No question about it -- when it comes to the expansion draft, the Nashville Predators are one of the few teams likely to look long and hard at the protection format that allows them to keep an extra defenseman.
While the vast majority of clubs will opt for the 7-3-1 format (seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie), I think there's a strong likelihood that the Predators will go with the 8-1 format (eight skaters and a goalie) despite the fact that it allows for two fewer players to be protected.
Last week, Nashville re-signed Matt Irwin to a one-year, $650,000 deal. The defenseman would have been an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Irwin's signature on a 2017-18 contact also makes him eligible for the expansion draft, although that's not why the Preds re-upped. They just love how the 29-year-old -- who has collected 15 points in 34 games during his first season with Nashville -- has played this season.
The Predators don't have their hands tied with too many no-movement clauses. Only veteran goalie Pekka Rinne is on the list of 66 players who must be protected that the league distributed to all 30 teams in November.
While Rinne will be the goalie the Preds protect, the fact that young backup goalie Juuse Saros is exempt from the expansion draft is good news for Nashville. No. 3 netminder Marek Mazanec will be a restricted free agent on July 1 -- but he simply needs a qualifying offer from the Predators in order to be eligible for expansion-draft exposure. You can count on that happening.
Each club must expose four players -- two forwards, a defenseman and a goalie -- for the draft. The Predators should have zero issues doing so.
Protecting four defensemen would also mean they can protect only four forwards. I would count on Filip Forsberg, James Neal and Ryan Johansen as automatics, which means the tough decision will come down to which forward gets the fourth protected slot. That player, in all likelihood, will come from the likes of Viktor Arvidsson, Calle Jarnkrok, Craig Smith or Colin Wilson. (Kevin Fiala is exempt from the expansion draft.)
It will be a tough call, indeed, for the Predators when it comes picking that fourth forward. Unless the expansion Vegas Golden Knights have interest in Irwin on defense, I think it's clear they will look at one of the forwards Nashville leaves unprotected.
I haven't mentioned veteran captain Mike Fisher yet. That's because he'll be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Pending UFAs don't qualify for the expansion draft -- and also don't need to be protected.
Unless Fisher, 36, is eager to get his extension done as soon as possible, there's an obvious advantage for Nashville to wait until after the expansion draft to address his contract so it doesn't have to use a protected spot on him. And, conversely, if you're Fisher, you don't run the risk of signing an extension before the expansion draft but then not being protected by the Predators and potentially getting claimed by Vegas. So waiting on a new deal seems to be the best bet all-around here.
Fisher's life is in Nashville, and he's married, of course, to country music superstar Carrie Underwood, so I think the Predators can probably wait this one out and maximize their expansion draft strategy.
GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton went through this expansion draft experience from the other side when their club entered the league in 1998. Nothing about the process this time will come as a surprise to them. The Predators are in good hands ahead of the June expansion draft.