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NHL expansion 2017: Who would the Flyers be most likely to lose to Vegas?

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Now that we’ve established who the Flyers need to make decisions on, who will they keep? And who will they lose?

The 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, explained

Still wondering how the NHL Expansion Draft will work? Let us explain.

Posted by Broad Street Hockey: For Philadelphia Flyers Fans on Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Still wondering how the NHL Expansion Draft will work? Let us explain.

On Monday, we took a look at the seven forwards that the Flyers will really have to make a decision on by the time the expansion draft rolls around in late June. On Tuesday, we did the same with two defensemen and two goalies whose fates are still up in the air.

Today, we’ll bring everyone back together and try and take a few big-picture looks, across all positions, regarding who the Flyers are most likely to protect and who they’d be most likely to lose. Let’s dive right in.

Re-examining the field

At a high-level, we’ve spent the past two days breaking down the eleven most viable candidates for the Flyers’ three final expansion draft protection spots (which will go to one forward, one defenseman, and one goalie). Let’s run through each of those groups one more time, ranked from most likely to be protected to least likely to be protected.

Forwards:
  1. Jordan Weal
  2. Michael Raffl
  3. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
  4. Nick Cousins
  5. Scott Laughton
  6. Dale Weise
  7. Matt Read
Defensemen:
  1. Andrew MacDonald
  2. Brandon Manning
Goalies:
  1. Anthony Stolarz
  2. Michal Neuvirth

These rankings are largely based on how likely we (well, I) believe it is that the Flyers want to keep these players around. For the most part, I think the answer to that question lines up pretty well with the answer to the question “who are the Flyers most likely to protect?”.

Before we move on, though, let’s circle back to a point that I admittedly overlooked a bit on Monday but may well be crucial in determining how the Flyers go about planning for expansion.

The Jordan Weal loophole

This is a point that a couple of people brought up in the comments of Monday’s post, as well as something that Charlie mentioned in Monday night’s episode of BSH Radio (which, hey, if you didn’t listen to that yet, why not? Go do that). Jordan Weal is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) as of this July, and the prevailing wisdom out there now is largely that he should be re-signed due to his excellent performance down the stretch with the Flyers and should be given the inside track on a top-9 spot in the lineup in training camp. This seems like something that the Flyers want to do. The simplest way they can make sure that happens is to re-sign him and protect him in the expansion draft.

But it might not be the only way, and if the chips fall the right way, the Flyers may be able to keep Weal around and protect one other forward that they’d like to keep around — in all likelihood, one of Michael Raffl or Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

First, let’s review what the policy is when it comes to the expansion draft and unrestricted free agents. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun broke these details in late October, and you can read through there if you want, but the long and short of it is as follows:

  • If a pending UFA is left unprotected by his team, Vegas has a 48-hour window (at some point between the time protection lists are submitted and the time that Vegas’ expansion picks are submitted) within which they can negotiate contract terms with that player.
  • If the Golden Knights and a pending UFA reach an agreement prior to the closing of that window, that counts as that team’s expansion choice. (So, for instance, if the Flyers expose a contract-less Jordan Weal on June 17, and he and Vegas agree to a deal on June 20, the Flyers will not lose any more players to Vegas via the expansion draft.)
  • If the Golden Knights and that pending UFA do not reach an agreement prior to the closing of that window, then Vegas is free to take another player from that team. However, they could draft said pending UFA anyways, at which point they would have up until July 1 to negotiate exclusively with said player until he would become a UFA again. (Vegas can draft as many as 10 players that do not have contracts for 2017-18; this includes both UFAs and RFAs, but does not include players described in the previous bullet point who reach an agreement with Vegas during the exclusive window.)

Essentially, Vegas will get the first shot at anyone who’s a UFA on June 17. But that doesn’t mean they’ll get anyone they want — they’d have to agree to a contract first.

And that’s where the Flyers’ opportunity may lie.

If both sides were able to reach an agreement, the Flyers and Jordan Weal could draw up a contract in the sand some time before late June, say “this is the contract we’ll sign as soon as expansion is done with”, leave Weal exposed, and protect Raffl/Bellemare instead. Then, if Vegas reaches out to Weal during the 48-hour window, he could simply tell them “thanks, but I’m not interested”, and then the Golden Knights would go about their way drafting a different Flyer, such as Laughton or Neuvirth. Then, shortly after the expansion draft, the Flyers and Weal would announce the contract they’d already agreed on in principle.

Weal’s unrestricted free agency could essentially buy the Flyers an extra protection slot, if they play it right and if Weal goes along with it. It would help them turn a sticky situation into one that might work to their advantage.

