How to Assemble an Expansion Draft Board

I’ve gotten a bit of feedback asking how exactly I’ve assembled the draft board for the 1998 and 1999 projects.  Here’s a bit of insight on how I did it; I don’t know if this is how teams actually did it.

There are two big things to begin with, which tie into each other directly.  One is scarcity, the other is value.  Every player in the NHL has some type of value, from “untouchable” to “future considerations”.  The aspects that go into a player’s value include, but are not limited to:

Skill, and overall scarcity of skill.  There were 26 teams that existed going into 1998’s expansion, and 30 today.  At any given time, there are a small handful of forwards who are able to consistently play 20 minutes a night at a high level.  However, there are large numbers who can play eight minutes a night on the fourth line and provide a physical element.  The same goes for defensemen and goalies; there’s a big gulf between an everyday top player and a guy doesn’t get much ice time or responsibility.

Generally speaking, what separates well-run organizations from poorly-run ones is the recognition of the scarcity of skill.  A well-run organization will identify and develop players with immense upside, then hold onto them through the growing pains that young players will go through.  A poorly-run organization may do the same, but trade the player by deciding halfway through a difficult season that he’s not someone that they can win with.  A well-run organization will recognize that a certain player’s market value is way out of proportion to what he actually brings to the ice, and they’ll move on.  A poorly-run organization will hold onto replaceable players, tying up enormous amounts of salary and roster spots with players who can be replaced.

A Norris-caliber defenseman who’s 23 years old is most likely going to be part of the core for the next decade.  A 29-year-old forward with a career high of 22 goals with 51 points (set four years ago) despite first-line minutes, who plays average defense, and who simply isn’t a locker room cancer is probably going to be someone you look at moving at some point when the right deal comes along.  But more often than not, a poorly-run organization is going to look at the latter player and try to lock them up long-term, possibly with a no-trade clause (NTC) as well.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the term and salary are right.  A productive player on a contract at or below market value is worth holding onto.  The salary cap has made an enormous difference in the way that teams are constructed, and simply putting together the best team at the moment without a careful eye for the future is a sure way to end up out on the street.

Of course, an expansion draft isn’t going to have 23-year-old Norris-caliber defensemen.  It’s primarily bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defensemen, with the occasional top-six or second-pairing guy thrown in.

Salary.  Not just what he makes right now, but what he’s likely to make into the future.  If he’s below market value but is signed long-term, then this is obviously a huge positive.  If he’s below market value but has an expiring contract, be ready to make some decisions.  If he’s above market value, then the question of whether he’s likely to start producing in line with his contract is a big one.

One major variable in 2017 for Las Vegas that was not around in the last wave is Article 11.10 of the current CBA (In no event shall a Club and a Player negotiate a change in any terms of a Player’s SPC for the then-current season or for any remaining season of an SPC  (except as provided for in Section 11.8(b)).)  Under the 1995 CBA that the last four teams entered the league under, mid-contract renegotiation was extremely common.  This is specifically outlawed under the current CBA, and thus is not a concern for Las Vegas or any other future teams that enter under this CBA.

Term.  The duration of time on a contract; this goes hand-in-hand with salary.  If a guy is locked up long-term, it’s obviously a different story than if he’s a free agent in twelve months and is looking to cash in.

And the salary cap…

One important thing that Las Vegas and future expansions teams will have to worry about that previous did not is the salary cap and salary floor.  The already-announced rules dictate that Las Vegas will have to select players whose combined salary cap hits equal between 60-100% of the 2016-17 salary cap.  If the NHLPA initiates a growth factor clause, the cap will be $74 million; if not, $71.4 million.  This means that Las Vegas will be forced to select an expansion draft roster of between $42.84 and $71.4 million (without escalator), or $44.4 and $74 million (with escalator).

That’s just in the expansion draft, and does not take salary from trades into account at all.  The salary cap and floor take an already complex scenario and make it almost mind-boggling.  The salary cap and its effects on the value of every single player in the expansion draft is arguably a bigger change than the actual adjustments to how large each existing team’s protected list is.

