The grim truth on the supposedly ‘rigged’ expansion draft

No, the expansion draft wasn’t rigged, your GM is just bad.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, allow me to take you back through time, albeit only a short time ago, to the early days of Knights On Ice. A time back in June 2017 when the Vegas Golden Knights were somehow both real and imagined. The days before the expansion draft when the team was both official, with a logo and a front office, but just Reid Duke, Tomas Hyka and Vadim Shipachyov on the roster.

When Knights On Ice came into existence in those first few days, some of our talented writers penned introductions for the blossoming Golden Knights fan base to get to know them.

I did not join the staff until shortly after these articles ran, by which point we were deep in expansion draft speculation, writing scouting reports of the players selected, finally tackling the entry draft.

It was a busy time for all involved and I simply had no time to devote to anything that wasn’t essential Vegas Golden Knights coverage.

Had I, I might have mentioned that I am a big fan of making pop culture references and quoting movies, TV shows, famous people, etc. in my writing (and everyday life).

The Knights Watch is evidence of this.

One of my favourite quotes is often attributed to Winston Churchill, which is, “History is written by the victors.”

This season we have seen history written time and again with the Vegas Golden Knights having largely been the victors of the 2017-18 regular season. Yet, what we’re beginning to see more and more as their success grows is the hockey fandom editing that history with a retelling of their own.

What has begin to spawn is a false narrative aimed to discredit what the organisation has built while simultaneously taking away any blame from the fan and their bad predictions, or the general managers of other teams and their poor decisions.

The expansion was rigged. Rigged against the other organisations. Rigged for the Golden Knights to succeed. Rigged, and everyone knew it. Sad!

This, of course, enabled them to forget all that was said, by them and others, prior to the season. Cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug.

Pre-Season Predictions

I’ll start by saying this is not a criticism of anyone’s predictions. The predictions were fair based on what we believed at the time and this is not meant to shame any specific writer.

What this is intended to do is remind everyone that prior to puck drop on opening night, no one was saying that the league rigged the draft so Vegas would be this massive success story. In fact, the Golden Knights were thought to be a bad team with a bottom-of-the-barrel near future. While the Knights may have had more favorable expansion rules than teams in the past, you don’t win a division with bottom-six forwards, below-average defencemen and backup goalies.

The following is what was said in the days and months after the expansion draft.

We’ll start with who had over 15 members of their staff make preseason playoff predictions in October. They went division by division and included their likely wild card teams as well, and not one selected the Vegas Golden Knights to even sniff the eighth seed.

VICE suggested that George McPhee botched the whole thing:

The Hockey Writers’ predictions by Joel Griffith had a section about the Golden Knights:

Here at our flagship hockey site at SB Nation, there wasn’t much optimism towards the original roster:

Over at Sportsnet, Andrew Berkshire broke down the Golden Knights by using their analytics from the previous season to try and figure out what the team might look like on the ice together. It looked a bit like this:


The Sporting News, come on down!

40 points!!

And finally, I give you Deadspin writer Barry Petchesky who said:

Ladies and gentlemen, does any of this sound like a team that benefited from a rigged draft, drafted themselves a world-beating roster, and were on their way to a Pacific Division title in year one of existence?

So, what happened? If the system wasn’t rigged, what happened that allowed the Golden Knights to be successful so early?

I should also point out here that the player tasked with being their first-line center, Vadim Shipachyov — who was factored into these predictions — played all of three games with the team before returning to Russia.

Danger! Danger <insert your teams general manager here>!

In response to a tweet from James Mirtle who had made a joke about Vegas launching into a dynasty immediately following more team friendly rules for the expansion draft, TSN’s Travis Yost tweeted this:

This is the most level-headed response I’ve seen used to explain the Golden Knights triumphant season this year.

It’s also the right one.

The expansion draft rules were set to give the Golden Knights a bunch of No. 4 defencemen and third-line forwards in their mid-20’s with younger talent to be exempt. This helped teams as many have very young skilled players in their top-six that they would not have to protect in the draft and could instead use the protection slots on their veteran core.

The idea was that teams in the midst of a rebuild or at a point where they weren’t quite ready to compete for a Stanley Cup could essentially pay the Golden Knights, be it in picks or prospects, to take some overpriced veteran player off their books.

Meanwhile, teams competing for a Cup right now could pay the Golden Knights not to take their veteran players with picks and prospects so they could keep their core together to make their run at the post-season this year.

