The Dallas Stars’ Expansion Draft Dilemma

Last week, the NHL gave general managers a glimpse of the proposed rules for a potential expansion draft. At first glance, I saw no major cause for concern. After all, if only one new franchise is awarded, the Stars would only lose one player; if two are awarded, they would lose two players. Since they’ll be able to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie OR any eight skaters and one goalie, Dallas can easily retain their most valuable players.

Carefully re-reading the proposed rules and pondering the implications for the Stars evoked a different reaction in yours truly, however. A scene from Kevin Bacon’s first movie kept running through my head:

Though the expansion draft, if it happens, is more than a year away, it’s not too early to panic, Stars fans. This is going to sting.

Key Expansion Draft Rules and Implications

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Though teams can protect a set number of players, they might not be able to protect certain high-value players, for three reasons:

  1. Players with no-move clauses will likely be exempt from the draft, but will (likely) count against the number of protected players. This rule is dependent upon Players’ Association approval, but would seem to be in the best interests of their members, so let’s assume the NHLPA approves. For the Stars, this means Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza must be protected. While Benn is a no-brainer, protecting Spezza could pose problems for Dallas, due to Key Expansion Draft Rule number 2:
  2. Teams must expose in the expansion draft 25 percent of their total payroll from the previous season. Let’s assume the Stars have a total player payroll of $72M next season. They would then be required to expose $18M in salary. In order to hit the $18M threshold, Dallas will have to dangle some quality players in the draft.
  3. Players with no more than two years’ pro experience are exempt. This rule needs clarification. Does the NHL mean “North American pro” or ANY pro experience, including European leagues? If it’s the latter, Mattias Janmark wouldn’t be exempt. In that scenario, the Stars would likely be forced to choose between protecting either Janmark or Valeri Nichushkin.

Likely Draft Scenarios

The following expansion draft scenarios are laid out with the following assumptions and/or caveats:

  1. The NHLPA approves the exemption for players with no-move contracts, but those players count against the number of protected players for each team.
  2. The league clarifies the experience rule to include European pro leagues.
  3. Not every player under contract to Dallas is mentioned here; I’ve only listed players projected to be on the Stars’ NHL roster beyond 2016-17 (in other words, no players who will be unrestricted free agents this summer or next) and top-tier prospects who won’t be exempt from an expansion draft in June 2017.
  4. This June, the league will announce the award of only one expansion franchise, to Bill Foley of Las Vegas, meaning the Stars will only lose one player in the draft.

Scenario One: Seven Forwards, Three Defensemen and One Goalie

That protected list would probably look like this:

  • Forwards: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, Janmark, Nichushkin.
  • Defensemen: John Klingberg, Stephen Johns, Julius Honka.
  • Goalie: Kari Lehtonen.

The following players would be exposed: Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, Curtis McKenzie, Esa Lindell, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Mattias Backman and Antti Niemi.

Here, Eakin and Roussel would have to be exposed, in order for the Stars to reach the $18M threshold. Other players-to-be-named-later, such as a re-signed Jason Demers, Kris Russell, Alex Goligoski or Vernon Fiddler, would have to be offered up, as well.

Scenario Two: Eight Skaters and One Goalie

Though Stars fans would mourn the loss of any of the players exposed in the first scenario, making so many promising young defensemen available is concerning. Would protecting eight skaters and one goalie be any better? In that case, the exempt list would look something like this:

  • Forwards: Benn, Seguin, Spezza, Nichushkin.
  • Defensemen: Klingberg, Johns, Honka, Lindell.
  • Goalie: Lehtonen.

Dallas would expose these players in the draft: Eakin, Roussel, Janmark, Faksa, Ritchie, McKenzie, Nemeth, Oleksiak, Backman and Niemi.

In order to protect a fourth defenseman, the Stars would expose three centers, a top-six winger, a top-nine winger, and a bottom-six winger. Though they would only lose one player, the loss could be significant.

Which Road Will the Stars Take?

With any potential expansion draft well over a year away, Stars general manager Jim Nill has time to study the problem and make roster moves to mitigate the loss.

Due to the nature of the draft, a new franchise won’t simply take the best player available from each team; they’ll need a certain number of goalies, defensemen, centers and wings. By analyzing the other 29 rosters to get an idea of which players those clubs will expose, Nill can assess the risk involved in exposing each of his players. For example, if Eakin is exposed, would he be one of the top six centers available? If not, Las Vegas may set their sights on a Dallas defenseman instead.

Regardless of Nill’s efforts, one thing is clear: The Stars, just like every other team, will have to leave a lot of valuable chips on the table for any expansion team. The fact that Dallas has so many more players worthy of protection than can be protected is a testament to the GM’s success in growing organizational depth over the past few years.