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Andrew MacDonald’s expansion draft status, explained

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Many people seem to think the Flyers are keeping Andrew MacDonald in the lineup because they have to for expansion draft purposes. Let’s take a look at that claim.

Calgary Flames v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who is in the third year of a six-year, $30 million contract, has not had a particularly good 2016-17 season to date. We can argue about how not-good it has been, or what the causes of it are, but we'll save that discussion for another time (for instance, almost any of our Morning Observations posts of late).

No, here we're going to talk about a reason why he's still in the lineup. Or, more specifically, not a reason why he's still in the lineup.

Many fans have watched Dave Hakstol place MacDonald in the lineup many nights despite him, in their view, not being one of the team's six best defensemen. This has forced fans to try and come up with a number of possible explanations. Today, we'll focus on one of them.

In particular, this one, which is captured in just this one tweet but is one you’ll see pop up on social media fairly often:

Yes, the idea here is that Andrew MacDonald must play in 40 games this year in order to be eligible to be exposed in the Vegas expansion draft that will take place this June. It is a point that has been brought up a lot this year by fans and occasionally writers who are looking to explain why he has been in the lineup so much.

Let's discuss this, in question and answer format.

Is Andrew MacDonald, as of now, eligible to be chosen in the expansion draft next June?

He is! No qualifiers necessary. He is available to be chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights. In fact, so is every NHL player who is not automatically exempt from the draft (which is to say, all players with more than two years of professional experience under their belts by the end of this season) and is not protected by his team.

Even if he doesn't play 40 NHL games this season?

Correct. He could be shut down for the rest of the season tomorrow and still be eligible to be poached in the expansion draft.

So why do people keep saying he needs to play in at least 40 games?

Because of an expansion draft rule that requires each team to expose at least one defenseman who (a) is under contract for the 2017-18 season and (b) has either played in 40 NHL games in the 2016-17 season or 70 games between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons combined.

The rule is designed to give Vegas a healthy selection of defensemen with NHL experience to choose from, as teams may otherwise look to protect all of those players and it's theoretically important that an expansion team has some veteran presence on its team.

Can Andrew MacDonald be that defenseman for the Flyers?

He could. MacDonald played in 28 NHL games last season, which means that in order to be the Flyers' designated veteran defenseman eligible to be drafted, he has to play in 40 games this year.

And that's where the confusion comes in for some who seem to think he must play 40 games to be eligible. Andrew MacDonald doesn't have to play 40 games to be eligible, he has to play 40 games to make it such that the Flyers don't have to expose any other veteran defensemen with term remaining.

So since you're insisting it doesn't need to happen, what's the situation for the Flyers if it doesn't, and MacDonald plays in 39 or fewer games this year?

Then they would have to expose another veteran defenseman with term remaining who's played in NHL games this year. Right now, that could be any one of Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas, or Brandon Manning. If the team were to re-sign Michael Del Zotto prior to the expansion draft, it could also be him as well. (Same goes for Nick Schultz or Mark Streit, but at this point either of those players getting an extension seems unlikely. Ivan Provorov, meanwhile, is exempt from the expansion draft.)

However, Gostisbehere is obviously not going to be exposed in the draft, and unless Gudas' play goes totally off the rails as this season goes on, he won’t be exposed either. And Del Zotto, whose current contract expires this summer, is not eligible to be fulfill said role unless he gets an extension, and if he does then you'd have to think the Flyers wouldn't plan on immediately exposing him in the draft.

So really, the question of "do the Flyers need Andrew MacDonald to play 40 games?" comes down to "do the Flyers want to protect Brandon Manning in the expansion draft?". If they don't, then the Flyers have already filled this role. If they do, then the Flyers need a new player to fill it.

So what if they do want to protect Manning? Then what?

Then yes, the easiest way to get a veteran defenseman to expose in the draft is to have MacDonald play 40 games. But it's worth noting that while that's the simplest way for the team to fill that expansion draft role, it's not the only way they can do it. They could extend a one-year contract to Schultz or Streit with the understanding that they'd be used as an expansion draft chip, unlikely to be taken in the draft itself. They could trade for another defenseman with some term left and expose him. They could bring up a different defenseman like Mark Alt (if he gets healthy) and have him play in 40 games to make him eligible to fill that role, or they could give someone like T.J. Brennan 40 NHL games and a new contract to make him eligible. The point is, if the Flyers wanted to find a way to fill this role without having MacDonald play more, they could do it.

