Everyone expected the Vegas Golden Knights to be absolute trash.
And for good reason. Based on previous expansion drafts, the Golden Knights were doomed. The expansion rules didn’t necessarily play in their favor: they needed the rest of the league to give them favors along the way.
And then they did. The Golden Knights took advantage of it and nearly won the Stanley Cup in the team’s first season. It was an incredible story at the time and still is today.
But the pressure is on for the league’s 32nd franchise. Will Seattle take advantage of a flat cap around the league to leverage options and steal some good players away from other clubs?
There’s a good chance of that, but there’s also a lot of incentive to not be good out of the gate and go the opposite way that Vegas did. And that’s because, unlike the first couple drafts Vegas participated in, Seattle is going to have an abundance of high-end talent that we haven’t seen the likes of in some time.
The first overall picks the first three years that Vegas was in the league were Nico Hischier, Rasmus Dahlin and Jack Eichel. All three are good players, but none of them have the franchise-changing aspect to them that a handful of players during the 2022 and 2023 drafts have at this point.
There’s a legitimate chance that Seattle could enter the summer next year with two names from this list: Shane Wright, Brad Lambert, Matt Savoie, Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov and Adam Fantilli.
If you don’t follow prospects that much, you likely don’t know a ton about any of them, but scouts have been praising them as some of the best to enter the draft in some time. And while it’s not uncommon to overhype top prospects in a given draft, few players have the numbers to back them up like those six do.
The first three – dubbed the Three-Headed-Monster – are set to battle for the 2022 draft. Wright is the current No. 1 favorite, putting on one heck of a U-18 World Championship performance a few months back in his only game action of the season. Despite having such a long layoff – over 400 days between games – Wright finished tied for second in tournament scoring with 14 points with fellow draft phenom Connor Bedard.
Lambert had a quieter tournament, but given his tremendous play at the World Junior Championship a few months earlier against older competition, we can give him a pass. Why? Because among other accomplishments, Lambert is the second youngest player to record a point in the top Finnish league behind Aleksander Barkov. Some people compare him to Nathan MacKinnon – can’t go wrong with that, right?
And then there’s Savoie. He hasn’t gotten the same fanfare as the other two, which is a shame because he had quite the season in the USHL as a 17-year-old. If he’s a consolation prize, he’s a darn good one. Speed, skill, tremendous hands and a great mind. If anyone has the most to gain this season, it’s him.
The 2022 draft looks strong in the high-end category, but some love the 2023 draft even more. And it’s not hard to see why. While comparing anyone to the top player in the world right now is no small feat, Connor McDavid’s name is the one that comes to mind to scouts when talking about Connor Bedard. A few months ago, Bedard became the first player in U-18 World Championship history to record a hat-trick in a game and his 14 points gave him a nine-point advantage over John Tavares for the most in tournament history at that age. Add in his incredible rookie season in the WHL and there’s no doubt Bedard is headed towards stardom.
In the flashy department, there’s Michkov. Seriously, it’s hard to find kids with the pure skill that the incredible young Russian has. Whether it’s his lacrosse goals galore, his MVP run that saw him score 12 goals (second all-time) at the U-18 tournament or his U-20 league season that bested what Nikita Kucherov was capable of, Michkov has so much going for him. He’s got a long-term deal to remain in Russia, but that shouldn’t scare you. Sure, a team will need to wait an extra three years for Michkov to return, but the payoff will be extremely worth it.
And then there’s Fantilli. He doesn’t have the flash of the others, but if you need a near-complete player that can almost certainly play a solid role in the NHL after getting drafted, Fantilli is your man. While Wright was busy terrorizing goalies a year older than him in the GTHL in 2018-19, Fantilli was doing the exact same with the Toronto Red Wings. Fantilli spent the past season with the ultra-strong Chicago Steel and didn’t disappoint, highlighted by eight goals and nine points in eight playoff games en route to a league championship and playoff MVP title. He’d be a No. 1 pick in many other years. That’s just how much people love him.
There’s no guarantee that Seattle will get the rights to any of these six players. But don’t expect other teams to fall for Vegas’ tricks that ended up making them an immediate contender. If you take a different route, but make it clear you’re focused on the future, the fans will follow. Could you imagine Seattle landing two of these guys and becoming a long-term powerhouse? While Vegas eventually will fall, and the pain might be devastating, but for Seattle, they have a unique chance to do what Pittsburgh lucked into in 2004 and 2005: snagging two of the best players in the league in consecutive years and becoming one of the best teams in a 15-year span.
I’m not saying to tank because there are no guarantees anything will work out. And with the plays made available to them, Seattle should have no issue icing a competitive lineup. But… if there’s any incentive not to become crazy good, this is the perfect time to be an expansion team.
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