That’s not to say there aren’t potential risks involved. For one, as long as there’s no pen to paper, there’s nothing holding Weal to this deal. He could very well enjoy Vegas’ pitch, be enticed by the possibility of getting ice time befitting of a no-doubt top-6/top-PP forward on a team that’s probably not going to have much in the way of dynamic offensive firepower, get offered a bit more money than Ron Hextall is willing to offer him, and say sayonara to the Flyers. That’s one possibility.

The worst-case scenario if the Flyers try to play this out, though, could involve them losing two players instead of just one. Let’s say the Flyers protect Raffl, draw up a tentative contract for Weal, but then he talks to Vegas, enjoys their pitch, but doesn’t come a way with a contract. Then, on June 21, Vegas drafts some other Flyer — Scott Laughton, let’s say. What’s to stop Weal, at that point, from asking the Flyers for a bit more money, knowing that they just lost one forward in expansion and that there’s at least one team (Vegas) out there in free agency that’s interested in his services? What’s to stop him from waiting until July 1 to make a decision, at which point Vegas or some other team can maybe offer him more money than the Flyers are willing to?

If Weal gets offered more money from some other team than the Flyers should offer, so be it. Good for him, and good for the Flyers for not paying more than they should to a guy with 37 NHL games to his name. But that doesn’t change the fact that losing two skaters to expansion — including one of the ones that they’re most likely to want to keep — would be a major drag. Not a tragedy, but a disappointment — about as much of one as can be expected here.

Essentially, the Flyers need to have a good read on this situation, in terms of who they want to keep and whether they’re willing to risk losing Weal by initially exposing him. With that, let’s try and guess how they’ll play it.

Who will be kept?

Armed with the knowledge of the Weal dilemma, and with what we’ve sifted through so far this week, let’s try and sum up how the Flyers may see their current situation, first through the lens of who they’re most likely to protect with their final spot in each position group.

Forwards

As mentioned a couple of times, I think this decision comes down to three forwards for the Flyers: Weal, Raffl, and Bellemare. The other four guys we discussed on Monday are either largely unremarkable (Cousins), overpaid (Weise), some combination of both of those (Read), or spent most of last season in the AHL (Laughton). Raffl and Bellemare are both players who have had prominent roles on this team in the recent past, and Weal’s late-season emergence makes him tough to ignore.

It’s tough for me to say how the Flyers would evaluate Raffl vs. Bellemare at this very moment. Bellemare’s prominence within the team grew as the season went on, while Raffl spent the entire last six weeks of the season dealing with injury. But Raffl’s spent meaningful time in the team’s top-6 over the past couple of years, and it’s tough for me to ignore that no matter how much the Flyers obviously like Bellemare. So Michael Raffl is my guess to be protected, while I think the Flyers will take their chances that Weal, who has publicly and clearly said that he wants to return next season, will not take any bait that Vegas may send his way and will quickly move to re-sign with the team after the expansion draft.

Defensemen

This was discussed a bit in Tuesday’s post, but I actually believe this situation’s fairly cut and dry. As little as we may want to admit it, the Flyers see Andrew MacDonald as a top-4 defenseman on their team right now, and most teams aren’t going to expose top-4 defensemen when they’ve got an open protection spot staring them in the face. As such, unless they’re more disgusted with his contract than they’ve publicly let on to, MacDonald probably gets the nod here over Brandon Manning, who is really the only other option to get this spot. For now, at least.

Goalies

Of all of the questions confronting the Flyers, this is the one that may be the most fascinating. Ron Hextall has basically come out and said that the Flyers will sign another goalie this summer, and that Michal Neuvirth and Anthony Stolarz will not be the two goalies on the opening night roster next year. The presumption there is that Stolarz — who was fairly average with the Phantoms this season and will be spending his summer recovering from torn MCL surgery — will be back at the AHL level next year, while Neuvirth will be in some sort of timeshare with a new NHL goalie, be it one in which they’re roughly splitting starts or one in which he’s more of a backup. Where Neuvirth fits in long-term is a bit unclear, while Stolarz at least has a set short-term role as Phantoms starter that’s likely to go unchallenged for at least one more year, which is why I’m led to believe Anthony Stolarz gets the Flyers’ protection spot in net.