It was simple, really.

What we saw was teams trading away more than they had to, overpaying to protect a player nearly as good as the ones they traded. We saw teams misjudge the talent they were trading away.

“Well, they couldn’t have known that <insert player> would be so good!”

Isn’t that sort of the point of evaluating talent? Whether it’s the eye-test or the analytics approach, the point is to judge what players are and can be if given a chance to succeed.

Everyone is culpable here. The general managers, the scouts, and most vocally, the online horde. You’ve got those who are devout to the numbers on one side, and on the other, those who use their eye-test to inform their biases. You know them as the ones who would say something to the effect of, “oh, you’re telling me a BLOGGER knows more about talent than GMs” when a team does something to their liking that goes against the numbers crowd.

Maybe, just maybe, we all still have something to learn.

Decision Points

The Minnesota Wild paid Alex Tuch and Erik Haula (and received a conditional draft pick) to protect Matt Dumba and Eric Staal, among others. Haula had 29 goals and 55 points this season, Tuch added 15 goals and 37 points this season. Minnesota gave up a recent first-rounder just to make sure the Golden Knights took Haula.

The Columbus Blue Jackets gave the Golden Knights a 2017 first-round pick to take David Clarkson, but also a 2019 second-round pick to ensure they took William Karlsson in the draft. Karlsson scored 43 goals and led the team in points. All this to protect Josh Anderson and Joonas Korpisalo from the Knights. Anderson had 19 goals and 30 points, Korpisalo had an .897 save percentage in 18 games for the Jackets.

The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Vegas a 2020 second-round pick to ensure they took Marc-Andre Fleury and he has gone on to have a Vezina calibre season. I know, I hear you, “They would have had to protect Matt Murray or Fleury so they would have lost one, anyway!”

True. But, they didn’t pay to protect Fleury. They paid to get rid of him.

James Neal is a Golden Knight simply because the Nashville Predators didn’t offer a pick to Vegas to protect him. This made some sense as Neal was entering the final year of his deal but it’s not as though the Preds didn’t have a choice in the matter. They chose to let Neal walk. That’s not necessarily a bad move, but it was a choice nevertheless.

Similarly, the St. Louis Blues opted not to offer a pick or prospect to protect David Perron. They also chose to protect Ryan Reaves, he of fewer career points than Perron’s 2017-18 mark. They also protected Patrik Berglund (26 points this season) thanks to a no-trade clause, and Vladimir Sobotka (31 points this season) over Perron.

That’s not a rigged system. That’s the Blues making three very bad decisions.

And the coup de grace of the entire expansion draft, the Florida Panthers. It’s bordering on meme status at this point, but suffice to say that the Panthers gave up two-thirds of one of the NHL’s best lines this year for just a fourth-round pick. They also let Gerard Gallant walk a handful of games into a season following one of the team’s best years in franchise history.

This is the system that was rigged for Vegas? Please.

Final Thoughts

I am of the firm belief that the NHL community is one giant echo chamber where groupthink runs rampant and (nearly) unopposed.

And while the youth of hockey management, and those who have not been lost to the “way we’ve always done things” are coming, slowly, they are most definitely not here yet.

So, with that in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that when faced with obstacles, like say an expansion draft, organisations will often end up making similar mistakes as each other. It is a fundamental issue with the whole “200 Trusted Hockey Men” thing where the league essentially juggles the same group of people into the same positions from team to team all over the league.

All of this because hockey teams fear losing both games and money and so instead of taking risks and attempt hiring fresh blood with new ideas and opinions they opt instead to hire someone “trusted” with experience. Regardless of whether that experience involves winning or not.

The Golden Knights were built off unforced errors.

Consider how many fired general managers end up assistants somewhere else almost immediately. Or coaches become analysts for a year or two before their names come up every time there’s a vacancy. There’s no true accountability so there is no pressure to evolve, learn, or think outside of the box.

That’s the problem. Does it not sound insane to you?

Vegas’ success was made possible by a flaw in the hockey communities way of thinking and evaluating skill and talent, not the expansion rules.

They were built off general managers not evaluating the talent they had well enough. The Golden Knights were built off unforced errors.

Stating they are anything else is taking responsibility off the shoulders of the men tasked with making the decisions and takes any and all credit away from the Golden Knights who, against all odds and every prediction, built a solid group of talented players.

It’s not the product of a rigged system if the GM of your team did a bad job.

And that’s the grim truth.