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An early look at the Flyers’ looming expansion draft decisions

The Flyers probably aren’t getting off easy this time around.

NHL: DEC 05 Seattle Center Arena Groundbreaking Ceremony Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s easy to forget amidst hockey and really the entire world coming to a screeching halt, but next summer there will be a new NHL team! Yes, the NHL’s 32nd team will take over in Seattle for the 2021-22 season, which means there’s another expansion draft coming, which means that the Flyers are going to lose a player.

The last time there was an expansion draft in the NHL, the Flyers managed to get by without a ton of damage, losing only fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and not having to give up any draft picks or assets to steer Vegas a certain way. Their decisions this time around figure to be a bit tougher, and it seems more likely that they’re going to lose an impact contributor. Let’s take a look at five big questions that will shape how the Flyers approach next summer’s expansion draft.

1. Who is definitely not going anywhere?

If you need a refresher on the rules of expansion (which you can find in full here), NHL teams can protect from their current 50-man roster:

  • EITHER seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie,
  • OR eight total skaters and one goalie.

In addition to that, any player with two or fewer years of NHL experience is automatically exempt from eligibility. (For players that figure to have a shot at NHL time with the Flyers next season, this would most likely only apply to Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost. Maaaaaaaybe Egor Zamula if you’re feeling ambitious.)

The eight-skater option would mostly only be used by teams that had a very, very strong top-4 on defense that it couldn’t let go otherwise, and it’s likely (though not impossible) that the Flyers will lean towards the 7F/3D option, as they did back in 2017. Even if they chose the eight-skater option, though, one figures that would involve protecting four forwards in addition to four defensemen. So, we already know that any team in expansion is going to be protecting at least four forwards and three defensemen, in addition to one goalie.

So, knowing what the starting point is, do we have a good idea of who’s definitely being protected? The following all seem like fairly safe bets, barring something highly unforeseen happening between now and next June:

  • Claude Giroux has a no-movement clause. Also, he’s a franchise legend and still a really good player, so even if the Flyers could expose him, they almost certainly wouldn’t. But, they can’t. He ain’t going to Seattle.
  • Kevin Hayes also has a no-movement clause, and while he isn’t Claude Giroux in terms of standing on the team, he’s been great this season and is a crucial part of the team both on the ice and in the locker room. It would take something very surprising happening next year for both the team to want to expose him and for him to want to leave.
  • Sean Couturier is a no-doubt top-line NHL center and might win the Selke this season. He’s not going anywhere.
  • Travis Konecny was an All-Star this season and is maybe the most dynamic offensive talent on the team. He’s staying.
  • Ivan Provorov has looked like a legit No. 1 defenseman this year and seems to have taken that step forward we were looking for. Unless he looks next year like he did in 2018-19 (and maybe even if that happens, which it shouldn’t), he’s staying around.
  • Travis Sanheim maybe isn’t yet the superstar some think he can be, but he’s a legit top-4 defenseman who will be 24 when this draft takes place and will still have RFA years left. He’ll be here.
  • Carter Hart is a 21-year old starting goalie in the NHL. Duh.

That’s four forwards, two defensemen, and one goalie. Already, we’ve managed to whittle our way down to either four or two more protection slots — and, again in all likelihood, three forwards and one defenseman. Let’s talk a bit more about the plan for those.

2. What happens with Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick?

This is almost certainly the toughest question of this entire exercise, because it involves making guesses in situations where we aren’t really anywhere close to answers. Frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable trying to guess what’ll happen in these situations, so I’ll try to avoid doing so and will instead just look to lay out the situation. (We’ll assume that the Flyers do not get injury exemptions for either of these two, which can happen in certain situations if a player does not play for the season preceding the draft but seems to be reserved for “career-ending injuries” to players under contract.)

Patrick’s situation is the somewhat more clear of the two. While he’s missed this entire season to date with migraine issues, he had been practicing more frequently with the team prior to the league’s suspension. While there was and is no guarantee he’ll play for the Flyers in the 2019-20 hockey season when/if it starts back up again, it seems like there’s a good chance he’ll be ready to play again next year. But even assuming that’s the case, Patrick still has plenty to prove.

Still, all else equal, the Flyers would prefer to keep a talented young player with his prime ahead of him over a talented veteran (a la Voracek or van Riemsdyk, as we’ll get to in a moment). If Patrick is back on the ice next year, does he play at a level to justify that commitment from the team? If he doesn’t, do they take the chance anyways? Or, on the other hand, does Hayes’ presence at second-line center make the team more inclined to protect another winger around rather than a third-line center? It probably depends on what Patrick does on the ice, and we just haven’t seen him on the ice enough to know with certainty how that’ll go.

As for Lindblom, there is a long road ahead to get him back on the ice at all as his cancer treatments continue, and while Alain Vigneault and the Flyers have sounded optimistic whenever asked about his progress, we have no real sense at this time for how long that may take. If Oskar Lindblom is able to play meaningful hockey by the time the expansion draft rolls around, we’ll have a lot to celebrate no matter what else happens.

However, what we saw from Lindblom this year before his diagnosis was performance that was undoubtedly befitting of a top-6 forward. If (obviously, a huge if) Lindblom gets healthy, gets back on the ice between now and next June, and shows he can play at even something close to that level again? At 24 years old? He becomes a no-brainer protection for the Flyers. Surely (mostly for his sake, but also for ours and the Flyers’) we would all love nothing more than for Lindblom to be back on the ice and earning that protection slot. We hope more than anything that it happens. But we simply can’t know for sure at this time.

