Los Angeles Kings' expansion plan hinges on whether to protect Brayden McNabb

Dustin Brown no longer sports the 'C' for Los Angeles. Will the Kings decide he's expendable in next June's expansion draft? Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The key decision for the Los Angeles Kings ahead of the expansion draft in June likely revolves around whether they're going to protect three defensemen -- or whether they want to protect four.

The difference between choosing either the 7-3-1 format (seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie) or the 8-1 format (eight skaters and a goalie) essentially boils down, I suspect, to whether the Kings will protect Brayden McNabb.

It's a given that Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin will be protected.

But is protecting McNabb, and going with the 8-1 format, the right call for the Kings? That would mean only getting to protect four forwards. Let's go that route for a moment. That means protecting Anze Kopitar (who has a no-movement clause), Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, most likely, and then exposing Kyle Clifford, Marian Gaborik, Trevor Lewis, Dustin Brown, Jordan Nolan et al.

If the Kings go the 7-3-1 route, however, and expose McNabb, they can protect many of the forwards listed above.

Despite the fact that Brown has played better this season, I think the Kings will end up exposing their former captain, who has five more years left on his deal past this season, at a $5.875 million cap hit. Now the question is whether the Vegas Golden Knights would see any cache in selecting a player who has captained two Stanley Cup champions. Don't forget, Vegas has to select a group of players that, overall, meets at least 60 percent of this season's upper limit on the cap. So GM George McPhee and Co. can't strictly go cheap and young. They will need to take on a big salary or two.

It might also make more sense for the Kings and Golden Knights to talk about a trade for Brown instead, so that L.A. retains some salary that way. Again, I don't believe the Kings have made an official decision on Brown's future yet. We're just speculating, but that's the whole point of this exercise, right?

And what of the oft-injured Gaborik? If I'm Kings GM Dean Lombardi, I leave him exposed. Gaborik is still a good player. But -- given that he's 34 and has a history of injuries -- the fact that he has four more years on his deal at a $4.875 million cap hit makes it easier to expose him.

The Kings have younger players about whom they must make decisions too. Defenseman Derek Forbort and forward Michael Mersch, both 24, are each eligible for the expansion draft. The Kings have to either protect them or expose them.

Swedish prospect Adrian Kempe, a 20-year-old forward, is exempt from the expansion draft, however.

The Kings should have no issues meeting the criteria for the four players who top the exposure list: they have two goalies signed past this season in Jeff Zatkoff and Jack Campbell, whom they can expose (they're going to protect Jonathan Quick, obviously). Matt Greene would be the defenseman they expose, and they have lots of options up front.

Kopitar, by the way, is the only Kings player on the official must-protect list that the NHL sent to teams last month, and that's because he is indeed the only player on the team with a no-movement clause. Los Angeles has, as much as possible, resisted handing out no-movement clauses, and that policy will come in handy heading into the expansion draft because it affords the Kings nice flexibility.

Dwight King is a pending unrestricted free agent, which means the Kings don't have to protect him because he can't be exposed in the expansion draft, although the Golden Knights do have a 48-hour window in which to speak to free agents before the expansion draft. Generally speaking, the smart play for teams -- if they have a good relationship with a pending unrestricted free agent -- is to wait until after the expansion draft to re-sign him so as to maximize their protective list spots.

All in all, however, this decision looks like it should come down to what the Kings want to do with McNabb. Otherwise, Los Angeles is in fairly good shape in terms of the expansion draft.