Ask any financial advisor, the best way to build wealth is to diversify your portfolio. With money, that means a 401k, IRA, stocks, bonds, and whatever else that will make money over time. The same rings true in the world of sports, especially when we are talking about a team built from scratch.
The Golden Knights were granted with 30 Expansion Draft selections and seven Entry Draft picks for each season starting in 2017. The task was to build a hockey team that will eventually become the champion of the world’s best league.
There were actually rules set up forcing the Golden Knights to diversify by position (must select 14F, 11D, 3G), by contract status (20 players under contract), and by total dollars spent (at least 60% of the salary cap).
George McPhee made it clear from the get go the goal of the Expansion Draft was to accumulate assets, something he did a lot of both on June 21st and in the weeks following. Now it’s time to take a look at what he actually got, and how diversified the talent on the roster turned out.
The league gives each team a pick in each round of the draft every year. So over the first four years of the organization the Golden Knights were given 28 picks. In 2017, Vegas ended up selecting 12 times in the Entry Draft, including three times in the first round and six times in the top 65. All 12 players currently stand as completely unproven assets with massive potential upside, especially Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Erik Brannstrom, and Nic Hague.
They also acquired a bundle of picks for the next three drafts. As of this moment, the Golden Knights have 27 picks in between 2018-2020 including their original three 1st rounders, seven 2nd round picks, and four 3rd round picks.
Non-NHL Ready Talent Prospects
Here we are talking about players like Keegan Kolesar, Jake Bischoff, Reid Duke, Tomas Hyka, and the other free agent signings. These players are essentially Golden Knights draft picks from 2013-2016, drafts they did not participate in… because they weren’t a team yet. They are low risk players than can offer high reward, but the probability of massive success is incredibly slim.
NHL Ready Talent Prospects
Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch. This is a key category for the Golden Knights as it’s only filled by a pair of players. Hopefully some of the guys from the previous categories like Glass, Brannstrom, and Suzuki find their way into this one sooner than later, but as of right now, there’s a lot riding on Theodore and Tuch. This is the money category. The potential return is through the roof, but in every case, the Golden Knights used a major asset to bring them in. Whether it was a first round pick or passing over another player in the Expansion Draft, McPhee had to get it right on these guys.
Unproven NHL Players
This is a huge group for the Golden Knights and one that will go a long way in determining the long term success of the team. Nate Schmidt, Colin Miller, Griffin Reinhart, Brendan Leipsic, Oscar Lindberg, Teemu Pulkkinen, William Karlsson, William Carrier, Tomas Nosek, and the list goes on and on. Vegas will need at least three of the players from this group to take a step from unproven, to bonafide, if not elite players if they want to meet the goal of winning the Cup in six years. For those who doubt the “playoffs in three, Cup in six” mantra, this is the group to focus on, cause if either or both are to happen, there are going to have to be some big time gems in this category.
NHL High Risk Fliers
Maybe the most fun category on to look at with the Golden Knights. This is where Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Cody Eakin, Erik Haula, Brayden McNabb, and Calvin Pickard fall. The reason they are high risk, is because the Golden Knights specifically targeted each player rather than taking a different asset from their prior team. Pickard will forever be compared to Antti Raanta, Philip Grubauer, and Petr Mrazek. Vegas gave up a pick to bring in Smith. They passed on taking on Dustin Brown‘s salary, and probably a 1st or 2nd round pick, to take McNabb.
This is the category in which McPhee’s work during the Expansion Draft will be easily graded, and probably scrutinized. If a few of these guys make the leap to become great NHL players, this team is on the right track, if this is a list of average guys, Vegas is in trouble for a while.
Vadim Shipachyov has his own little nook in this category. High risk monetarily, low risk otherwise.
This is the group many Golden Knights fans wish were bigger right off the bat. If McPhee and Vegas brass wanted to, they could have filled this category up and had short term success, but it’s no secret that would not have boded well for the future. James Neal, Marc-Andre Fleury, David Perron, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Jason Garrison, Deryk Engelland, Luca Sbisa, Clayton Stoner, and there are a few more. Think of this category as cash savings. We know exactly what each one of these players is worth on the ice. Could there be a bit of inflation or deflation of their talents playing with Vegas, sure, but just like that lump of cash under your mattress, it’s never going to make you a millionaire. There’s not a truly elite player on this list (yes, even 32-year old Fleury), and none of them will become one at any point in the rest of their careers. That’s not to say they are bad, cause they are all the best players on the team, but unlike the draft picks, the fliers, and Tuch/Theodore/Shippy, there’s no get rich quick option here.
Elite NHL Players
None. There’s not a single top 20 player on the Golden Knights roster as it currently stands. It’s a fact of life for every expansion team in their first season. This category is the main reason for diversifiyng the makeup of the initial Golden Knights roster. Getting an elite player was not going to happen, so McPhee had to put his eggs in as many baskets as possible to find a one.
The higher up this list we we go, the less likely we are to find a truly elite player. It’s all about managing risk. Draft picks have the highest percentage of eventually finding their way into this group, especially first round picks. But, they also have the highest risk of being out of the league in a few years and offering nothing, something David Perron or James Neal is guaranteed not to do. The unproven group, the fliers, even the non-NHL ready guys, all have a chance to eventually get here, even if it’s slimmer than the chance of the penny stock I just bought becoming the next Apple.
Finding a representative or two to fill the elite group is paramount. Until you do that, you simply cannot win in the NHL. That is why there aren’t more players in the veteran category, defenseman were being shipped out left and right, and draft picks appeared to have more value to George McPhee than 20+ goal scorers.
That brings us to the final category of diversification, and it’s one many are going to hate.
There’s only one way to increase your odds of winning the lottery, and that’s by losing on the ice. The lottery is the number one way NHL teams find the best of the best players. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and about 90% of the league’s truly elite players were picked atop the NHL Draft.
It sucks as a fan, but the fact of the matter in hockey is that the best way to get a great player is to win the lottery, and the best way to win the lottery is to lose hockey games.
Were the Golden Knights built specifically with the idea of winning the lottery? No, absolutely not. But, there’s no doubt it was part of the thinking of spreading the assets in the earlier categories rather than the late ones. The ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s no secret that’s not happening for Vegas in its inaugural season. Finishing 31st or 17th makes no difference for a team not expecting to win it all, but it does have an impact on the lottery, and it’d be foolish to completely disregard the added bonus of coming in last.
The Golden Knights have a lot of money in plenty of different “markets,” and it all involves risk, but looking back on how this team was built, it’s hard to find a place they could have diversified better. Now, they just need those assets to come through, which is much easier said than done.