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Projecting the Philadelphia Flyers' approach to an expansion draft

Now that the rules to a likely 2017 NHL Expansion Draft seem to be solidifying, let's take a look at which Flyers players will get protected and which ones might be exposed.

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With the NHL season now concluded, the conversation has turned to the inevitable expansion of the league itself. After months of speculation, the AP reported that the city of Las Vegas will be given a new NHL team, increasing the total number of clubs in the league to 31.

Along with expansion comes the expansion draft, which allows the new team in Las Vegas to quickly build a roster by taking players from each of the existing franchises in the NHL. That draft is expected to occur in June of 2017. But teams like the Flyers will be allowed to protect the vast majority of their key forwards and defensemen, due to the rules of the draft.

The specifics of the rules were long kept under wraps, with rumor and speculation running rampant. But now the true guidelines are coming into focus. James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail reported on a number of the agreed-upon rules last Friday, and Craig Custance of followed suit on Wednesday morning.

Previously, there was too much grey area to project which Flyers players were most likely to be protected and which would be exposed. However, enough rules have been released to make realistic projections legitimately possible.

Let's take a look.

The rules we know

We'll start out with the rules themselves, as they will apply to a team like the Flyers. While there are still some unanswered questions, the guidelines that have been released over the past weeks and months give us a fairly clear understanding of which players must be protected and which ones cannot be exposed.

  1. A team can either protect 11 players (seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie), or nine players (eight skaters of any position and one goalie).
  2. Players with only two years or less of professional (AHL or NHL) experience are exempt from the draft, meaning that a franchise can retain them without using a protection slot.
  3. Players with no-movement clauses for the 2017-18 season must be protected using a protection slot. Those with NMCs that expire at the end of the 2016-17 season do not need to be protected.
  4. Teams must expose at least two forwards under contract for 2017-18 who played either 40 games in 2016-17 or 70 games combined in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
  5. Teams must expose one defenseman under contract for 2017-18 who played either 40 games in 2016-17 or 70 games combined in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
  6. Teams will lose a maximum of one player in the expansion, and all teams will lose a player.

Which Flyers must be protected and which are exempt?

Considering these rules, we can now place every player with Philadelphia who can reasonably expected to be under contract next season into two separate categories -- those who must be protected to be kept, and those who are exempt from the draft.

First, here's a breakdown of the key players (all prospects) that will be exempt from the draft.

  • Ivan Provorov
  • Travis Konecny
  • Samuel Morin
  • Travis Sanheim
  • Danick Martel
  • Reese Willcox
  • Tyrell Goulbourne
  • Radel Fazleev
  • Nicolas Aube-Kubel
  • Philippe Myers
  • Alex Lyon

The Flyers come out in pretty good shape here. Four of their best young defense prospects (Provorov, Sanheim, Morin, Myers) are automatically protected, as is their best forward prospect (Konecny). The expectation is that these players will make up a large portion of the core of the team moving forward, so being able to keep them "for free" is very helpful to Ron Hextall.

Regardless of whether Provorov or Konecny make the Flyers roster out of training camp this upcoming season, they do not need to be protected because of Rule #2 above. The rest of the players above either are still in juniors (Myers) or will not have played more than two professional seasons by June of 2017.

That leaves 30 total players that are currently under contract for the 2016-17 season (or are likely to be re-signed for at least next season) that must be protected by the Flyers to ensure that the Las Vegas expansion team does not take them in a draft. This list also assumes that R.J. Umberger is bought out this week.

Forwards Defensemen Goalies
Claude Giroux Mark Streit Steve Mason
Jakub Voracek Andrew MacDonald Michal Neuvirth
Brayden Schenn Michael Del Zotto Anthony Stolarz
Sean Couturier Nick Schultz
Wayne Simmonds Radko Gudas
Matt Read Shayne Gostisbehere
Michael Raffl Brandon Manning
Scott Laughton Robert Hagg
Nick Cousins Mark Alt
Ryan White Jesper Petterson
Chris VandeVelde
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Jordan Weal
Taylor Leier
Cole Bardreau
Colin McDonald
Chris Conner

Obviously, this list does not include any players that the Flyers may acquire in the upcoming 2016 offseason, whether via trade or free agent signing. Any additions or subtractions to the current organizational depth chart would logically shift the thinking of the Philadelphia front office when it comes to who gets protected . But this particular breakdown does provide a snapshot of the team's current outlook for the expansion draft, and helps us to understand how the team's thinking might change in the wake of a new acquisition.

