The NHL will hold a vote prior to this June's draft to decide whether to expand in time for the 2017-18 season with Las Vegas and Quebec City being the most likely destinations for new teams. Once we know whether they will add one team, two teams, or none at all – a scenario that's difficult to envision – we can look forward to the expansion draft. The league's general managers have already laid the groundwork for the draft's rules.
Under the proposed rules, existing teams would be allowed to protect one goaltender and their choice of either seven forwards and three defensemen or any combination of eight skaters. Prospects and players with less than three years of pro hockey experience will be exempt from the draft and each team can only lose one player in a one team expansion or two players in a two team expansion.
One decision that hat hasn't entirely been made is what to do about no-move clauses. A player with a NMC can't be traded or placed on waivers without his permission, but the league's collective bargaining agreement doesn't say anything about an expansion draft. According to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, players with such provisions will likely be ineligible for selection, so for the purposes of this list, we're going to assume that is the case and that those players would count amongst a team's protected players, otherwise those teams would have an unfair advantage. No-trade clauses, on the other hand, may be a different story. Players with NTCs can be waived and demoted, so we'll assume they'd be expansion draft eligible.
Now that we have a pretty good idea of the format, let's take a look at the top players who could be available in an NHL expansion draft:
20 Malcolm Subban
With teams only being allowed to protect one goaltender this time around, there will be a few good, young netminders available for an expansion team to build their team around and Malcolm Subban could be one such goalie. The younger brother of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban currently sports a .911 SV% and 2.46 GAA for the AHL's Providence Bruins where he's played for the past three seasons. With Boston likely to protect Tuukka Rask, that leaves the top netminder in their system to be exposed, unless they can find a trade partner for Subban before the draft.
19 Trevor van Riemsdyk
With the Chicago Blackhawks having seven players with NMCs, much of their protected list decisions will be made for them. Their top three defenseman, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson will all need to be protected, leaving the rest of their eligible defensemen free for selection. 24-year-old blueliner Trevor van Riemsdyk is in just his first full NHL season, but he's already worked his way into the Stanley Cup champion's top four. The younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk, will likely be thrust into a similar role of he heads to Las Vegas or Quebec City.
18 Calvin de Haan
Which defensemen the New York Islanders choose to protect could be influenced by whether of not they're able to satisfy Travis Hamonic's desire to be traded closer to home, but even if they do move him, they'll likely be getting another defenseman in return who will need to be protected. Along with fellow blueliners Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy that gives the Islanders three defensemen. Given that they'll want to protect more than four forwards, former first round pick and the team's number four defenseman, Calvin de Haan will have to be left exposed to potentially join a new team's top four.
17 Jakob Silfverberg
There are a few teams who could be forced to expose multiple valuable players due to having to protect players with no-movement clauses, but the Anaheim Ducks may be the most prominent. Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa both possess NMCs that begin kicking in next season and the Ducks would be forced to protect them when they'd likely be better off not. The Ducks are a team built with a strong and youthful back-end and would likely want to protect defensemen Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm in addition to Bieksa, meaning they'd only be able to protect four forwards.
Three of their forwards – Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry - would have to be protected because of their NMCs and Rickard Rakell would likely be the fourth, making a young forward like Jakob Silfverberg available for selection.
16 Simon Despres
Due to their surplus of premium young defensemen, the Ducks would also have to leave 24-year-old Simon Despres off their protection list. The former first round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins hasn't quite shown as much offensive potential in Anaheim as he did in Pittsburgh with just four assists on the score sheet this season, but he's also fifth on the Ducks defensive depth chart. He'd likely have to assume a top four role on an expansion team if they we're to take on the final four years of his five year deal that pays him $3.7 million per year beginning next season.
The loss of Despres in an expansion draft probably wouldn't put much of a dent in the Ducks blueline, as 2013 first round pick, Shea Theodore, will likely be ready to take his place by then.
