The Golden Knights Are Expected to Draft a Difference Maker in 2019

The Golden Knights Are Expected to Draft a Difference Maker in 2019

Authored by Jack Manning

The 2019 NHL draft just a few hours away, and the Knights are in the fortunate position of having 9 draft picks at their disposal, including five in the first three rounds.  While the NHL hasn’t officially announced the 2019/20 salary cap numbers, we know for certain that the Knights are already well over the current estimate of $82 million. The team also has more NHL players under contract than can fit on the 23-man opening roster, leaving Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee with one viable choice: they have to make some trades.

While Kelly McCrimmon is the new general manager in Vegas, George McPhee continues to have the final word on most decisions in the Knights organization.  McCrimmon will no doubt have a big role in the upcoming entry draft, George McPhee’s history of outstanding draft results will keep him intimately involved in the selection process.  Most Golden Knights fans are aware of the impressive pipeline of prospects that McPhee and McCrimmon drafted in 2017 and 2018, but George McPhee track record proves that he is among shrewdest amateur scouts in the industry.  By contrast, Kelly McCrimmon is many things, but an experienced NHL draft expert is not one of them. McCrimmon has been at the draft table exactly twice, and in both instances he found himself riding shotgun to McPhee.

In fact, there is a significant argument to be made that McPhee’s biggest strength is talent evaluation.  Aside from McPhee’s masterful navigation of the 2017 expansion draft, his work as the General Manager of the Washington Capitals from 1997 until mid-season 2014 ultimately brought a Stanley Cup to Washington DC (at the expense of his Vegas Golden Knights).

To get a sense of just how impressive McPhee’s drafting was during his last decade in Washington, you need only look at the point totals generated by the players he drafted in that time.  The players drafted by the Washington Capitals between 2003 and 2013 have scored a cumulative 5,485 points. Only the Chicago Blackhawks picks from that time period have scored more (5,545 points).  Granted, McPhee had one easy ‘gimme’ when he was given the chance to draft Alexander Ovechkin with the 2004 first overall pick. (Ovechkin accounts for 1,211 career points). On the other hand, McPhee also drafted 4 legitimate Number 1 goalies in that stretch, including 2014 Vezina finalist, Semyon Valamov (2006 23rd Overall), Michal Neuvirth (2006 36th Overall), 2016 Vezina winner, Braden Holtby (2008 93rd overall) and Philipp Grubauer (2010 112th overall).

Of the 114 picks made by the washington capitals between 2000 and 2013, 33 (or 29%) of them have played at least 100 games in the NHL.  14 of those players have turned out to be true impact players. For my purposes, I define an impact player generally as a top 6 forward, a top 4 defenseman, or a No. 1 Goalie.  However, the definition of “impact player” is somewhat subjective. For example, Marcus Johansson (2009 1st), Cody Eakin (2009 3rd), and Andre Burakovsky (2013 1st) are all good and useful players, but none regularly score more than 50 points as forwards, so I don’t consider them “impact players” for the purposes of this article.  It’s also important to note that McPhee’s 2012 and 2013 picks are still 24 or 25 and could continue to develop.

McPhee has been particularly successful in the first round of the draft.  Out of the twenty first-round picks he made between 2000 and 2013, only three failed to carve out NHL careers.  Of the remaining 17 first round picks taken during that period, all of them have either played at least 400 NHL games, or are on pace to do so next year.  At least 10 of the 17 would easily be considered high-impact players. Of course, this doesn’t account for the three first round picks selected by Vegas in 2017 (Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Erik Brannstrom), all of whom project to be impact players in the NHL within the next few years.

Between 2003 and 2013, McPhee’s average first round pick position was 17.3.  Coincidentally, enough, the Knights are set to pick 17th this year, so McPhee will actually be picking just slightly earlier than he’s used to.  However, it wouldn’t be out of character for George McPhee to make a trade to try to move up in the draft. In 2017, McPhee cut a deal with Winnipeg to move up 11 positions at the draft to take Nick Suzuki, and he nearly traded a second round pick to Vancouver to move up from 6th overall to 5th. (McPhee ultimately walked away from the deal because he determined that his guy, Cody Glass, was going to be available at 6.  McPhee also gave away a 2nd round pick in 2008 to move up to spots from 23 to 21. Ironically, pick 21 and 23 both turned out to be busts. Yet, in the same year, McPhee traded a 3rd round pick and Steve Eminger to get the 27th pick to select the Caps best blueliner, John Carlson.

By the same token, McPhee is not a stranger to trading back either. McPhee has traded out of the first round on a few occasions to obtain more picks.  For example, in 2007, McPhee traded the 28th overall pick to acquire two second-round picks.

Of course, no General Manager (or President of Hockey Operations) runs a successful draft alone.  While George McPhee will always have the last word on who the team drafts, his amateur scouting staff is likely to have a dramatic impact on his decisions, particularly in the later rounds.  That may be one reason to feel optimistic the Knights’ 7 picks in rounds 3-7 may have a better rate of success than the Capitals during McPhee’s reign. While its too early to say that any of the Golden Knights’ late round picks are guaranteed to be productive NHL players, several are showing great promise.  Picks like Jack Dugan, Lucas Elvenes, and Slava Demin are all outperforming their draft positions and have the potential to become real difference makers. If just one of these players becomes a bonafide impact player, it is the functional equivalent of finding a free first round pick.

The price of a first round pick can change quite a bit in just a few short months.  At the trade deadline, while winning teams are filled with hope, the bottom feeders are full of piss and vinegar. When a contender moves a first-round pick at the deadline, they are hoping that it will turn out to be 31st overall.  But by the time that the grim reality of the offseason has set in and the draft order is static, the cost of a pick or a prospect has a way of shifting.  The value of any player or pick is only as much as another team is willing to pay, and if only a handful of teams are willing to part with a relatively high pick, the cost of acquisition goes up.

A draft is considered “successful” if a GM can extract two NHL players in 7 picks. In his years as gm of the Washington Capitals, McPhee drafted an average of 2.1 successful NHL players per draft (2.8 players in his last 5 drafts). If the Knights decide to move a player like Cody Eakin or Colin Miller in a package to get another first, the likelihood of the Knights getting 3 NHL players out of this draft is quite high.

When the draft starts at 5:00 PM today, don’t be surprised if the Knights acquire another first round pick or use a few assets to move into the top-12.  This is one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, and McPhee’s greatest strength is arguably his amateur scouting acumen. Whoever the Knights select today has a better than 50/50 chance of becoming an impact player in the NHL and will shape the Knights future for years to come.

Want to hear more about the Golden Knights Draft? Check out our recent podcasts! Listen to our first draft show of the season (Episode 18) or our first in-studio interview with Jesse Granger, here.

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