Tampa Bay Lightning expansion plan could hinge on Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula

The Lightning must protect Ryan Callahan in the expansion draft, per his no-trade cause -- which means they'll have to leave another forward exposed to the new Vegas team. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Teams that have drafted and developed the best over the past several years will have to make toughest decisions ahead of the league's expansion draft in June -- and that certainly holds true for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning are probably going to hand the Vegas Golden Knights one of the new team's top players via the expansion draft. The Bolts have four players on a list of 66 guys who must be protected in the expansion draft (unless the players agree to waive them) as per the memo that the league sent to all 31 teams in November: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan.

The last two players are an issue, to be sure -- quality guys but players whose contracts have outgrown their actual value on the ice these days. Having to protect Filppula and Callahan will mean that the Lightning have to expose two other players whom I'm guessing they'd rather keep under wraps.

For example, it's pretty much a guarantee that Tampa Bay will choose to go with the 7-3-1 protection format (seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie) instead of the 8-1 format (eight skaters and a goalie).

So, as it stands now, Stamkos, Filppula and Callahan must be protected. That leaves four spots left for Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov and J.T. Brown, among others, (Rookie Brayden Point is exempt.)

You see the issue here. They have too many good forwards to protect.

This is why I can only assume that the Lightning will attempt to trade Filppula (with his blessing) or convince either him or Callahan (or both) to waive their no-move clauses for the purpose of expansion-draft exposure.

Callahan is a high-character guy and a warrior, but his history of injuries -- combined with the fact he has three more years on his deal, at an annual $5.8 million cap hit -- will likely make him unattractive to the new Vegas team.

So if you're Callahan, and you want your team to keep its best possible roster, would you waive your no-trade clause in return for exposure? It's the kind of conversation many a veteran player around the league with a no-movement clause is likely to have with management before the expansion draft.

Of course, the other avenue for the Bolts after the season will be potential trades with other clubs to make sure they get value back for a player they can't protect instead of losing him for nothing to Vegas. I think there's no question that GM Steve Yzerman and Vegas GM George McPhee are also likely to have an eventual chat or two. Could a potential trade involving a draft pick(s) or prospect(s) entice the league's 31st club not to draft a certain Tampa player?

On defense, if we are to assume that the Bolts will go with the 7-3-1 protection format, Hedman and Anton Stralman will obviously be protected. Then Tampa Bay will have to choose one of the following: Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, Nikita Nesterov or Jason Garrison. In goal, the Bolts will protect Andrei Vasilevskiy. Ben Bishop doesn't factor in because he's a pending unrestricted free agent, and the guy likely to be exposed in the expansion draft is No. 3 netminder Kristers Gudlevskis.

The Bolts will have no issues whatsoever with coming up with four players to expose to Vegas -- two forwards, one defenseman and a goalie. They've got that covered.

The real key for Tampa Bay is Filppula and Callahan, and how it all goes from there.