15 Matt Read
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Philadelphia Flyers will choose to use five of their protected list spots on forwards Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and Sean Couturier. They're going to want to at least protect Shayne Gostisbehere on defense, so that leaves just two forward spots left. Nick Cousins has played at a point-per-game pace in the AHL and Scott Laughton is a former first round pick who is playing in his first full NHL season this year, so the Flyers aren't likely to leave either of them unprotected, making two-time 20 goal scorer Matt Read available for the taking.
14 Carl Gunnarsson
Carl Gunnarsson has played well enough on the St. Louis Blues defense to earn himself a new three year contract extension at $2.9 million per year, but with the Blues likely to protect Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Colton Parayko, and possibly Kevin Shattenkirk if they can get him signed to an extension, there simply won't be any room for them to hold onto Gunnarsson. Gunnarsson showed during his time in Toronto that he's capable of playing in a top pairing role if he has to so playing a similar role for an expansion team in Las Vegas or Quebec City shouldn’t be too daunting of a task.
13 Leo Komarov
The Toronto Maple Leafs have done a good job of stockpiling young players and draft picks over the past year, but unfortunately for them a few of those players, namely William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, and Kasperi Kapanen, turned pro in Europe last season before making their way to North America this season and won't be exempt from protection. They're not likely to lose any prospects of significance, but could lose a veteran player or two.
Leo Komarov has been an All-Star this season and has more than doubled his career high with 19 goals, but he'll also be 30-years-old and heading into the final year of his contract when the draft arrives and not likely a priority to be protected. He is a favorite among fans and the type of feisty player who could at least keep things interesting through an expansion team's inaugural season.
12 Matt Murray
Matt Murray has become of the NHL's premier goaltending prospects and has shown his potential in limited NHL action this season, posting a .935 SV% and 1.85 GAA in seven starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins view him as an elite goalie of the future and would love to hold onto him for dear life. In order to do so, the Penguins would have to convince Marc-Andre Fleury to waive his NMC and accept a trade out of Pittsburgh. That might not be such an easy task, especially with other teams looking to move goalies that could be expansion draft eligible, and the Penguins may have to come to grips with the idea of losing Murray.
11 Andrei Vasilevskiy
Whether of not Steven Stamkos re-signs in Tampa Bay and what the Lightning ultimately get in a Jonathan Drouin trade will be majors factors in which skaters they decide to protect, but their most interesting situation involves their goaltending. Starter Ben Bishop has proven himself to be among the league's elite, while 21-year-old backup Andrei Vasilevskiy has the potential to be the real deal as well. What makes things really intriguing is the fact that Bishop is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017.
If the Lightning extend him before then, they'll probably have to risk losing Vailevskiy in the expansion draft. They could let Bishop play out his contract, protect Vasilevskiy, and then try to extend Bishop after the draft knowing that an expansion team isn't likely to select a goaltender who is about to be a free agent, but then they risk losing Bishop in free agency or having to pay a higher rate to keep him. What the Lightning end up doing will be interesting to watch, but if we had to guess, we'd say they find a way to keep Bishop and lose Vasilevskiy.
10 Jimmy Howard
After Petr Mrazek's strong play as the backup goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings last season, the Red Wings headed into this season expecting Mrazek to split starts with Jimmy Howard. Instead, Mrazek has been the far superior goalie and has usurped the number one job while Howard has been relegated to back-up. With Mrazek now likely to be Detroit's starter for the long haul, Howard will have to be left unprotected. He could provide a decent veteran presence between the pipes for an expansion team, that is if they're willing to eat the final two years of his contract which comes with a nearly $5.3 million cap hit.
9 Marco Scandella
The Minnesota Wild could be in a bit of a pickle in terms of what to do with their defense in the expansion draft. They'd have to protect both Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon as the pair both have NMCs in their contracts. Spurgeron's doesn’t kicks in until the 2017-18 season, but it's hard to imagine him being allowed to be left unprotected only a few days before his clause becomes active. The Wild would also want to protect promising young blueliners Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba, which would not only limit the number of forwards they could protect, but would also leave Marco Scandella, who currently sits third on the team in ice-time, as an odd man out on the back end.
