A cloud way off in the distance is the 2021 expansion draft. This summer, if all goes as expected, Seattle will be replicating what Vegas did four years ago by getting to select one player from the first 30 NHL teams.
I shudder to do this two weeks before the NHL trade deadline, but it’s an off stretch of the schedule and people really like to think about the expansion draft. Like, really, really like to think about it. So let’s go.
Back in October, we wrote a pretty in depth picture for what the Penguins were looking like and how the draft would unfold. No personnel has changed for the team, they’ve just added Mark Friedman as a waiver claim and otherwise all the same players have been around. A lot of the ground rules and such are covered in the link above.
Back then, we boiled it down to the following for Pittsburgh’s protect list as the likely/smartest way to minimize the loss as:
7F/3D/1G version October 2020:
Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jason Zucker, Kasperi, Kapanen, one of Jared McCann/Teddy Blueger
Defensemen: Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson
Goalie: Tristan Jarry
Notable players exposed: One of Jared McCann/Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese, Mike Matheson, Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, Casey DeSmith
Has anything changed in the last six months, from October 2020 to almost April of 2021? Of course.
The biggest factor has to be that some of the players on the fringes of the list have been playing very well in the 2020-21 season.
- Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen are tied for first on the team with 2.71 5v5 P/60. Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev aren’t far behind at fourth and fifth, respectively at 1.92 and 1.88. Multiple players in the last sentence will just have to be exposed.
- Marcus Pettersson hasn’t had as strong of a season as he did last year, but Mike Matheson hasn’t exactly lit it up either on his new team.
- Casey DeSmith has been playing lights out hockey and in 13 games (not the biggest sample, but still) he’s 8-3 with a 1.91 GAA and a .929 save%. He will also almost certainly be left out for Seattle.
At this point for the Pens it would be favorable if they could trade a little and protect an extra eighth forward and a spot and only keep two defensemen, but that isn’t in the cards for how the NHL’s expansion rules go.
With the NHL’s trade deadline approaching on April 12th, the tide could change. It’s perhaps not expected to have any huge transactions, but the above shows that the Pens are already over-crowded at forward. It doesn’t make a lot sense to make a big trade addition at the expense of having to leave another solid forward option open.
The expansion draft could also be a very interesting way for new GM Ron Hextall to gain some salary cap flexibility moving forward. No, this does not involve moving Matheson to Seattle, because expansion teams don’t take healthy bottom-end defensemen with five years of a $4.875 million annual cap hit.
Say that Blueger and McCann both finish hot. It would be a shame to lose one of them. An alternative scenario could develop as to what if Hextall protects both the young forwards and leaves Jason Zucker ($5.5 million through 2022-23) available? Or leaves Pettersson available to be picked at his $4.025 million cap hit? Would Seattle be tempted to take a player like that, which would free up space for the Pens?
Maybe, maybe not. It would be a bitter pill to even consider losing Zucker, being as Pittsburgh is giving up their 2021 first round pick for him. The expansion draft happens on July 21, and the entry draft is scheduled for July 23-24, it would be painful to lose a top-six point scoring winger before even officially having the main part traded away for him get cashed in.
It might be important to point out the obvious that Hextall didn’t make the Zucker trade, so he might have no such emotional hang up or be dealing with the perspective of needing to retain the player simply because of the trade cost. And it is a sunk cost at this point, that pick isn’t coming back no matter what Hextall does. To him, Zucker is just a 29-year old winger who missed a chunk of this season to injury that makes a fairly big salary. Does that change any calculus of the expansion decisions? Unless you’re Ron Hextall you can’t say for sure, and at this point so much is fluid that perhaps he doesn’t know.
If the Pens do elect to keep Zucker, one would hope they get proactive. Teddy Blueger is having a good season, is relatively young and won’t be too expensive next season. If the Pens leave him out there, they likely will lose him. (The exact same sentence can be said and replace McCann and Blueger with each other’s names if that is the choice).
