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Vegas Golden Knights send a message with Vadim Shipachyov signing

They want real players who can compete at the top level in the NHL. So naturally my mind turns to Joffrey Lupul.

Russia v USA - 2016 IIHF World Championship Ice Hockey: Bronze Medal Game Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images

Thursday evening, the Vegas Golden Knights made their entrance into the NHL official with the signing of their second player, and first high-level talent, Vadim Shipachyov.

They even just came out and announced his contract details:

They also made the best viral hockey joke for a Thursday evening with only one playoff game going on:

Reid Duke, a junior free agent, has been loaned to the Chicago Wolves, the St. Louis Blues’ AHL team, but he’s not seen any game time, as they’re in the thick of the playoffs. He’s not really projecting to be in next year’s NHL lineup right now, at least not high up.

Vegas has a lot of Guys to acquire. Which is what the expansion draft is for. But you don’t get a sought-after free agent like Shipachyov to sign a two-year deal without making him some promises about how you see the team growing around him. A 1C, and a risky one with only KHL experience, is nice, but he’s not a whole team.

And yet the expansion draft does not, on the surface, seem to be the place where Vegas is going to find a lot more gold. Not directly. They might get a few good, young players, the kinds of borderline NHLers who can’t crack an existing lineup, but a clutch of Josh Leivos doesn’t make a whole team either.

It is a start. And Toronto has a few more players of a similar age, ability and experience to Leivo they don’t have room for in their lineup. Watch the Marlies play Syracuse tonight and you’ll see of host of players their fans think just need to be given a chance playing on both teams.

It seems that if Vegas wants real players, they’ll have to do more than hope they can pluck enough good ones in the expansion draft. They need, counts up, 16 Guys who are worth playing with Shipachyov. Trading is going to be how they fill that picture in.

They have one extra asset to trade: their choice of who they will pick in the expansion draft. What that is worth in trade is going to vary team to team. Some teams have very big problems looming around who to protect and who they will end up leaving exposed. And those teams might pay Vegas a Guy of lesser value to protect a Guy of higher value if they can work out the details to everyone’s benefit.

Toronto has a modest pair of problems. When they protect the forwards the team will want to keep—which is a different list from the one most fans make—they are leaving some of their borderline players exposed. They could be giving Kerby Rychel or Josh Leivo for free to Vegas, which would not be a big deal, but the Leafs would not be the one making the choice.

Their second problem is they have to choose between Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin or else leave even more forwards exposed. Given how much harder it is to pry defenders out of teams right now in trades, Vegas might be looking to take whichever of those two genuine Guys Toronto leaves open.

There is another asset Vegas has: cap space. They can solve other teams’ problems for them by taking overpaid players in return for an inducement. If Toronto had a deep pool of centres and Tyler Bozak hadn’t just had a career year finally playing on a decent team for a good coach, I’d be speculating about giving Vegas their 2C in a deal that would free up cap space, solve those modest expansion draft issues, and open up the roster for the depth to move up.

The Leafs don’t have centre depth. They have depth on the wing, and that is it. And with the expressed plan to not move William Nylander to centre next year, they have fewer open roster spots at wing. Glances at roster. They have no open roster spots at wing. Nikita Soshnikov is going to have a hard time cracking that lineup unless a winger is traded.

Which brings me, naturally, to Joffrey Lupul.

The NHL officially declared a group of injured players who will never play again exempt from the expansion draft. They are:

  • Dave Bolland
  • Craig Cunningham
  • Chris Pronger
  • Cody McCormick
  • David Clarkson
  • Johan Franzen
  • Joe Vitale
  • Ryane Clowe
  • Mikhail Grabovski
  • Pascal Dupuis
  • Nathan Horton
  • Stephane Robidas

The main benefit of this exemption for teams is with players who have active no-move clauses. Now that they’re exempt, they don’t use up a protection slot. For the rest, it’s largely irrelevant. Most of this list is players, some of who already have other jobs, who have been on LTIR for at least this past year. Robidas works for the Leafs as a skills consultant for the defence prospects.