Previous expansion teams could go as cheap or as expensive as they wanted.  If they wanted to pick 21, 22, or 26 players and keep the payroll under $10 million, that could be done.  If they wanted to have the highest payroll in the NHL right off the bat, they could at least approach that.  Vegas won’t have that option.

Trimming the list as a concept

When it comes to assembling a draft board out of the overall unprotected list, it’s more a case of trimming off the overall list than adding to a blank board.  The reason is simple: putting together that final draft list of players you’re starting your franchise with requires a tremendous amount of dexterity.

In the case of 1998, 1999, and 2000, here is how my own trimming went:

  • Retiring players – This is pretty self-explanatory.  Several players were on the unprotected list who had already announced that they were going to be retiring and just needed to file the paperwork.  A handful of others had also indicated that they were looking to go somewhere else for a last year or two before retiring.  Generally speaking, this latter group isn’t going to hold any real value; either they’re washed up to the point of no longer contributing, or they’re looking to go out a champion.  Either way, it’s not advisable to take such a player.

The other possible issue that a team can have is if a player is at the end of his career and starts complaining within the locker room.  Although I’d love to say that everyone is professional, it’s no more the case in a locker room than within an office building.  And chances are pretty good that you’ve worked with someone who’s on the verge of retiring and simply does nothing but complain.  Most players are professionals all the way to the end, but it only takes one guy to rupture a locker room.  And with an expansion locker room, largely full of young guys being given their first chance and veteran guys on their last chance, this can have devastating results.

  • Enforcers – Whether or not you agree with the role of fighting in the game of hockey or not, enforcers are generally a dime a dozen.  Yes, certain ones like a prime Bob Probert could both fight and play the game, but the players who ended up on the unprotected lists were usually more limited.
  • Unsigned Europeans – For 1998, all unsigned Europeans were removed from the draft board because every existing team had enough actual NHL talent to choose from.  For 1999, unsigned Europeans were only removed from the lists of teams that were sorely lacking in NHL talent.  In 2000….ooh boy.

In my case, all unsigned Europeans over age 25 were removed in every year.  The chances of any coming over to North America were pretty slim by that point.

  • Injured players – If a player was fighting a career-threatening injury, which in 1998-2000 would have also included multiple concussions, then he would simply be removed.
  • Marginal players and minor league veterans – Generally speaking, if a player is taking a regular shift in the AHL (or, at the time, IHL) past age 25 or 26, he doesn’t stand much of a chance at cracking an NHL lineup.  And if he does, it’s very likely that it would only be on the third pairing or the fourth line, in which case there’s not much point.  Martin St. Louis proved to be just about the only exception to this rule.
  • Pending UFAs – Group III free agents who were not guaranteed a high compensatory pick were removed; they were 31 or older, and very unlikely to sign with an expansion team.  And since there was the six-FA cap on the 1998, 1999, and 2000 expansion drafts, wasting a pick on someone who was looking to cash in was a very risky move.  Group V free agents, by virtue of being younger than the Group III guys, were being given their first chance to cash in and were more likely to take it.  And Group VI guys, although mostly looking for a place to prove themselves in the NHL, were usually marginal players and not late bloomers.

Of course, all of this goes out the window pretty quickly when it comes to “the throwaways”.

I define the throwaways as a pick that serves no other purpose than to select someone off of the unprotected list without the slightest concern for whether they’re ever signed to a contract or ever play a game with the expansion team.  They possess value that’s either future considerations or less, but that’s still more value than the other options.

For example, in 1998 Nashville had to select one of the following players from Florida: goalies Todd MacDonald, Kirk McLean, or John Vanbiesbrouck; defensemen Chris Armstrong, Terry Carkner, Trevor Doyle, Dallas Eakins, Jeff Norton, or Wes Swinson; forwards Ashley Buckberger, Chad Cabana, Dave Gagner, Johan Garpenlov, or Kirk Muller.

With Nashville taking Mike Richter from the Rangers, which wiped out the only allowable goalie free agent spot, MacDonald (Group II) and Vanbiesbrouck (Group III) were now off the board automatically.  Doyle, Eakins, Swinson, Buckberger, and Cabana were all marginal players who were Group II free agents.  Since taking any of them meant burning a remaining free agent spot on a player who was unlikely to contribute in the NHL, they’re off the board completely as well.

