Finally, after a year of mock drafts, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights can get to work.
Finally, after a year of fretting and speculating, Wild fans know which potential one player out of a whole group of players their favorite team will lose Wednesday night.
Of the 23 players left exposed by the Wild, the most enticing names for Vegas from which to choose are defensemen Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella and veteran center Eric Staal. Staal, it could be argued, was left exposed so the Wild could protect Jason Zucker, while the team opted to protect Jonas Brodin as its third defenseman with Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon instead of Dumba or Scandella.
Zucker, because he is from Las Vegas, has endured persistent questions for a year about how logical it would be for the Golden Knights to take him in expansion. He was excited to wake up at his offseason home in Las Vegas on Sunday and discover he had been protected by the Wild.
“This is exactly what I wanted,” Zucker said. “I want to be with Minnesota. I think if later on in my career I decide I want to go home and play, that’s great, but right now, I don’t have any desire to do that. I love being in Minnesota. I think we have a team that can win, and that’s the biggest key. It’s a great group of guys and it’s exactly where I want to be.”
Again, the Wild, like all teams, can lose only one player in the expansion draft.
The Wild will continue trade talks with the Golden Knights to perhaps steer them off a specific unprotected player or get them to select an exposed player from another team and trade him to Minnesota. Another option is to try to use Vegas as a conduit to a potentially larger trade with other partners.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Sunday there’s not much he can say or explain about the Wild’s protection decisions until the process is over. Things could become much clearer Wednesday night because it’s likely the Wild’s decisions were strategic as the team attempts to prearrange deals with Vegas or even others.
Forwards Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville had to be protected because they have no-movement clauses. Fletcher has declined to say if he asked any player to surrender that right so he could protect an extra forward. That meant the Wild could protect only four forwards among Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Staal, Erik Haula and others.
Staal, 32, was the Wild’s No. 1 center and leading goal-scorer last season with 28, his highest total since 2010-11. His 65 points were his most since 2011-12. But Zucker, perhaps enticing to Vegas because he would be marketable as the first Nevada-produced player in NHL history, is 25, coming off a career-high 22-goal, 47-point season and tied Suter with a league-leading plus-34.
So the Wild felt it necessary to protect the younger, more valuable asset. The Wild also may know or is simply taking a calculated risk that the Golden Knights — or another team via trade with Vegas’ help — would pluck a defenseman instead of Staal with blue-liners Dumba, Scandella or even Gustav Olofsson ripe for the taking.
It’s believed Fletcher explained that to Staal. In an e-mail, Staal said he would prefer to reserve comment until once the process is complete.
Zucker’s wife, who is pregnant, is from Minnesota, and he has a stepdaughter. They recently bought a home in Edina, so he is entrenched in the Minnesota community and involved in multiple charities. So Sunday was welcome news.
“A lot of people thought I could just go to Chuck and be like, ‘Protect me, I don’t want to go, or vice versa,’ and didn’t realize I didn’t have a choice,” Zucker said. “So I’m very happy. I didn’t want to leave.”
As for the Brodin-vs.-Dumba decision, Fletcher and senior vice president of hockey operations Brent Flahr value the two first-round draft picks and must have wrestled over which player to protect.
The Wild chose to keep Brodin, 23, a smooth-skating defensive defenseman who burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 2013 by finishing fourth in Calder Trophy voting and making the All-Rookie team. Last season, Brodin set a career high with 22 assists and 25 points. He has four years left on his contract at $4.16 million annually.
The high-risk, right-shot, offense-minded Dumba, who turns 23 in July, set career highs last season with 11 goals, 23 assists, 34 points and a plus-15. Scandella, 27, drafted in 2008, had 13 points in 71 games and is coming off a second consecutive up-and-down season.
The Wild might try to make a deal with the Golden Knights to dissuade them from taking Dumba, but other teams interested could make better offers, too. The Wild doesn’t have a first-round pick in this weekend’s draft, nor a second-round pick in the next two drafts.
The Golden Knights have tons of options. There are so many good players around the league that were exposed, McPhee’s phone had to be a popular number to dial Sunday by teams looking to acquire exposed players from others or make side deals to keep him from taking their players.
But, Vegas needs to field a team, too, and McPhee can select only 30 players leaguewide to either keep for himself or parlay into other assets.
So prices will be high, and Wednesday night will be exhilarating to watch.