Early Sunday morning, the NHL's newest team, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, posted a picture of the Statue of Liberty on Twitter above the sly caption: "Give us your tired, your poor … and a top-four defenceman."
On Wednesday evening, in conjunction with the NHL's annual awards gala, the Golden Knights filled out their roster as part of the first expansion draft in 17 years.
For one night, Vegas became an Ellis Island of sorts for 30 NHL players – refugees and exiles that found a new home in the bright lights of the league's newest big city.
Goaltender Marc-André Fleury of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins was the most prominent player joining Vegas. Fleury will be the face of the Vegas franchise, a 32-year-old who had previously played his entire NHL career with the Penguins. Fleury is a quality starting goaltender and an upbeat, glass-half-full personality that will greatly enhance the Golden Knights' dressing-room chemistry once the expansion euphoria dies down and grim reality sets in.
Between last Sunday and Wednesday, Vegas had an exclusive 72-hour window to negotiate trades with the existing NHL teams – and they made a batch of deals. Vegas received first-round picks from the New York Islanders and the Columbus Blue Jackets in complicated transactions designed to protect some assets and dump other financial albatrosses. Former Leaf David Clarkson's contract ended up in Vegas.
The Vegas roster reveal was made in inverse order of last year's overall standings, meaning goaltender Calvin Pickard of the Colorado Avalanche became the first player to officially join the Golden Knights, via the expansion process.
Among the NHL's seven Canada-based teams, the players lost to expansion were Luca Sbisa (Vancouver), Griffin Reinhart (Edmonton), Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Chris Thorburn (Winnipeg), Alexei Emelin (Montreal), Brendan Leipsic (Toronto) and Marc Methot (Ottawa).
The Flames' Engelland was a pending unrestricted free agent, who makes Vegas his off-season residence, so this represents a homecoming of sorts for him. The Jets reached an accommodation with Vegas not to select defenceman Toby Enstrom, who waived his no-move clause. To make the deal happen, Winnipeg sent the 13th overall pick in the 2017 entry draft to Vegas in exchange for Columbus's pick, 24th overall. Effectively, the cost to keep Enstrom was moving back 11 places in the draft.
Scoring could be problematic for Vegas, though James Neal, from the Stanley Cup finalist Nashville Predators, and Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer from the Florida Panthers, are both capable of providing offence.
Reilly Smith of the Panthers was also Vegas bound – part of a prearranged deal that will see the Golden Knights absorb his $25-million contract. Both Marchessault and Smith played in Florida last season for Gerard Gallant, Vegas's head coach.
Officially, the Golden Knights' choice from the Islanders was goaltender J.F. Berube, who was No. 3 on the organizational depth chart. Vegas took on two contracts, Mikhail Grabovski and Jake Bischoff, in addition to Berube but in exchange, received a 2017 first-rounder and a 2019 second-rounder from the Islanders.
Because only the Philadelphia Flyers are still searching for a starter in net, there wasn't the anticipated run on goalies. Only Fleury, Berube and Pickard were selected.
Instead, Vegas loaded up on defencemen, the most tradeable commodity in the NHL. The list of defencemen included the five plucked from the Canadian teams, plus Trevor van Riemsdyk (Chicago Blackhawks), Nate Schmidt (Washington Capitals), Colin Miller (Boston Bruins), Brayden McNabb (Los Angeles Kings), Jason Garrison (Tampa Bay Lightning), David Schlemko (San Jose Sharks) and Jon Merrill (New Jersey Devils).
The consensus was two teams – the Minnesota Wild and the Anaheim Ducks – had the most to lose via an expansion formula that permitted existing teams to protect seven forwards, three defenceman and one goalie, or eight position players, plus a goalie.
Minnesota's pre-arranged deal with the Golden Knights saw Vegas take centre Erik Haula off the Wild's NHL roster. They also acquired prospect Alex Tuch, a 2014 first-round draft choice, 18th overall, for a conditional draft choice.
Anaheim did something similar. Vegas agreed to take on the contract of 32-year-old defenceman Clayton Stoner, who was limited to 14 games because of injury last year, and ignore prized defenceman Josh Manson. In exchange, Vegas received promising young defenceman Shea Theodore from the Ducks to flesh out the deal. Theodore may have the best long-term upside of any asset that landed in Vegas.
Contractually, the players the Golden Knights selected had to have an aggregate dollar value of 60 to 100 per cent of the prior season's upper salary cap limit, which was $73-million (U.S.).
It meant that many of the selected forwards fell into the journeymen/minor-leaguer category, players who will make a minimal impact on their salary structure: David Perron (St. Louis Blues), William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets) Oscar Lindberg (New York Rangers), Cody Eakin (Dallas), Tomas Nosek (Detroit Red Wings), Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Philadelphia Flyers), Teemu Pulkkinen (Arizona Coyotes), William Carrier (Buffalo Sabres) and Connor Brickley (Carolina Hurricanes).
Vegas general manager George McPhee indicated some of the players he chose in the expansion draft would be traded to other teams, perhaps as early as Thursday, when the NHL's short trade freeze is lifted. It remains to be seen how many of the 30 players selected Wednesday will still be with Vegas on opening night.
One for sure will be Fleury, who arrived in Pittsburgh as the first overall pick of the 2003 NHL entry draft, and helped turn a rebuilding Penguins' team into one that eventually won three Stanley Cups in his time with the club. In joining an expansion team, Fleury has effectively seen his career come full circle, leaving an NHL powerhouse to join a start-up.
McPhee believes Fleury's presence will bring instant stability in goal and help the Golden Knights meet their stated goal of being both competitive and entertaining right out of the starting gate. Pittsburgh gave up a 2020 second-round pick to Vegas in exchange for them taking Fleury.