This has already pared the list down to goalie McLean, defensemen Armstrong, Carkner, and Norton; forwards Gagner, Garpenlov, and Muller.  These seven players were the only ones who weren’t pending free agents of some type.  Now in my re-draft, I had Nashville taking Carkner, banking on the idea that someone else would pay to pick him up for a couple of years or at the trade deadline.  This is one of the pitfalls of me not being a scout.  I can’t jump back 18 years and magically obtain the ability to determine whether Carkner would be able to play for another year or two, or who among the other likely selected defensemen he might be able to mesh well with.

In any case, Florida in reality was pretty well tired of all of these players.  They weren’t contributing compared to their high salaries, and they were practically begging Nashville to take one of them to shed salary.  (Seriously, the articles from the 1997-98 season on Florida are extremely unflattering.  I won’t even bother quoting excerpts from them, but trust me when I say that they’re not friendly.)  And Nashville had to take one of those players.  It was either add a ton of salary in the form of McLean, Carkner, Norton, Gagner, Garpenlov, or Muller; or burn a free agent spot on one of Doyle, Eakins, Swinson, Buckberger, or Cabana.

Instead, Nashville took the one player on the list who was neither high-priced nor a pending free agent: defenseman Chris Armstrong.  Armstrong was 23 years old with 0 NHL games to his name, and whether he’d ever play in the NHL didn’t seem to matter to Nashville.  They were forced to take someone from Florida, and they took the one player who didn’t have a high salary and wasn’t a pending free agent.  It was a flawless use of a throwaway pick.  They did the same thing with Edmonton, taking Doug Friedman; and with Tampa Bay, taking Paul Brousseau.

To be sure that there is absolutely no confusion or ambiguity, I want to make perfectly clear that I am not referring to Armstrong, Friedman, or Brousseau as throwaway players.  Armstrong played 4 years of junior and 15 years of pro hockey; Friedman played 4 years of college and 7 years of pro; Brousseau played 4 years of junior and 11 years of pro.  They appeared on hockey cards, in programs, on jerseys, and were asked for autographs and appearances.  I have no concept of any of this, because I didn’t play junior, college, or pro hockey.  They’ve done more in hockey than I could ever dream of, and I’m not going to sit here behind a keyboard and write something that sounds like “Yeah, these guys sucked.”

That said, an expansion team coming is given a handful of assets.  They have one pick per round in the entry draft, and they have one pick per team in the expansion draft; every one of them is an actual asset with value.  An expansion GM is put in a pretty simple position with each of those expansion picks: use them to improve your team to the greatest extent possible, and if that is not possible, then use them to do the least harm to your team.

In the case of Florida in 1998, there were 14 options for Nashville to choose from.  Adding one of the two free agent goalies would have a significant negative impact (by taking away the ability to get a high compensatory pick in the form of Mike Richter or Curtis Joseph), taking one of the five remaining free agents would have a negative impact (by occupying one of the six overall free agent selections allowed to be made), take one of the six high-priced veterans would have a negative impact (by adding a ton of salary to the payroll while realizing a negligible return).  Chris Armstrong, despite the fact that he was not expected to produce in the NHL at all, represented not the greatest positive impact, but the least negative impact to Nashville.

That’s the definition of a throwaway pick: an expansion draft pick, as an asset, is being used in a manner that is not designed to have the greatest positive impact on the NHL team, but simply the least harm.

Actually trimming the board as a reality

To use an example of the trimming process, I’ll use Washington in 1998.  Their unprotected list was:

Goalies: Stephane Beauregard(Gr.V – UFA), Martin Brochu

Defensemen: Patrick Boileau(Gr.II – RFA), Jeff Brown(Gr.III – UFA), Phil Housley, Stewart Malgunas(Gr.II – RFA)

Forwards: Brian Bellows(Gr.III – UFA), Andrew Brunette(Gr.II – RFA), Mike Eagles, Dale Hunter(Gr.III – UFA), Kevin Kaminski(Gr.II – RFA), Todd Krygier(Gr.III – UFA), Mark Major, Jeff Nelson, Pat Peake(Gr.II – RFA), Esa Tikkanen(Gr.III – UFA), Jeff Toms(Gr.II – RFA), Stefan Ustorf

Beauregard, Brown, Bellows, Hunter, Krygier, and Tikkanen are all cut right off the bat; all were pending UFAs.

