What Can the Kraken Learn from the Vegas Expansion Draft?

A few months ago I published my first attempt to project what the Seattle Kraken's expansion draft could look like. While there's still a lot up in the air around what to expect, a key in Seattle's preparation will be analyzing what can be learned from the Golden Knights' expansion draft. The rest of the league will certainly adapt and Seattle won't operate in the same environment that Vegas did, but there are still a number of lessons that the Kraken can use to their advantage.

What to Learn from Vegas' Successes

Take Advantage of Desperate Teams

While the general perception is that the league will be looking to avoid the mistakes of the last draft, I would argue that there was only one real mistake made - the quality given up to Vegas by the Florida Panthers. The Panthers gave up two of the most important players in Vegas' early success, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, in order to be able to get rid of Smith's contract. This wasn't a case of not knowing what they were giving up either; Marchessault was coming off of a 30 goal season and Smith was a two-way forward who was coming off of a down year but had scored 25 in the past. Florida was desperate financially, and Vegas took advantage by gaining two strong and young players that provided a foundation for the team.

Columbus could also fit here, but not for the reason that many think. The Blue Jackets needed to get rid of David Clarkson's contract, and gave up a first-round pick and a second-round pick to do. The other piece of the deal, Vegas taking William Karlsson, is the part that gets more attention but wasn't nearly as egregious as Florida's deal. Karlsson was playing in a more defensive role than what he has in Vegas, but there wasn't much in his underlying stats to project his breakout. That portion of the deal is a credit to Vegas' scouting, and I'm not convinced that even they expected anywhere near this type of performance. The known steep price paid at the time for Columbus was the draft picks, and a similar deal would be beneficial to Seattle as they need to stock a pipeline.

The other assumption worth addressing is that teams are going to learn from these type of deals and won't make them with Seattle. That may be true, but I think there's actually a case to be made that more teams will be willing to make these deals next summer due to the financial ramifications of COVID-19. Already this week, it was reported that the Sabres will have an internal budget $10M under the NHL's flat salary cap. While teams will have a full season to prepare for the salary cap ramifications, another year with limited or no attendance will have many teams with serious cash limitations. That could leave teams in a bidding war to be able to give some contracts to Seattle, even those like the Florida scenario with valuable players attached.

Know Which Bad Contracts Can Get You Value and Which You Don't Want

As a follow-on to the above lesson, it will be important for Seattle to make the correct decisions about which "bad" contracts they're willing to take on. The Florida and Columbus scenarios were the best for Vegas, but they also made a good choice when they took on Jason Garrison's contract in exchange for draft picks and the NHL rights to Nikita Gusev. Meanwhile, they avoided Dallas' bad goalie contracts and the Brown/Gaborik contracts from Los Angeles. Importantly, they also limited the sizable contracts they took on that any type of significant term remaining. This may be the most important lesson for Seattle, especially if they do have their choice of deals to make.

Understand Which Players May be Valued More by Their Own Teams

These scenarios might not get a huge return like some of the others, but considering Seattle starts with no pipeline it's important to take any value possible. In this case, that means taking even a little bit extra from teams that want to protect players that you either weren't taking or were debating against another. A few examples that Vegas received:

  • A sixth-round pick from Buffalo to not take Linus Ullmark; Vegas was reportedly debating Ullmark or William Carrier. That pick turned into Jiri Patera, a goalie who was voted second-best in the WHL this past season and then signed his entry-level deal with Vegas.

  • Erik Haula and Alex Tuch in exchange for a third-round pick and not taking Matt Dumba, Marco Scandella, or Eric Staal. Haula played well for Vegas, Tuch has emerged as a solid young power forward, and Minnesota has now traded two of the players they kept.

  • Winnipeg giving up their first and a third in exchange for Columbus' first and not taking Marko Dano or Toby Enstrom. Dano's struggled to stay in the NHL, while the first round pick from Winnipeg turned into Nick Suzuki.

