(April 11, 2016) – A verdict on the potential expansion of the National Hockey League is due ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. While there has been no 100% guaranteed-official format announced, the NHL has discussed a potential format for an Expansion Draft (full details here): Teams will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender OR eight total skaters and one goaltender with the choice belonging to the team. It is unknown what will happen with players who have a No Movement Clause (NMC) or a No Trade Clause (NTC) in their contract, but the same report states that any player in their first or second year of professional play will be exempt. It also looks like each team would lose one player if there is one expansion team, or two if both Las Vegas and Quebec City are awarded teams.

For this 30-part #TFTPB series, we will be taking a closer look at each current NHL team and what players might be available to a new franchise at the conclusion of the 2016-17 NHL season. For the sake of simplicity, players with a NMC/NTC will not be made automatically exempt. All contract and salary information for this series is courtesy of NHLNumbers.com.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

FORWARDS:

Sidney Crosby ($8.700 million) and Evgeni Malkin ($9.500 million) will be protected by Pittsburgh. Patric Hornqvist ($4.250 million) and Phil Kessel ($6.800 million cap hit for Pittsburgh, $8.000 million total cap hit) each posted 50-plus-point seasons in 2015-16. Hornqvist’s contract runs through 2017-18, while Kessel’s goes through 2021-22. Both should be protected.

With four spots down and three spots to go, Carl Hagelin ($4.000 million) takes the next one. Chris Kunitz ($3.850 million) posted more points than all but four Penguins forwards this season, but he’ll turn 38 in 2017. Kunitz also becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent after the 2016-17 NHL season. Matt Cullen ($0.800 million) falls right behind Kunitz in the point rankings for the Pens, but Cullen is a UFA after this season and is already 39 years old.

Nick Bonino ($1.900 million) averaged about one point every two games this season, but will become a UFA in 2017. Tom Kuhnhackl ($0.575 million this season, $0.625 million starting next season) posted 15 points in 23 AHL games and 15 points in 42 NHL games this season. Scott Wilson ($0.617 million this season, $0.625 million starting next season) has tallied 77 points in 89 AHL games over the last two seasons and five goals in 24 NHL games this season. Conor Sheary ($0.667 million) put up 36 points in 30 AHL games this year to go along with 10 points in 44 NHL games. Sheary will be a Restricted Free Agent next summer.

Eric Fehr ($2.000 million) will have one year left on his contract in 2017 and managed 14 points in 55 games this season. Beau Bennett ($0.800 million) is an RFA this summer. Bryan Rust ($0.900 million this season, $0.640 million starting next season) isn’t an RFA until 2018. Kevin Porter ($0.575 million) and Tom Sestito ($0.575 million) are both UFAs this offseason. Pascal Dupuis ($3.750 million) is a UFA after next year.

 

DEFENSEMEN:

Kris Letang ($7.250 million) should be an easy choice for protection on the blue line, especially after putting up 67 points in 71 games in 2015-16. Prospect Derrick Pouliot ($1.288 million) becomes an RFA in 2017, but is the team’s top defensive prospect and should also lock up a spot. Olli Maatta ($0.894 million this season, $4.083 million starting next season) has his six-year contract extension kick in this summer. He’ll also warrant protection.

Brian Dumoulin ($0.800 million) will be an RFA in 2017 and could also warrant a look. Ben Lovejoy ($1.100 million) is a UFA this offseason, but will likely fall behind at least a few of the aforementioned players, even if he gets an extension. Players like Ian Cole ($2.100 million), Trevor Daley ($3.300 million) and Justin Schultz ($1.950 million cap hit for Pittsburgh, $3.675 million total cap hit) should fall into that same area.

 

GOALTENDERS:

Pittsburgh will have an interesting decision to make in net. Marc-Andre Fleury ($5.750 million) has been the team’s number one netminder for a decade, but turns 33 in 2017. Fleury’s contract expires at the end of the 2018-19 season. Meanwhile, Matt Murray ($0.894 million) is widely considered to be one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL. Murray will be an RFA in 2017 and will be just 23 at the time of the Expansion Draft.

 

THOUGHTS:

Crosby, Malkin, Hornqvist, Kessel and Hagelin will grab the first five spots for Pittsburgh’s forwards. The Pens will need to expose some of their bigger contracts (they’ll need to expose 25% of the 2016-17 salary cap), which (along with other factors) should eliminate Kunitz, Dupuis and Fehr.

The five forwards listed above as protected combine to make $33.250 million this season. Add in Letang, Pouliot and Maatta (using Maatta’s contract extension) gets that total to $45.871 million. Gary Bettman said late last year that he expects the NHL salary cap to go up $3 million next season, which would put the cap at $74.4 million. In order to expose 25% of that, Pittsburgh would be able to hang on to $55.800 million worth of contracts, leaving less than $10 million to cover two forward spots and a goalie (protecting Fleury would leave $4.179 million for the remaining two forwards). Pittsburgh might cut it close, but it would still be doable. However, as the salary cap stands right now, the Pens would have only about $2.000 million for their final two forwards (if Fleury is the goalie protected).

All of that said, for the final two forward spots, look for Pittsburgh to look towards their younger, cheaper players. Bonino could get one of the spots if Pittsburgh can lock him up for a good value ahead of the Expansion Draft, but, for now, give the spots to two of Kuhnhackl, Wilson and Sheary, with the edge, at the moment, going to Kuhnhackl and Wilson (both are signed through 2017-18, whereas Sheary is an RFA after 2016-17). All three were born in 1992.

Another possibility, if Pittsburgh were looking to shed some salary, would be going the 8/1 route. This would be the way to go if the Penguins decided to do more of a reboot. The eight players would likely be Crosby, Malkin, Hornqvist, Hagelin, Letang, Maatta, Pouliot and Dumoulin, along with Murray in net.

Assuming Pittsburgh opts for the 7/3/1 method, the goaltending decision for the Pens will be a tough one. In the end, the decision may simply come down to how Murray performs in 2016-17. Murray has fewer than 15 games of NHL experience compared to Fleury’s 653 games. As it stands right now, give the spot to Fleury. But, if Murray can begin to take away starts from Fleury during the 2016-17 season, Murray could become the Penguins goalie.

Regardless of which way the Penguins stack their protected players, Pittsburgh is likely to lose the unprotected goaltender unless a player like Phil Kessel is left open for the taking to try and bait an expansion team away from Murray or Fleury. If there are two expansion teams, however, one of Fleury and Murray would seem to be as good as gone.

 

In the next edition of #TFTPB: NHL Expansion, we’ll be looking at the San Jose Sharks.