Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: An analytical deep dive into the Vegas Expansion Draft

Despite the aura of calm projected by Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, his nascent desert franchise is already on the clock. The recent announcement that the Oakland Raiders will be moving to Las Vegas in 2019, has already undermined Foley’s plan to be the only show in town. If the Golden Knights don’t win over the Vegas fanbase in relatively short order, it could prove almost impossible for hockey to get ever get a foothold in Sin City.

As a result, the team faced a variety of difficult decisions going into the 2017 expansion draft. On one hand, the team could try to win immediately with aging veterans like Eric Staal, which would allow them to establish a foothold in the market, but also put them at risk of years of mediocrity as older players lose their fights with Father Time. On the other hand, the team could tank in the hopes of finding stars at the top of the draft, but the resulting efforts could further exacerbate the fan bases preference for the incoming NFL juggernaut.

In order to evaluate the quality of the selections of GM George McPhee, I viewed each pick as a “trade” and applied prototype of a “Trade Machine” to look at each selection, given the choices available. For example, Vegas chose Clayton Stoner and Shea Theodore from the Ducks over Sami Vatanen, which means, in essence, the selection was a trade for Theodore and Stoner for Vatenen straight up. After looking at all 31 selections, I compared Vegas’ actual roster to one consisting of an optimal roster calculated using DTMAboutHeart’s GAR statistic. The results are below.

A little bit about methodology:

Grading: For each pick, I assigned a grade to Vegas front office, by comparing the player selected to alternative options and trades available to the team. While it is impossible to know whether reported trades were actually available, we can reasonably infer from the exposed player lists what kind of leverage Vegas had going into the expansion draft, and what kind of team it was capable of building for the present and/or the future.

Best Trade Chip Available (Trade Value): The expected return for a player on the trade market. Derived from a modified version of Matt Cane’s Free Agency Model (explained here). The model projects how much every player in the league would make right now on a 5 year UFA contract and then makes adjustments for things such as age, current contract length and captaincy.

The trade value model is still a work in progress and is less accurate than Matt’s Free Agency model, but still had an R^2 of .62, meaning it was able to explain 62% of the cap hits from the 2017 offseason. A public version of the trade machine and a full write up will be coming soon.

Draft Pick Value: Derived from this 2015 Matt Cane article. The value of the pick is discounted by 20% each year, and then summed up for total value per pick (with a 1.5x multiplier for 1st round picks).

Best Player Available (GAR Projections): To measure on-ice contributions, an aging curve was applied to DTMAboutHeart’s GAR statistic and then averaged over 5 years.

Cap Space GAR: Measures the amount of talent a team can purchase on the UFA market with future cap space. Measured by dividing the sum of total dollars spent in 2017 on UFAs by the total expected 2017 GAR.

And now for the good part: Here is a breakdown of all 30 selections made by George McPhee by team.

Anaheim:

Best Player Available: Patrick Eaves (8.8 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Sami Vatanen

Player Selected: Clayton Stoner (+Shea Theodore)

Trade Values: VGK – Shea Theodore ($7.4M) + Clayton Stoner ($5.7M) ; ANA – Sami Vatanen ($27.8M)

Vegas’ reluctance to take the bait on Eaves, a 32 year old who scored more goals last season than the last five seasons combined, was understandable. However, it’s hard to say they got clear value for passing over Vatanen or Manson.

Theodore is probably significantly underrated by the model but I highly doubt GMGM would get a call back if he offered Theodore + Stoner straight up for Manson or Vatanen.

Grade: D

Arizona:

Best Player Available: Josh Jooris (3.1 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Jamie McGinn

Player Selected: Teemu Pulkkinen

Arizona was a bad team last year with minimal NHL level talent, so Pulkkinen is a justified low upside play.

Grade: C

Boston:

Best Player Available: Colin Miller (4.7 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Matt Belesky

Player Selected: Colin Miller

Miller has been an advanced stats darling for years, and is young enough to be the obvious choice here.

Grade: B+

Buffalo:

Best Player Available: Matt Moulson (4.4 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Zach Bogosian

Player Selected: William Carrier (+ 6th round pick)

Carrier hasn’t been exactly lighting it up, and Bogosian may have fetched more of a return, but his selection would have also put Vegas at risk of being stuck with the remaining $15M on his contract.

