In 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild entered the NHL and stocked their rosters with players left unprotected in the expansion draft.
Among the players they had a chance to select: Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Tom Barrasso, Mike Vernon, Mathieu Schneider, Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Pat Verbeek.
We know this because in 2000, the NHL officially released the expansion draft lists. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim fans debated the merits of dangling Guy Herbert’s contract out there as the team’s starting goalie. Los Angeles Kings fans knew they risked losing defenseman Sean O’Donnell, and he ended up being the first D-man picked by the Wild. And with the lists public, the Wild and Blue Jackets could be skewered for their selections of, as Helene Elliott put it, “52 has-beens, marginal veterans and underachievers.”
It was fun.
But 17 years later, and with many of the same faces in the front offices around the League, the NHL’s general managers are less about fun and more about feelings.
At their annual meeting in Boca Raton, the NHL’s general managers told NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that they want the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft lists to remain private.
They want to protect their teams from criticism. They want to protect their players from public ridicule, when a name you might not expect to be exposed gets exposed.
For those who have asked, here's an NHL spokesperson's statement on the public release of teams' protected lists for the expansion draft. pic.twitter.com/TiChf2lsDV
— Craig Morgan (@craigsmorgan) March 8, 2017
At the very least, you know where the GMs are coming from. Many of them are ex-players whose teammates had to be exposed in previous expansion drafts. All of them have seen how relationships are affected when the public and the media are privy the backroom dealings.
As one NHL team executive told Puck Daddy’s Josh Cooper, the arbitration process has strained relationships between management and players for years, and they’re “afraid of it happening here” if players are officially mentioned as being left unprotected for the Vegas Golden Knights.
This, of course, led to several broadsides against the NHL for turning the expansion draft into a boring, buzz-less non-event, despite last night’s news that it’ll be televised. With the lists under lock and key, it’s like a reality show that just skips over all the drama, debate and fan engagement and has the first episode double as the season finale. (Which, in the case of “The Next Food Network Star,” would be quite nice, actually.)
The critics had their knives out. The NHL is “always in its own way.” The NHL looks like “a group of autocrats mortgaging the future of athletes people care about.” Sean Gentille writes that NHL is “about to royally screw up the expansion draft.”
Look, the NHL has blood on its ledger when it comes to not recognizing what fans actually want. (Hi, current standings format.) But it takes way too much crap from us when it comes to some of these decisions, where fun is swallowed up in a swirling black hole of overcautious behavior and traditionalist handwringing.
The NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft died because of the players. The goofy prop comedy breakaway challenge died because of the players. Many of the marketing decisions made by the League are made because of the players’ stubbornness to put themselves out there. There’s only so much the League can do when, in the end, it’s a partnership.
For example: Bettman has been rightfully maligned for his comments about fans not caring about an official salary cap site run by the NHL or the NHLPA. It’s not his most asinine statement, but it cracks the top 10. Yet you have to also consider the role of the players – who like to keep their finances as private as possible – and the role of the general managers – many of whom still don’t release financial terms on contracts – in influencing the League’s stance on it’s own Cap Geek site.
Which brings us to the GMs’ influence on keeping the expansion draft a super secret.
Unlike other instances, this isn’t the NHLPA’s influence. These are the general managers thinking they’re doing right by their players. Trying not to hurt feelings. Trying not to open certain guys up for social media finger pointing. And, obviously, they’re trying to keep the lists away from fan scrutiny so their own decisions aren’t ridiculed.
This is, of course, shortsighted and wrongheaded.
The only guy who shouldn’t want the lists public is Vegas GM George McPhee, because ultimately he’s the only guy that’s going to be second-guessed. McPhee is the one that has to justify his picks in building the Golden Knights, or amassing players to deal away for futures.
Everyone else should be cool with it, because …
1 – Every other GM can hide behind the NHL’s established expansion draft rules and claim their hands were tied in exposing Your Favorite Player.
2 – The lists are getting out regardless of the NHL policy. Maybe not for every team, but in most cities with a plugged-in beat writer, they’re going to get out. And maybe the entire collection of lists leak to one of the national guys. You know, the ones who always get the waiver wire emails …
(By the way: Any Professional Hockey Writers Association member who supports keeping their awards ballots secret is heretofore disqualified from criticizing NHL general managers seeking to do the same with their expansion draft lists.)
Now for one last important bit: For all the backlash this week, I’ve been told by someone in the room where it happened (tm, Lin-Manuel Miranda) that nothing’s been decided. The general managers could reverse course, allow the lists to be released, give the expansion draft the buzz and cultural relevance it deserves and, in the process, opt not to make the Golden Knights’ player selection a heaving [expletive] show of bad information and partial leaks.
Maybe they eventually understand that this is what the fans want and, despite the preconceptions and critiques, what the NHL actually wants, too.
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