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Lots of changes in Pittsburgh since the 2017 expansion

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Bryan Rust: Vegas Golden Knight? It could have happened!

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As we wait impatiently for the 2021 Seattle Kraken expansion list to come out, I got to think about the Penguins’ protected vs. unprotected list for the 2017 Vegas expansion draft. I wrote about it here four years ago. This feels like a forever ago in so many ways.

Here were the players Pittsburgh protected. They chose the rarely used eight skater route (instead of getting to keep 7F + 3D) because they wanted to keep all four defensemen locked in..

Forwards: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist

Defensemen: Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta

Goalie: Matt Murray

The choices of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang were automatic, given their no movement clauses, but those guys were all slam dunks to be retained anyways, so no big deal there.

Going 8 skaters was smart, because it keeps the team’s top 4 defensemen are all safe. The only choice to make was whom to protect as the last forward spot between Hornqvist and Rust. Bryan Rust is a playoff hero and elevates his game at the right time, but his regular season stats are not all that great.

Among regular forwards from 2015-17 on the team, Rust is dead last, 13 out of 13 in Points/60. His regular season stats are not impressive. He’s demonstrated little in the way of play making and passing ability. Rust is a useful and good player in his own right, and one well worth having, but his skillset is fairly replaceable in a setting like this.

I think a lot of times it’s taken fore granted or thought of as old hat by now that Bryan Rust is a top NHL player and a legit NHL first liner. Back in June 2017 this definitely was not the case. Even in 2017-18, in the following season Rust only scored 13 goals in 69 games, despite playing almost 400 5v5 minutes with Sidney Crosby and almost 250 with Evgeni Malkin. That’s a lot of prime real estate as Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis were completely faded out and Rust got a chance to step in and didn’t quite figure out the goal scoring touch for a bit.

It’s sad to see the fall of Justin Schultz and especially Olli Maatta since this point. Four years ago Schultz was coming off a 51 point season and was about at his peak at 27 years old. He would leave Pittsburgh in a bit of disgrace after injury and performance put his final games on a sour note.

Maatta was quietly a bedrock player in the 2017 Pens’ Stanley Cup run. With Kris Letang hurt, Pittsburgh needed Maatta and I thought he played some of the very best hockey in his career in that stretch. Maatta would even play all 82 games in the 2017-18 season, but his performance seemed to get zapped the following year as his skating ability fell off NHL caliber very quickly as injuries mounted and caught up to him.

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While Pittsburgh and Vegas had worked out a deal to ship Marc-Andre Fleury there, making the list mostly just ceremonial, here are the players who were technically available.

Forwards

Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino*, Matt Cullen*, Chris Kunitz*, Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Archibald, Oskar Sundqvist, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Tom Sestito*, Kevin Porter*, Garrett Wilson*

Defensemen

Ian Cole, Trevor Daley*, Ron Hainsey*, Chad Ruhwedel*, Mark Streit*, Derrick Pouliot, Frank Corrado, Cameron Gaunce*, David Warsofsky*, Tim Erixon, Stuart Percy

Goaltender

Marc-Andre Fleury (waived no-movement clause for purpose of expansion draft)

*impending UFA on 7/1

Of the exposed players, only Rust and Chad Ruhwedel remain in Pittsburgh as players. It’s pretty wild to think that two-thirds of the HBK line from the spring prior would be on the expansion list, though Bonino was a free agent that was not expected to return.

Interesting to see Sundqvist pop up here, he would be famously traded in just a few days after expansion for Ryan Reaves and a second round pick, setting off fires that haven’t quite gone out.

There was no doubt Pouliot would be exposed given how his career never really got off the ground, but it completed quite the fall from grace for the then-23 year old who only five years prior was the No. 8 overall pick. Pouliot had also played his last game in the Pens’ organization and would be traded in the off-season for a future third round pick.

The Pens will only protect four players in both 2017 and 2021, can you name them without cheating? (This isn’t a trick question, it’s pretty easy).

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The answers are: Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Dumoulin. We already know with NMC clauses that Crosby, Malkin and Letang are safe for 2021 expansion, and I’m going out on the safest limb ever to project a day early for you that Brian Dumoulin will not, in fact, be the Seattle Kraken’s pick out of Pittsburgh. No one else from 2017 is eligible.

The Pens’ 2021 list is due to the league today by 5 PM. The league reviews/approves and distributes officially to all clubs and Seattle tomorrow. We’ll see if news or reports break today about the exact particulars of the Pens’ latest protection list, but it will certainly look a lot different than the one Vegas saw in 2017.