The nickname for the new Las Vegas franchise will be announced on Tuesday, so it's as good a time as any to look at some of the decisions ahead for other teams as they strategize for June's expansion draft.
Teams can either protect 7-3-1 (seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie) or eight skaters and a goalie. Teams also must expose a minimum of four players (two forwards, one defenseman, one goalie) who meet the games-played and contractual requirement.
I looked at four teams that will likely have to make decisions, both in terms of where things stand today as well as what might have to happen before the expansion draft. Keep in mind that there will be lots of moving parts between today and June. But let's have some fun with this now:
Many rival executives point to the Ducks as having to make some interesting decisions before the expansion draft. That's a compliment, in part because it means they have drafted and developed players so well that they just can't keep everyone.
Four Ducks have full no-movement clauses who must be protected: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa. The contract of the veteran Bieksa's could be an issue. I think the Ducks are going to need to do something with him in order to protect all the defensemen they want for the expansion draft.
If Anaheim protects eight skaters and a goalie, its protection list would look like this: Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler, Rickard Rakell, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson and John Gibson. (Promising young defensemen Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are exempt from the expansion draft because they are second-year players on entry-level contracts.)
First, the 4-4-1 list I picked would mean the Ducks found a way to get Bieksa to waive his no-move for a trade or to be exposed in the expansion draft. The other option would be to buy out Bieksa, who has one more year left on his deal, at $4 million next season. (Some league executives weren't sure if buyouts would be allowed before the expansion draft, but a league source confirmed on Monday that they would be. So that could be interesting on several fronts.)
There's also the Fowler factor. The top-four blue-liner will be one year away from unrestricted free agent status. If the Ducks can't sign him to an extension, I wonder if they won't once again listen to trade offers for him after the season. That would either allow Bieksa to be kept on board in Anaheim or for the Ducks to go 7-3-1 on their protection list.
No matter how you spin it, the Ducks have some juggling to do between now and next June.
No team will likely have more players on the league's protected list than Chicago. Artem Anisimov, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford -- count them, eight! -- all have no-movement clauses.
Of course, it's pretty likely the Blackhawks would have protected those players anyway, right? The reality is that Chicago is in pretty good shape in terms of the expansion draft. And here's a nice break for the Blackhawks: Scoring winger Artemi Panarin is exempt from the expansion draft as a second-year pro, so Chicago doesn't even have to add him to its list. First-year blue-liners Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny are also exempt, as are all the Blackhawks' rookie forwards.
The big question mark will be forward Marcus Kruger, who has two more years on his deal after this season at a $3.08 million cap hit. Kruger is a very good penalty killer, yes, but is he a guy Chicago would really protect? Because remember, they have to come up with at least four players to expose who meet the criteria, and Kruger would perhaps fit the bill as one of their two forwards. As it stands, I think Trevor van Riemsdyk will be the defenseman left exposed.
Regardless of the Kruger decision, the Blackhawks will need to sign and/or trade for another forward or two who meets the exposure criteria (or extend some of their own expiring unrestricted free agents, such as Andrew Desjardins and/or Jordin Tootoo). They can't currently fill the exposure requirements.
Same goes for goalies. Scott Darling doesn't qualify because he will be a UFA on July 1. So either Chicago signs him expressly for that purpose or goes elsewhere to find that exposable goalie. Lots of teams are in the same boat, in terms of not having four players who meet the criteria that they can exposure in the draft. And since there is plenty of time between now and June, and these aren't difficult moves, it's really just housekeeping for the Blackhawks.
The Red Wings have only one player with a full no-move, and that's Frans Nielsen -- so he's automatically on their protection list. As a second-year player, forward Dylan Larkin is exempt from the expansion draft.
I see the Wings going with a 7-3-1 protection list because they have so many forwards eligible for the expansion draft, even with Larkin exempt. Forward Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, for example, are eligible for the expansion draft as third-year pros, so the Wings have to either protect them or expose them.
Detroit has tough choices up front. Let's assume they protect Nielsen, Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist, Justin Abdelkader, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan. That leaves them with one spot, for either Mantha, Athanasiou, Darren Helm or Luke Glendening. Three of those guys will have to be exposed.
On defense, it's more obvious, where the Wings will protect Danny DeKeyser and Niklas Kronwall and then one of the following: Mike Green, Alexei Marchenko, Jonathan Ericsson, Xavier Ouellet or Ryan Sproul.
Now, let me throw this out there: If you're the Red Wings, do you consider exposing aging stars Zetterberg or Kronwall? Zetterberg is 36, with four more years on his deal after this season at a $6.08 million cap hit. Kronwall, 35, has two more years at a $4.75 million cap hit. Would Vegas take them? And regardless of that decision, is it too delicate for the Wings to even consider, given what these two legends have done for the franchise?
Either way, I predict the Wings will try to beef up their blueline before March 1 -- because that's been a goal for a while anyway -- and trade away a forward or two in doing so, which obviously will influence their expansion-draft decisions.
In goal, the Wings must decide whether to protect Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek. A year ago, that would have seemed like an easy choice, as Howard wasn't on top of his game. But Howard has been terrific this season, which has spiced up that decision. Detroit also has minor-league options, so trading one of its NHL goalies before the expansion draft is another potential route.
But Montreal will still have very interesting decisions to make, and I'm ready to be a little bold here. I'm predicting that the Canadiens will go with a 7-3-1 protection list: pending UFA Alexander Radulov (whom I think they'll re-sign), Max Pacioretty, Andrew Shaw, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Paul Byron, Phillip Danault, Shea Weber, Nathan Beaulieu, Petry and Price.
OK, there's lots to chew on here. First, these decisions mean they would expose two veterans in center: Tomas Plekanec (one more year at $6 million) and defenseman Alexei Emelin (one more year at $4.1 million).
I know it seems crazy to protect unheralded guys such as Danault and Byron over Plekanec, but I also think that teams are going to have to gamble a bit with this process. Would Vegas want to bring in a 34-year-old center in Plekanec making six bills when he's not really producing much offense anymore?
Now, Vegas has a minimum cap floor total to reach, so maybe it would take Plekanec. And if so, that would create $6 million in cap room for Montreal, which the Canadiens can use moving forward, for sure.
The debate on defense for me was between Beaulieu and Emelin -- and again, I went with the younger, cheaper guy, although Beaulieu will be a restricted free agent and will need a new contract. And who knows, really, what his future is long-term with Montreal? In the meantime, I think the Cup-contending Habs will try to upgrade their top four on defense before March 1. And if they do, it might be that the player acquired needs protecting for the expansion draft, which would mean exposure for both Emelin and Beaulieu. Again, who knows?
It should be noted that youngsters Charles Hudon and Jacob De La Rose are among those who are not exempt for the expansion draft because they're third-year pros. So the Habs must either protect them or expose them (or use them as trade chips this season).
Montreal, by the way, doesn't currently have a goalie to expose in the expansion draft since backup Al Montoya will be a UFA on July 1, and minor-leaguers Charlie Lindgren and Zachary Fucale are exempt as second-year pros.
So either the Habs will extend Montoya just for that reason or redo the contract of veteran farmhand Yann Danis, who is currently Montreal's AHL backup but on a minor-league deal. It would be an option to sign him to an NHL deal and expose him.