We don’t know exactly how the NHL decided who went on this list. The only publicly available criteria is:

Players with potential career-ending injuries who have missed the previous 60+ consecutive games due to an injury, do not meet the criteria set forth by the league in respect to the minimum exposure requirements for players, and in certain cases these players may even be deemed as exempt from the Expansion Draft selection process.

One name is not on the list, a player who has been on LTIR for only a short time, but hasn’t played for the previous 60 games. His future career status isn’t very clear, and that may be why Joffrey Lupul is not exempt.

Obviously the Leafs were never going to use a protection slot on him, and he doesn’t have a NMC that requires it, so this is no big deal, and is only confirmation of what was assumed. But it makes you think.

The Leafs Nation goes on about it here. I don’t think the idea is absurd at all. The precedents for contract trades to teams that need to clear the salary cap floor are many. And Lupul has a cap hit next year of $5,250,000 with a cash salary of only $3,750,000. That is exactly the sort of contract that can be moved.

The fact that the Leafs declared him unfit to play, the league never blinked, and Lupul never blinked says that they should be able to trade him to a team that wants to clear the floor for sure, but also might want to use LTIR. Arizona did that this year when their cap hit rose up off the floor, even if their points stats didn’t.

The way I see a potential deal here, Vegas takes Lupul in the draft in return for a sweetener who is a usable player. Maybe a Guy, maybe just a guy. Maybe two guys.

What’s in this for the Leafs in no particular order is:

  • They save $3,750,000 in actual money.
  • They gain $5,250,000 in cap space without using LTIR to get it. This covers most of the potential bonuses next year and means they won’t have an overage in the year after next.
  • They get a player off their books they don’t want around and who they can’t buy out.
  • They don’t need to worry about who they protect. All the players then know the public protection list was not a knock against them if they aren’t on it, and the only person they piss off is the guy they traded.
  • They get rid of at least one extra contract on June 21. This seems foolish, that giving Vegas two players is better than giving them one, but if the extra player doesn’t figure in their plans—excess of wingers—and aren’t worth a lot in trade, then the Leafs gaining an SPC space might make this worth it. It might be worth it to trade more than one player to accomplish this.

What’s in it for Vegas is simpler:

  • They get $1,500,000 more in cap hit than they had to pay in salary. Floor teams have backwards logic to the rest of us, they want cap hit, at least in the short term.
  • They make a friend in Lou Lamoriello. George McPhee has a lot of trades to make, and some of them will be for backup goalies, which the Leafs need.
  • They potentially have a player who can play hockey again. I doubt this is true, but it might be. It’s a lot more likely that Lupul is fit enough to achieve Guy status on the Golden Knights than on the Leafs, but I think Vegas is more interested in those Marlies wingers of note.

The argument against this deal is twofold: Vegas has to clear the floor in the expansion draft itself, and Shipachyov’s contract doesn’t count towards that so they don’t need a dead contract. The other argument is Shipachyov himself.

As far as the floor clearing goes, Vegas will be trading a lot of the players they take in part because they will be taking at least three goaltenders, and perhaps several more than three. That means what is true on June 21 regarding their cap hit, won’t be true in October. And flexibility is a thing all general managers want. They may be able to take other bad contracts in the draft like Bobby Ryan, but few of those run out after one year. Lupul’s contract is a good, bad contract.

Shipachyov is the big argument against this deal unless the Leafs think it’s worth at least one really valuable capital G guy to make this happen. Vegas is playing this roster building game for real. They don’t want a tweener or even a fourth liner. They don’t want Eric Fehr. Maybe they want Josh Leivo and Seth Griffith though.

If it happens, it all comes down to how each side values all the component parts, and I won’t bet on this deal being done. I will bet on some deal happening. Vegas scout Mike Foligno is a frequent denizen of the Marlies press box. And that is a lot of Guys they have to find.