Who do we know the Flyers won't protect?

A list of 30 possible players is a bit daunting at first glance. But we can make it easier by removing a number of players who Ron Hextall almost certainly will not look to protect. These 15 players can be placed into four buckets: expiring contracts, bad contracts, limited-upside NHL talents and AHL depth.

Expiring Contracts: Mark Streit, Nick Schultz

It's difficult to imagine the Flyers re-signing a 39-year old Mark Streit who already showed obvious signs of physical decline last season. Schultz is younger, but always seemed more like a stopgap defenseman than a key piece. Even if he were signed to an extension, he simply doesn't provide enough on-ice value to be a legitimate candidate for a protection slot.

Bad Contracts: Andrew MacDonald, Matt Read

These are the players that the Flyers will be hoping that Las Vegas poaches. Read seems a more likely candidate than MacDonald -- he will only have one more year left on his contract at the time of the draft, and provided solid play-driving ability this year even as his scoring dried up. MacDonald will be halfway through his mammoth six-year, $30 million contract and could be a fit as a veteran presence, but he'll still be dramatically overpaid for what he provides on the ice.

Low-End Roster Talents: Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan White, Brandon Manning

It's hard to justify wasting a protection slot on a player who has a ceiling of a fourth line forward or third-pair defenseman. VandeVelde and Bellemare are only signed through the 2016-17 season, but even if they are extended, they would probably be exposed along with the overwhelming number of other fourth liners made available by NHL teams. Ryan White will be an unrestricted free agent in three weeks, but the Flyers seem likely to re-sign him with the full knowledge that he'll be available for an expansion team next year.

Manning posted decent on-ice shot attempt differentials in his rookie year, but inconsistent play and an absence of scoring ability will likely always keep him as a #6 or #7 defenseman on NHL depth charts. Those types of players aren't worthy of keeping over defensemen with higher upside potential.

AHL Regulars/Tweeners: Colin McDonald, Chris Conner, Jesper Petterson, Taylor Leier, Cole Bardreau, Jordan Weal, Mark Alt

There are some players with potential here. Leier has been banging on the NHL door for two years, and could become a useful bottom-six forward. Alt is a steady AHL defenseman still waiting for a real shot with the big club, Weal has established himself as an elite minor league scorer but has struggled in limited NHL stints, and Bardreau has fans in the organization who see him as prospect with solid fourth line potential. But unless Leier, Alt, Weal or Bardreau take a massive step forward in 2016-17, they'll be exposed because it's unlikely Las Vegas will view them as worthy of poaching.

McDonald and Conner are veterans primarily signed to keep the Lehigh Valley Phantoms competitive, and are easy choices to expose. Petterson may not even be retained this season, but if the Flyers do bring him back, it will likely be as a swingman between the ECHL and the AHL.

Who will the Flyers definitely protect?

We've now cut the list down to 15 players. From that list, there are six players who are virtual locks to be protected, barring disastrous 2016-17 seasons.

  • Claude Giroux
  • Jakub Voracek
  • Sean Couturier
  • Wayne Simmonds
  • Brayden Schenn
  • Shayne Gostisbehere

Giroux has a no-movement clause in his contract so Philadelphia is forced to protect him, even though they obviously would do so even in the absence of an NMC. Voracek, Couturier and Simmonds are key pieces all under the age of 30, and with Giroux form the core of the Flyers' forwards for years to come.

Brayden Schenn is a restricted free agent this offseason, but there is no legitimate concern that he won't be signed to a new contract. The only speculation surrounding Schenn is just how large that contract will be, especially after his 59-point breakout season. Shayne Gostisbehere ends up being the only member of the Flyers' youth movement that must be kept via a protection slot.

With six slots taken, Hextall and the Flyers are left with two forwards, two defensemen, and one goalie that they can protect. Nine players remain.

