This week's Capped looks into what Vegas did right, and what may be coming for the upstart expansion franchise.
With less than a month left in the regular season, it should be safe to officially say that the Vegas Golden Knights locking up a playoff spot (and likely the division title) is the most surprising aspect of this season. I covered the Golden Knights team the day after their expansion draft (here), and thought it was worth looking back on the team to try and figure out where we all went wrong, and whether there are lessons to be learned here for future player, team, and salary cap prognoses.
The Roster Construction
Not much changed from the team that was drafted to the one that will be finishing the season near the top of the Western conference. A few of the extra defencemen were jettisoned, backup Calvin Pickard was lost to waivers, and Vadim Shipachyov left after just two games. The only incoming body of significance was Tomas Tatar at the trade deadline, with Vegas giving up only draft picks to acquire him. The success is based on a great execution of the expansion draft, setting themselves up well now, and for the future inside the salary cap system. Let’s see what I said about Vegas last summer:
Forwards: “Vegas’ wingers have both some scoring talent, some defensive prowess, as well as a nice mix of age and experience. The centres however will likely struggle against the depth of other Western conference teams at that position.”
Defence: “offence may be hard to come by, but hits, blocks and PIMs may be a lot easier to find”
Goaltending: “[Vegas’ playing style should] be a boon for the value of goaltenders Fleury and Calvin Pickard.”
The bottom line of the above? Defence and goaltending were a little easier to predict than the forwards; the defence in particular was close to a spot-on call. In general, defence vary less, especially with the categories a lot of us rely on them for, such as hits and blocks. Captain Deryk Engelland and steady-eddy Brayden McNabb are both very valuable in leagues counting both hits and blocks.
With the goaltending, Marc-Andre Fleury is as consistent as they come, and has done so behind many different styles of play from the Penguins over the years. There was no reason to believe that he couldn’t re-produce at least some of that value for poolies, but anyone who took a chance on him ended up with a chip much more valuable than they expected. Save for his early season injury, Fleury’s status as the number one starter has never been in question. That is as expected and was part of the reason he was a popular selection in many drafts, as shot volume is a big part of many pools.
On the front lines, the supposed ace up GM George McPhee’s sleeve turned out to be a bit of a joker. Supposed first-line centre Vadim Shipachyov returned to Russia after playing only two games, leaving the centre ice position even thinner than the group at the draft that I was expecting to struggle. Erik Haula and William Karlsson have stepped up marvelously, and while they may not be as highly regarded as other Western Conference centres, (nor as playoff-tested) they are doing the job right now. Karlsson especially has emerged as a force, shattering his career highs in every offensive category, and leading the forward group in ice-time per game. No one really saw it coming, but the fourth-year breakout strikes again.
What Can We Learn
Looking at this from both a fantasy roster construction perspective, and from a salary cap point of view, there are many lessons to be learned.
Goaltending – The key to goaltending in fantasy is that no one really knows what they are going to get. The top four goalies off the board in most drafts this year were Brayden Holtby (a mess), Cam Talbot (also a mess, on a messy team), Carey Price (an injured mess on a messy team), and Matt Murray (just plain injured). Doesn’t give you much confidence drafting a goalie early next year, does it? That’s why, when you are evaluating goaltending for your fantasy team, upside isn’t everything. Consistency is the key aspect to look for on a year-to-year basis. Even if it means you pass over a Connor Hellebuyck or an Andrei Vasilevskiy on occasion, there are plenty more breakout failures than success stories. Consistent goalies will win more than they lose, and over the course of a season, that is exactly what you need to help anchor a successful fantasy team. Vegas knew what they were getting with Fleury, and as a result they have been able to rely on him all season.
Defence – Vegas did an excellent job here, not overpaying to get the big names, but finding players who filled the roles they needed. In fantasy, the same ideals should apply. The bulk of your fantasy stats are going to come from your forwards, with the defence bringing up the rear (in general – not everyone can be Erik Karlsson). Putting this into practice means knowing which stats you are going to build your defence core around, in order to best support your crop of forwards. Depending on the league setup, this may vary greatly, but no matter the stats counted, there is always good value to be found in the under-heralded defenceman. Take Engelland and McNabb for example. They haven’t ever been top pair defencemen, but they both have an important role in the success of the Vegas team. I also own them on multiple teams this season, for their hits/blocks totals (while not largely hindering other categories). Their cost against the cap is also a large plus, allowing for greater money to be spent among the forwards, where the larger amounts of your fantasy team’s stats come from anyways.
Forwards – Diversity and upside. Two key words to sum up what is needed from a forward group, both in the NHL, and in fantasy hockey (especially in cap leagues!). Forwards will cover the majority of your league categories and scoring. Outside the top tier of players though, it is tough to find options to keep up with the scoring pace, or to cover a majority of categories counted in your fantasy league. Diversity allows for the depth forward to, on the whole, cover all the categories necessary for team success. To balance out the well-rounded category coverage, a few upside picks are needed, bringing the statistical boost needed to put a team over the top. Vegas managed this very well in the expansion draft, finding cheap contractual value in players like P.E. Bellemare and Ryan Carpenter. Add in the upside picks of William Karlsson and Alex Tuch, and there’s your success story.
The Salary Cap – Not only has Vegas succeeded on the ice, the team has set themselves up wonderfully for the future. With multiple first round picks last summer, and again in 2019, their prospect cupboard will be above average very soon (if it isn’t already). But picks need to be insulated with good players, and a rebuild is never successful (and it never ends) just by burning a team completely to the ground. Vegas set themselves up with prime aged players, a few expiring contracts, and took on other teams’ garbage in return for picks/prospects. They made use of every available resource, and they are still in the bottom 10 for cap hit on the season. They have more money than they know what to do with, and after failing to land Erik Karlsson at the trade deadline, expect them to make another push in the offseason.
Their current cap outlook for next season sees them paying $47.45 million, with 18 players under contract, and four key players left to sign. Between these four key players, (James Neal, W. Karlsson, Colin Miller and Theodore) my contract prediction model says that’s another $19.5 million gone. This would leave Vegas with a payroll around $67 million, and a salary cap set to rise to around $80 million*. There is nothing quite as valuable as flexibility in the cap-era, and the Golden Knights are taking full advantage. Having taken the NHL by storm in year one thanks to managing their roster and cap space almost flawlessly, expect Vegas to double down in year two, perhaps even surpassing the lofty standards set in their inaugural year.
*Erik Karlsson’s predicted $12.2 million cap hit fits perfectly in, so Vegas could theoretically trade for, and sign, him without even giving up a roster player.
That caps off another Thursday. Hopefully this helps you take your fantasy team from lower expectations entering next season, all the way to the top. If not, well at least we still get to watch Vegas do it.
If you want to talk hockey, salary caps, or anything even remotely related, you can find me on twitter any day of the week @alexdmaclean