The Vegas Golden Knights will be part of the NHL in 2016-17 after years of trying to bring a club to the city that is known for grand casinos, partying and more.
The NHL has set up an Expansion Draft where each of the 30 NHL teams will protect eight skaters and a goalie - everyone else is available for Vegas to select. Well, some players carry no movement clauses and could waive them to ensure they're protected. Also, players under rookie-level deals cannot be drafted. So don't be shocked when you don't see Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, and other young stars on this list.
For Vegas fans, they can't hold their breath. All of the superstar players are going to be protected in the draft and they're looking at having a top line that'll probably be made up of career second or third liners.
So which NHL stars NEED to be protected most? Here are the top 50.
50 50. Blake Wheeler
The Winnipeg Jets star broke out in 2015-16 with a team-leading 78 points. Blake Wheeler has registered at least 60 points in each of his last three seasons as he continues to lead the young Jets in a tough Western Conference.
Winnipeg is blessed with so much young talent, ranging from Mark Scheifele to Patrik Laine to Kyle Connor, among others. But any rising team needs a good veteran star, and Wheeler is the guy in Winnipeg. He's just 30 years of age and has plenty of good hockey left in him. The Jets are fortunate that most of their prospects are automatically protected under their entry-level deals, any way.
Wheeler's an easy choice for the Jets to keep. He's off to another solid start in 2016 and should come close to 60-plus points again. The Jets would be foolish to leave him available.
49 49. Dougie Hamilton
His first year with the Calgary Flames was overlooked because of the team's fall from grace after making the playoffs in 2015. Dougie Hamilton set a career high in both goals (12) and points (43). Once Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are ready to take less ice time, Hamilton shall be ready to lead the Flames defensive core.
Given his age (23) and ceiling, Hamilton is the most important defenceman for Calgary to keep. He hasn't even reached his prime yet, and he's already playing better than most top-pairing blueliners in the NHL.
Calgary's defence hasn't reached its potential yet. Hamilton does carry a big contract, and even if he struggles in 2016-17, it's too early to give up on him. He's bound to become this franchise's best defenceman in decades.
48 48. Nicklas Backstrom
Thanks to Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom's talents have been overlooked for years. Did you know he scored 33 goals and 101 points in 2009-10? Betcha didn't.
Obviously, Backstrom hasn't come close to those totals since, but he's a reliable top centre who has reached the 70-point mark in the last three seasons. Backstrom and Ovechkin are among the top combinations in hockey. He's just 29-years-old and has plenty of strong hockey left in him.
Washington will obviously protect him. Backstrom has set up a handful of Ovechkin's 50-goal seasons, and the Russian sniper would simply not be the same without Backstrom. He's an underrated star who'll play a huge role in Washington's inevitable Stanley Cup championship.
47 47. Jakub Voracek
Jakub Voracek made a run at the scoring title in 2015, finishing with 81 points. He predictably went downhill in 2015-16, scoring just 55 points. The Flyers are blessed with a plethora of top-six forwards who can score 20-30 goals. But keeping Voracek over most of the others is increasingly important.
This man is only 27 and could definitely become a consistent 60-70 point guy. Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier are solid, but Voracek's play-making abilities set him apart from most others guys on Philadelphia.
The Flyers are still in a minor rebuilding stage as they try to find more defencemen and a goalie. They should think about trading some of their forwards for blueliners in the offseason. But Voracek is simply not somebody to let go of. You build around him. If Philadelphia's questionable front office is smart, they'd keep Voracek.
46 46. Dustin Byfuglien
Big Buff has certainly drawn more attention since he left the star-studded Chicago Blackhawks team in 2010. Ever since his move to defence, Dustin Byfuglien's been among the NHL's top two-way blueliners. The Jets rewarded him with a seven-year extension last season, so you know they value him enough to simply keep him protected in the Vegas expansion draft. But they totally have to keep him.
This Jets team plays in a physical division that features Minnesota, Nashville and St. Louis. They need big guys and veterans like Byfuglien, who fits the bill perfectly. He can move the puck well, set up goals but also defend against the NHL's top players.
He's a valuable commodity for when this team makes the playoffs. Keeping Byfuglien's a no-brainer, but his value in the locker room and on the ice also make him a no-brainer to be on our list.
45 45. Brent Seabrook
The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and should remain a contender for many years to come. That's thanks in large part to the efforts of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, this generation's best defensive pairing.
Everyone knows that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are the three core players on this team. But Seabrook deserves his credit; he is an Olympic gold medal winner and shut down the NHL's top lines during Chicago's runs to the 2010, 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup championships.
