Vegas is coming.
That has been the NHL's worst-kept secret for a while now, with the only holdup being the announcement. The league is now saying expansion, if it's coming in time for the 2017-18 season, will be announced before the draft, which makes this June's annual awards gala – in Las Vegas – a natural platform to make things official.
But, not only will Vegas get a hockey team – its first major pro sports franchise – it will get a decent one.
That's the biggest takeaway from the NHL's general manager meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., this week. That gathering wrapped up Wednesday with commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy Bill Daly informing the group of the potential expansion-draft rules, giving them almost a year and a half to prepare their rosters for the raid.
Unlike previous expansion efforts, the NHL's goal here isn't to soak the owners for a massive fee in exchange for an awful roster filled with career minor-leaguers. A team in Vegas is going to be put on a huge stage initially – with national media attention in the United States – and the last thing the league wants is for it to be a spectacular failure on the ice or in the stands.
The NHL is taking a risk in order to beat the NBA (and every other league) into the city. They're going to charge Bill Foley and company $500-million (U.S.) for the privilege of having a team. They want them to get something for that money. They want them to succeed.
That means starting them off with a far better team than the 1999 Atlanta Thrashers, who won 14 of 82 games with a roster that included Scott Fankhouser in goal and 27-year-old IHL vet Dean Sylvester as one of their leading scorers.
The Thrashers never recovered. Atlanta made the playoffs once.
The franchise lost money every year and, after 11 mostly dreadful seasons, was relocated to Winnipeg.
"The draft, if there's going to be an expansion draft, it'll probably be a little deeper than it's been in the past," Bettman told the media on Wednesday. "You want the teams to be a little more competitive than perhaps they've been out of the box [in the past]. That's the focus. I think everyone understands that."
How the NHL will ensure that is by forcing all 30 teams to expose a decent player or two in the expansion draft. The league hired former Vancouver Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman – one of the brightest executives without a club right now – to work out the particulars, and GMs were given an early idea of what's being considered.
The basics are that teams will be able to protect only one goaltender, which is new. They will also have the choice of protecting three defencemen and seven forwards or a selection of any eight skaters (forwards or defencemen).
If you want to protect your top four defencemen, in other words, you have to expose your bottom eight or nine forwards, which will put many teams in a bind.
Take the Stanley Cup defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. If the expansion draft is held in the summer of 2017, they would likely want to protect Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and maybe prospect Trevor van Riemsdyk.
But that would mean they could safeguard only four forwards, with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen the possible options.
Everyone else – including Marian Hossa, Andrew Ladd (if he's re-signed), Andrew Shaw and Artem Anisimov – would be available to Vegas.
Other teams, with more rising talent, could have even tougher choices. If the Washington Capitals want to protect four defencemen, for example, would they lose Marcus Johansson or T.J. Oshie up front?
Plenty of teams also have two decent options in goal. What would the Pittsburgh Penguins do with a choice between Marc-André Fleury (who will be 32 by then) and rising star Matt Murray (nearly a decade younger)?
And what will be the impact of no-movement clauses?
The GMs involved would prepare in advance for these tough questions. That's the biggest reason the league had to give them details of a potential draft this week. As the details filtered out on Wednesday, team executives were already spit-balling about workarounds such as trading away players they would have to expose before the draft.
A team with five solid defencemen could move one for a quality forward, for example, then protect four D and that newcomer.
"There are going to be a ton of trades prior to the draft," one team said on Wednesday.
The salary cap has added a lot more wrinkles to this process. The NHL is expected to force teams to expose at least 25 per cent of their salaries from the previous season, meaning it can't be all players making the league minimum.
Some teams might use the draft as an opportunity to clear unwanted salary, as the Vegas team would likely have plenty of space to assume an overpriced-but-useful veteran.
Taken as a whole, it could mean roster chaos in the narrow window between the 2017 Stanley Cup final and free agency, depending on when an expansion draft would be held.
It's a process that could have consequences for teams for years, especially if they lose a quality young player. But that's a complication the NHL is more than happy to risk if it means a team in Vegas has a shot at a playoff berth right from the start.
They won't be the Thrashers, that's for sure.