Even though the Penguins are currently playing in the Stanley Cup Final, you can bet that General Manager Jim Rutherford has already thought well ahead to what the team’s roster will look like next season.
The item that throws a wrinkle into next season’s roster is the much-discussed NHL Expansion Draft. The NHL’s newest team, the Vegas Golden Knights, will chose one player each from the NHL’s 30 teams. All 30 teams must submit their Protection List by 5:00 P.M. ET on Saturday, June 17, 2017. The Golden Knights must then submit their Expansion Draft Selections by 5:00 P.M. ET on June 20. The Golden Knights’ selections will then be announced on June 21 as part of the NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
The way the Expansion Draft works is that each team gets to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender or eight skaters, regardless of position, and one goalie. Players with no-trade/no-movement clauses are automatically protected. Additionally, players that are first and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection and do not need to be protected. Per the rules of the Expansion Draft, each team can lose only one player. The Golden Knights will actually have first crack at signing free agents before the rest of the league, but if they sign a team’s free agent, that will count as the player that the team loses. For example, if the Golden Knights signed Nick Bonino, then Bonino would count as the player the Penguins lost in the Expansion Draft.
For the Penguins, the Expansion Draft presents a unique problem with their goaltending situation. Marc-Andre Fleury has a no movement clause, which means that the Penguins would have to expose Matt Murray. This means that Rutherford will likely have less than a week after the Stanley Cup Final to either trade Fleury or buyout his contract prior to the Expansion Draft. There is also the option of trading a draft pick to the Golden Knights in exchange for not taking an exposed Murray and the Penguins keeping both goaltenders, but that option does not seem likely. If Fleury is willing to waive his no-movement clause and be potentially drafted by the Golden Knights, that would be extremely helpful for Rutherford. Vegas would strongly consider taking him to backstop the expansion team and generate some name-brand buzz. If Vegas doesn’t consider him, the Penguins could then look to move him and his $5.75M cap hit to another team.
Once Rutherford takes care of the Fleury situation, the Penguins’ protected list will likely look something like this:
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang all have no movement clauses, so they will all be automatically protected. Murray, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, and Olli Maatta are the other likely candidates to be protected. Last Friday, Kevin laid out the case for why the Penguins should expose Olli Maatta, but it’s not a concept that I entirely agree with. Luckily for the Penguins, forwards Conor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, and promising prospect Daniel Sprong fall into the category of players that are first-and-second year professionals, and therefore do not have to be protected.
2014-15 wasn’t played under an NHL SPC. Same reason Panarin in Chicago is exempt despite having played several pro years in the KHL.
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) May 31, 2017
A great tool to monkey around with possible protection lists is Capfriendly’s Expansion Draft tool. It shows, with green check marks, who is eligible and who is not. Given the list above, the players most likely to be exposed in the Expansion Draft are as follows:
Carl Hagelin, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Ian Cole. While Hagelin’s speed has certainly been an asset to the Penguins since his arrival, the team would benefit from losing his $4M cap hit per season until he becomes a free agent in 2019. Kuhnhackl is a good, bottom-six forward, but bottom-six forwards are generally expendable. The Penguins’ defense is already thin, so losing Cole would be detrimental, especially since he’s the only reliable physical presence on the blue line. While Cole is a fifth or sixth defenseman, he has improved by leaps and bounds since his arrival and has been as steady as they come.
Once the Expansion Draft is over, Rutherford will then have to deal with the Penguins’ restricted and unrestricted free agents. You can be sure that he will not sign any free agents prior to the Expansion Draft because that would mean they would then have to be protected.
Restricted free agent defensemen Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin will, undoubtedly, be Rutherford’s top priority. Given that they are both restricted free agents gives the Penguins some bargaining power in that any team that matches the Penguins’ offer to either of them would have to compensate the Penguins via high-level draft picks.
Matt Cullen has indicated that he is going to retire and Nick Bonino is likely going to fetch a heftier contract for a player of his skill set than the Penguins are willing to pay. With young forwards like Sprong, Oskar Sundqvist, and Zach Aston-Reese ready to break into the Penguins roster, Rutherford will likely let Bonino walk. On the blue line, Mark Streit, Ron Hainsey, and Trevor Daley have all played key roles during the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run this season, but it is unlikely that any of them will return because of their ages.
Chris Kunitz has been a core player for the Penguins for a decade and without him the Penguins would not be in the Stanley Cup Final. Rutherford and Kunitz will both have tough decisions to make in the off-season. The Penguins can likely only afford to offer Kunitz a one-year, $1M-type of contract, whereas he can likely get much more on the open market. Kunitz may also decide to retire. If he wins his fourth Cup, and given his rugged style of play, he may decide that he has nothing left to prove.
There is no doubt the Penguins’ roster will look drastically different next season because of the Expansion Draft and free agency. However, with the talent level of the team’s top players and the talent in the pipeline, the Penguins will not be rebuilding; they’ll be reloading.