Grade: C+

Calgary:

Best Player Available: Kris Versteeg (4.4 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Troy Brouwer

Player Selected: Deryk Engelland

Engelland was selected primarily for his ties to the Vegas market, since there’s absolutely no on-ice justification for his selection. Brouwer, to no one’s surprise, struggled to live up to his contract, but still may have drawn interest from a few teams as a bounce back candidate.

Grade: C-

Carolina:

Best Player Available: Eddie Lack (3.2 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Lee Stempniak

Player Selected: Connor Brickley (+ 5th round pick)

The selection of Brickley, a career AHLer who was immediately cut, makes little sense, even with the 5th round pick attached. Joakim Nordstrom only projects as a bottom 6 forward, but can actually play in the NHL (he won a Cup with the Hawks in 2015), and is the same age as Brickley. He may have made more sense here.

Trade Values: VGK – Connor Brickley ($0M) + Avg. 5th Rounder ($1M) ; CAR – Joakim Nordstrom ($4.4M)

Grade: D+

Chicago:

Best Player Available: Trevor Van Reimsdyk (4.4 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Marcus Kruger

Player Selected: Trevor Van Reimsdyk

Both Kruger and Van Reimsdyk were acquired by Vegas and then immediately traded to Carolina, although Van Reimsdyk garnered a much larger return.

Grade: B+

Colorado:

Best Player Available: Mark Barbiero (6.1 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Calvin Pickard

Player Selected: Calvin Pickard

Pickard, a good young goalie prospect who was blocked by Seymon Varlomov in Colorado, can serve as the primary backup for the oft-injured/inconsistent Marc Andre Fleury.

Grade: A-

Columbus:

Best Player Available: William Karlsson (5.5 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Joonas Korpisalo

Player Selected: William Karlsson (+ 1st rd pick, 2nd rd pick and David Clarkson)

Karlsson, a 24 year old center who put up 25 points last year was an easy choice. The better question is did Vegas get enough for taking on the remaining $15M of Clarkson’s contract. The answer is not quite. Based on the calculations of Cap Space GAR & the trade values of draft picks, the cost of Clarkson’s contract is worth a 1st and three 2nds. However, it’s hard to imagine any GM mortgaging that much of their future for cap space.

Grade: B+

Dallas:

Best Player Available: Dan Hamhuis (6.1 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Cody Eakin

Player Selected: Cody Eakin

Eakin projects as VGK’s third line center, and is young enough at 27 to be a core part of the team for years to come.

Grade: B+

Detroit

Best Player Available: Peter Mrazek (7.12 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Darren Helm

Player Selected: Tomas Nosek

This selection says more about the sudden decline of Mrazek’s stock around the league than about Vegas’ love for Tomas Nosek. Nosek is a big forward who put up 41 pts in 51 games for Grand Rapids last year, but is already 24 with only 17 games of NHL experience. Xavier Ouellet is also 24, but has 96 games of NHL experience and may have been the better long term choice.

Grade: C-

Edmonton:

Best Player Available: Kris Russell (2.9 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Laurent Broissoit

Player Selected: Griffin Reinhart

It would have been interesting to see how much Peter Chiarelli would have ponied up to overpay for Kris Russell, but Reinhart’s pedigree as 23 year old former #4 pick was too tempting to pass up.

Grade: B

Florida:

Best Player Available: Jonathan Marchessault (6.3 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Reilly Smith

Player Selected: Jonathan Marchessault

Taking Marchessault, a 26 year old who popped in 30 goals last year, was the easiest selection in the expansion draft. Reilly Smith’s value is a little more obscure, given that he only scored 13 goals last year at $5M AAV. However, Smith is a possession monster and worth significantly more than a 4th round pick.

Trade Values: VGK – Reilly Smith ($29.1M) ; FLA – Avg. 4th Rounder ($1.2M)

Grade: A+

Los Angeles:

Best Player Available: Nick Shore (4.4 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Dustin Brown

Player Selected: Brayden McNabb

Shore has scored only 34 pts in 172 games but rated decently enough by GAR to warrant a second look. McNabb’s possession numbers are strong, but it will be interesting to see how his performance translates without Drew Doughty and Darryl Sutter.

