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McPhee plays ringmaster of Vegas Golden Knights expansion-draft circus

Vegas Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee speaks during a news conference Monday. Under the protocols established for this expansion draft, the first of the salary-cap era, NHL teams cannot make trades with each other, only with Vegas, between now and the Golden Knights’ roster reveal.

John Locher/The Associated Press

There is a temptation to say there has never been a moment quite like this before in NHL history – where George McPhee, the general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, is acting as a broker for the mixed bag of talent made available to him Sunday morning as part of the 2017 expansion draft proceedings.

For 72 hours, or until Vegas finalizes its expansion roster after striking its many and varied side deals, McPhee is the ringmaster of the NHL circus, overseeing a massive churning of NHL rosters.

It is a unique – but not unprecedented – moment in time that is creating trading opportunities for some teams and protection issues for others.

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Under the protocols established for this expansion draft, the first of the salary-cap era, NHL teams cannot make trades with each other, only with Vegas, between now and the Golden Knights' roster reveal, which is scheduled to take place Wednesday night in conjunction with the NHL's annual awards ceremony.

Within that time frame, the Golden Knights can make any type of transaction they want – from side deals with existing teams interested in protecting assets, to flip deals, in which Vegas would draft a specific player from one team's unprotected list and then flip that player to another team for other considerations.

By some estimates, Vegas may already have up to eight trades in place with teams prepared to pay a price to the Golden Knights to keep their hands off their unprotected players.

Consequently, most of the mock drafts anticipating how the Golden Knights might look are inherently flawed, because they imagine a scenario in which the best available player ends up in Vegas.

That isn't happening.

For example, the most intriguing players from the Minnesota Wild's deep available list would be defencemen Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella, or forward Eric Staal.

What's more likely is, as part of a prearranged deal, Vegas will select a lesser player from Minnesota, but land a high-end prospect such as Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, Alex Tuch or Kirill Kapizov in exchange.

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Similarly, the Anaheim Ducks are expected to send one of Shea Theodore, Nick Ritchie or Brandon Montour to Vegas so the Golden Knights keep their paws off Josh Manson. In some of these deals, Vegas will also be asked to absorb an unwanted contract, which in Anaheim's case might be Clayton Stoner, as part of the transaction.

Some of the NHL's biggest names are available – including future Hall of Famers, such as Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla and Joe Thornton – but those players have little appeal to a Vegas team more interested in laying a solid foundation.

There were no genuine surprises among the protected lists produced by seven Canadian-based NHL teams, once the Winnipeg Jets coaxed defenceman Toby Enstrom into waiving his no-move clause, which allowed them to protect seven forwards, three defenceman and a goalie.

All seven Canadian teams took that option, as opposed to the other course of action, which was protecting eight position players, plus a goalie.

The Islanders had the most curious list of all – protecting five defencemen, three forwards and a goalie. They are reportedly prepared to give up a 2017 first-round pick so the Golden Knights don't take Brock Nelson or Josh Bailey from their available list.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Chicago Blackhawks all appear to have similar deals in place to protect assets.

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Marc-André Fleury, from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, is heading to Vegas, NHL sources say, as part of intriguing mix of available goaltenders that includes young up-and-comers such as Petr Mrazek (Detroit), Phillipe Grubauer (Washington), Calvin Pickard (Colorado), Malcolm Subban (Boston), Linus Ullmark (Buffalo) and Kristers Gudlevskis (Tampa) and also veterans such Roberto Luongo (Florida), Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia), and Cam Ward and Eddie Lack (Carolina).

After signing Ben Bishop, Dallas made its two goalies from last year, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, available, but they are both making too much money to interest Vegas. Calgary traded for Arizona Coyotes' starter Mike Smith on Saturday, and then protected him, leaving Brian Elliott, an unrestricted free agent, plus Tom McCollum available. Vegas can select up to seven goaltenders, if it wishes to do so.

One could argue that the last time NHL teams were presented with such a volatile player environment came back in 1979 as part of the merger with the World Hockey Association, which was officially positioned by the NHL as a four-team expansion.

Before the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers joined the NHL, the WHA had been siphoning off all the top young talent in the game. The Birmingham Bulls were dubbed the "baby" Bulls because of all the teenage talent they'd signed away from the major junior leagues.

Mark Messier left a Tier II team in St. Albert to play for Cincinnati. Wayne Gretzky had been scooped up by Indianapolis, where he started his professional career.

When the merger was announced, the four WHA teams were allowed to protect only two players and two goaltenders apiece.

It meant the 1979 entry draft was loaded with high-end, NHL-ready talent that had apprenticed in the WHA. Four of the first six players chosen – Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, Rick Vaive and Craig Hartsburg – were all from the WHA, as were Michel Goulet and Messier, two future Hall Of Fame players.

The NHL-WHA merger created a massive reshuffling of the professional hockey deck and that is what's poised to happen again now, with Vegas feverishly negotiating against the clock to make as many deals as possible.

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