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A tale of two cities: Why Seattle and Vegas took different paths

The comparisons will be there all season, so let’s first look at why the situations between the latest expansion franchises are much different

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2021 NHL Expansion Draft Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

The Seattle Kraken open their regular season in Vegas on Tuesday against the team they will be most compared to during their inaugural season. Under the same expansion rules as the Kraken, the Vegas Golden Knights assembled a championship-contending roster. Vegas made the Stanley Cup Finals in their very first season and have been one of the best teams in the NHL during their four years of existence.

While the expansion draft rules for Seattle and Vegas were the same, the situations for the Golden Knights and the Kraken expansion drafts were very different. Let’s revisit the Vegas draft in 2017 to get a better understanding:

A look back at Vegas

There were a lot of rules and details about the expansion draft, but the broad strokes are:

  1. Vegas/Seattle had to take one player from each team.
  2. Teams could protect a certain number of players from being selected.
  3. If a player had a no-movement clause (hereafter NMC), he must be protected unless he chooses to waive his NMC.
  4. Vegas/Seattle can negotiate their selections with teams in side deals.

The number of available protection slots in this expansion round was fewer than in previous rounds, potentially leaving good players available. In addition, players didn’t like waiving their NMCs, even in situations where they were unlikely to be selected. As a result, the NMCs created a lot of pressure on some teams’ roster construction.

Teams tried to mitigate these problems by making side deals. This did not go to plan. Vegas put on their fleecing shoes and went to work. The most egregious ones were:

Anaheim sent D Shea Theodore, who is very good, to Vegas in order to protect players who were worse.

Columbus sent C William Karlsson, who is very good, to Vegas in order to protect players who were worse.

Florida sent C Jonathan Marchessault and RW Reilly Smith to Vegas, who are both very good, in order to protect players who were worse.

All in all, Vegas netted ten draft picks and six players from side deals, including two first-round picks and four second-round picks.

Had the teams done absolutely nothing and made no side deals, they would have been better off. Vegas made the league look like a bunch of chumps.

What Happened in Vegas Stayed in Vegas

For the Seattle expansion, teams were more prepared for the hostile raid on their assets. The rules for both drafts may have been the same, but the variables were very different.

  • Teams had one year to prepare for the Vegas draft. They had three years to prepare for Seattle. For example, Columbus stopped handing out NMCs so they wouldn’t find themselves painted into a corner the way they were the first time.
  • Having seen the expansion rules play out once already, players realized waiving their NMC wasn’t that big a deal. One, they were unlikely to be selected in many cases, and two, if they did happen to misread the situation and were selected, an expansion team wasn’t the league equivalent of being banished to Siberia. More players waived their NMCs for the Seattle expansion (5) than Vegas (2).

And those side deals? The piñata of value that Vegas feasted on never manifested for Seattle. Teams were not willing to pay the same prices to Seattle as they did with Vegas. When you give away the farm once and then get laughed at for doing it, you’re less likely to give away another farm.

Some general managers galaxy-brained themselves and way overthought things, so the net result was the player pool available to Seattle was quite a bit deeper than the one offered to Vegas. There were no side deals, but there weren’t as many Yanni Gourdes or Jared McCanns available in 2017.

(Why did Toronto trade for Jared McCann, protect two worse players, then leave McCann exposed? I have no idea.)

One other thing was different between 2021 and 2017: COVID-19.

COVID and the Curtailed Cap

The NHL has a hard salary cap which is tied to league revenues. The hard salary cap was introduced in 2006 at $39 million and increased about 5.5% from year to year. So when COVID happened and league revenues fell, the NHL took an unexpected loss of $3.6 billion in revenue in 2020-2021.

If the formula of “cap is tied to revenues” had been adhered to, teams would see the hard cap shrink and teams would see financial catastrophe, as they would not have the salary cap room to fit in their players’ salaries. So the league and players instead agreed to keep the cap flat and borrow against future years.

The cap is likely to stay flat for the next 3-5 years, subject to how much revenue the league brings in. Teams who signed players to extensions before COVID were operating under the reasonable but incorrect assumption that the league would not suffer a catastrophic revenue decrease.

The only team that had no cap commitments was Seattle, and they are the only team with the benefit of having a clean cap sheet as they plan for the flat cap for potentially the next five years.

Some of the ways Seattle can leverage this advantage:

  • They can take on bad contracts in exchange for draft picks and prospects. Since a team trading a player can retain up to 50% of his cap hit, they can broker between two teams and trade off cap space for assets. For example, let’s say St. Louis wants to trade Vladimir Tarasenko to Philadelphia. They could work out a deal where Tarasenko technically goes to Seattle, Seattle trades him to Philadelphia, and Seattle retains 50% of Tarasenko’s cap hit for the duration of his contract (2 more seasons). Seattle gets draft picks/players in return for the service.
  • They can outspend anyone in free agency if that’s the route they want to go.

As teams gave out new deals to players this offseason, some GMs appear to be treating the upcoming cap crunch in 2022 and 2023 like oil companies treat climate change: that sounds like a problem for future me, but I can’t be bothered at the moment. Next offseason teams are really running into it and undoubtedly were hoping Seattle would take on some of the more significant cap liabilities attached to aging big-name players.

