The trade deadline has come and gone and the picture has been painted much clearer on what the Penguins may do with the expansion draft this off season.
According to league rules, all teams have the option to protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and a goalie. The other, more unlikely option, is to protect 8 skaters and a goalie. This option is more likely if a team has a lot of depth on defense and would rather protect four defensemen and risk the loss of a forward. I don’t expect many teams to take this option.
Impending unrestricted free agents (UFA) will not need protected. Teams can simply wait until after the lists of players the expansion franchise, Vegas Golden Knights, to sign their players. The Penguins will have a few players fall under that category.
Penguins Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)
- Chris Kunitz
- Trevor Daley
- Ron Hainsey
- Nick Bonino
- Matt Cullen
- Kevin Porter
- Garrett Wilson
- Cameron Gaunce
- David Warsofsky
- Chad Ruhwedel
- Tom Sestito
- Mark Streit
- Frank Corrado
The bottom six on that list would not typically be players an expansions franchise would look at with golden eyes. Those types of players could be signed through free agency.
The first five, however, are legitimate NHL talents who have played in the NHL on a consistent basis. Hainsey, Kunitz and Cullen are both reaching the ends of the careers and none of the trio would likely be taken unless the Golden Knights were in a cap bind and needed to fill out their roster. Daley and Bonino are both guys who could serve as great additions for a team just starting out. Daley being capable of a top four defenseman role has been proven over the past two seasons that he’s spent in Pittsburgh. Bonino is a third line center on a good team but could serve higher if a team’s depth needed it.
None of these players will be available to Vegas unless they hit the open market due to their contract status, as previously mentioned.
Penguins Restricted Free Agents (RFA)
- Justin Schultz
- Brian Dumoulin
- Frank Corrado
- Derrick Pouliot
Of the two lists, this one is more important. The UFA’s don’t need to be retained as they will not be under contract to be drafted by Vegas. RFA’s, however, can still be drafted because with an RFA contract, that player is still considered team property. The Penguins won’t need to be worried much about Corrado as he should come cheap and won’t be an attractive option to many teams.
Schultz and Dumoulin are much different stories. The Penguins have enjoyed stellar play from both defensemen over the past two seasons and will need to resign both at season’s end. If presented, Vegas would be foolish not to look at one of these two guys as the player they’d acquire from Pittsburgh, so the Penguins must be careful in that regard.
Who Should The Penguins Protect?
The Penguins will take the 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, 1 goalie model. I would expect it to look something like this:
- Sidney Crosby
- Evgeni Malkin
- Phil Kessel
- Bryan Rust
- Patric Hornqvist
- Carl Hagelin
- Jake Guentzel
- Kris Letang
- Brian Dumoulin
- Justin Schultz
Any player who has a “No-Trade Clause” or a “No-Movement Clause” is automatically protected and counts as one of your protected players.
Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel follow this description among the Penguins forwards and take up three of the seven slots at forward.
Looking at the rest of the depth, a guy like Hornqvist must be protected. He is a very special player and one gritty presence the Penguins can’t afford to lose. He will be protected. Rust and Guentzel are two young forwards with top six roles potentially awaiting them in the future. Both have already seen time in the top six already which means the Penguins will be needing to protect them.
That leaves one more player needing to be protected. Conor Sheary would be my pick except, under some circumstance I’m unaware of, Sheary is already protected. This leaves my next choice to be Hagelin. Hagelin isn’t a player who’s produced on the scoresheet before as his career high in goals is 17 with New York in consecutive seasons during 2013-14′ and 14′-15′. He’s still a scary opposition when he steps on the ice. His speed coupled with his vision makes him a scary commodity for teams to face and the seventh person I’d protect to finish out my forwards.
The defensemen the Penguins will have to protect and not protect could be something Vegas looks at.
Letang has a no-movement clause and is the Penguins best defenseman. There is no debate there. He’s protected regardless. The logjam only begins there.
The Penguins have eight capable NHL blueliners on their roster right now. Some listed above will become unrestricted free agents and won’t get protected. The options in need of protection are Schultz, Dumoulin, Maatta, Cole. This is also the order I’d consider when protecting them.
It’s been a blessing watching Dumoulin progress into the player he has become. The Penguins have a quality shutdown defenseman in Dumoulin. He doesn’t factor in much at all in the goal scoring department as he’s gone 128 games without scoring a goal. He’s got great foot speed and can move the puck very well though. He does get factor in on goals as he has 12 assists this season. He went over half of last season without a single penalty minute which makes him a very disciplined hockey player.
Schultz has been the biggest blessing of 2016-2017 for Pittsburgh. He has completely rejuvenated his career with the Penguins and is playing Norris type of hockey right now after being a complete afterthought in Edmonton. The third round pick Jim Rutherford gave up to acquired Schultz was brought back in when the Penguins got rid of Beau Bennett.
Through Monday, Schultz has put up a staggering 12 goals and 46 points in 64 games this season. He’s showing no signs of slowing down, either. He loves Pittsburgh and will 110% be a Penguin next season when the Penguins sign him to a lucrative extension.
Cole and Maatta are solid players. Cole is a guy that will likely be passed upon as a draft option, which is a huge plus for the Penguins. If I’m Vegas, I am looking at taking a young guy like Maatta. He is a former first round pick who has shown signs of being a good NHL defenseman. Injuries have derailed his leg speed, something which makes him a outcast on defense in the Penguins system. Despite the slower player he has become, Maatta is a +17 (through Monday) and was a +27 last season.
The goalie situation has pretty much sorted itself out. Murray has clearly become the starter as the younger option and proving he can play in the big time after winning the Cup last season. Marc-Andre Fleury will likely waive his no movement clause to allow the Penguins the chance to protect Murray.
Who Does Vegas Select?
The whole point to this article was to answer this question.
Let’s say Fleury continues playing at the level he has played at over the past couple weeks and sees some action in the playoffs and handles it well. He potentially could be sent to another team via trade if he is able to play well enough to get some value back under his name. He carries a reasonable $5.75 million cap hit and a team looking for a goalie fix right away may take the chance to jump on him.
If no team trades for Fleury, he likely will waive his clause and make himself available for Vegas to scoop up and gives them a franchise goaltender right away as he’d be the best available option for the Golden Knights.
Assuming Fleury is moved beforehand, I believe Olli Maatta would be the one to go.
Essentially, Vegas’ two best choices will be Cole and Maatta. There will be plenty of Ian Cole’s to pick from on other team’s rosters. No offense to Cole of course, but the attraction of a very young Maatta under a top four defenseman’s salary and a change of scenery could be what both Vegas and Maatta are looking for.
The June expansion draft is going to bite the Penguins harder than most teams as they will lose a valuable member of their roster. No matter who is selected, the Penguins are a deep enough team to replace that player with someone who can produce the same, if not more, than Vegas’ selection.