Stolarz may well end up being nothing special long-term. But he’s got a chance to be something legitimately good, as does every other person in the stable of goalie prospects the Flyers have built. If one of them emerges within the next couple of years, they can take over just in time for whoever the Flyers pick up this summer to leave, and Stolarz could feasibly be the guy that does that. Whereas in saying “we’re going to get another NHL goalie this summer”, the Flyers are basically acknowledging what we already know: that Neuvirth can’t be counted on to play more than 30 or so games in a season. He will almost certainly not be “the guy” for the Flyers for any meaningful stretch in the near future. Hence why he’s probably seen as more replaceable, and as such why Stolarz will probably be protected over him.

(I’m also going to assume that Steve Mason is not coming back. I will very happily eat these words if I am mistaken, but indications are that both team and player are probably going to move on. If he is re-signed prior to the expansion draft, then this entire equation changes, but we’ll cross that bridge in the off-chance we ever reach it.)

Who will Vegas want?

If we take the three bolded players above out of our list, and also assume that Jordan Weal will not sign with Vegas, then the Golden Knights are left with the following seven names out of which they can pick one player:

  • Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
  • Nick Cousins
  • Scott Laughton
  • Brandon Manning
  • Michal Neuvirth
  • Matt Read
  • Dale Weise

That’s ... a heck of a list there. The NHL’s least productive 5-on-5 scorer of the past three seasons (Bellemare), the NHL’s worst semi-regular goalie last season by save percentage (Neuvirth), and five other guys who were all healthy scratched at some point last season. If this is the reality in front of the Flyers on June 21, I’m willing to guess they can live with it.

But they’d still be losing one of these players. Which one of them has the most appeal to Vegas? We’ll group them into four categories that will hopefully capture how Vegas may see them.

Veteran Bottom-6 Forwards: This includes Bellemare, Read, and Weise. These are guys for whom we more or less know what they are at this point, even if they’re each fairly different players from one another. My guess is that there are going to be a few guys like this available on every team out there, and the best chance that any of them are taken is that Vegas’ scouts just really like one of them for whatever reason. Maybe they love Bellemare on the penalty kill, or maybe they remember Weise more fondly from his time in Montreal and think he can bounce back. But one of them would have to really stick out to be the pick here, since dozens of other guys just like them are going to be on the expansion block.

Young Bottom-6 Forwards: This includes Cousins and Laughton. Both guys who are currently under the age of 25, Cousins and Laughton have mostly shown to be third-liners during their brief NHL careers. But it’s still feasible that either (or both) of them grow into more than that, and that’s why they may have a bit more upside than the guys in the first group. It wouldn’t be surprising for Vegas to look at Laughton and see a guy who just needs a change of scenery to maybe take off in the NHL, for instance.

Third-Pair Defensemen: Brandon Manning sits alone in this group. Much like with the first group listed here, there are going to be a lot of guys like this available in the expansion draft pool. Again, Vegas could see something in Manning that they really like and decide he’s the pick here, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them pass here.

Backup Goaltenders: Here’s where we’ll find Michal Neuvirth. As we talked about on Tuesday, Neuvirth falls in the area between “established starter” and “young backup with upside”, in that he’s an NHL-level backup but probably not much more than that. If I were putting a team together, I’d mostly try and pick goalies that are in one of those first two groups, but it’s fair to note that I don’t have a line into George McPhee’s office and he very well may look to take a more established NHL backup in addition to a legit starter and a young gun or two. Couple that with the general lack of appeal of the guys in the other groups above, and there’s a puncher’s chance that Neuvirth is the pick for the Flyers.

In a vacuum, the guy that I feel like has the most appeal here to an expansion team is probably Scott Laughton. He’s a fairly recent 1st-round pick, one who is probably too soon to write off, and a team that has confidence in its development staff and needs players that bring some level of upside will probably find the appeal in having a guy like him around. He’d probably relish a new start at this point and will be hungry to show what he’s got.

But it’s worth noting that those are just the four groups that (likely) expansion-eligible Flyers players fall in to, and without knowing who else is really available across the league, what groups those other guys all fall into, and how Vegas is looking to put its roster together based on those groups, it’s tough for us to say with confidence that they’ll take any particular player on this roster. And also, this analysis kind of assumes that we get the guesses regarding the Flyers and their own expansion priorities right. The above picture would certainly change if someone like Michael Raffl would be dropped in there, for example.

We can make guesses for now (and we’ll do that, don’t worry!), but we won’t have a real good grasp on this until we know who’s being protected — and exposed — both here and elsewhere around the league.

***

Tomorrow, we’ll see if there’s anything else the Flyers can do between now and the expansion draft that may change this picture, such as a possible trade with a team that has significant expansion draft questions of its own.