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Self-criticism is a good thing.
The ability to look at past mistakes and say not only “Ah, here’s where I went wrong,” but also understand the “why” of it is critical to growing as a person, professionally, whatever. With that in mind, NHL GMs have a Maoist level of self-criticism to undertake these days.
Vegas spent a few days atop the entire league this week and ahead of Thursday’s slate of games, were still playing at the best points-per-game pace in the NHL. As so many people have said in recent weeks while giggling to themselves as they hit the “Send Tweet” button, “Just like we all predicted.”
We of course have to accept that Vegas has been quite lucky to get the shooting percentages they have, and that to have even gotten anything close to league-average goaltending given what their situation looked like for a good chunk of the season to date is a miracle. Anyone who doesn’t accept that is a homer, a person who has learned approximately zero lessons from the past decade of “smart” hockey fans being right about teams like this, or (often) both.
And that’s fine: It’s fine to say Vegas has been better than anyone has expected, because they have. We must fundamentally understand that this team should fall into the category of Columbus last year “good but not this good.” They’re certainly the best (or at least most interesting) story in the league in decades at least, but that seven coaches picked them to go to the Cup Final in June as part of Bob McKenzie’s midseason poll is putting the cart approximately a mile before the horse.
How many teams have we seen run out like this, and either collapse down the stretch or flame out quickly in the playoffs? About one a year, folks. There’s little to suggest that this isn’t that until proven otherwise, especially because their “star power” — which you absolutely need to win in the playoffs — is more than a little lacking.
Point is, though, Vegas seems to be way ahead of schedule. No one would deny that, and that’s despite the fact that they didn’t really do the best job in the world of picking the right players for their long-term future at last summer’s expansion draft.
Where the issues arise for other GMs and should force them to reconsider how they see the game is that while, yes, the NHL’s rules for the expansion draft were more generous than ever before, they weren’t this generous. Again, even accounting for Vegas’s incredible luck, this is a team that should be fighting for the playoffs, at best, rather than the Presidents’ Trophy.
That they’re doing much, much, much better than anyone foresaw should quite frankly lead to some GMs getting fired. In theory, Vegas should have gotten a bunch of No. 3 defensemen, No. 6/7 forwards, and No. 2 goalies. The salary cap certainly complicated things, which is what allowed them to get, say, Marc-Andre Fleury who is very definitively not a backup, but generally speaking the Golden Knights should have been icing a middling roster.
That they haven’t is a failing of other GMs, and one need only look at the wheelings and dealings Vegas made before the expansion draft to understand why.
Obviously the big loser in this is Dale Tallon, who gave Vegas the two component parts for the engine of its second line — Reilly Smith and Jon Marchessault — as a total giveaway. The Smith thing was a salary dump, obviously, but not a particularly smart one (Smith gets a good chunk of change but they gave up on him due to a low-shooting-percentage season), and Florida was probably banking on Marchessault going from 30 goals last year to maybe 12 or 15 again.
No such luck. Marchessault is on pace for another 30ish-goal season and leads the team in points. He and Smith have some of the best possession numbers in the league. Florida stinks because it has no forward depth. This was an avoidable problem, but at least Florida got a fourth-round pick out of it.
Meanwhile, William Karlsson was a perfectly good middle-of-the-lineup guy who’s going off now, and could end up being an MVP candidate. Obviously the fact that he has so many goals is entirely because he’s shooting 27 percent this season (literally, he has taken 100 shots and scored on 27 of them). But Columbus only gave up this player, whom everyone had a lot of reason to like last year in that lesser role, because Jarmo Kekalainen made a really bad decision in February 2015.
At the time, Kekalainen figured he was better off overpaying a bad player on a worse contract (David Clarkson) to play than not-play, which is what Nathan Horton was doing with his career-ending back problem. But then Clarkson, too, suffered what was effectively a career-ending injury, and that necessitated that Columbus ship him to Vegas — along with a first- and second-round pick!!! — so George McPhee would take Karlsson instead of a guy like Josh Anderson.
The Wild gave up Alex Tuch in exchange for a conditional third-round pick and Vegas taking Erik Haula. The two have combined to score 25 goals this season and like the Florida guys, both are playing pretty well in the middle of the lineup.
Anaheim gave up Shea Theodore, who looks like he’ll develop into a good middle-pairing guy, for taking Clayton Stoner, who hasn’t played a game for them this year and conveniently has no timetable for return.
Tampa gave up two picks and Nikita Gusev (currently shredding the KHL) so Vegas would take the Jason Garrison contract off their hands. Even Pittsburgh gave up a second-round pick to offload Fleury.
Basically, the enticements to take good players here are unconscionable. The fact that Dale Tallon gave away two-thirds of the best second line in hockey is mind-boggling if predictable given that it’s Dale Tallon. The fact that Kekalainen gave up Karlsson to get himself out of a jam everyone thought he was crazy to get himself into in the first place is bonkers. The fact that Chuck Fletcher was so scared of losing Eric Staal that he gave up two young middle-six guys for nothing doesn’t make sense.
McPhee didn’t nail every pick in the expansion draft but he came close enough for it to, apparently, not matter much. Plus as of right now, Vegas will pick in the first two rounds at the entry draft at least 10 more times by 2020, on top of their five go-rounds this past summer.
The league made the job a little harder than usual for the GMs of the 30 other teams in the league with the expansion draft’s rules. And because of extant market inefficiencies, past bad decisions, and the like, those GMs made McPhee’s job a lot easier than it should have been.
I don’t know how those GMs explain that to their bosses, but they really ought to have to this summer.