The Florida Panthers traded Reilly Smith in exchange for Vegas selecting Jonathan Marchessault and a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
The Tampa Bay Lightning traded their second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft (previously acquired) and Nikita Gusev in exchange for Vegas selecting Jason Garrison
The New York Islanders traded their first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Mikhail Grabovski and Jake Bischoff in exchange for Vegas selecting Jean-Francois Berube.
The Anaheim Ducks traded Shea Theodore in exchange for Vegas selecting Clayton Stoner.
The Minnesota Wild traded Alex Tuch in exchange for Vegas selecting Erik Haula and a conditional third-round pick in the 2017 or 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
The Columbus Blue Jackets traded their first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and David Clarkson in exchange for Vegas selecting William Karlsson.
The Pittsburgh Penguins traded their second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for Vegas selecting Marc-Andre Fleury.
While in the short term, some of this helped the existing teams, it overwhelmingly helped Vegas in a major, major way. The Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, have made the playoffs every year since and are legitimate title contenders moving forward almost entirely thanks to all the clubs giving them a ton of young players and draft capital in exchange for mostly LTIR retired salaries with only a year or two left.
On the pipe dream the Pens could shed the Matheson contract here, the Florida example is probably the closest to go. The Panthers steered Vegas to take Reilly Smith (then 26, who was coming off 40, 50 and 37 point seasons) by giving up Jonathan Marchessault. Marchessault was coming off a 30 goal season with Florida, but they were looking to get out of his $5.0 million contract.
The problem for Pittsburgh is, Marchessault wasn’t seen as an anchor by Vegas, he was going to be a solid high-end player for them (and...they were right). Smith was seen similarly as a top-six winger that would help as well. It’s very unlikely that Seattle would see Matheson as a Marchessault...And even worse, Pittsburgh doesn’t have a 40-50 point winger to throw in, unless it’s like Bryan Rust or Zucker. Taking both of those players would be a massive salary gain for Seattle, and the shrewd GM Ron Francis isn’t going to see even Matheson+Zucker the same way Vegas valued Smith+Marchessault, which is where the dream of getting off the hook for Matheson ends. It doesn’t make a lot of sense value-wise for the Pens to dump in one of what few good prospects they have to make up the difference.
Back to the Vegas decision, we recently learned that former GM Jim Rutherford promised he would see to it that Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by Vegas, which was Fleury’s preferred move. There were significant rumors in June 2017 that Pittsburgh might send Fleury to Calgary. But it’s easy to see this was a unique situation of wanting to do right by a three-time Stanley Cup champion and most important goalie in franchise history drove that decision. But that cost them a second round pick to do so.
This time around, it will be fascinating to see if the teams have learned their lesson. The Pens look certain to lose one of McCann or Blueger to Seattle. That’s a good player, but that is the system in place where the deeper and best teams in the league are beholden to lose a good player.
There would be a way to not lose that player for nothing, and that is what we’ll see if teams have learned. There are places that would protect McCann or Blueger from being drafted. A look at the CapFriendly expansion draft simulator shows that the crowd sourced most commonly protected players by fans making protection lists include Arizona protected Lawson Cruise, Buffalo protecting impending UFA Taylor Hall (who probably won’t be back anyways), Detroit protecting Evgeni Svechnikov, San Jose keeping impending UFA Marcus Sorenson among other examples.
Will teams like Pittsburgh trade their overfill to teams that don’t have enough good players to keep? Would it be worth it to trade, say, McCann or Blueger to Detroit or SJ for a second round pick (in the offseason, just before expansion draft), and then have Seattle select a Casey DeSmith or Marcus Pettersson anyways? Perhaps not.
The Pens could succeed in not losing an asset for nothing, but they’re still bound to lose an additional player to Seattle that will be of value.
The questions and intrigue of the expansion draft is lingering just under the surface. Future decisions will play into the decisions and possibly answer the Pens question of what they may do.
It’s a classic good news, bad news situation. The good news is that McCann and Blueger are both playing very, very well and Jason Zucker is a proven player. The bad news is the odds are very small that all of them will be back in Pittsburgh next season. At the end, the math just is not in Pittsburgh’s favor, it’s just a matter of minimizing how much they end up losing.