3. And what about the other highly-paid forwards?

The other unknowable at this time is how things go between now and next June for the other two expensive veteran forwards that don’t have no-movement clauses of any kind. James van Riemsdyk (under contract for $7 million per year through 2023) and Jakub Voracek ($8.25 million per year through 2024) have both had pretty good seasons this year, both being key contributors in the top-9 this year.

Nonetheless, there are a number of considerations at play. Were either of them so good that they’re in protect-at-all-costs territory? Do we expect both of them to be that good 15 months from now? How much do we expect their play to fall off next year and over the rest of their contracts, given that both will be 32 when the 2021-22 season begins and will still have multiple years left on their respective deals? It seems unlikely, but if one of them falls way off next year, do you put them out there in hopes that maybe you lose their contract? Some quick math would indicate that at least one of Voracek, van Riemsdyk, Lindblom, and Patrick is going to have to be exposed — if either of the latter two comes back and looks like a player that will no-doubt be protected, does that edge one of these two out of the picture?

Voracek and JvR are both still good players. 50-60 point wingers who move play in the right direction don’t grow on trees, even if they’re on the older side and are getting paid a hefty chunk of change. As such, the smart money is probably still on both of them being protected. But if Lindblom and Patrick are deemed protection-worthy, one of them is going to be exposed.

4. Who’s the third defenseman to get protected?

Here we’ve got another tough one. If we had to pick an expansion lineup today, and if the Flyers chose the seven-forward/three-defenseman protection route (which seems likely, but we’ll get to that in a second), most of us would probably pick Phil Myers to protect and Shayne Gostisbehere to expose, which is just a wild thought given where Ghost was at this time just two years ago. But it’s very hard to deny that Ghost has had two straight pretty rough seasons, and Myers has ascended this season in the way that many of us hoped he would and has looked like a legit second-pair defenseman for a few months now.

A lot can change in a year. Maybe the Ghost we saw in his first full game back from injury right before the league was paused is the Ghost we can expect to see when hockey is back full-time. Maybe Myers doesn’t take another step forward next year or falls into a sophomore slump of sorts. Still, he’s four years younger than Gostisbehere, and he’s shown a proficiency in his two-way game that pretty much everyone agrees has been encouraging.

At his peak, Gostisbehere is not just the most dynamic offensive defenseman on this team, but one of the most in the NHL. But what we’ve seen from him the past two seasons has decidedly not been that — he’s looked like a third-pair defenseman at best, and sometimes worse. If next year comes and goes and he doesn’t look meaningfully better than that, then it becomes a surprisingly easy decision to leave Ghost and his $4.5-million-per-year contract unprotected. If he looks like 2018 Ghost? Then this becomes another very, very difficult decision for the Flyers. Again, let’s hope the Flyers are forced into a tough decision by the strong play of their players

5. Who fills the experienced player obligations?

All teams must leave exposed at least two forwards and one defenseman that are under contract and also played in either 40 games in the 2020-21 season OR 70 games combined between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. (It is theoretically possible that, if the league ends up shortening the regular season either this or next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension that has resulted, those thresholds may end up being lowered, but let’s assume they aren’t.) Inevitably, guessing what will happen with the lineup next year is silly, but that doesn’t mean we won’t do it.

On defense, the answer is fairly straightforward. Whichever of Myers and Gostisbehere isn’t protected will almost certainly play in enough games next year to fill this obligation. And if the Flyers surprisingly protect four defensemen, then Robert Hagg would still only need to play 20 games to get there. In net, the Flyers must also expose a goalie who is either under contract or a restricted free agent in the summer of 2021. This should be fairly straightforward, however. Felix Sandstrom already meets these requirements, and if the Flyers sign a backup goalie to a two-year deal this coming summer, he, too, would satisfy this rule once the Flyers protect Carter Hart.

The conversation for the two forward spots is a bit trickier. Either of JVR or Voracek not getting protected would count towards it — they’d played in 66 and 69 games this season and will assuredly play in enough next year to get over that threshold. But if neither of JVR or Voracek is exposed, and/or if either of Patrick/Lindblom are protected or aren’t but don’t play enough games to meet the requirements (both would need to play 40), then it gets dicey.

Nicolas Aube-Kubel seems like a relatively safe bet — he’d need to play 34 more games between now and then to fulfill that obligation, and with his strong play in the NHL this year he should earn that time. (He’s an RFA this summer, but will almost certainly get at least a two-year deal.) But then who? In terms of forwards that currently project to be under team control in June 2021, you’re looking at a few restricted free agents (Connor Bunnaman, German Rubtsov, Carsen Twarynski, David Kase) who certainly do not feel like locks to play 40 NHL games next year.

If none of those options work out, then you’re left with either signing a forward to a two-year deal this summer and playing him for at least 40 games, or re-sigining during the year a forward who would meet those obligations and would be in your lineup already. The latter feels more likely; in particular, it’s not hard to imagine either of Scott Laughton or Michael Raffl getting an extension from the Flyers at some point next season, and they would then fill this role (provided they don’t get protected).

BONUS: Do we get any surprises?

Probably! Very few of us expected Scott Laughton to be protected when the team did this in 2017, but there it was. Teams sometimes value players differently than we do and differently than we think they do. Maybe they’ll protect someone we’re not expecting, like Aube-Kubel or Hagg. Plus, who knows what lengths Chuck Fletcher will go to to keep the guys he wants — when he was in Minnesota, he swung a deal with Vegas to get them to go a certain way in the draft.

A lot of things can and will happen between now and June of 2021 when these lists are submitted. There’s still a lot to figure out. Still, we have a pretty good grasp on the main questions that the Flyers will be facing between now and then as they prepare to lose a player to the Kraken newest NHL team.

Big thanks to CapFriendly’s expansion tool for being a valuable resource through the assembly of this piece.