Las Vegas roster could be stealth winner of 2016 free agency

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman joins the show to discuss why the NHL chose Vegas over Quebec for expansion and what he expects for the team in the Las Vegas market.

Can an NHL team be considered a “winner” in free agency without signing a single player?

It seems they can. All the top players get overpaid when free agency opens anyway, the theory goes, and at least a team that elects to sit on its hands hasn’t made any expensive, long-term errors.

Now, how about an NHL team that is yet to play a single game?

In an odd quirk, it sure seems like one of the stealth winners of the 2016 free agent signing season is the Las Vegas-based NHL expansion franchise, which is still without a name, a logo, or an official front office staffer. Based on what’s been made public concerning the NHL’s rules for the 2017 expansion draft, it seems that few teams benefitted as much from the flurry of free agent signing activity as did the yet-to-be-named Sin City franchise.

READ: NHL signing tracker

The rules for the 2017 NHL expansion draft are the most generous in NHL history. First- and second-year professionals and unsigned draft choices are exempt — as they were in the last round of NHL expansion — but teams can protect far fewer roster players this time around.

In the last series of NHL expansion drafts – which stretched from 1998 through to 2000 – clubs could elect to protect either nine forwards, five defencemen and one goaltender, or protect two goaltenders, three defencemen and seven forwards. This time around, no team will be permitted to protect two goaltenders, and can instead elect to protect either seven forwards and three defencemen, or four forwards and four defencemen.

Intuitively, it should be apparent that the expansion system is set up to provide the newest NHL club with decent goaltending and relatively significant defensive assets right off the bat. It’s a sensible approach. Goaltending is the great equalizer, and if you want to create a reasonably competitive team quickly, it helps to allow the new club to build from the net out.

The superior pool of blue-line talent likely to be available in the expansion process could have other competitive benefits. Forwards are easier to find as they’re generally the more plentiful asset in free agency. Defencemen, as this offseason has proven, are a more marketable commodity on the trade market.

Only a team with four above-average defenders – like the Nashville Predators – is likely to elect to protect only four forwards, and some clubs – such as the New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild – are sure to expose good pieces no matter what protection structure they opt for, barring something dramatic.

The crucial thing to remember is that the 2017 NHL expansion draft has protection rules built around the concept of player volume. So we can understand why some of the most aggressive clubs in free agency made decisions this past weekend that may reverberate into next June.

For example, even as the Florida Panthers jettisoned Dmitri Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson in off-season trades, they also added high-quality unrestricted free agent defencemen in Jason Demers and Keith Yandle.

Protecting franchise cornerstone Aaron Ekblad in the expansion draft is a no-brainer and Yandle has a no-movement clause, so he will automatically be protected. From there, the Panthers will likely elect to protect only one of Mark Pysyk, Alex Petrovic and Demers – all relatively youthful and effective NHL-level blue liners.

“Expansion is unpredictable,” Panthers assistant general manager Steve Werier told Sportsnet this week. “If the thought process is that you’re a team that wants to win, do you mortgage your ability to do so on the off chance that a player you like might catch the eye of the expansion club next summer? If you think you have a chance to win, you take the bumps down the line and try to mitigate the risk when you get there.”

Though Florida aggressively re-made their blue line over the past eight weeks, even quieter teams will have their protected lists impacted by this summer’s free agent signings.

The Detroit Red Wings signed forward Frans Nielsen to a contract that carries a no-move clause on July 1, so he’ll be automatically protected in an expansion draft. Once Detroit also protects the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan, the Red Wings will only be able to protect two of the following forwards: Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Tomas Jurco, Teemu Pulkkinen and hotshot prospect Andreas Athanasiou.

Either way, Las Vegas will be adding a talented player.

The Islanders, who were already in a probable expansion draft bind because of their deep defence corps, similarly added a no-movement contract on July 1 in Andrew Ladd. With Ladd and John Tavares automatically joining likely no-brainers such as Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Ryan Strome on New York’s probable protected list, the club will only be able to protect two of the following forwards: Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Casey Cizikas, Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck, Jason Chimera, Shane Prince and young playoff hero Alan Quine.

And on and on it goes. Loui Eriksson looks like a good fit for the Vancouver Canucks, but his no-movement clause could force the club to make a difficult decision to protect only one of Jannik Hansen, Anton Rodin, Emerson Etem or Markus Granlund next June.

Mikkel Boedker and David Schlemko will add needed speed in San Jose, but adding Boedker likely means that the Sharks may need to decide which one of Tommy Wingels, Melker Karlsson, Joel Ward or Chris Tierney to protect in expansion.

As for Schlemko, he joins a relatively large group of unrestricted players that signed with new teams this past week, but could still be made available in next June’s expansion draft. We’ve already noted Chimera and Demers, but Dan Hamhuis could be another candidate, as could new Wild forwards Eric Staal and Chris Stewart.

With the 2017 expansion draft less than 12 months away, the majority of NHL teams still appear to be biding their time. Only a precious few moves appear to have been directly motivated by expansion so far – the Frederik Andersen trade is the standout – and it seems that the vast majority of teams with obvious expansion liabilities aren’t intent on behaving like motivated sellers on the trade market at this point.

In free agency, similarly, most NHL teams seemed to focus on building and improving for next season. Managing expansion-related risk will surely come a bit later.

It’s a reasonable approach for teams to take. It’s also one that could benefit the Las Vegas expansion franchise.

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