(April 14, 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 Tampa Bay Lightning.

 

FORWARDS:

Steven Stamkos ($7.500 million) is just two-and-a-half months away from becoming an Unrestricted Free Agent. To avoid delving into the “will he, won’t he” end of his story, for the purposes of this piece, mark him down as a protected player for Tampa (he’d be protected anywhere he goes, so locking him in to a protected spot is an easy call).

As for the less-uncertain certainties for protection, Nikita Kucherov ($0.894 million), Alex Killorn ($2.550 million) and Vladislav Namestnikov ($0.874 million) should all be protected, though all will be Restricted Free Agents this summer. Ondrej Palat ($3.333 million) and Tyler Johnson ($3.333 million) are RFAs in 2017, but they can be added to that group, as well.

With those six players locked-in, there’s a big decision to be made for the final spot. Jonathan Drouin ($3.194 million) becomes an RFA in 2017, but was suspended by the Lightning in January for failing to report to Tampa’s AHL affiliate when sent down this season. Douin’s agent went public with the player’s trade demands during the season, as well. All that said, Drouin requested to be reinstated after the Trade Deadline passed and, after spending time in the AHL, finished the regular season playing for the Bolts.

For Drouin, this situation can be looked at (for the purposes of this piece) in the same way that Stamkos is: he’s a player who should be protected by whichever team he’s playing for at the end of next season. For that reason, Drouin gets the seventh and final spot.

Players competing for a spot opened up by a departing Stamkos and/or Drouin would include Ryan Callahan ($5.800 million), J.T. Brown ($0.950 million) and prospects Adam Erne ($0.894 million) and Tanner Richard ($0.925 million).

 

DEFENSEMEN:

Victor Hedman ($4.000 million) becomes a UFA in 2017, but will easily lock down a spot if he gets a contract extension ahead of the Expansion Draft. Anton Stralman ($4.500 million), Andrej Sustr ($1.450 million), Braydon Coburn ($4.500 million this season, $3.700 million starting next season) and prospect Slater Koekkoek ($1.444 million) will warrant looks for the other two defensive spots. Stralman and Coburn are each signed through 2018-19, while Sustr and Koekkoek are both RFAs in 2017.

Other potential options could include Matthew Carle ($5.500 million), Jason Garrison ($4.600 million) and Nikita Nesterov ($0.925 million). Nesterov becomes an RFA this summer, but both Carle and Garrison are signed until 2018.

 

GOALTENDERS:

Ben Bishop ($5.950 million) and Andrei Vasilevskiy ($1.475 million) both become free agents in 2017: Bishop a UFA and Vasilevskiy an RFA. Bishop has been the clear-cut starter in goal for Tampa this season, starting 60 games (compared to 21 starts for Vasilevkiy) and also faired better in GAA (2.06 vs 2.76), save percentage (.926 vs .910) and win percentage (won 35 of 60 decisions vs 11 of 21).

Current-AHL goalies Kristers Gudlevskis ($0.608 million) and Adam Wilcox ($0.925 million) are extremely unlikely to overtake Bishop and Vasilevskiy in the next year and will be exposed to the Expansion Draft. Gudlevskis is an RFA this offseason and Wilcox is an RFA in 2017.

 

THOUGHTS:

Five of Tampa’s seven forward spots are pretty easy to mark down, yet they won’t include two of the Lightning’s biggest names. Kucherov, Killorn, Namestnikov, Palat, and Johnson are all young, talented and producing (Namestnikov had the fewest points out of that group this season and still managed 35 points in 80 games). The other two spots are pretty easy if you’re running a fantasy hockey team, but not so much in reality. Stamkos and Drouin will be protected by whichever team they play for next season, but that last part is the big qualification.

The players most likely to take their places would be Tanner Richard, Ryan Callahan and Adam Erne. Callahan might get the nod if Stamkos leaves, given that Stamkos is the team’s current Captain and Callahan has been a Captain in his NHL career). Richard would be a good replacement choice for Drouin, replacing potential with potential. However, given the praise heaped upon him by teammates and the youth found elsewhere on the NHL roster, Callahan would likely be the first in line to replace either Stamkos or Drouin on the protection list.

On the blue line, Hedman is the only sure thing, but that’s assuming he signs a contract extension ahead of the Expansion Draft. Carle, Garrison, Nesterov and Sustr are unlikely to earn one of the two remaining spots. Stralman is slightly younger than Coburn, but Coburn will make $800,000 less for the three years they each have remaining on their contracts. Koekkoek has only a dozen NHL games under his belt so far, but is a highly regarded prospect and will only be 23 years old when the Expansion Draft rolls around. For this reason, expect to see Tampa protect Hedman, Stralman and Koekkoek defensively.

Despite the statistical gap between Bishop and Vasilevskiy this season, Vasilevskiy does have two distinct edges: he’s nearly eight years younger than Bishop, and he’ll be a Restricted Free Agent in 2017, unlike Bishop (who will be a UFA). Bishop will be 30 years old (and almost 31) at the time of a 2017 Expansion Draft, which still doesn’t make him old, but Vasilevskiy will be just 23 years old by the end of that summer.

The decision in net could come down to which goalie the Bolts can lock up to a better contract ahead of the Expansion Draft. The other factor might have nothing to do with the two goalies: Victor Hedman, Andrej Sustr, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin are ALL free agents in 2017 (Hedman is a UFA, the rest are RFAs). Vasilevskiy is likely to come at a cheaper price than Bishop, and clearing out Bishop’s nearly-$6-million salary would give the Lightning a lot more room to re-sign the rest of their players.

 

In the next edition of #TFTPB: NHL Expansion, we’ll be looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs.