Photo Credit: Rick Ostenski/USA TODAY SPORTS
The NHL might be getting bigger. After two decades of maintaining a 30-team size, it seems likely that the league will swell up to 31 clubs, if not 32. Las Vegas and Quebec city are both in the running, and with a decision supposedly coming in the next few months.
With expansion, comes an expansion draft, and rules for that are already leaking.
We learned that teams will be able to protect either seven forwards and three defencemen or eight skaters of any makeup – teams rich in defencemen might elect to take the latter option for example. Players in their first or second years in the pros will be exempt, but players entering the final year of their entry-level deal could be up for grabs. This means a lot of quality players and promising prospects will be left unprotected.
This puts the Red Wings in an interesting position, in the sense that it might be tough to keep the current core together if the team wants to protect its youth. The Wings are surely happy to hear that Dylan Larkin will be exempt due to his lack of long-term professional experience, but with the “over-ripening” model being so apparent in this city compared to other markets, the rules put players that are relatively new to “the core” in a must-protect situation.
With that considered, here are five players that could be left unprotected, and could potentially get claimed.
5. Martin Frk
Many believed that Martin Frk was a product of Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin in his major-junior years, and because of this, the Red Wings were able to draft him 49th overall in 2012 and develop him with low expectations. Sure enough, he’s become better and better with every year under his belt. This season, he leads the high-flying Grand Rapids Griffins in goals with 25 in 53 games, despite just turning 22 at the start of the season. With a nose for the net and little hesitance to get involved in chippy situations, it’s looking more and more likely that he’ll play some NHL hockey in the future.
But if the Red Wings use any of their seven forward slots on Grand Rapids players, they’ll probably be used on Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha. An expansion team might consider taking Frk with a late pick to boost up their prospect pool, which will likely be pretty empty to begin with.
4. Justin Abdelkader
I’m not the biggest fan of Justin Abdelkader in the world, but he has US National Team experience (which may be a good selling point for a Vegas team) and is a pretty safe bet to pick up 35-45 points a year, along with being a part of one of the new teams’ penalty killing units. It would be weird to see the dual-winger go just a year into a seven-year extension, but those are the breaks of the business, aren’t they?
3. Jimmy Howard
I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone to see the Red Wings opt to only protect Petr Mrazek. Protecting two isn’t a possibility here, and, it’s hard to envision the Wings feeling that any non-Mrazek goaltender is vital to them; the same goes for Jared Coreau and Tom McCollum, though pro goalies with little NHL experience are rarely a risk.
Howard’s contract is steep, at $5.3 million per season, but by the time the expansion draft comes he will only have two years remaining on it. He should still be a brand-name goaltender with an American Flag to attach to his resume, even if he’ll float around the average in talent. Most importantly, it will likely be hard for expansion teams to hit cap compliance while still acquiring talent, and two years of Jimmy Howard is probably better than say, picking up David Clarkson from Columbus.
2. Mike Green
Mike Green has been a solid addition to the Red Wings since they signed him. He adds a bit of an element to the powerplay, and he’s got great possession numbers. But he hasn’t produced as much as they’ve expected, and he’ll be 31 if this draft happens next summer. Is that enough for the Wings to protect a $6 million, declining-age asset with a year left on his deal? Doubtful. On the other hand, Green carries massive pedigree from his days in Washington and can help an expansion team immediately.
1. Henrik Zetterberg
I know what you’re thinking. Captain Z? Off the list and into the arms of a hot-shot ownership group in Las Vegas or Quebec City? Believe me, I know the idea is scary, but you have to entertain its possibility.
Henrik Zetterberg is one of the best Detroit Red Wings of the current century. He might be the past of the best decade. He’s also going to be turning 37 in October of 2017, and is already starting to show signs of a decline. Oh, and there’s the matter of the $6.1 million cap hit he’ll carry for the four seasons that follow this draft.
It’s an insane thought, and it could be an insane risk if he retires before the end of it and triggers the NHL’s cap recapture policy. But leaving a young talent like a Gustav Nyqvist, Tomas Tatar, or a Thomas Jurco up for almost certain grabs, while emotionally easier, is not a way to build up the team long-term. You have to think ahead, and that might involve leaving the captain up for grabs.
Would a team take him? Probably, for many of the reasons we brought up with other players. He’s a huge name, which will sell tickets. His Cap Hit will keep teams above the floor, and his presence as a leader and as a teacher will help out the first generation of an expansion team’s prospect pool.
It’s a sickening thing to think about, I know. Thankfully, you can only lose one player per expansion team, and there’s at least a year solid 14-15 months before any of this could come to fruition. Policies could change, cities could get rejected.