It honestly cannot be said enough: The primary reason for the Vegas Golden Knights’ incredible success is a single trade made for the expansion draft.
You know this already, but just to have another laugh over it, let’s think about how the Florida Panthers gave Vegas its No. 1 left and right wings in exchange for a fourth-round pick and George McPhee doing them the great favor of taking Reilly Smith’s $5 million cap hit off their hands.
But before we start falling down too hard over this transaction, let’s try to look at it from the Panthers’ perspective and see if we can’t get a little bit of empathy going. The Panthers were clearly facing some sort of budget crunch; they finished the season with some $68.14 million in cap obligations versus a ceiling of $75 million. That number put them seventh-bottom but in the same range as playoff teams like Winnipeg (what?!?), Vegas (haha), New Jersey, and Colorado.
Smith made up a pretty big chunk of that cap allocation, then, and in 2016-17 the scoring numbers just weren’t there. Fifteen goals and 37 points for the Computer Boys wasn’t gonna get the job done for a Hockey Man like Dale Tallon, and it didn’t matter that he packed pretty strong relative underlying numbers despite starting most of his own shifts in the defensive end. He had just 15 goals, and that’s like $333,333 per goal! Too much!
And so if you have to give away a mega-budget 30-goal guy like Jon Marchessault to get that contract off the books, well you might not like to do it, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for someone else’s mistake.
Except, of course, Smith shot 9.4 percent in 2016-17 in what became something of a pattern in his career: One year, low shooting percentage and he’s traded. The next year, high shooting percentage and he’s praised to the heavens. That’s not an exaggeration. In 2012-13, Dallas gave up on him (albeit to get Tyler Seguin) after just 40 career games because he had three goals on 36 shots at 20 and 21. The next year? He scored 20 with the Bruins. After that? Down to 13 and, one year into a deal paying him $3.425 million, he gets traded to Florida. There, he scores 25 again, gets another big contract, then sees his shooting percentage drop by 5.1 points and is immediately traded to Vegas, where he’s one of the best players at his position in the league basically all year long.
Quite the journey, but if it shocks you that Dale Tallon saw a guy score 15 on 160 shots and thought that guy was a problem, I don’t know what league you’ve been watching.
This is a particular problem in Florida because, okay, yes, budget constraints after the Computer Boys bombed out with medium-money, long-term contracts like Keith Yandle’s and James Reimer’s. But then again, Tallon gave Evgeni Dadonov (no knock on him, as he can for-sure play) $4 million and actively made the team worse with other money-swap trades.
Point being, even if you’re trying to cut $5 million in salary, Smith is the kind of guy Vegas might have taken anyway because he can play (even before this season that was pretty clear to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention) and wasn’t ludicrously overpaid even if you thought he was more likely to score 15 than 25 again, which he of course wasn’t. Would you not then protect Marchessault, who the Computer Boys got for two years at less than a million dollars per and just had his second straight 27-goal season, and expose someone else?
Or I can put it another way: Yeah I know the team had to shed salary, but shedding this particular $5.75 million of the cap was a pretty big mistake, and that was obvious on the day of the expansion draft.
The screaming terror those two guys alone brought to the Pacific Division, both in the regular season and these first two rounds of the playoffs is clear enough. The fact that neither of them — nor William Karlsson, who also had a phenomenal year after being picked up off the scrap heap — were so far ahead of any of the others is probably the only thing that prevented any one of them from being a more legitimate MVP candidate. If there were a “Most Valuable Line” award, you’d put them right up there with Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak for tops in the league, and honestly that would probably be a coin-flip decision in Vegas’s favor at worst.
And just by the way Karlsson is a much more reasonable “well we didn’t know he’d do THAT” candidate because he did okay in a third-line role for Columbus last year and then, thanks to playing between two top-line player and having like 1 in every 4 shots he took go in made Jarmo Kekalainen look a lot dumber than we otherwise really had much of a right to expect. Karlsson saw his shot production per 60 increase from a little more than five to a little more than seven in all situations. Meanwhile, his scoring went from about 0.3 goals per hour to about 1.7. That’s not just shooting percentage, but it’s a big part of it.
Anyway, in the 64 games in which those two former Panthers were in the lineup together together, they were north of 53.5 percent in basically all underlying statistical categories and also helped drive the team’s overperforming power play (and by the way, shout out to David Perron for being a not-often-talked-about 66-point guy because he was so good at facilitating on the man advantage).
In a lot of ways, Vegas was nearly as dependent upon the Dale Tallon Giveaway for scoring since the start of the season as the Bruins were on Bergeron and Co. in the playoffs. One or both Marchessault and Smith were on the ice for 102 Vegas goals in the regular season; the rest of the team scored just 112 when both of them were on the bench in almost twice the time.
They’ve also been out there for 15 goals and only five against in this postseason (plus-10, if you’re math-inclined) in about 236 minutes. The rest of the team is 14-12 (plus-2) in 432 minutes.
The reason LA and San Jose seemingly couldn’t keep up with Vegas in their combined 10 games against them, and it’s because they definitely couldn’t keep up with the top line. It’s really that simple.
If you can get to plus-10 in about a third of the team’s minutes it kinda doesn’t matter that the rest of the team gets badly outshot (195-239) and more marginally outchanced (81-88 high-danger, 187-190 overall). It’s not just Marc-Andre Fleury going off that’s keeping these guys afloat when the Floridian Connection is getting a breather, but it’s not-not either.
I don’t feel bad for Dale Tallon at all, because he made a dumbass decision and he’s has plenty of media people carrying water for him like “Oh, you WOULDN’T have given away two first-line players for practically nothing? Yeah RIGHT!” all year.
The person I feel worst for in all this is whoever has to be Seattle’s GM in a few years. Tallon almost literally gave Vegas a free trip to the conference finals in the form two first-line players with a combined cap hit of $5.75 million, and only got a fourth-round pick out of it.
You shouldn’t expect Seattle to get that kind of bargain, or reach these heights, because no one will be bad enough at their jobs — never mind expect to keep them afterwards — to make that kind of franchise-shaping blunder again.
All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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