Tuesday, 24 May 2016

How NHL Expansion Affects the 2016 Off-season

Marc-Andre Fleury is just one big name goalie that could be on the move this summer because of NHL expansion rules. 
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the NHL plans to expand to 32 teams in June of 2017 between the Stanley Cup Final and Entry Draft. Right now, the likely destinations look to be Las Vegas and one of Seattle or Quebec City. The latter could depend on what happens with the Arizona Coyotes, but none of that matters right now. What matters is that this is the final off-season before the expansions draft and it could be anything but ordinary. Expect to see some shrewd, unexpected moves by general managers with the gift of foresight, or those with their hands tied. At the end of the day, this is all about asset management. 

So, what will be different? First, we must examine the rules of expansion in order to see what variables we are dealing with. They are as follows (via ESPN):

  • Teams will have two options in who they protect: either they safeguard seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie; or they protect eight skaters (whether they're defensemen or forwards) and one goalie.
  • First- and second-year pros -- including those playing pro hockey at any level -- will be exempt from the expansion draft. But if they're entering their third year of pro hockey, they're no longer exempt. Teams would have to either protect them or expose them
  • Unsigned draft picks (think college or European players) are exempt from the expansion draft for two years from their draft year but not in Year 3, so teams will have to either rush to sign those guys or simply expose them in the expansion draft.
  • The total salaries for the players made available by each team in the expansion draft must be at least 25 percent of the previous season's payroll for that team. Daly explained: "The other variation that makes this expansion draft different is we would contemplate having some thresholds based on salary to make sure that the expansion club can be competitive based on the ranges we have in the CBA. Teams would have some obligation to expose a level of salary. And in terms of drafting players, teams would have to draft a certain threshold of salary." 
ASSUMPTIONS: Players playing who have just finished the first year of their Entry-Level Contract (ELC) will be exempt. (i.e. Shayne Gostisbehere needs to be protected but Max Domi is exempt). 

The 25% rule will NOT have to be implemented, as NMCs have to be protected and honored and it will likely happen naturally with teams wanting to shed themselves of high priced contracts. I DID NOT count players with NMCs expiring in summer of 2017 (Gionta, Wideman, Vermette etc.)

Based on this criteria, I did my best to assess each team's realistic protected list.

Option 1 - 7 F, 3 D, 1 G
Option 2 - 8 S, 1 G

From here, we can make a few guess-timations on potential trends this off-season. Keep this in mind:

BuyersHurricanes, Flames, Sabres, Coyotes, Oilers, Panthers, Canadiens, Devils, Flyers, Leafs, Canucks,

Sellers: Ducks, Blackhawks, Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Stars, Red Wings, Wild, Predators, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Penguins, Sharks, Blues, Lightning, Jets.

Stand Pat: Bruins, Kings, Caps

Those bolded are teams that are those who will be most urgent in regards to making moves because of expansion. 

Trade Frenzy on the Horizon

With so many valuable young players hanging in the balance, look for this off-season to be far more trade-oriented, starting at the Entry Draft in June. Not only that, but look for these deals to mimic those you would normally see at the trade deadline with big name established players with even bigger contracts given up for draft picks and prospects which are exempt from protection. Expect to see fewer teams being in on the coveted free agents, and even fewer NMCs handed out unless it's to a top player in their position. Those teams with some protected spots to spare are the ones who gain to benefit from these conditions. It could cause a shift in power to bring NHL parity to new levels. 

Buyers Market for Goaltending

On my list above there are roughly fifteen teams that have quality goaltenders left unprotected, whether that be a promising prospect like Malcolm Subban or some of the best in the league like Fleury or Bishop. These teams (Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Colorado) would be wise to trade one this off-season to gain an asset exempt from protection. Problem is, they are only a handful of teams in need of a goaltender. This leaves some GMs hands tied - you either sell low or risk losing a valuable asset for nothing. This allows a team like Calgary or Toronto to be patient with their goaltending situation. It might be best to try and sign one to a 1 year deal in hopes a top goaltender will be available for cheap as the expansion draft nears.

Defensemen A-Plenty

Lou Lamirello should be on the phone right now with the number of top four defensemen on the table. A position that is usually near impossible to trade for will suddenly be up for grabs because of expansion. The likes of Trevor Van Riemsdyk, Simon Depres, Marco Scandella and Jack Johnson could all be on the move. Not to mention promising young defenders such as Slater Koekkoek, Micro Mueller, Dylan McIlrath and Brayden McNabb.  The Leafs, Oilers and Canucks are all teams that stand to benefit from this type of market. Look for some of these teams (Chicago, most notably) to make a side deal with expansion teams for draft picks to persuade them against picking their unprotected players, much like the Sharks did in 2000 to keep Evgeni Nabokov safe.

Grey Areas

Some grey areas still exist as expansion details that could have huge consequences are still getting hammered out. The 25% of salary is one, and NMCs expiring in 2017 are another, but here's the biggest one:
 I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one, but it's the reason Nylander was left off my exempt list. If this is the case and applies to all rookies this season, many of those exempt would need protecting and leave even more valuable players up for grabs. What doesn't make sense is that Nylander IS still in his first year of his ELC and going into his second. If the only players eligible for exemption are rookies next season, why make the parameters include second year players? Am I the only one who feels like they are crazy? 

The only distinction that makes sense to me is that Nylander played 37 games in the AHL prior to this past season. Perhaps he crossed some imaginary line (like 25 games for Calder voting) that leaves him unprotected, as it was almost half of a season. The kicker is that if he had been drafted out of North America this would not be an issue because he wouldn't have been eligible to play in the AHL until age 20. Another high profile player this applies to is Artemi Panarin. Although he was an NHL rookie in 2015/16, he has played professional hockey in Europe. The NHL will have to decide if the parameters around first and second year players will only apply to leagues in North America, which could affect a myriad of young players eligibility.

One thing that is certain is that the NHL needs to hammer out these details, and fast. NHL GMs need a clear idea of what they stand to lose come expansion before they can make an accurate plan of how to address their needs this off-season.