The NHL is officially a 31-team league and the fledgling Vegas Golden Knights continue to loom over the work of every other team. The upcoming expansion draft is causing far more hand-wringing than it should, given the fact teams can only lose one player, and it clearly seemed to handcuff much of the league Wednesday during the biggest dud of a trade deadline day in recent history.
The Golden Knights officially became team 31 on Wednesday, when owner Bill Foley completed payment of their $500 million expansion fee. The team can now participate in all functions, including this week's general managers meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., and all future Board of Governors meetings.
More important, GM George McPhee can now trade and acquire draft picks as part of deals connected to the expansion draft processs, where he could agree to select or not select a player in exchange for draft compensation. The Golden Knights can also now sign undrafted college and European free agents. They cannot acquire current players until their seasons are complete.
As for the expansion draft, teams can choose one of two player protection formulas: Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. It seemed like teams were unwilling to take on players with term on their contract for fear or losing them to Vegas, as well as the assets they traded in the deal. Or of losing another player if the acquired one ended up on their protected list.
"We’re all dealing with this,” Columbus president John Davidson told the Columbus Dispatch. “So when you make deals, you have to look at who now is going to be exposed, who’s not, and are we going to pick a different format for protection? We’d like to do things for sure but not at the expense for two months as a rental. Not at the expense of pushing one more guy out there exposed this summer."
Sabres GM Tim Murray said expansion "had a big part" in the quiet deadline day.
"I think the market has changed," Murray said. "I said to our guys that two years ago teams that knew they weren't going to be in the playoffs signed guys knowing they could get a second-round pick or third-round pick. How would you like to be that team today? We didn't do that anyway but I know there were mutliple teams that did that and got picks at the deadline. That didn't happen this year."
Expansion isn't the sole reason Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog remained in Colorado, or Marc-Andre Fleury stayed in Pittsburgh but it certainly had to be a consideration. Anaheim and Minnesota have a ton of defensemen but both teams, especially the Wild, are pushing for a playoff run. Still, acquiring teams would be potentially changing their expansion formula with an acquisition.
Murray to talk deals with Eichel, Reinhart
One takeaway from Murray's weekly interview with WGR Radio on Thursday was how he said publicly what's been pretty clear to anyone paying attention for months: Murray plans to talk to representatives for Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart come July 1, the earliest date he can, about new deals for when their entry-level contracts expire following the 2017-18 season.
The prevailing wisdom is the Sabres will offer the eight-year maximum to Eichel and much more of a bridge deal for Reinhart.
"Is Jack going to come at eight years and 10 million dollars? I don't know," Murray said. "Then we have to discuss that. Then do we come back with a bridge contract or not? Jack, especially, I would love to get him signed up long term to a number that's great for him but is also good for the organization so we can continue to get better and acquire other players. Neither side is going to come in low, be it Sam or Jack, and I know that."
Once he deals with Eichel and Reinhart, Murray said he would then turn his attention to Evander Kane. Whether that means making the big winger part of a trade or offering him an extension of the deal that ends after next season would be the decision.
Mesa a new home for Coyotes?
Last Sunday's Sabres game was my first trip to Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., which is certainly a fine place (albeit in need of a new scoreboard). The Westgate District adjacent to the arena is terrific, filled with shops, restaurants and hotels. The crowd was decent, filled with Sabres fans. What was striking was how empty the suites were, something the Coyotes would need to fix in a new facility.
The current arena is west of Phoenix, really in the wrong spot based on traffic and population centers. Something to the East of the city in the Scottsdale area would be preferable. The latest possibility is in Mesa adjacent to Sloan Park, the 3-year-old spring training home of the Chicago Cubs.
Mesa Mayor John Giles acknowledged discussions with the Coyotes, but told AZCentral.com it was premature to determine how realistic an agreement could be. He called the area near Sloan Park "some of the most prime real estate in the state if not the country right now."
Said Giles: "If I were the Coyotes, I know I would want to be there. But whether it's a good deal for Mesa or not is something that we'll have to look into."