Housley was 34 and was noticeably declining, while Eagles was 35; both are cut.

Peake, once a top prospect, suffered a significant injury two years prior; he played just 8 games the previous two seasons.  It’s tough to do, but he’s cut as well.

Major was 28 and had just two NHL games, while Nelson was 25 but hadn’t played any NHL games in over two full seasons and hadn’t earned a callup; both are cut.

Ustorf headed back to Europe after 1996-97, so he’s cut.

Kaminski was primarily used as an enforcer, so he’s cut.

We’re down to just five players: Brochu, Boileau, Malgunas, Brunette, and Toms.  Of them, Brunette was about to turn 25 and had shown a ton of scoring prowess in the previous year (23 points in 28 NHL games), while the other four had not shown an ability to stick in the NHL at all, let alone contribute at the highest level.

Brunette was also one of a very small handful of scoring forwards available at all who were not pending UFAs and who were not clearly on the downswing of their careers.  No one else on Washington comes close to him, so Brunette is the only player who will be considered from the Capitals.  For a further breakdown, here is the 1998 Draft Board – Washington

Now, compare this to Los Angeles from 1998.  Their unprotected list was:

Goalies: Frederic Chabot

Defensemen: Ruslan Batyrshin(Gr.II – RFA), Doug Bodger, Philippe Boucher(Gr.II – RFA), Garry Galley, Jere Karalahti(UE), Jaroslav Modry(Gr.II – RFA), Martin Strbak(UE), Kimmo Timonen(UE), Mark Visheau, Jan Vopat, Doug Zmolek

Forwards: Dan Bylsma, Russ Courtnall, Ray Ferraro, Craig Johnson(Gr.II – RFA), Nathan Lafayette(Gr.II – RFA), Sandy Moger, Jeff Shevalier(Gr.II – RFA), Jukka Tillikainen(UE), Tomas Vlasak(UE), Roman Vopat, Magnus Wernblom(UE), Vitali Yachmenev(Gr.II – RFA)

Chabot was an IHL goalie at the time, and would not be considered except as a trade enticement.  If Los Angeles lost a goalie in 1998, they were exempt from losing one in 1999.  With a couple of young goalies coming up, the Kings would have a vested interest in making sure none could be taken.  Strictly as a player though, he’d be cut.

Karalahti, Strbak, Timonen, Tillikainen, Vlasak, and Wernblom are all cut by virtue of being unsigned European players.

No players are pending UFAs.

This leaves a very large draft board, meaning that the factors outlined at the very top of this page (skill, scarcity of skill, salary, and term) all become extremely important and the determining factors.  By the time that’s done, the remaining players to select from are Bodger, Boucher, Galley, Modry, Ferraro, Johnson, and Yachmenev.  Here is the link to the 1998 Draft Board – Los Angeles

Of course, what actually happened is that the Kings traded Timonen and Vopat to Nashville in exchange for the Predators taking Chabot.  Los Angeles thus lost nothing of immediate value while protecting their goalies for the year after, while Nashville gained two young prospects – with Timonen having a sterling international resume – and someone who was possibly the best minor league goalie in the world.

And for Vegas?

A lot of this won’t even apply to Vegas.  CBA provisions that allowed a team to hold the rights of a drafted unsigned European player indefinitely have been removed.  Enforcers no long exist as a large group.  These two groups combined for around 20-25% of the overall unprotected list in each of 1998, 1999, and 2000.

And although there are quite a few minor leaguers who will undoubtedly be left unprotected, most of them are actual NHL prospects who haven’t quite broken through yet.

In other words, the ability to simply strike 20-40% of the unprotected list from draft board consideration right at the beginningwill not exist.  This makes things infinitely more complex for the NHL’s next team.

So far, this is simply about how to eliminate players off of an unprotected list.  The next step is a big one.