Chicago may think about keeping one or two of their veterans unprotected in order to gain valuable cap space. Seabrook better not be one of them, because their defence is not the same without him.
44 44. Taylor Hall
Hey look! Four non-playoff seasons later, and suddenly the New Jersey Devils look relevant again with Taylor Hall's arrival.
You see, New Jersey's been a very mediocre team since 2011. They have made the playoffs once and have not willingly spent money on free agents nor have they been able to draft and develop talent well. They got a sniper in Hall by swapping defenceman Adam Larsson, and now the Devils are playing top-notch hockey.
They've always been a good defensive team, but it's been hard to win games without guys who could score. Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and Hall are suddenly giving this team some goal-scorers. Shall we mention Hall is also just 25 years of age? I'd keep him if I were you, Mr. Ray Shero.
43 43. Logan Couture
The San Jose Sharks are going to soon tradition into a new era when 37-year-olds Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau leave, which could be as soon as 2017 when both become unrestricted free agents. But the Sharks have a rare luxury when it comes to losing two franchise icons: They have two guys right behind them that are slowly taking over. Logan Couture is one of them, and the Sharks need to make sure that they keep him.
Couture has four 50-point seasons under his belt and is a sure-bet for 25-30 goals a season as long as he's healthy. He's a flashy sniper and complete playmaker. He was a huge part of the Sharks run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. At age 27, this man has so many prime years left.
There's no way the Sharks leave him unprotected, and it would be incredibly silly if something made them consider it.
42 42. Derek Stepan
The bulk of the Rangers young core (Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey) will be safe, but Derek Stepan is one veteran they have to ensure is protected.
You may think Rick Nash should be on here, but the Rangers probably don't mind getting rid of the 32-year-old's final year that carries a $7.8 million cap hit. Stepan is slowly emerging as the Rangers' top leader and forward (if he hasn't already).
The 26-year-old has reached 50 points in four of his last five seasons and figures to be a key part of this team's transition into a younger team. Stepan has led the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals three times since 2012, showing his ability to come through in the clutch. The Rangers shouldn't think about exposing him. It'll be a decision they regret.
41 41. Evgeny Kuznetsov
While the world continues to admire the talents of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, another Russian sniper is ready to be this team's franchise icon when The Great Eight era comes to an end. The 24-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov finally found his place in the NHL last season - scorin 20 goals and 77 points in 82 games. Pretty impressive stuff for a guy who isn't even a first liner most of the time.
Kuznetsov should only get better as the Capitals provide him with better wingers. Any one who plays on the Capitals will see their offence deprived with Ovechkin on the ice. But Kuznetsov has shown signs of being a superstar in the making. The Capitals are loaded with talent at forward and defence, but Kuznetsov should be atop their list of players to protect.
40 40. Phil Kessel
The Maple Leafs were happy to get rid of Phil Kessel. The Penguins were up tight against the cap and took a huge risk bringing on Phil the Thrill. It has worked to perfection thus far - he played a key role in the team's 2016 Stanley Cup championship run and should be able to score 25-30 goals with Sidney Crosby for many more years.
The Penguins are short of talent in the farm system. Their Cup window only has a few seasons left and Kessel absolutely has to stay. There are few guys who have the combination of excellent speed and sniping skills that can culminate in 30-goal seasons. Kessel was a huge difference maker for Pittsburgh a year ago, and keeping him his critical. But of course, they will without question.
39 39. Joe Pavelski
Like Couture, Joe Pavelski is being groomed to become the next big thing for the Sharks as they prepare to move on from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Oh wait, Pavelski is the biggest thing on the Sharks team right now. The captain is a sure-bet for 30 goals a season and has relished the postseason, scoring clutch goals over and over again.
He is 32 years old, but there's no reason to think Pavelski is going to slow down. His playmaking skills have made him a front line player for many years now. The Sharks know Pavelski and Couture carry the future of this team for years to come.
Like other teams, San Jose is incredibly weak in talented prospects who have bright futures. They have a Cup window of no more than two years at this point. Leaving Pavelski available would be a terrible call.
38 38. Ryan Suter
Back in 2012, it seemed like a huge risk to invest $99 million over 13 years to a guy who spent his entire career as a number-two defenceman in Nashville. But for the Wild, Ryan Suter has elevated his game and is among the NHL's elite blueliners. He's effective at both ends of the ice each night and is a key reason they've made the playoffs the last four seasons.
The Wild may consider leaving him exposed because they're stocked with talent on the blueline, and they don't want to have his contract on the books for eight seasons (He'll be 32 in January). Minnesota simply has to keep Suter available. He's among the few elite blueliners in the NHL who can change a game on his own. If they let him go, they'll see their years of contending for the playoffs come to an end.
