that was an inexcusable play. And at some point, you have to be accountable for your actions. We can teach and show and do this. I mean, it's like a ‘you can lead a horse to water’ type of thing.”
Seeing the Penguins on this list may come as a surprise considering veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has missed the majority of the season with a concussion.
But make no mistake, the Penguins wish they could have Fleury back.
In June, Pittsburgh asked McPhee to take the aging goaltender off their hands to relieve salary cap issues. The Penguins fully believed in Matt Murray and thought free-agent pickup Antti Niemi would be a serviceable backup.
In Niemi’s first start, the Penguins pulled him after allowing four goals in nine minutes. He played twice more for Pittsburgh, going 0-3 overall with 16 goals against. The Penguins then waived him.
Murray has also struggled this season and the Penguins are off to their worst start in some time.
Fleury looked outstanding early in the season before his concussion with an impressive .925 save percentage, and has played well since returning, including in a win over the Penguins on Thursday.
To make matters worse for Pittsburgh, it gave McPhee a second-round pick in 2020 to select Fleury in the expansion draft.
Last year, James Neal was a big part of the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup. This year, he’s tied for the team lead in goals for the Golden Knights.
“We have a really good group of guys here,” Neal said. “We had to come together quickly to form a team but we’re growing each day. We are having fun, and everyone cares for each other and wants to win for each other. When you have that good things happen so we’re going to enjoy it and keep going with it.”
Neal is tied for 12th in the NHL with 15 goals, which would be the most on the Predators this season. Meanwhile, Calle Jarnkrok, who was protected over Neal, has scored only seven goals in 31 games in Nashville. Jarnkrok is four years younger than Neal, so the Predators might not been too upset with their decision, but Neal certainly could feel like one that got away.
Columbus Blue Jackets
No player on the Golden Knights has surprised the NHL more this season than William Karlsson.
The 25-year-old center leads the Golden Knights in goals (15) and points (26) and has already exceeded his career highs in both. Only one player in Columbus has more points than Karlsson -- Artemi Panarin, who was acquired in a trade from Chicago.
Instead of Karlsson, the Blue Jackets protected players like Cam Atkinson (six goals and four assists), Brandon Dubinsky (three goals and nine assists) and Scott Hartnell, who was released a week after the expansion draft.
Not only did the Golden Knights get their top-line center in Karlsson, they also took on the $5.2 million contract of David Clarkson from Columbus in exchange for a 2017 first-round draft pick and a 2019 second-round draft pick.
The Blue Jackets gave the haul up to protect backup goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, who is 3-3-0 this season.
The Golden Knights could have taken current backup goaltender Malcolm Subban during June’s expansion draft.
The former first round pick was widely regarded as one of the prospects with the highest potential at the position, but hadn’t worked out in Boston to that point.
Instead, McPhee opted to take speedy defenseman Colin Miller, who has been outstanding for Vegas this season. Buried under multiple pairs of veteran defenders in Boston, Miller was never given this opportunity.
“You’re not really sure because you haven’t had that opportunity in the NHL and you’re not really sure how it’s going to go,” Miller said. “I definitely had the confidence in myself so maybe it was just getting it at the right moment.”
The 24-year-old has averaged more than 18 minutes of ice time per game, including major minutes on the power play. With 17 points, Miller is the highest scoring defenseman on the Golden Knights.
“Confidence is everything in all sports,” Miller said. “The coaches do a great job giving us that though. They’re supportive and they show confidence in you so you have it in yourself.”
The Bruins chose to expose Miller over Kevan Miller, who has not scored in 27 games and is a third-pairing defender.
And McPhee still ended up getting Malcolm Subban, whom the Bruins waived on Oct. 2.
Since joining Vegas, Subban is 7-2-0 with a 2.33 goals against average, which is fifth-best in the NHL, and appears to be a possible franchise goaltender going forward.