Ranking the players

I think that there’s an idea that an expansion draft was, or should be, little more than a fantasy draft.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Scouting is still important to an extent that cannot be overstated.  Did this 24-year-old forward have a breakthrough when he just scored 31 goals, or did he get an unusual amount of power play time when the All-Star went down with an injury?  Did the defenseman finally learn how to play in his own zone, or was his gaudy +/- a result of a new pairing with someone who could carry the play?  Is the fourth-line winger with 12 goals in five years actually a much better player than the numbers would ever show, but he won’t get that chance with his current team because he’s been pigeonholed into an energy role?  Will the young center with a maddening tendency to stickhandle excessively in the neutral zone break out of that if he’s paired with two fast wingers instead of two slow ones, or is it something he’ll never grow out of?

These are the questions that only scouts can answer.  An inherent shortfall of my own expansion re-drafting is that I’m not a scout; all I can do is look at two sides of a particular player that would be held on one hand by his advocate in the room, and on the other by someone opposed to taking him.  If the AHL defenseman scores 11 goals, it gets mentioned; if he gets 11 goals and his coach says in the newspapers on multiple occasions that he would score 25 if he could just hit the damned net already instead of launching shots high and wide, that gets a mention as well.  I remember reading an interview with Al MacInnis once (possibly in an old Hockey Digest where he talked about his inaccuracy early on, and how he made a single change when shooting that turned him into a terrifying presence on the power play and eventually a Hall of Famer.  We know today that Sergei Vyshedkevich didn’t have a long NHL career, but it’s tough to say in 1999 that he wouldn’t have stuck around long-term with a couple of things going differently.

Back on topic.

In my case, ranking the actual players remaining on a draft board was something that was done on a team-by-team basis for one very good reason: one player gets picked from every team.  If that wasn’t the case, it would be done differently.

Why is Dave Manson my #1 overall defenseman in the 1999 expansion draft?  I’ll argue until the end of time that he was one of the top four defensemen available in that draft (with Curtis Leschyshyn, Gord Murphy, and Bill Houlder; Mark Tinordi would be at the top if he was healthy, which he was not.).

But the reason that I have him #1 is mostly based on his actual skill and the likelihood of him continuing to perform at a high level, and partially on the fact that Chicago had nothing else of NHL caliber on their unprotected list.  The gulf between Manson and the next-best player was so enormous that taking someone else made no sense at all.  The goalies, all of whom were pending free agents, weren’t really options.  The defensemen were either unproven or inferior to Manson.  And the forwards were either free agents, enforcers, or career minor leaguers.

The other big things (salary, term, and likely career arc) all check off favorably.  Manson is therefore a must-take; Chicago is taken care of, and we can pencil in a top-pairing defenseman.

This now will affect Curtis Leschyshyn’s value.  He’s one of a clear top two on Carolina’s draft board, the other one being goalie Trevor Kidd.  Kidd is one of the top three goalies overall to draft from (with Norm Maracle and Manny Fernandez), and several teams are looking for a young experienced starter on a salary that won’t break the bank.  Kidd probably holds more value, both because there aren’t many goalies in a goalie-starved market, and because Manson now makes the need to pick up Leschyshyn less pressing.  On the other hand, picking up goalie Damian Rhodes from Ottawa in a trade before the expansion draft could make Kidd superfluous as well.

The options from San Jose are Mike Vernon (an aging goalie), Bill Houlder (one of the top four defensemen), and Jan Caloun (European forward with superb offensive skills).  Taking Vernon would infuriate San Jose while doing little for this team, and passing on other players to take someone for the specific purpose of trying to force a trade isn’t a good idea.  That goes double when the player has an option to opt out of his contract and become a free agent, as Vernon could.  (NOTE: Player and team options on contracts are both outlawed in the current CBA).  Houlder could also opt out to go back to San Jose, but he has the choice of either going to a cellar-dwelling Sharks team or a first-year expansion team.  Caloun might not come back to North America at all, or he could be enthusiastic about the possibility of playing for an expansion team that won’t bench him for playing uninspired defense.

