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Penguins Expansion Draft: Rutherford isn't worried, but should Pens fans be?

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The Penguins protected Patric Hornqvist instead of Bryan Rust and we breakdown why that makes a lot of sense.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For at least the past 12 months, hockey fans have loved to chop it up on the internet about the Vegas NHL expansion draft and all the possibilities of what teams could and should do. Lists of who is available came out Sunday and it's been like kids on Christmas to dream, discuss and debate what may or may not happen on Wednesday night when the newest NHL team announces who they are taking.

As far as the Pittsburgh Penguins go, their main drama was solved when Marc-Andre Fleury quite literally "took one for the team" and became one of only 2 players in the whole league (along with Winnipeg's Toby Enstrom) to voluntarily waive his no-movement clause and become eligible to be selected.

Most national hockey mainstream media members have been pretty openly indicating that Fleury will be the choice for Vegas. If that's true, there's no drama and it's pretty much a best case scenario at this point for Pittsburgh - they get to shrug off all of Fleury's $5.75 million per year cap hit and move on to the new era in net with Matt Murray.

But when the Pens protection list came out, some fan consternation started. GM Jim Rutherford seemingly flippantly (and certainly noncommittally) noted the other day he thought, but didn't promise, that the Penguins would protect 7 forwards and 3 defensemen.

This raised eyebrows, since it meant one of Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin would have to be exposed to Vegas under such a format (Kris Letang must be protected with his NMC, and obviously as the best defenseman on the team, he's going to be kept anyways injury concerns aside).

However, when the official list was released today, Rutherford and the Penguins did exactly what we at Pensburgh had analyzed to do. Protect 8 skaters to make sure all top four defensemen are safe, plus use the last spot to keep Patric Hornqvist.

However, when the official list was released today, Rutherford and the Penguins did exactly what we at Pensburgh had analyzed to do. Protect 8 skaters to make sure all top four defensemen are safe, plus use the last spot to keep Patric Hornqvist

This idea is somewhat controversial, since it means that Bryan Rust and, to a lesser extent, Carl Hagelin are on the unprotected heap. However, make no mistakes, this was the right call for Pittsburgh.

The common argument that's been laid out is that Hornqvist is older and more expensive than Rust, and only has 1 more year left on his contract. All of these points are 100% true, but none are particularly relevant for the context of an expansion draft.

Vegas is taking 1 player from all 30 existing NHL teams. They only need a maximum of 22 players for their roster,  bring as they've already signed prized Russian free agent Vadim Shipachyov to a contract. Plus they can also use July 1 like any other team to sign free agents.

Point being, Vegas has made no secret that any player on a team's unprotected list is open season for the rest of the league. If the Rangers or Capitals or Flyers or Lightning or anyone else saw that Hornqvist was out there, they could call Vegas, offer a future 1st round pick + prospects and make a deal that the Golden Knights send PH72 straight to them, if they wanted. That's a scary thought for the Pens to lose Hornqvist, for nothing, and him get possibly flipped to a rival, and especially a rival they might see in the playoffs next year.

Rust during the 2017 playoffs. (Photo Credit: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images )

The prospect of losing Hornqvist (he of 7 straight 20+ goal seasons in every full NHL season) would be pretty brutal. Add to the fact his motor/drive/board play/1st team PP net-front role/forecheck and Pittsburgh has no one else to replace that for 2017-18 and beyond. Hell, not many do, Hornqvist's skill set is pretty unique and that makes him valuable and worth keeping in his own right.

There is the matter of a contract, Hornqvist is set to be a free agent as of July 2018, but the Pens had no issues re-signing supporting players like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz for fair value, no reason to think they can't do the same as early as this July 1 when Hornqvist is eligible. Simply put, Hornqvist's impending expiring contract shouldn't be a factor in scaring the Pens away. He's a guy who clearly enjoys it in the 'Burgh and ought to be expected to sign a 2-3 year extension at a price near his current $4.25 million cap hit. So that's fine.

The next item showing why it's not so bad to leave Bryan Rust out there. Or, probably better put- not ideal to have him available but certainly a lesser option than Hornqvist.

First, let's start at the Points/60 aspect over the 2 two seasons since Rust has been in the NHL from stats.hockeyanalysis:

ruststats172

Being 13 of 13 is bad. Rust's Assists/60 at 0.77 is last and even worse. This isn't a guy who needs to be protected.

That said, Rust is- deservedly - a cult hero among Pens fans because he has 13 goals in the past 2 playoff seasons, including many later in series. He's the main reason Pittsburgh advanced past Tampa in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, scoring both of the team's goals in a 2-1 win in Game 7. That's all valid points and good reason to want to keep a player like that if possible.

However Rust also has 20 goals and 21 assists in 112 regular season games. At 25 he really doesn't have a lot of "potential" so much as the stats say he's really already at his scoring prime. As a smaller player he's already accumulated a few injuries and probably isn't an 80 game a season player.

Bryan Rust is a great skater and has a knack for scoring important goals, but in the big scheme of things, he's a typical player who is only going to fade against NHL competition as the years go by. The charts show Rust has almost no playmaking ability.

Is Rust a good player, a useful player and one the Penguins would hope to have and love to have for the 2017-18 season (especially being still on a $640,000 contract)? 100%. 1,000%. Absolutely.

But he's also a player that, aside from the recency effect of being a sensational playoff performer, isn't all that well-rounded and one that a team with the talent of Pittsburgh could overcome.

And, if it's any consolation to Pens fans, Rutherford isn't publicly all that concerned.

As a guy who says what he means and means what he says for the most part, GMJR seems like a man who has an understanding of how this is going to play out, and is comfortable with how the next few days will go. Though there were some surprises like Detroit leaving out talented goalie Peter Mrazek on the unprotected list, Marc-Andre Fleury is certainly the best option for a full-time starting goalie for an expansion team.

So, hopefully, this all plays out like that. Fleury gets his new start in Vegas, the Pens shed a big salary and move forward with Murray, and guys like Rust and Cole are coming back for next season. If that happens, all the recent hand-wringing gets forgotten quickly. Luckily there's only a few more days and we'll know.