Over the next few weeks we will be breaking down each team’s situation as it pertains to the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. 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.
With the Penguins up two games to zero in the Stanley Cup Finals, the team’s success under the guidance of GM Jim Rutherford cannot be understated. Potential back-to-back championships following a long list of playoff disappointments and identity crises would all but erase the sting of many poor management decisions under former GM Ray Shero.
After the acquisition of Phil Kessel, the team has not looked back in the slightest offensively. They sat out and relished their summer last off-season with minimal movement, but this year Rutherford has decisions to make. Although the makeup of the team will surely be different come October, there are many options to be considered.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Sidney Crosby (NMC), Evgeni Malkin (NMC), Phil Kessel (NMC), Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson, Josh Archibald (RFA), Oskar Sundqvist (RFA), Jean-Sebastien Dea (RFA)
To get the elephant in the room cleared aside, it seems a foregone conclusion that Marc-Andre Fleury will waive his No Movement Clause in order for the franchise to protect Matt Murray. This arrangement would suit him, as he performs far better statistically in a starting role, and it allows him to be “the guy” in a new city. If for some unforeseen reason Fleury opts against waiving his NMC, Rutherford will assuredly find a trade elsewhere prior to the expansion draft. At the end of the day, Murray, with two amazing playoff performances at only 23 years-old, is going nowhere.
The other four players who must be protected are those which will not give management any sleepless nights. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both future hall of famers playing prime hockey, providing great value for their contracts. Kessel, at his reduced rate, has absolutely exceeded expectations when his contract was shipped from Toronto. Kris Letang is the only player who some fans have balked out, as he has missed substantial chunks of time, consistently hitting LTIR and wasting cap dollars. Letang, however, is easily a top-10 defenseman in the league,. Watching how these playoffs have been far less decisive than last for Pittsburgh, there is no doubt the entire organization is willing to take the risk to have him return to the blueline.
The major decision right off the start will be whether Rutherford will decide to go with the 7 forwards-3 defensemen-1 goalie model, or the 8 total protected alternative. It seems apparent that most teams will opt for the former, because it provides protection to two additional players. The Penguins, however, are facing truly unique circumstances, and it seems slightly more likely that they will opt for the latter.
Assuming they go that route to protect their defensive corps (one of Justin Schultz/Olli Maatta), the decision at forward will not be an easy one. Beyond the big three up front who must be protected, there are a few names which could intrigue Vegas. Considering the cost to acquire him (James Neal), and his absolutely pivotal net-front presence, Patrick Hornqvist seems the safest bet to secure protection. Rutherford is a big fan, and many in management have placed a lot of faith in him. The downside of this, of course, is that it would leave Bryan Rust exposed. Rust has already made a name for himself in big games, with multiple game-winning and series-clinching goals. He has the same net-front mentality that Hornqvist does, and is five years his junior. Hornqvist is the more proven offensive commodity, but Rust’s 15 goals and 28 points are nothing to look down upon. In the wake of a potential loss of the hard nosed but unrestricted Chris Kunitz, this would be a painful blow to the team’s physicality. Thankfully, both Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel are exempt from selection, which helps solidify their top lines regardless of this decision.
The defense if the 4-4-1 model is adopted is quite easy to predict. Although Ian Cole has been a completely perfect shot-blocking minute muncher this playoff run, he is 28 years old and relatively ineffective at driving offense with speed. Assuming that Schultz re-signs and doesn’t command an absolute robbery of a contract, he will be protected. His playoff run has been mostly solid, if spotted with occasional mishap, and his 51 points last season was good for 6th among defenseman in the league, just behind the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Duncan Keith. That sort of production isn’t easily replaced, and especially considering Letang’s precarious health situation, he is the go-to offensive defenseman in his absence.
Maatta could certainly find himself on the outs, but it’s difficult to imagine him being exposed in the expansion draft. The team showed a great deal of confidence in him by inking him to a 6 year contract after limited sophomore season action, and his contract at $4.083 is certainly manageable. The 23 year-old two-way defender will certainly need to improve his skating to keep up with the high-flying organizational mentality, and there is the possibility his sluggishness has landed him in serious disfavor. If Rutherford were intent on moving on from Maatta, however, it would not be via expansion – he is too valuable a piece to lose for nothing. A trade is certainly a possibility, but the smart money is on the front office praying for a healthy summer of training and improvement for the young Finn.
It is certainly conceivable that the Penguins do opt for the 7-3-1 option, if they truly value Rust more than Schultz or Maatta. This would result in Rust, Scott Wilson, and one of Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Archibald, and Carl Hagelin to be the additional protect-ees. (Hagelin’s $4 MM contract would likely make him a prime target for sacrifice under this scenario.) Maatta would be the likely claim in this potentiality, as he is less favored internally for purely stylistic reasons when contrasted with Schultz.
However, it seems more likely that Pittsburgh has already worked out a scenario between Fleury, his agent, and Vegas management regarding Marc-Andre Fleury. Rutherford’s lack of panic around the draft last year has led many to believe that this situation has already been handled, and that perhaps a sweetener will be thrown in for not claiming Bryan Rust or a young defenseman.
Projected Protection List
F Sidney Crosby (NMC)
F Evgeni Malkin (NMC)
F Phil Kessel (NMC)
F Patrick Hornqvist
D Kris Letang (NMC)
D Brian Dumoulin
D Justin Schultz
D Olli Maatta
G Matt Murray
If for whatever reason one of Maatta and Schultz is left to dry in the place of this prediction, the re-signing of Trevor Daley and perhaps even Ron Hainsey would likely follow suit. The loss of Rust would be difficult to sustain on an emotional level, as he has been a leader for the younger Wilkes-Barre call-ups since last season. But with young players like Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong looking to claim a roster spot in training camp next season, his offensive production would likely be easy to absorb. Ultimately, however, it seems probable that Fleury will be Vegas’ selection. Following his impressive resurgence in the first two round of the playoffs, and his difficult situation in Pittsburgh behind the legendary Matt Murray, it seems a fit that would work for all parties involved.