But the easiest, path-of-least-resistance way to get there is to have MacDonald play 40 games?

Almost certainly, yes. And that’s why people allude to MacDonald’s expansion draft status as a reason why he continues to play in games.

So how likely is it that they want to protect Manning?

Truthfully, no one knows the answer to this question but Ron Hextall and the Flyers' front office. But here's what I do know:

  • Manning is a third-pair defenseman who has been healthy-scratched at times both last season and this season. While he got off to a very strong start this year, he has in recent weeks fallen back to the level that we’ve more or less come to expect from him: passable, but fitting of a bottom-pair player.
  • At best, Manning probably tops out as a lower-end second-pair defenseman in the NHL. Based on how expansion works (most teams will choose to protect seven forwards and just three defensemen, and all of them are subject to this same 40/70 Rule that the Flyers are trying to figure out now), there are going to be a lot of low-end second-pair defensemen available to be chosen in the expansion draft, and a number of them will likely have more impressive career resumes than Manning. Ron Hextall and his team will know this. From here, knowing what we know now, the odds seem low that Manning will be chosen.
  • And while it’s true that Ron Hextall probably doesn’t want to lose Manning for nothing, the fact of the matter is he’s about to lose someone for nothing, end of story. And the Flyers have at least two young defensemen (Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim) who seem on the precipice of the NHL, who very well may be ready for at least third-pair minutes by this time next year. If the options are to lose Manning or to lose a guy like Michael Raffl, Matt Read, Dale Weise, Nick Cousins, or Scott Laughton, all of whom are at least competent bottom-six players who don’t yet have particularly obvious replacements waiting in the wings, I think the Flyers will be willing to take their chances and expose Manning.

Can you in brief sum up what you just spent 1300 words annoyingly telling us?

Sure!

  • The Flyers don’t need Andrew MacDonald to play 40 games this year to have him in the expansion draft. He will be eligible to be taken by Vegas, no matter what, unless the team protects him.
  • If the Flyers plan to expose Brandon Manning in the expansion draft, then they will have fulfilled their obligation to expose a defenseman with recent NHL experience, and as such do not need Andrew MacDonald to play 40 games in order to fill that role.
  • If the Flyers plan to protect Brandon Manning in the expansion draft, then the easiest way to fulfill their expansion draft obligations is to have Andrew MacDonald play 40 games. But there are other feasible ways for them to have a defenseman that could fulfill those obligations without playing MacDonald. However, I find it unlikely that the Flyers will prioritize protecting Brandon Manning over winning hockey games in the here-and-now.

Got it. One more question. Is it possible that fans who dislike MacDonald just really want to believe that the team feels the same way about MacDonald’s ability as they do, and as such are looking for some sort of ulterior motive that would rationalize his presence in the lineup because it’s easier for them to accept that than it is for them to believe that the Flyers’ coaching and front office may not be perfect in its ability to evaluate player personnel?

That’s an oddly specific question, isn’t it, mysterious question-asker?

But in all seriousness: the reason the Flyers are playing Andrew MacDonald is almost certainly because they think that, of all of the defensemen currently available to them, he is one of the six that will most help them win hockey games. It’s the simplest explanation, and it’s the only one that requires no question to be asked other than “do the Flyers think that doing this will help them win?”.

Is it possible that the Flyers want MacDonald to get to 40 games just in case, and as soon as he gets 26 more under his belt (he has played in 14 games, as of this writing) the Flyers will quietly send him to the press box or Lehigh Valley for a more permanent stay? Sure. But it’s just so hard to believe that the Flyers would do something that they believe actively worsens their chances to win 40 different hockey games this year in order to be able to protect a third-pairing defenseman in an expansion draft.

Because right now the Flyers are 14th in the Eastern Conference in points percentage, and some things are going to have to change pretty quickly if the Flyers don’t want to follow up their surprise playoff berth with a surprise playoff miss. And in a season in which the roster appears to be better than it was the year before (thanks to the presence of talented young players like Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny), missing the playoffs would fall squarely on the coaching staff and front office. They want to win games, and the impact of missing out on a playoff spot this year is probably worth more to them than the ramifications of an expansion draft. The team is trying to win games. They just happen to think the best way of doing that is different from what some of their fanbase, including us, may think.