The teams that were in poor cap shape did not, for the most part, get bailed out by Seattle the way they probably hoped.

Dallas, Edmonton, Washington, Chicago, Florida, Philadelphia, and Montreal were some of the teams feeling the cap squeeze heading into the expansion draft and they were hoping Seattle would take on some of their pricier players. Instead, Seattle went cheap and saved these teams a combined $700k against the cap.

  • Compared to Vegas, Seattle ended up with a better roster at the end of their draft because the player pool was much deeper.
  • Vegas got a lot of extra value from side deals.
  • Seattle is set up to get a lot of extra value from leveraging their cap space.
  • Vegas being a Cup contender right away was an unlikely outcome and should not be reasonably expected by Seattle.

We are already seeing serious ramifications of the flat cap. Marc-Andre Fleury was the face of the Vegas Golden Knights. He was the washed-up goalie who found new life in Vegas. He just won the highly prestigious Vezina Trophy[1] awarded to the best goalie in the league, he’s extraordinarily popular with the fanbase, and is one of the most beloved and respected people in the sport. He had one year left on his contract at 37 and was expected to retire in Vegas.

Vegas traded him to Chicago for a throwaway prospect with no realistic chance of being an NHL player in a salary cap dump.

They essentially traded Fleury for nothing.


They just needed to get his $7 million off the cap sheet.

Salary cap space is king. [2]

Vegas Wasn’t Expected to be Good

There’s a lot of revisionist history about Vegas in 2017. Few thought they would be good when the season started. Even after the draft and side deals, they were considered the worst roster on paper.

From preseason previews in 2017:

Tal Pinchevsky (ESPN):

“A poker pro has a better chance of hitting a straight flush on the river than the Golden Knights have of making the playoffs. The club will undoubtedly struggle to find chemistry as players grow accustomed to each other as well as the inherent newness of the club’s place in the league. There’s also 25 years of empirical evidence — dating back to the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning joining the league in 1992 — showing that expansion teams struggle to compete in their first season.”

Dom Luszczyszyn (The Athletic):

“There was a lot of skepticism about how good Vegas could be. Then teams released their protected lists and there was optimism that they could be good. Then Vegas picked their team and most of that optimism went out the window. There were some strange choices made (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is bad) and the whole process seemed sub-optimal, but there are some nice pieces here that might be able to keep the team away from dead last.

Still, there’s so much uncertainty around a team that has never played a game together that dead last might just be the best bet. It feels a lot more likely Vegas under-performs their projection rather than over-performs simply based on that unfamiliarity. It’s what makes Vegas the toughest team to project for any model this season, and a fascinating team to watch when the season begins.”

Cody Benjamin, CBS Sports:

“Outside of bringing to life the pure spectacle of pro hockey in Vegas, the Golden Knights can’t be counted on for a whole lot in 2017-18. There is simply too much talent in the Pacific Division, not to mention every other division that boasts players who have, you know, had more than a few months to gel, to think otherwise. Vegas isn’t exactly built to go head-to-head with some of the league’s top — or even decent — scoring attacks, either.”

The sportsbook preseason odds to win the Stanley Cup were 500-1, which resulted in massive liability for the sportsbooks. It’s not like the sportsbooks, with their army of top data analysts, secretly knew the Golden Knights would be great but were willing to take on so much risk. They surprised everyone.

The Vegas model is neither a particularly repeatable nor sustainable one.

The Nerds: Seattle is Secretly Not Bad

Seattle snagged a top goalie in free agency in Philipp Grubauer, who has never looked cooler in pregame warmups. After the expansion draft, they had to spend another $10 million to reach the salary floor, and they used some of that in getting a Vezina finalist from last year. The addition of Grubauer makes them much stronger in net and plays into the vision of a defensive team biding their time until they find opportunities to most effectively wield their cap space.

The social media reaction to Seattle, especially after draft night, was overall tepid, but the identity of a strong defense and goaltending projects better than general fan sentiment.

The fans and the ones driving the sports betting markets have Seattle considerably lower than the predictive analytics models. JFreshHockey has been doing a great job tracking the different models (in addition to his own excellent work).

Seattle isn’t taking the most exciting approach, but their approach is patient, and they are trying to build for long-term success. The entire organization was built on analytics; the nerds are in charge, and spreadsheets don’t care about selling jerseys.

The Kraken look to be a team with very good defense and goaltending that will be a gigantic pain to score against, and they should be competitive all season. And hey, maybe Mason Appleton becomes their William Karlsson, Jared McCann becomes a superstar, and Grubauer maintains his excellent play after coming over as a free agent from Colorado, and we see a repeat of Vegas. And hockey is so high-variance that once you get in the playoffs, weird things can happen. But most likely, this is a team trying to be elite in 2024, not 2021.

[1] Pronounced VEZ-i-nuh. I’m disappointed too. Since Canadian law requires all hockey trophies to be named after people, this trophy is named after Georges Vezina, who probably made very sure people knew how to say his name correctly at parties.

[2] They probably could have told him that directly rather than him finding out on Twitter, though.