The NHL recently held its annual general manager meetings and several topics were up for discussion, such as goalie equipment and blue line cameras. But the most notable thing to come out of those meetings was the release for the outline of a possible expansion draft. Over the last couple of years, the topic of expansion has been a common one and it has picked up steam since the summer when the league took applications for new franchises. Only two cities ended up submitting bids, and a few months after both Las Vegas and Quebec City went through the final phases of the application process, the league announced at the GM meetings that they would make a final decision in June to award a team to either one of those cities, both of them, or neither of them.
In my opinion, I think the league will only add Las Vegas this summer and revisit Quebec City in a couple of years. Although both cities have ownership groups willing to pay the league’s reported $500 million expansion fee as well as having new arenas ready to go, the struggling Canadian dollar will probably have a major impact on whether or not Quebec City returns to the league. With the NHL having a history of going into previously unknown markets to grow the game, it seems like a foregone conclusion that they’ll be the first of the four major pro sports leagues in North America to put a team in Sin City. If this happens, don’t be surprised if Quebec City makes another attempt in the future to get back into the NHL, as they have been craving a return since losing the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado in 1995.
If the NHL does decide to expand for the first time since adding the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2000-01 season, it wouldn’t happen until the 2017-18 season at the earliest, meaning there would be an expansion draft in the summer of 2017. The NHL is expected to make teams expose at least 25% of their salary cap, and have announced that teams have two choices in regards to how they protect their players. They can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen, or one goalie, or they can choose to protect one goalie and eight skaters of any position. Unsigned prospects as well as first or second-year pros (that includes AHL players) are exempt. What is unknown is whether or not players with no-movement clauses (NMC’s) will be protected or if they can be exposed. I’d imagine the NHLPA will have a lot to say in regards to that, as veteran players prefer the security of NMC’s, and they tend to be players with higher salaries.
SO HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING?
If you call yourself a hockey fan and you’ve been paying even just a little bit of attention, you know that the Lightning have big decisions to make in regards to their roster both this summer and in the summer of 2017, and that was before the league announced what a possible expansion draft will look like. Steven Stamkos has yet to sign a contract extension. Nikita Kucherov is due for a significant raise as a restricted free agent. Ditto for Alex Killorn. Cedric Paquette, JT Brown, and Vlad Namestnikov are also RFA’s that will command salary increases as well. And that’s just for this offseason. Next summer, both Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman will be unrestricted free agents that will have earned large bumps in salary as well, while Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will be RFA’s.
When the NHL’s format for a possible expansion draft was unveiled, my first thought immediately was, “Who would the Lightning protect and who would possibly be exposed?” A lot of it depends on whether or not players with NMC’s are exempt. The only players on the Lightning roster with full NMC’s are Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, and Ryan Callahan, so if players with NMC’s are protected, that’s three right off the bat. Stamkos is a no-brainer if he’s re-signed, and guys like Hedman, Stralman, Kucherov, Johnson, and Palat are also easy choices for protection in the event there’s an expansion draft. That’s six forwards and two defensemen right there. I think the Lightning would probably value Namestnikov’s youth, skill, and versatility, in addition to the fact that he won’t command a raise that would take up significant cap room.
While Killorn has a similar skill set to Namestnikov, he’s also three years older and has a $2.55 million cap hit that could easily jump up to $4-4.5 million when his contract is up this summer. Now if players that have NMC’s are not exempt, then guys like Filppula and Callahan could certainly be left unprotected due to the size of their salaries as well as their age (Filppula is 32 and Callahan is 31). That would leave the Bolts open to being able to protect guys like Killorn and Jonathan Drouin instead. Although Drouin and the organization seem to be in the process of mending fences, who knows what could happen between now and the offseason? What if Bolts GM Steve Yzerman gets a trade offer for Drouin that he can’t refuse? Then again, Yzerman could make a deal involving Filppula that would allow the team to protect Drouin or even Killorn depending on how things shake out. As for the third and final defenseman the Lightning could protect, I think they’ll go with Slater Koekkoek, seeing as how he’ll have three seasons of professional experience by the end of the 2016-17 season and would not be exempt from the expansion draft without being protected. Koekkoek has acquitted himself very well in limited NHL action and is in line to be a permanent part of the roster next season.
However, the biggest decision facing the Lightning will be the goaltending situation. Bishop is having a Vezina Trophy-caliber season and has one more year left on his contract before he’d be eligible to hit the open market next summer. At a current cap hit of $5.95 million, he’s going to be due for a raise. On the other hand, there’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who also becomes an RFA in the summer of 2017. Vasilevskiy is seen as the goalie of the Lightning’s future and even though there have been a few games where he’s struggled this season, he’s mostly been rock-solid when he’s been in goal. Tampa Bay has two solid options right now, one of them who’s in his prime, and the other who is only 21 years old. A lot can happen between now and the beginning of next summer. What if we’ve seen Bishop at his peak and he slowly begins to decline next year? What if he’s even better next season and wins the Vezina? What if Vasilevskiy regresses? What if Vasilevskiy continues his development and is even better next season? Needless to say, if there’s an expansion draft in June 2017, Steve Yzerman has a decision to make in regards to his goaltending situation that none of us will envy. If the Lightning didn’t have Vasilevskiy waiting in the wings, it would be an easy decision to just protect Bishop. However, economics, the salary cap, and the expansion draft could easily end up pushing Bishop out the door, whether it be by trade, expansion draft, or simply by being allowed to walk away as a free agent.
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