Earlier this month, details emerged on a potential NHL expansion draft following the 2016-17 season. Each franchise would lose one player if the league expanded by one team, while a two-team expansion would mean that each club would lose two players in the draft.
Las Vegas is the consensus front-runner for a new franchise, though Quebec City may also be in the mix if the league decides to add two clubs. A formal decision on expansion is expected prior to the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24 in Buffalo.
Rules of the Draft
Complete guidelines for the expansion draft have yet to be set, but teams are expected to have two options in who they protect: they can select seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie to be exempt from the draft, or they can safeguard eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goalie.
Additionally, first- and second-year pros would automatically be made exempt. Assuming the draft takes place in the summer of 2017, this means players entering their third professional season in 2017-18 would have to be protected by their team or left exposed. The likes of rookie sensation Connor McDavid would require protection from the Edmonton Oilers in order to stay out of an expansion draft.
Any unsigned prospects drafted by an NHL team within two years of the expansion draft would be exempt, meaning all unsigned 2015 and 2016 draft picks would remain the property of their current clubs.
Crucially, the total salaries of the players made available by each franchise in the draft must equate to at least 25 percent of the team’s payroll from the previous season. This could lead to a number of quality players being left exposed to the draft; undoubtedly an effort by the league to help any expansion team(s) hit the ground running.
The burning question is whether players with no-movement/no-trade clauses will be exempt from the expansion draft. The league will discuss this issue with the Player’s Association, but for now let’s operate under the assumption that these players will not be made exempt.
Who Might the Sharks Protect?
The San Jose Sharks would likely opt to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie from selection in the expansion draft. Assuming that players with NMCs/NTCs are not exempt and keeping in mind that players who have played two or more years of pro hockey are also not exempt, here are the 11 players San Jose would protect.
Joe Thornton: Despite his advanced age, an argument can still be made for Thornton being the Sharks’ best player. The 36-year-old center has 70 points in 72 games this season, continuing to dominate in the offensive zone as one of the league’s top playmakers. His two-way play, penalty-killing prowess and veteran leadership remain vital to San Jose’s success.
Joe Pavelski: If there’s one player who can challenge Jumbo Joe for the title of best Shark, it’s Little Joe. Pavelski, 31, is in the prime of his career and is enjoying his third straight 30-goal season. The first-year captain does it all for the Sharks and remains the team’s most clutch performer.
Logan Couture: In what could be considered a down year, Couture has still managed to make his presence felt on a nightly basis. The 26-year-old forward missed significant time with a broken fibula earlier this season and was slow to bounce back from the injury. Still, Couture has chipped in with 28 points in 42 games and is a prototypical two-way, second-line center just hitting his prime.
Tomas Hertl: No youngster currently in the Sharks organization has more upside than Hertl, who potted 15 goals in 37 games as a rookie two years ago. This season, the 22-year-old Czech is healthy and playing the best hockey of his young career. Hertl has a career-high 18 goals and 42 points on the year while playing first-line minutes next to Thornton and Pavelski.
Joonas Donskoi: Perhaps the biggest surprise for the Sharks this season has been the play of Donskoi. The rookie winger signed with the team last summer after winning Playoff MVP honors in the Finnish Elite League. Donskoi, 23, has 34 points this season and has showcased world-class playmaking ability early in his NHL career.
Chris Tierney: His offensive output has been modest this season, but Tierney has all the tools needed to be a strong third-line pivot at the NHL level. The 21-year-old plays a steady, cerebral brand of hockey and is an underrated playmaker. He has spent the bulk of his two-year career as San Jose’s fourth-line center but could take on a bigger role as soon as next season.
Nikolay Goldobin: Remember, Goldobin plays in the AHL currently and will either remain in the minors or make the Sharks next season, meaning he’ll be entering his third pro season in 2017-18 and will require protection from the expansion draft. Picked in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the 20-year-old Russian is a highly skilled offensive winger who needs to round out his defensive game. Goldobin has 35 points in 50 games with the Barracuda this season.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic: Among the league’s top shutdown rearguards, Vlasic is having the best offensive season of his career with 39 points in 67 games. The 28-year-old is a two-way threat who excels at utilizing his elite mobility and stick-work to neutralize the opposition. Vlasic isn’t flashy, but he’s undoubtedly San Jose’s No. 1 defenseman and will remain so for years to come.
Brent Burns: Defensive lapses aside, Burns has been as key as anyone to the Sharks’ success this season. His 65 points is a franchise record for points by a defenseman and he’s made notable strides in his game this year. At 31 years old, Burns has plenty left in the tank.
Justin Braun: Much like his teammate Vlasic, Braun is a steady, reliable defenseman. The 29-year-old Minnesotan doesn’t dazzle on the ice, but his speed, agility and hockey sense make him a factor at both ends. He’s an unheralded component of the Sharks’ top four who contributes massively on the penalty kill.
Martin Jones: A no-brainer. James Reimer has been solid in his limited time with the Sharks, but odds are the pending free agent signs elsewhere this summer with a team in need of a starter. San Jose has that starter in Jones, who has had a strong first season as a No. 1 netminder in the NHL. In 59 games, the 26-year-old has a 2.26 goals-against average, a .919 save percentage and five shutouts to go along with an impressive 35-19-4 record. General manager Doug Wilson coughed up a first-round pick for Jones last summer — a steep price that showed his confidence in the young, up-and-coming goaltender in the crease moving forward.
Who Might the Sharks Lose?
A number of quality players would be exposed to the expansion draft. The most noteworthy name for San Jose in this instance would be Patrick Marleau, who is very clearly on the decline. The 36-year forward has 41 points this season for one of the lowest scoring paces of his lengthy NHL career. Still, Marleau could bring a lot to the table for an expansion team in need of veteran talent. He’s got speed and a strong two-way game, and he’s a safe bet for 20 goals even in a down year.
Young wingers Matt Nieto, Melker Karlsson and Tommy Wingels would also be strong candidates to get picked up in an expansion draft. Nieto’s offense has stagnated, but he’s just 23 years old and plays a responsible game. Karlsson impressed with 24 points in 53 games as a rookie last season, though his production has dipped significantly this year. With just 15 points this season, Wingels’ stock has dropped a bit. Still, he’s a fast skater who can kill penalties and provide a physical presence — a strong addition to any team’s bottom six.
It’s worth remembering, though, that teams will only lose one player if there’s one expansion franchise, and two players if there are two expansion teams.
Sam Kelly is an experienced sports writer with a passion for the game of hockey. He currently covers the San Jose Sharks for The Hockey Writers and is a production assistant at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. He’ll never forgive the Sharks for blowing a three-game series lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.