Grade: B-

Minnesota:

Best Player Available: Eric Staal (6.6 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Eric Haula/Matt Dumba

Player Selected: Eric Haula (+Alex Tuch)

Dumba has been up and down in his young career, but rated out significantly better than Haula in GAR last year and is 4 years younger, and still has #1 defenseman potential. This grade really depends on how you feel about Tuch, but an additional 3rd round pick seems like an overpay on Vegas’ behalf.

Grade: C-

Montreal:

Best Player Available: Torrey Mitchell (3.5 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Tomas Plekanec

Player Selected: Alexei Emelin

Emelin was later traded for a 3rd round pick, but it’s hard to imagine that pick being better than Charles Hudon, who’s put up 159 points in 198 games over the past 3 years in the AHL.

Grade: C-

Nashville:

Best Player Available: Colin Wilson (6.3 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: James Neal

Player Selected: James Neal

Neal may look intriguing as a deadline rental on an expiring contract for a team looking for scoring, and may bring back an additional 1st rd pick.

Grade: B

New Jersey:

Best Player Available: Ben Lovejoy (3.9 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Mike Cammalleri

Player Selected: Jon Merril

If you’re trying to get good players or valuable trade chips in an expansion draft, you want a team with a ton of depth and aspirations of contention. New Jersey falls into neither category, so Jon Merrill, come on down.

Grade: B-

New York Islanders:

Best Player Available: Calvin De Haan (9 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Casey Cizikas

Player Selected: JF Berube (+Mikhail Grabovski, Jake Bischoff, 1st rd pick, 2nd pick)

So,

A: It’s not clear JF Berube is a real person.

B: Berube was immediately kicked to the curb

C: Calvin De Haan was the best player available by GAR in the expansion draft

D: De Haan himself would probably fetch more in a trade than the 15th pick in a weak draft

Trade Values: VGK – if they selected Calvin De Haan ($20.5M) ; NYI – #15 pick ($9M) + Avg. 2nd rd pick ($2M)

E: A future first made more sense just in case John Tavares doesn’t resign

F: Oh, by the way, Vegas paid for the privilege of getting fleeced by taking on Mikhail Grabovski’s contract

Grade: D

New York Rangers:

Best Player Available: Antii Raanta (3.9 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Michael Grabner

Player Selected: Oscar Lindberg

There’s not much “upside” to 25 year old forwards like Lindberg, but it’s not like Vegas was selecting from a murderer’s row of talent to begin with.

Grade: C

Ottawa:

Best Player Available: Andrew Hammond (3.9 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Bobby Ryan

Player Selected: Marc Methot

Methot was immediately flipped to Dallas for a 2nd round pick, which given Methot’s contract, is a good enough value.

Grade: B

Philadelphia:

Best Player Available: Steve Mason/Michael Raffl (5.3 avg. GAR/4 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Andrew McDonald

Player Selected: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Who can better withstand the seductive allure of the Vegas nightlife? A 32 year depth forward from France (Bellemare), or two 20 something prospects with upside in Taylor Leier and Jordan Weal?

Good choice, GMGM.

Grade: F

Pittsburgh:

Best Player Available: Carl Hagelin (6.3 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Marc-Andre Fleury

Player Selected: Marc-Andre Fleury + 2nd rd pick

Since Vegas has had Fleury pegged as their #1 goalie for a while, this isn’t the worst outcome. However, with a plethora of goalies available like Mrazek, it’s not hard to envision Vegas squeezing a 1st round pick out of the Pens to take on Fleury’s contract.

Grade: B-

San Jose:

Best Player Available: Paul Martin (7.7 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Mikkel Boedker

Player Selected: David Schlemko

Martin was still good last year, even at age 36, but doesn’t fit in Vegas’ timeline. Schlemko doesn’t either, which is why he was traded to Montreal. However, they should have gotten more than a 5th round pick.

Trade Values: VGK – David Schlemko ($9.6M); MTL – Avg. 5th Rd Pick ($1.1M)

St. Louis:

Best Player Available: David Perron (6 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Jori Lehtera

Player Selected: David Perron

Perron is the clear choice here, although it’s not very clear why Vegas thought Griffin Reinhart was worth a flyer but Nail Yakupov wasn’t.