Wisdom of McCabe
In a Sabres locker room where several players are particularly good with the media, an emerging go-to guy is defenseman Jake McCabe. He was exasperated after Tuesday's overtime loss to Nashville, noting he wished he had the answers to the team's constant collapses in the face of repeated questions by reporters.
After Thursday's win over Arizona, McCabe had the pulse of the room down after the Sabres emerged from a 3-3 tie in the final six minutes for a 6-3 win.
"We didn't have panic in our game," he said. "We responded well with a big goal (by Evander Kane) and kept pushing. It's how we're supposed to play. It had been a tough couple of days. People look into the trade deadline more than it really is. It's the business side, just part of our profession. We all responded well. The guys in that situation in our room handled it like pros. You can learn a lot from that."
Wild sure said it
The Wild were less than pleased with the officiating in Thursday's 1-0 loss in Columbus, producing several postgame pearls. The big point of consternation was a video review that wiped out a second-period goal by Erik Haula. The puck was ruled to be kicked into the net, even though Haula kicked it away from the goal and it deflected off a Blue Jackets player.
"Well first of all, the puck wasn’t kicked at the net," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "He was trying to kick it up to his skate because it was going five feet wide. And they put it in their own net. So, I don’t see how in Toronto that they’re calling it unless it’s a guy they just pulled in off the street that hasn’t seen hockey before."
Standing up for the goaltenders union, Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk said, "Crazy rule. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’ve got to change pants in the middle of the year to get more goals, but if a guy kicks the puck toward the corner of the rink and it goes off somebody, that’s not a goal?”
Boudreau was particularly incensed by an elbowing call on Martin Hanzal with 1:23 left against Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Said Boudreau: "You want to give Hanzal an elbowing penalty for that in front of the net, that’s great, but you’ve got to give an embellishing penalty for the goaltender for throwing his head back as if somebody just shot a bullet and hit him in the head. I mean, that’s freaking awful.”
More They Said It
---After playing his first game for the Penguins Friday against Tampa Bay, veteran defenseman Mark Streit's thought on Evgeni Malkin: "It's like he has six eyes. He sees everything."
---Islanders rookie Joshua Ho-Sang, becoming the sixth NHLer to wear Mario Lemieux's No. 66 in a game: "I know there have been some people that aren't too happy about it but for me it's like the way guys wear No. 10 and No. 23 in soccer and basketball. It's honoring him and I think a lot more people remember who he is now because they're yelling at me for wearing the number, right? I think that's cool too, that there is a lot of light being shined on an amazing player."
---Sabres broadcast analyst Rob Ray, when a puck jumped into his box between the benches that he shared Tuesday night with ex-Buffalo goaltender Martin Biron: "There's another one. Marty couldn't make that save either."
---Carolina coach Bill Peters on backup goalie Eddie Lack, who gave up four goals on 16 shots in Wednesday's overtime loss to Tampa Bay and has an NHL-worst .873 save percentage: "There were 16 shots and four went in. Not good enough. You look at his numbers in the league, they’re not good enough. ... So when he gets in again he better play. You better earn some respect from your teammates. Your teammates are out there working their bag off, you better get some saves and a timely save at the right time wouldn’t hurt."
Around the boards
---While the Capitals seem to be a Stanley Cup favorite in the wake of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, the Blues look like they're going to disappear into oblivion and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011. They've lost five straight on both sides of their bye, a streak that started here with their Feb. 18 loss to the Sabres, and have seven of their next nine games on the road.
---Big demerits to 27-year-old Arizona GM John Chayka for what he told Coyotes reporters Sunday night about shifting from existing players to draft picks in the Hanzal deal with Minnesota. Said the Doogie Howser of NHL GMs: "I’m not always the most truthful in my discussions with the media. You’re not the only one that reads my quotes.”
Not cool. At all. You admit you're not truthful and going forward I don't believe a word you say.
---The Sabres Foundation showed some terrific philanthropy last week, announcing it was giving $500,000 to five local charities as part of Hockey is for Everyone Month. Getting $100,000 apiece were SABAH, Hasek’s Heroes, Buffalo Sabres Warriors, Buffalo Sabres Thunder Special Hockey Team and Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey Team. The donation will be spread out over a five-year period, with each organization receiving $20,000 per year.