Most of these deals won't get too much attention, but they'll be key to building up a substantial prospect pool, and in most cases don't involve giving much up. These low-risk moves for some additional assets are vital for the growth of the Kraken.

Don't Leave Any Value on the Table

This is similar to the above, but could also involve getting a player that you were likely selecting anyway. In the case of Vegas, it was the selection of Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh. Everyone knew that the Golden Knights were taking Fleury, but Pittsburgh couldn't take the chance that they would be left with Fleury and his contract as a backup. Because of that, Vegas was able to gain a second-round pick in 2020 to guarantee that's who they would select. Vegas probably was taking Fleury no matter what, but took advantage of having the leverage in this scenario.

You Need Role Players and Specialists

Every pick won't be a home run (most won't when teams are protecting most of their core), so it's important to ensure you pick players that are able to fill specific roles in your team. That doesn't always mean a stereotypical NHL role-player - James Neal was an effective pick as someone who wasn't necessarily well-rounded but can get goals for you and Colin Miller was a puck-moving defenseman who could quarterback the power play.

Those two filled roles higher in the lineup, but it's also important for Seattle to find cheap players that can fill out the lineup effectively. This is an area where both scouting and advanced analytics come into play. A good example is William Carrier - he's not a great player who will contribute a lot offensively, but his underlying stats showed that he was able to help drive possession on a poor Buffalo team. Those type of results are important to having a full lineup that can put pressure on the opponents.

Contenders Can Be Exploited

To an extent this is obvious - stronger teams are going to have better players left unprotected, so it's important to make sure you're getting a valuable pick from those teams. However, there is also a salary cap aspect to this - those teams are also more likely to be facing tough cap decisions. With that in mind, Seattle can benefit from agreeing to take contracts from teams that have very little room left under the cap - that's similar to the haul Vegas was able to get by taking Garrison from the Lightning.

Those contenders are also more likely to have log jams in certain positions, and to want to protect more than the allotted amounts in those areas. That provides a great opportunity to gain a valuable player, get additional assets, or both; for Vegas, the best case was Shea Theodore in exchange for taking Clayton Stoner's contract and avoiding Sami Vatanen or John Manson. Anaheim had a substantial list of defensemen they wanted to protect, and Vegas was able to get a valuable prospect at the same position by avoiding them.

Where Did Vegas Make Mistakes?

While Facilitating Trades Can be Beneficial, Loading Up on One Position Limits Value

Vegas showed a willingness in the draft to serve as a middle-man, taking players from some teams with the idea already in mind to flip them elsewhere. The problem is that in almost all cases they did so by taking defensemen - at some point you end up working against yourself when you try to facilitate too many trades at one position. You may not run out of teams looking for defensemen, but returns are reduced when everyone knows you have a glut at the position that you only took for purposes of trading them. If Seattle chooses to serve a similar role, they'd be well-served to do it at multiple positions even if the apparent value is only at one.

Know the Person, Not Just the Player

The best example of this one didn't become apparent until this year when Brenden Leipsic's messages were leaked and eventually led to his release from the Capitals. While he was obviously no longer a Golden Knight, there were clearly signs ahead of time that he wasn't a great teammate. A talented player moving between multiple teams should be a red flag.

While most of the other controversies around treatment of players this year focused on coaches and management, there is a clear lack of due diligence at times within the NHL. It's important that Seattle works to avoid similar issues and knows what it is getting in the people it drafts.

How Does Seattle Leverage This

While this gives an overview of lessons for Seattle to learn, they still need to be able to use this effectively. Seattle will obviously be doing many attempts at mock drafts internally, but I think it's vital that part of that is working these scenarios in: which teams will be looking to move players, which won't the Kraken touch, and what does the return need to be. As mentioned above, part of the benefit of that should be to get options at all positions for each team to ensure you don't overload a certain scenario in one area. That diversity of options can pay off for the Kraken in order to adapt in real time and ensure they extract maximum value from the opportunities they'll be presented with in the actual draft.

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