[NOTE: My actual writings and thoughts on the above three paragraphs are immensely more in-depth than this.  It makes the free agent history writings look like a fortune cookie by comparison.  For the sake of brevity, this has been pared down to an extent that I didn’t think was actually possible.  I may end up uploading and linking to those notes; I haven’t decided yet.]

There are six combinations that exist with just these very limited options:

  • Manson, Leschyshyn, and Vernon
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, and Houlder
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, and Caloun
  • Manson, Kidd, and Vernon
  • Manson, Kidd, and Houlder
  • Manson, Kidd, and Caloun

This isn’t even taking into account the possibility of what can take place with Florida’s four players (Gord Murphy, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Johan Garpenlov, and Alex Hicks), which would boost the number of combinations to 24:

  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Vernon, and Murphy
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Vernon, and Tjarnqvist
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Vernon, and Garpenlov
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Vernon, and Hicks
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Houlder, and Murphy
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Houlder, and Tjarnqvist
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Houlder, and Garpenlov
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Houlder, and Hicks
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Caloun, and Murphy
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Caloun, and Tjarnqvist
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Caloun, and Garpenlov
  • Manson, Leschyshyn, Caloun, and Hicks
  • Manson, Kidd, Vernon, and Murphy
  • Manson, Kidd, Vernon, and Tjarnqvist
  • Manson, Kidd, Vernon, and Garpenlov
  • Manson, Kidd, Vernon, and Hicks
  • Manson, Kidd, Houlder, and Murphy
  • Manson, Kidd, Houlder, and Tjarnqvist
  • Manson, Kidd, Houlder, and Garpenlov
  • Manson, Kidd, Houlder, and Hicks
  • Manson, Kidd, Caloun, and Murphy
  • Manson, Kidd, Caloun, and Tjarnqvist
  • Manson, Kidd, Caloun, and Garpenlov
  • Manson, Kidd, Caloun, and Hicks

Add Darryl Shannon’s Buffalo Sabres into the mix, for which there are four players.  Now we’re up to 96 combinations.  Washington adds two more players, making it 192 possible combinations.  If a power play quarterback is needed, don’t forget about Steve Duchesne, which means adding the rest of Philadelphia in…and those five players we’re looking at from Philadelphia pushes everything to 960 combinations out of just seven teams.

And this all assumes that Manson is the pick from Chicago, when I actually had David Ling carry over to the draft board as well.  That makes 1,920 combinations out of just seven teams that encompass only 22 players.  Also, I had Dave Karpa on the list from Carolina, which means that we’re really looking at 2,880 combinations from seven teams and 23 total players.

An expansion draft board is infinitely more challenging than an entry draft board or a fantasy board.  Why?

There’s a very simple reason: in an entry draft or a fantasy draft, you’re picking against others, who by virtue of using their own selections are eliminating options (and therefore combinations) from your board.  In an expansion draft, this doesn’t happen unless a trade is brokered that involves either selecting a specific player or passing on a specific player.  And even then, there aren’t 20+ trades that are made involving an expansion team and their selections.

The simple fact is that no NHL expansion team in the modern era has had a .500 record in their first year, and none have made the playoffs before their third season.  This is why.

NHL teams have a scouting staff that focuses entirely on the entry draft and draft-eligible players, and the entry draft is seven rounds.  There’s a pro scouting staff that focuses entirely on professional players who may not be available at all, and most teams make only a very small handful of trades or acquisitions in a given year.  But for the most enormously complicated scenario that can exist, there has yet to be so much as one expansion draft consultant.

The 2017 expansion draft is going to involve the greatest number of possible draft combinations in the history of the world, and that’s even after paring the unprotected list down to a draft board.  I go into greater detail on the math when asking How Complex Will a New Expansion Be?

Also making things infinitely more complex is that Vegas will have just 72 hours from the time that unprotected lists will be available to the time that the selections must be in.  Everyone else previously has had at least four full days, and more commonly five.

The Las Vegas GM is not just going to be tasked with selecting a team, but with navigating the biggest open marketplace in the history of professional sports.  And he will be given a very, very short period of time to do it.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it likely makes more sense (and saves more money) to bring in an expansion draft consultant than to sign another marginal player on a two-way contract.