By JOHN WAWROW and STEPHEN WHYNO
The Associated Press
Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee had difficulty containing his excitement in anticipation of the NHL’s expansion draft list being released.
“The most fun I’ve ever had in hockey,” McPhee said in a video posted of him driving to the team’s headquarters on Sunday.
And that was before McPhee learned of the high-profile group of players he’ll have to choose from — limited to one from each of the 30 teams — in stocking the Golden Knights roster before submitting his list on Wednesday.
There’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion goalie in Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury available and several 20-plus-goal-scorers in Nashville’s James Neal and Minnesota’s Eric Staal. As there’s a number of top defensemen exposed such as Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen and Ottawa’s Marc Methot.
“The issue for us isn’t going to be, ‘Can we fill out the roster?’” McPhee told reporters after the list was released. “It would be, ‘Do we have too many players?’ There are a lot of good players there.”
Vegas is holding all the cards while the rest of the NHL comes to a full stop in awaiting McPhee to determine his selections over a three-day stretch during which the Golden Knights are the only team allowed to make trades and sign pending free agents.
McPhee wasn’t prepared to discuss individual players when specifically asked about Fleury, but noted there were no surprises based on the numerous mock drafts the Golden Knights conducted over the past few months. The one thing that didn’t materialize was a large number of trades happening involving players teams didn’t want to expose.
That benefits the Golden Knights because it maintained a deeper pool of talent available.
“We really like what we’re looking at right now,” McPhee said. “We expect to put a good, entertaining club on the ice.”
Fleury was left unprotected by Pittsburgh after he agreed to waive the no-movement clause in his contract. The Penguins instead protected Matt Murray a week after the second-year goalie led them to win their second consecutive championship.
Vatanen, who will miss the start of the season after having shoulder surgery, and Josh Manson were the odd men out in Anaheim, because the Ducks couldn’t protect their all their talented core of defensemen.
The Predators were put in a bind in being forced to expose Neal, a 10-time 20-goal-scorer, because they elected to protect a fourth defenseman.
Other notable forwards left unprotected were Los Angeles’s Dustin Brown, Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz. As for defensemen, Minnesota exposed both Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella, while Buffalo’s Zach Bogosian and Dallas’ Dan Hamhuis are also available.
There’s also a wealth of proven goaltenders available given that teams were required to expose at least one. Aside from Fleury, other goalies available are Florida’s Roberto Luongo, Detroit’s Petr Mrazek and Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth.
The unprotected list includes players eligible to become restricted or unrestricted free agents. Any pending free agent signed would count as Vegas’ expansion-draft selection from that player’s team.
San Jose has two notable veteran free agents in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. But it’s unlikely the two would consider joining an expansion team at this point in their respective careers.
What’s uncertain is how many trades the Golden Knights will reach with teams to influence which player Vegas selects or avoids in exchange for draft picks, something McPhee hopes to stockpile.
“We’ve got lots of things lined up, but until we see everything, we don’t have anything,” McPhee said. He intends to inform teams who Vegas is selecting in the event they want to strike a deal to have the Golden Knights choose another player.
There’s also nothing barring Vegas from making deals to select a player and trade him to another team.
The Islanders were the only team that protected five defensemen: Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, leaving forwards Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome and defensemen Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey available.
Some players left unprotected, such as Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan, carry hefty contracts, which Vegas might shy away from so not to restrict the team’s payroll structure under the salary cap. Ryan has five years left on a seven-year $50.8 million contract and represents a $7-plus-million cap hit.
Based on previous mock drafts, McPhee doesn’t expect the Golden Knights to have any difficulty getting to the NHL’s minimum payroll of 60 percent of the $75 million salary cap.
The release of the teams’ protected lists kicks off a busy two-week stretch for the NHL. The league’s annual awards ceremonies will be held in Las Vegas on Wednesday and then teams will gather in Chicago for the two-day entry draft, which opens on Friday.
Then comes the start of free agency, which opens on July 1.