8 Kari Lehtonen/Antti Niemi
It's hard to guess which member of the Dallas Stars goaltending tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi would be exposed in an expansion draft. The pair are both 32 years old with contracts that expire after the 2017-18 season and their play has been about even while splitting the net this season. At a $4.5 million cap hit, Niemi comes in cheaper, so the Stars may want to hold on to him and expose Lehtonen's $5.9 million salary. Unless they think the higher salary could scare an expansion team away and want to rid themselves of one of their goaltenders, in which case exposing Niemi might make more sense. Either one could be a good fit to help a new team get through their first season.
7 Mikael Granlund
A result of the Wild protecting four defensemen would be that they'd only be allowed to protect four forwards. Three of their forwards - Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Jason Pominville – have NMCs and would need protection while Charlie Coyle would be the logical choice as their fourth forward. This would force them to expose a few quality forwards, including Mikael Granlund. The ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft hasn't quite lived up to his offensive potential yet, but he has scored a career high 10 goals this season and is relied upon to be the Wild's number two center. On a team as thin up the middle as the Wild, it would hurt to lose Granlund, but they may have no other choice.
6 Nino Niederreiter
Nino Niederreiter is another top six forward the Wild would likely have to leave exposed due to their glut of defensemen and players with no movement clauses. The fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft scored a career high 24 goals last season and is on pace for a career high in points this season, having already equaled last season's total of 37. The Swiss winger would make for a solid top six forward for either Las Vegas or Quebec City. If the league chooses to expand by just one team and the Wild can only lose one player, Niederreiter may be the most likely to find his way out of Minnesota due to his offensive upside.
5 Cam Atkinson
Forcing teams to protect players with no-move clauses makes things messy when it comes to the Columbus Blue Jackets as they currently have five of them. They'd be forced to protect David Clarkson, Scott Hartnell, and Fedor Tyutin when they'd probably rather not protect any of them and they risk losing a quality forward. Hartnell or Tyutin could always be traded before that happens, but if not, Cam Atkinson, who is in the midst of a career year with 24 goals and 44 points in 68 games, would likely be the most high profile member of the Blue Jacket's forward group to find himself unprotected from the expansion draft.
4 Mike Hoffman
Mike Hoffman scored 27 goals last season for the Ottawa Senators and is on pace to surpass that mark this year. However, he's recently spent time playing on the team's fourth line and seems to have fallen out of favour with head coach Dave Cameron. Given the amount of young, forwards the Senators have, they'll need to leave at least one quality forward exposed. They'd probably be better off making Bobby Ryan and his $7.25 million cap hit available, especially if they think that a new team might want to pass on that type of commitment, but Hoffman seems like a more likely candidate to be exposed at this point.
3 Rick Nash
Rick Nash has struggled to put the puck in the net since last year's playoffs and he has just 12 goals so far in the 2015-16 season. When the expansion draft arrives, he'll be heading into the final year of his contract with a $7.8 million cap hit. Unless Nash can rebound with a 30 goal campaign next year, and perhaps even if he does, the Rangers should be looking to get out from under his contract before it expires.They'll will be best served using all seven of their forward spots to protect Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Mats Zucarello, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Oscar Lindberg while leaving Nash exposed.
2 Frederik Andersen
Unless he gets traded between now and the expansion draft, which is a distinct possibility, Frederik Andersen could be the best goaltender available to be selected. The Danish netminder has proven capable of being a number one starter in Anaheim where he got the Ducks to within one win of a Stanley Cup Final appearance last year, but with John Gibson clearly being the Ducks starter for the foreseeable future, Andersen looks to be expendable. He'll still only be 27 years old when the draft arrives and could provide a new team with top notch goaltending for several years, making him a likely choice to be the the first player off the board if he's available.
1 Shea Weber
At 30 years of age, the Nashville Predators captain is clearly on the decline, but he'll still have another nine years left on his contract heading into the expansion draft. The Predators have a strong defensive core and they'll likely want to protect Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm, meaning they'll need to expose Weber in order to maximize the number of forwards they can protect. There's a good chance that an expansion team wouldn't want to take on such a large contract and if they did, it would benefit the Predators to be rid of it, so exposing Weber only makes sense, even if the optics of making the face of the franchise available suggest otherwise.