Monday, March 6, 2017

Expansion Draft Strategies (aka Niccolo Machiavelli's The General Manager)

Now that the trade deadline has passed, we can move on to discussing the next significant event on the NHL calendar - the June 21 Las Vegas expansion draft.  I suppose the Stanley Cup has to be awarded to someone in the meantime, but I'm more interested in this draft.

This is the first expansion draft to be done in the salary cap era, as well as the first to be done by a general manager who appears to be the slightest bit shrewd. While the early 1990s expansion teams have been relatively successful - there's 2 Stanley Cups and 7 Stanley Cup Finals appearances for those franchises in the 25 years of their operation, and all of them have made the Cup Finals at least once - the four teams added in the late 90s/early 00s have been nowhere near as successful.   None of them have made the Stanley Cup Finals.  They've won a combined 7 playoff rounds.   Looking over these expansion drafts, it's amateur hour both in terms of the players selected and the deals made not to select certain players.  I expect Vegas to do a little better, but the problem with expansion teams is that they have two contradictory aims - they want to establish a fan base right away, so they'd like to draft the best team possible.  However, they are starting so far behind every other team not just because they are mostly forced to take dross in the expansion draft, but they also didn't draft anyone in any of the previous entry drafts.  While other teams have a pool of prospects they're selecting from to build their future teams, Vegas has squat.  This tends to make expansion franchises very top-heavy in their early days - they likely drafted a star player or two, but they are always working from behind when it comes to NHL depth because while other teams are filling in their picks from previous years, expansion teams lack that, and they generally aren't given the tools to getting players who are 19-21 years old at the time of the expansion draft.

It's said that Machiavelli's The Prince was basically written as a guide to leadership for Lorenzo Di Medici - likewise, I'm going to write a guide to the expansion draft for George McPhee.  The overarching goal for Vegas's first season should be to make an entertaining but bad team.  Select some fancy danglers that other NHL teams have grown weary of, select some brawlers who will goon it up for the cheap seats, and keep your first round draft pick away from the team in Year 1.

Step 1:  Identify the players that other teams want to get rid of.

We cannot overlook how critical time will be for you, George McPhee - you find out teams' protected lists on June 17 and you makes your selections on June 21.  That's not a lot of time to orchestrate all the deals I want you to make.  What you can do in the meantime is find out what non-playoff teams are willing to give for Vegas to take a certain player.  You should be working the phones the day after the season ends to find out.  Let's say Colorado wants to ditch Carl Soderberg or Arizona isn't happy with Connor Murphy - what will these teams give to Vegas in terms of prospects or draft picks for them to select this player?  Now both of these are not great examples, as their contracts run for several more years; chances are that such a deal cannot be worked out.  However, playoff teams will certainly be interested in these sorts of cap-issue mitigating deals, especially for players with one year remaining on their contract.  What will Boston give up for you to select Jimmy Hayes instead of so-and-so?  What about the Rangers and Kevin Klein?  Find out if they will give up anything and try to get it out of them.  Every draft pick matters.   Even if you can wheedle a 6th or 7th round pick out of a team for not taking Chump A over Chump B, it's all necessary.

Step 2:  Identify the players that teams are willing to trade picks/prospects for you to not select

I suspect the exisiting franchises will not let you know who they are going to protect until June 17th, hoping that the confusion can work to their advantage and not Vegas's.  Regardless, once those lists do get released, there will certainly be players exposed who their teams like and would prefer to keep.   Find out who these players are and in effect offer trades for them such that their original team can keep them.  Jonas Brodin's exposed?  Demand a 2nd and 3rd round pick to not select Jonas Brodin.   Jakob Silfverberg?  Same thing.  The goal is not to acquire the best player but rather the most value, and do not forget - by and large, most franchises overvalue the majority of their players.  Make them pay for this mistake.

Step 3:  Try to trade up at this year's draft

If you execute the above strategies well, Mr. McPhee, you should have well above your allotment of 7 draft picks at this year's draft.  You should have at least 10 and I would hope something closer to 20 draft picks from this strategy - although it depends on if you are willing to instead take prospects instead of picks.  Your next mission should be to trade up.  Take 3 low 2nds and offer them for a low 1st.   Take a grip of 3rd rounders and see if you can't get back into the 2nd round.  Certain franchises have dumped a ton of picks from the upcoming entry draft already on other moves - see if you can replenish their stock of picks for a higher selection.

Step 4:  Draft a bunch of overage players with the low picks

Remember that I'm imagining your club having 6 or 7 picks in the final 62 selections - no one is going to care to trade for any of these picks.   Instead, you should be focusing on older players to draft with these, especially older European players.  I know your head scout David Conte is big on interviewing players and making sure they fit in with your philosophy or whatever, but this is not the time for that.  This is the time for looking at numbers and throwing darts.  Remember the other Sebastian Aho?  He's having a good year in the SEL, see how much he likes Henderson, Nevada.  I'm sure there's guys in the KHL who might have some interest in signing an ELC with the right to return to Russia if things don't work out.  Draft them, invite them to a development camp, and if they're not worthy of an entry-level contract, oh well.  You're trying to fill in your team with players in the age cohort that you will not be able to obtain in the expansion draft, and it's likely teams aren't going to trade you anything better than what you can get here.

Step 5:  Hoard as much bad salary/dead money as you can

It's unclear to me at this moment whether Vegas has to be at the cap floor or if there is some allowance for their first season that they do not have to be.  I've heard multiple stories but it doesn't ultimately matter one way or another.  There's all sorts of dead money in the NHL and you should try to trade to get it.  David Clarkson's contract?  Pick that bad boy up on July 2 and see if you can't get a 2018 2nd for the privilege.  Still, there's not a huge amount of dead contracts around the NHL and Arizona will likely be competing with you to pick some of them up.  Regardless, there's plenty of bad contracts of still-active players that teams would love to dump on you.  Take them.

Step 6:  Above all, do not care about the composition of your initial team

I know you've talked in the press about what an exciting opportunity it is to have an expansion team - a team where you get to decide who is on it and who is not, full stop.  This is an opportunity only expansion draft GMs and GMs who've been somewhere 10 years or more get to experience.  Still, your goal here is not having 23 guys on the opening-night roster who you like more than everyone else - your goal is to look towards the future.  Year 1 only matters insofar as you can get people into the arena to see your team.  By Year 4, almost all those players selected in the expansion draft should be gone.   It would be very easy for the your franchise to ultimately be like one of those incomplete casinos you can sometimes see on the Vegas skyline - a crane perched atop, unmoved and unmovable, losing its owners money with little hope of recovering their investment.  A half-built monument to poor planning.  As you cannot see the stars against the light shone into the Vegas sky, let those motionless cranes be your guiding star - a point away from which to navigate, towards division championships and yes, should you continue on the path I've set out for you here, even against the glimmer of the Strip, you can see in the distance the light reflecting off of hockey's ultimate prize.