Grade: B

Tampa Bay:

Best Player Available: Jason Garrison (2.3 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Slater Koekkoek

Player Selected: Jason Garrison (+ 2nd rd pick, 4th rd pick, Nikita Gusev)

Garrison has great hair, Koekkoek has a great name and Jake Dotchin has great track record of dirty plays, but none of them would have really moved the needle for Vegas, so the draft picks are a decent consolation prize.

Grade: B-

Toronto:

Best Player Available: Brian Boyle (3.3 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Martin Marincin

Player Selected: Brendan Leipsic

Leipsic is young and unproven, but couldn’t crack the Leafs lineup last year. However, he’s not a bad selection overall.

Grade: C

Vancouver:

Best Player Available: Ryan Miller (4.2 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Luca Sbisa

Player Selected: Luca Sbisa

With Brendan Gaunce and Reid Boucher still available, the Golden Knights went full Luca Sbisa. You never go full Luca Sbisa.

Grade: C+

Washington:

Best Player Available: Jay Beagle (5 avg. GAR)

Best Trade Chip Available: Brooks Orpik

Shattenkirk was available but obviously was never going to sign with VGK. Orpik is a better player than Schmidt but the contract is a non-starter.

Player Selected: Nate Schmidt

Grade: B

Winnipeg:

Best Player Available: Ondrej Pavelec (4.3 avg. GAR, technically a UFA but likely to re-sign)

Best Trade Chip Available: Shawn Matthias/Marko Dano

Player Selected: Chris Thorburn + 3rd pick (plus a pick swap from 24th to 13th overall)

Dano played decently last year and is still only 22. Based on trade model, Vegas should have pushed for an additional 2nd round pick, since the pick swap alone isn’t sufficient to cover the gap between Dano and Thorburn.

Trade Values: VGK – Marko Dano, if VGK would have selected him ($8M);  WPG – Chris Thorburn ($1.5M), Avg. 3rd rd pick ($1.5 M), Pick Swap from 24 to 13 ($3M)

Grade: C-

Overall Report Card: C+ (2.37 GPA). The biggest issue is the lack of a clear direction on the part of the franchise. There looks like a concerted effort to stock up on young talent and draft picks, but 25 year old 4th liners and over the hill defensemen will neither improve the future outlook or put butts in seats.

Vegas projects to have a total skater GAR of 49 (not counting players like Vadim Shipachyov), which would give them a 33% of making the playoffs, according to the chart below. An all out tank is possible, but there’s still just enough talent on the roster for the team to play themselves out of a top 5 pick.

If Vegas would have went all in on icing the best team possible, here’s what the roster could have looked like:

Team Player Projected Skater GAR
NYI Calvin DeHaan 9
ANA Patrick Eaves 8.8
PIT Bryan Rust 7.9
SJS Paul Martin 7.7
NJD Mike Cammaleri 7.2
DET Peter Mrazek
MIN Eric Staal 6.6
LAK Trevor Lewis 6.4
FLA Jonathan Marchessault 6.3
NSH Colin Wilson 6.3
DAL Dan Hamhuis 6.2
COL Mark Barbiero 6.1
STL David Perron 6
CBJ William Karlsson 5.5
BOS Colin Miller 4.7
CGY Kris Versteeg 4.4
CHI Trevor VanReimsdyk 4.4
BUF Matt Moulson 4.4
PHI Michael Raffl 4
MTL Torrey Mitchell 3.5
ARI Josh Jooris 3.1
WPG Ondrej Pavalec
TOR Brian Boyle 3.3
Total GAR 121.8

A team with a total GAR of 122, has about a 80% chance of making the playoffs, according to the aforementioned projections. What this hypothetical team lacks in star power and upside, it more than makes up for in overwhelming depth, especially along the d-parings and in net.

In conclusion, George McPhee had an excellent opportunity to ruthlessly barter his way into a cadre of picks and prospects, or the league’s deepest team of veteran castoffs like a hockey version of The Expendables. Instead, McPhee chose neither, and the future in Vegas looks rather bleak indeed.

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