It was 114 degrees in Las Vegas at mid-afternoon Tuesday. A dry heat, yes, but it’s scorching and not a natural habitat for hockey.
This is the place, amid excessive heat warnings and visitors clutching slot-machine tickets and casino-branded souvenir cups, that the National Hockey League will stake the icy flag of its 31st franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights. And it’s here, in the most non-traditional of the NHL’s non-traditional hockey markets, that the Golden Knights will announce their picks Wednesday from the discards, expendables and few potential gems available in the expansion draft.
The NHL counts this as its eighth expansion because it lumps together several that came in quick succession. For example, it considers its previous growth spurt — adding the Nashville Predators in 1998, Atlanta Thrashers in 1999 and Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild in 2000 — one expansion. Each of those four franchises, incidentally, paid an $80-million admission fee. West Point alumnus turned businessman Bill Foley paid $500 million to own the Golden Knights, the city’s first major league professional sports franchise (to be followed by the Oakland Raiders by 2020).
In a city built on gambling, Foley and the NHL are betting there will be enough interest to sustain the team beyond its initial novelty. They got a solid start thanks to the expansion rules stipulating that each existing team could protect only one goaltender, guaranteeing the Golden Knights a choice of decent-to-good goalies. And it’s reassuring to know now and for the next expansion — and there will be one within a few years — that $500 million can buy at least that much.
But that half a billion didn’t get Foley his own TV show to reveal his roster. The expansion draft picks general manager George McPhee submitted before 7 a.m. Pacific time Wednesday will be disclosed Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena during the same show that will announce winners of the NHL’s major trophies, meshing rewards for past excellence with glimpses at the future of a team that will compete in the Pacific Division with the Kings and the Ducks. “We’re in a really good place,” McPhee told reporters Tuesday.
McPhee extended his self-imposed roster selection by a few hours in order to talk to other general managers who experienced delays en route to Las Vegas. He said he expected that by Tuesday evening he and his staff would choose the 30 players — one from each existing team.
He also said he had “at least” a half-dozen trades lined up, and those probably will include acquiring draft picks or players from teams in exchange for not choosing a specific player they left unprotected. The Ducks made defensemen Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson available, but it’s likely Ducks GM Bob Murray will give McPhee another player or a draft pick in exchange for Las Vegas not claiming either of them. The Kings left high-salaried Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik available, but there’s little chance McPhee will take them off the Kings’ books. It’s possible the Kings will lose defenseman Brayden McNabb, who’s young (26), big (6 feet 5) and has one year left at a salary cap hit of $1.7 million.
Because McPhee can make trades to not pick certain available players, it’s impossible to predict what his roster will be. He must choose at least three goalies, nine defensemen and 14 forwards. “I’m going to have to move some defensemen because we’re going to claim a bunch,” he said. But he also said some picks he envisions will be “core players” for a long time.
“We have lots of defensemen lined up, lots of centers, and on the wings a little more scoring than we anticipated. And the goaltending is going to be pretty solid,” he said. Among his potential goalies are three-time Penguins Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, who waived his no-move clause for the purpose of the expansion draft in order to give Pittsburgh some flexibility, standout New York Rangers backup Antti Raanta, and Detroit’s Petr Mrazek. But McPhee also could draft a goalie and flip that player to a team that needs goaltending help.
Although the Golden Knights will draft 30 players, their roster limit will be 23, meaning McPhee will be wheeling and dealing after the NHL trade freeze is lifted Thursday morning. He also can add to his stockpile of talent in the annual entry draft Friday and Saturday. The Golden Knights are scheduled to pick sixth in the first round and third in each subsequent round.
His goal for the expansion draft, he said, is simple. “To have a competitive club that people are going to enjoy watching play and then have the draft picks to be able to draft our way to a contending team, a championship team,” he said.
Hot as it is here, the heat won’t truly be on McPhee for a few seasons, giving him time to plant roots and test how hospitable the sun-bleached desert will be to a sport played on ice.