When the NHL Expansion Draft happens in Las Vegas from June 18-20, the new Golden Knights roster will be filled with their picks from the 30 existing teams. This means that they will be taking one player from each team, including the Dallas Stars. But the Stars will get to protect some of their players so don’t expect Jamie Benn to be in Vegas next year.
However, someone has to go unprotected… so whom should Dallas leave available to the expansion process? I know, most of you Stars fans are thinking that this is the way for the team to get rid of Antti Niemi and his salary for next year, but you can’t force Las Vegas to take the one you want them to take. Stars general manager Jim Nill and staff will need to figure out the protected list for the team’s best interests. Not that Nill is asking, but here is a recommendation of who should and shouldn’t be protected.
Rules of the Expansion Draft
Before selecting the protected players, let’s review the key expansion draft rules that will be in place:
- The Stars have two options for players they wish to mark as the Untouchables:
a) Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or;
b) Eight skaters and one goaltender (for teams needing to protect more than three defensemen)
- All players who are under a No Movement Clause in their current contract must be protected (unless they choose to waive their NMC for the draft) and will count towards the team’s protected player totals.
- All players in their first or second professional year, as well as any unsigned draft choices, are exempt from selection and do not count toward the protected totals.
- Dallas must leave a certain number of veterans (who played at least 40 games last season) unprotected, by position:
a) One defenseman
b) Two forwards
c) One goaltender
- If Vegas signs any unrestricted free agent who played for the Stars last season, it counts as their selection from Dallas in the draft.
There are other rules, of course, but these are the main ones to consider for purposes of this discussion.
Take My Goalie, Please
Glaringly obvious is the fact that the Stars will protect newly acquired goalie, Ben Bishop, and leave the Kari Lehtonen and Niemi available to the Golden Knights. That’s the easiest part of the selection process. But keep in mind that with a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins having to leave either Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray unprotected, it is unlikely that Vegas would pick either of the Dallas netminders, no matter how many prayers are offered by fans and team management.
As for the three defensemen, John Klingberg is the first and most obvious player to protect. He’s under contract through 2023 and is likely a big part of the Stars’ plans for the future. With the departure of Johnny Oduya back to the Chicago Blackhawks and Jordie Benn to the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline last season, the next best defenseman is Esa Lindell who should be a no-brainer to add to the protected list. The Stars are still high on big 6′ 4″ Stephen Johns and his hard-hitting style of play which fits in well with coach Ken Hitchcock’s system and will likely put him ahead of veteran Dan Hamhuis who had a sub-par season last year.
That leaves the following top blueliners available for the expansion draft:
- Dan Hamhuis
- Greg Pateryn
- Jamie Oleksiak
- Patrik Nemeth
The forward list will be a bit more difficult to narrow down. There are two players with No Trade Clauses who must be protected, captain Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. Tyler Seguin is also an obvious untouchable to protect, so that leaves only four more slots available for protected forwards. Brett Ritchie led the team in plus/minus with a minus-11 and a solid 24 point scoring season and likely takes the next slot. Radek Faksa had a good year with 33 points last season and at age 23 should continue to mature for Dallas. Fan favorite, Antoine Roussel, is such a key part of the team’s heart and soul that it is unlikely that the Stars would leave him unprotected for the draft.
The last forward slot may be somewhat debatable by fans and the Stars’ front office. Valeri Nichushkin, the big, young Russian right winger, played last season in Moscow and still has a year left on his contract there. But the Stars still have his NHL rights and have always held out big hopes for him becoming an offensive force one day. Leaving him unprotected might allow the Vegas franchise to enjoy the fruits of the Stars development work with Nichushkin. But if they use the last slot on Nichushkin, that would leave Cody Eakin as the unprotected, ‘red-headed stepchild’ and would probably mean that Eakin would be wearing a Golden Knights sweater next season.
Eakin had a disastrous 2016-17, missing more than 20 games with a knee injury and scoring only three goals with nine assists. But he has had past success with a career high 40 point season in 2014-15 and should be able to embrace the Hitchcock system as well as any of the Stars forwards.
Thirty-three-year-old, Ales Hemsky, is entering his 17th season and is unlikely draft-bait for a new franchise like Las Vegas, so he’s probably good to leave available. Adam Cracknell is a solid two-way skater, but in 9 NHL seasons has never played more than 50 games for any team until last year. Whatever the problem with Jiri Hudler has been over the last 3 seasons, he doesn’t seem to be desirable for a young locker room like the Golden Knights will have, so he’s probably not headed there. Curtis McKenzie has potential to become a solid left winger in the NHL but doesn’t offer enough immediate payoff to warrant the use of a protected player designation.
So the biggest question it would seem is whether to protect Nichushkin or Eakin. That’s a tough choice, but I’d probably lean toward the proven track record of Eakin over the future promise of Nichushkin. It can be hard to let go of a good player, but every team in the Central Division (and the whole league for that matter) must go through this process when a new team is added.
Therefore, the Stars would leave the following forwards unprotected:
- Valeri Nichushkin
- Ales Hemsky
- Adam Cracknell
- Jiri Hudler
- Curtis McKenzie
Who Goes to Vegas?
Much can change in the offseason, so the above analysis may change by the time the expansion draft is held. One very amusing piece by The Hockey Writers’ own Jeff Seide recently mused that it appeared the Dallas Stars are going for a 23-goalie roster next season. While that won’t actually become reality, you never know what any team might do. At this point, the most likely scenario is that either Curtis McKenzie, Valeri Nichushkin, Jamie Oleksiak or Dan Hamhuis will be headed to the Nevada desert.
Of course, knowing Jim Nill, there could very well be some big trade news that will change everything by the time the expansion draft rolls around a month from now. And I suspect that Hitchcock will have a lot of input on the final roster decisions, so there could be any number of wild-cards still out on the table. It won’t be long until we all know who is left unprotected and who is headed to the bright neon lights of Las Vegas.