Expansion Draft Strategy: Nashville, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg

In the upcoming expansion draft NHL teams can protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie or eight skaters (in reality four forwards and four defensemen) and one goalie.

The latter option seems the less popular, as it permits teams just nine instead of eleven non-exposed players, and a fourth-best blueliner is often less valuable to a team than their fifth-best forward.

There are a few exceptions and borderline cases however and we’ll take a look at eight of those, four in this post and four more in the next. The following examines Nashville, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg’s relevant roster dynamics.

Nashville Predators

Let’s start easy. The Predators’ defensive core may be the best in the game, four-deep with established and budding stars. Their forwards are not bad either, but who would you rather protect? Mattias Ekholm or three of Colton Sissons, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok? Mike Fisher is a UFA, but expect him to re-sign and spend his 18th NHL campaign back in Tennessee.

In spite of their decent middle-six contributions, Smith ($4.25M) and Wilson ($3.94M) carry significant cap hits and haven’t provided the greatest returns on investment recently. Nashville likely wouldn’t mind shedding one of these contracts should Vegas select accordingly.

Jarnkrok is also in this middle ground with a smaller $2M cap hit, so I’d venture Vegas will take him. Sissons hasn’t proven as valuable as any of their top four defenders, and there are several young, non-draft-eligible forwards to fill out these depth roles now and in the near future including Kevin Fiala, Vlaidslav Kamenev, Yakov Trenin, Thomas Novak and Pontus Aberg. If I’m Nashville, I’d rather lose a forward than Ekholm, P.K. Subban’s rapidly progressing pairing.

New Jersey Devils

This one’s a little more challenging, but with New Jersey’s dearth of eligible players (just six forwards, five defensemen, and two goalies prior to likely RFA signings) the 8/1 plan is currently the only one that will help them meet exposure requirements (two forwards, one defenseman, and one goalie). While this can be avoided with a few quick signings prior to the draft, depth is obviously an issue for New Jersey.

By protecting four forwards instead of seven, hey might be able to shed Mike Cammalleri’s tough contract in the expansion draft. That would still enable them to protect their core four of Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique. Their only other expansion-eligible forward is Devante Smith-Pelly and his loss wouldn’t be crippling.

If they go the 8/1 route they’ll have to choose between protecting Ben Lovejoy and Jon Merrill. Neither is an All Star, but their cap hits, $2.67M and $1.14M respectively look better on the payroll than the soon to be 35 year-old, production-declining Cammalleri’s $5.0M hit. Why not give Vegas the opportunity to pick up a quality leader and that contract? There are plenty of young, promising Devils forwards (Miles Wood, John Quenneville, Blake Speers, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian among others), including those about to be drafted to take his place perhaps more effectively.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens just have too much talent to come out of the expansion draft unscathed unless they do some good backroom dealing. They’re deep at every position. Those that could be exposed include forwards Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Scott Wilson, and Bryan Rust.

On defense Ian Cole is the only player signed for next year to worry about, but since Vegas gets their 48-hour window to negotiate with unprotected RFAs and UFAs Pittsburgh needs to think about which defenders they’ll make available to McPhee’s money. The most intriguing of this group are Justin Schultz, big Brian Dumoulin, and Trevor Daley. The window is also open to free agent forwards Chris Kunitz and Nick Bonino. And we’re not even looking at the hand-wringing Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury situation in goal since they can only protect one regardless of their 8/1 or 7/3/1 strategy.

So, who to keep? Three otherwise draft-eligible star forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have no movement clauses. Three defensemen Kris Letang (also with a NMC), Olli Maatta, and RFA Schultz are keepers. So do they know Schultz will re-sign with Pittsburgh or is there concern Vegas will pry him away during their 48-hour free-agent negotiation period? Is there some deal afoot between the two, maybe involving Fleury or Murray that makes this question moot?

Perhaps the next most interesting Vegas defensive target is Dumoulin, also a RFA, not to mention UFA Daley. The answers to these questions have major strategy implications and aren’t public information. So, I’ll guess GM Jim Rutherford figures out a way to keep Schultz and maybe Dumoulin from free agent poaching without officially protecting them. With almost $13M in cap room the money’s there. I’ll also guess he protects Ian Cole after a strong year, and gives Vegas a chance to negotiate with Daley who will be 34 next October.

Assuming all the handshake agreements, we have three protected defensemen (Letang, Maatta and Cole) and four forwards among Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl to add to the three stars. More wildcards Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, and Nick Bonino are all UFAs, so Rutherford’s negotiation skills might also be at play there.

Bottom line – they’ll prioritize re-signing Schultz if there’s any concern about Vegas luring him away. They’ll protect just three defensemen whether that last spot goes to Schultz or Cole, and seven forwards including Hornqvist, Hagelin and Rust with the final spot going to Wilson or one of the UFAs.

Winnipeg Jets

A burgeoning offensive powerhouse, the Jets have a ton of high-quality forwards. Fortunately they don’t need to protect most of them since they are so young. While they lack depth on defense, they have three vets that play big roles and Toby Enstrom with a non-movement clause, meaning he can’t be exposed unless he approves it. The 8/1 plan might be best.

Essentially it comes down to either making Tyler Myers available or financially hamstringing themselves by buying out Enstrom’s $5.75M contract, versus exposing forwards Shawn Matthias, Adam Lowry and Joel Armia, and giving Vegas negotiating opportunities with RFAs Marco Dano and Andrew Copp.

With young, non-draft eligible prospects like Kyle Connor, Jack Rosolov, Brendan Lemieux and Nic Petan looking suitable replacements I’ll bet they preserve their thin blue line and go with the 8/1 program.