The legitimate debates

Forward (can keep two)

  • Michael Raffl
  • Scott Laughton
  • Nick Cousins

Out of these three options, Michael Raffl is clearly the most established. He'll also be 28-going-on-29 at the time of the draft, though he will have two years remaining on his very reasonable contract. He'd be the safest choice to retain, but it's not difficult to envision Hextall more comfortable with keeping the younger Laughton and Cousins over Raffl instead.

For my money, the real debate comes down to Laughton or Cousins. Laughton is a year younger than Cousins and also has better pedigree, as he was a first round pick in 2012 while Cousins was selected in round three back in 2011. He also has more NHL experience, with 102 games to his credit versus 47 for Cousins.

But Laughton has yet to have a 36-game stretch in the NHL anywhere near as impressive as Cousins' performance at the end of the 2015-16 season. Cousins established himself as the team's third line center and showcased legitimate potential in all three zones. Laughton, on the other hand, could not stick as 3C in the early portion of 2015-16, and eventually was moved to wing, before getting scratched for the start of the postseason.

Expect the competition between Laughton and Cousins to linger throughout the season. As young players seemingly with upside, both would be enticing pickups for an expansion team, so this season truly could be a battle to see which one stays in Philadelphia.

Defense (can keep two)

  • Michael Del Zotto
  • Radko Gudas
  • Robert Hagg

Unlike the relatively straightforward decision on forwards, Philadelphia's defense picture is more muddled. Michael Del Zotto had a strong season in 2015-16, but his contract expires at the end of next year. Radko Gudas also was impressive last year, but he is an RFA now and has yet to sign an extension. Robert Hagg is coming off a very disappointing sophomore season in the AHL, to the point where some are ready to give his spot in the team's "Big Four" of young defensemen to the quickly-rising Philippe Myers.

Gudas will almost certainly be re-signed, and if he repeats his strong 2015-16 season, he'll probably be protected. He's a physical, righthanded shooting defenseman capable of driving even strength possession, bringing a unique skillset to the table that the rest of Philadelphia's projected future defense lacks. But if he regresses into more of a third-pair blueliner, the Flyers may prefer the upside of Hagg to Gudas.

If Michael Del Zotto is extended beyond next season, he'll probably take a protection slot. But Philadelphia soon will be flush with talented puck moving defensemen (Gostisbehere, Provorov, Sanheim) who will be much cheaper than Del Zotto for the foreseeable future. In the absence of an extension, he could be a potential trade chip, or the Flyers could simply choose to let him hit the open market.

As for Robert Hagg, the 2016-17 season will be pivotal in understanding his value as an asset. He posted a promising rookie year in the AHL in 2014-15, but struggled mightily last year. A strong bounceback season could result in Hagg earning a midseason call-up to the NHL, and becoming a key piece of the organization's future plans. But another underwhelming year and he moves dangerously close to "no longer a prospect" territory.

Circumstances could change quickly for each of these players -- Del Zotto could get a new contract, Gudas might deliver a prove-it season, Hagg could put it together and re-establish himself as a high-end prospect. The 2016-17 season will go a long way towards deciding their fates.

Goalie (can keep one)

  • Steve Mason
  • Michal Neuvirth
  • Anthony Stolarz

The top three goaltenders on the Philadelphia depth chart -- Mason, Neuvirth and Stolarz -- are all free agents at the end of the 2016-17 season. That simple fact makes predicting which of the three will be kept a very difficult task.

It does seem unlikely that Stolarz will be the one protected, however. Since each team is only allowed to keep one goalie, that will leave a large number of options for Las Vegas, making it less likely that Stolarz would be poached. Legitimate starters like Marc-Andre Fleury and Ben Bishop could end up available, as could top prospects in the minors like Malcolm Subban. Stolarz is a solid young goalie, but he's not a truly elite prospect unless he delivers a major breakout season in the AHL in 2016-17.

Instead, this will probably be a choice between Mason and Neuvirth. Mason has turned into an above-average goaltender since being traded to Philadelphia, posting elite statistics at even strength. Neuvirth, on the other hand, outplayed Mason in overall metrics last season, and was the far better goalie come playoff time. He's earned a legitimate chance to fight for the starting job in training camp come September.

The best guess is that Hextall will use this season to make a decision on his goaltending. The winner of the year-long competition will not only come away with a lucrative contract extension, but also the sole protection slot granted to the Flyers for goalies.