In 2001, Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt was only 10 years old when the NHL expanded in his home state of Minnesota. By then, Schmidt was already a Detroit Red Wings fan and so it was too late for him to root for the Minnesota Wild.
But as the NHL is ready to expand into another market — Las Vegas — Schmidt might not have another choice to cheer on a new expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Schmidt could be one of the players selected in this summer’s expansion draft on June 21.
When the Capitals prepare for this upcoming summer of uncertainty, the NHL’s expansion draft will throw an odd wrench in what Washington has to account for.
The Golden Knights must select one player from every franchise and the Capitals will have to choose which players they will protect.
Each team gets an option to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters and one goaltender. Players in their first and second years are exempt from being drafted.
The Capitals must submit the list of players they are protecting by June 17, which will then be made public.
“Obviously there’s a possibility,” Schmidt said. “It seems like everything (Las Vegas is) doing is the right thing. … This expansion, with how good the league is, there’s going to be a lot of good players that are going to be exposed on every team.”
Schmidt and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer are the two Capitals often linked to a possibility of being selected in the expansion draft because of their young age and relatively cheap contracts. Both players will be restricted free agents this summer and will see a pay increase no matter where they are.
Schmidt and Grubauer each took major steps forward during the season. Schmidt emerged in the playoffs as solid depth once Karl Alzner broke his hand. Schmidt also played well alongside John Carlson and then Kevin Shattenkirk.
Interestingly enough, the man in charge with shaping the Golden Knights roster is former Capitals general manager George McPhee, who was fired in 2014 after 17 years with the team. The Golden Knights hired McPhee as their general manager in July of 2016.
McPhee helped shape the large core of the Capitals roster, including drafting Grubauer and signing Schmidt after he went undrafted.
“Yeah, George drafted me, so they know what they probably get and with other guys they probably not know as much. I don’t know. i don’t know what they’re going to do,” Grubauer said.
Grubauer, who has been with the Capitals since 2012, had a career high 19 starts in 24 games during the season. He finished with a .926 save percentage, also a career high.
Because Braden Holtby has solidified his spot as the Capitals’ starting goaltender, it’s likely Grubauer will be unprotected during the draft.
Holtby, though, said Grubauer is ready to start for a team.
“He’s an outstanding goalie,” Holtby said. “What I think I’ve seen from him the last year especially, his talent is NHL talent, but a lot of guys have that. His mental game, his mental prep … every game he was in he was never out of it mentally. He was always sharp and that shows. That’s a big thing to be successful at, especially a guy that’s going to play a lot. I think he showed that.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz understands the expansion process well — having been with has the Nashville Predators, who joined the NHL in 1998.
Trotz said he’ll give input to general manager Brian MacLellan on which players the Capitals should protect, but knows the advantage Las Vegas will have in the process.
For the expansion draft, teams can trade assets, such as draft picks, for the assurance Las Vegas won’t pick a particular player who is left unprotected. For example, hypothetically, the Capitals could send their former GM a fifth-round pick so the Golden Knights select Grubauer instead of Schmidt.
“Those deals, they were better than anybody we could have picked from the expansion draft or traded for, franchise guys for us in Nashville that they were the throw-in guy and they ended up pretty good, pretty prominent guys,” Trotz said. “So I know that George will be doing a lot of horse trading and those extra throw-in picks and those extra guys that you get thrown into a deal could be very valuable for them.”
Schmidt and Grubauer both said they are interested to see how the process shakes out.
Schmidt, though, couldn’t resist making a joke about how the Golden Knights will do next year, considering it’s Las Vegas.
“They’ll have a great home record,” Schmidt said.