We’re continuing to break down each team’s situation as it pertains to the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, coming up next week: which players are eligible, and which will likely warrant protection or may be on the block. Each team is required to submit their protection lists by 4pm CDT on June 17th. The full rules on eligibility can be found here, and CapFriendly has provided a handy expansion tool to make your own lists.
Until today, the Expansion Draft plan for GM Jeff Gorton and the New York Rangers remained unclear. The time had come and gone to ask overpaid blueliners Marc Staal and Dan Girardi or the underachieving Rick Nash to waive their No-Movement clauses and the team declined. They were also cutting it close should they choose to extend one of their impending free agent forwards and make their expansion decisions easier, with protection lists due on Saturday. New York has one of the deepest groups of forwards in the NHL, even with rookies Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich draft-exempt, yet the team had not taken any steps to protect their core. At least not until this morning…
The Rangers announced two moves earlier today, the first being an extension for impending restricted free agent forward Matt Puempel. With term now on his contract, Puempel meets all the criteria to be one of two mandatory forwards exposed in the Expansion Draft, saving them from otherwise having to expose a core forward. The second announcement was the long-awaited end to the Girardi era, as the stated their plans to buy out the veteran tomorrow, opening up a slot on the blue line for them to protect the underrated Nick Holden.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Rick Nash (NMC), Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Michael Grabner, Mika Zibanejad, Jesper Fast, Daniel Catenacci, Matt Puempel, Oscar Lindberg, Nicklas Jensen, Brandon Pirri
With Rick Nash holding on to his No-Movement clause, the Rangers have just six spots left to protect a large group of impact forwards: Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Michael Grabner, and restricted free agent Mika Zibanejad. Despite a unexpected outburst of 40 points in his first season in New York, Grabner is the easy target to point at as not like the rest of the Rangers’ young and mostly homegrown talents. Many Ranger fans wouldn’t have minded holding on to Grabner, at $1.65MM next year, over Nash, who will make $7.8MM again in 2017-18 after recording less than 40 points in three of the past four seasons.
It’s hard to make a case for any of the other six being offered up instead of Grabner. Zuccarello is the oldest of the group, but he’s still only 29 and has led the team in scoring in three of the past four seasons. Zucarello is almost certainly safe. At just 23 years old, Miller has taken a bigger and bigger role for the Blueshirts with each year and is perhaps the franchise’s best building block. He too is a near guarantee. While both Stepan and Kreider have heard whispers of trade rumors in each of the past two seasons, with Stepan’s growing louder in recent days, both are far too good to give up for free and will likely be protected. After trading away Derick Brassard last off-season to acquire Zibanejad, it seems highly unlikely that the team would risk losing him already, even if his first season in New York was marred by injury. Finally, Hayes, who has done nothing but excel in any role the Rangers have given him since signing with the Rangers out of college three years ago, and it would be a major surprise to see them choose Grabner over him.
Thus, it seems Grabner will likely join Puempel as the Rangers’ unprotected forwards and with the decisions in net and on the blue line pretty clear-cut, the Rangers have gone from a confusing expansion scenario about 24 hours ago to one of the easiest teams to project.
Projected Protection List
The Rangers barely have any decisions to make in regards to their protection on defense and in net. All-world keeper Henrik Lundqvist is obviously safe, leaving skilled backup Antti Raanta as an intriguing target for the Golden Knights. Vegas GM George McPhee has stated that the team could select many promising goalies in the Expansion Draft and guage who to keep and who to trade away after the fact. Raanta could indeed be one of those picks.
On the blue line, the buy out of Dan Girardi will leave one more spot open to join go to the team’s best defender and captain, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal, who was not asked to waive his No-Movement clause. The only real candidate to fill that spot is Nick Holden. Kevin Klein, who is reportedly mulling retirement, meets the 40/70 criteria to fill the one-defenseman exposure quota, but is not a viable target for Vegas. The only other defenseman under contract for the Rangers is journeyman Steven Kampfer, another player who would be a strange selection for the Golden Knights. Restricted free agent Adam Clendening, despite showing signs of upside in 2016-17, has already been informed that he will not receiving a qualifying offer and will become an unrestricted free agent, like several other Rangers blue liners, and again it is unlikely that the Knights will waste picks on UFA’s. For all intents and purposes, the Girardi buyout ensures that no further changes will be coming to the New York defense in the coming week.
If Vegas passes on Raanta, they will likely instead turn to offense and, more likely than not, Michael Grabner. After his best season since he nearly won the Calder Trophy in 2010-11, Grabner appears to be back at the top of his game and could be hard to pass up for a Vegas team that will have a hard time finding scoring in the Expansion Draft and this summer’s free agency class. The loss of Grabner would be far greater than that of Jesper Fast or Oscar Lindberg or any other possible player, though don’t rule out the possibility that the Knights simply take youth and upside over established skill.
The situation in New York has gained great clarity today and now they face one of the more predictable expansion situations in the NHL. However, that doesn’t mean that they will escape the draft unscathed. A deep, talented team like the Rangers seems destined to take a hit next week.