37 37. Roman Josi
For years, Roman Josi was overlooked because of two-time Olympic gold medalist Shea Weber being the main guy on the Predators blue line. But with P.K. Subban replacing Weber, there's a great chance for Josi to show the world he's a true Norris Trophy candidate. He has 42 goals and 114 points over his last three NHL seasons.
The Predators have a long championship window ahead of them, but they've yet to reach the Western Conference Final. Defence wins championships in hockey, and Josi was a huge reason they were one win away from making their first-ever final four. The Predators only have so many talented players, but Josi is among the best. They'd be silly for leaving him exposed. Please don't, David Poile.
36 36. Sean Monahan
The Flames rebuilding process might not take as long as expected, thanks to the emergence of the team's 2013 first-round selection. Sean Monahan has helped Flames fans forget about the Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester days - dare I say it?
Monahan and another young Calgary star to be named later on The List of Alex have transformed the Flames into a team that figures to fight for the Stanley Cup today, tomorrow and years after that. Monahan has 31 goals in 2014-15 and scored 27 last season as well. He's only 22-years-old and promises to get a lot better over time.
If Calgary leaves him exposed, it means they don't care about him or the team or the fans at all and are secretly conspiring to be so bad they end up relocating. In other words, he's going to be protected because they have no choice.
35 35. Zach Parise
Zach Parise has an identical 13-year, $99 million contract with Minny (like Ryan Suter). He's 32 years old now and there's no questioning that he's going to slow down sooner rather than later. But if the Wild leave him available, who will take care of the offence? He's led this team in goals in three of his four seasons with Minnesota. The only season he didn't was 2013-14, when his 29 goals were bested by Jason Pominville's 30.
My point? Parise's like the only guy on Minnesota who can threaten for 30 goals a year. Every season, this team plays top-notch defence but they simply cannot score. If Parise is selected by Vegas, this team is out of stars who can score. And even though defence wins championships, scoring the most goals determines the winner.
And Minnesota will not be a winner if Parise's exposed.
34 34. Corey Perry
The face of the Anaheim Ducks has taken the league by storm for a decade now. The Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist has made the Ducks an elite juggernaut as they've won four-straight Pacific Division titles.
The last time Corey Perry failed to score 30 goals in an 82-game season was back in 2009-10, if 27 goals and 76 points is a failure to some. He won the Hart and Rocket Richard Trophy in 2010-11 with 50 goals and 98 points.
So you get the idea, he's the team's best player and they need to do everything to protect him. After Perry and his counterpart (we'll get to him later), the Ducks are scoring-deprived for the most part. This team's Stanley Cup window is closing, and leaving Perry exposed would be this team's worst decision since trading Chris Pronger to the Philadelphia Flyers back in 2009.
33 33. Ryan Getzlaf
The other half of the Ducks lethal tandem is also a Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist. Ryan Getzlaf is the Ducks' fancy set-up man, responsible for dishing out the beautiful passes to Corey Perry.
Getzlaf has slowly started to show his age. After 87 points in 2013-14, he scored 70 in 2014-15, then just 63 last season. He's probably not going to be the top-flight centre ever again, but the Ducks have to keep him and Perry together as long as they can. This team doesn't have much scoring depth and there aren't a lot of sexy prospects on the way that'll replace the scoring when this legend's time is up.
Anaheim doesn't have any other stars on offence, and Getzlaf has made it clear that he wants to finish his career as a Duck. It's up to Bob Murray to protect him and this team's last remaining Stanley Cup window.
32 32. Ryan McDonagh
Ryan McDonagh doesn't score all that much and he's just one of the many superstars on the New York Rangers. If anyone gets attention, it's Henrik Lundqvist or the stacked group of forwards - namely Kevin Jayes, Jimmy Vesey, Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan and Michael Grabner.
But McDonagh is far-and-away the Rangers' best skater. The Habs gave him away for Scott Gomez back in 2009 and it's easily the funniest trade in recent memory. McDonagh has emerged as a Norris Trophy sleeper over the past few seasons. He helps clean up the mess in his own zone and he's excellent on the power play, too.
The Rangers have too many studs to protect in this year's draft, but McDonagh has to be their top skater. Quality defencemen are hard to come by, but it's nearly impossible to find someone as slick as McDonagh.
31 31. Patrice Bergeron
Patrice Bergeron has been the face of the Boston Bruins for a decade now. This team has too many long-term contracts of ageing players. Zdeno Chara (39), David Backes (32), David Krejci (30), and Matt Beleskey (28) are taking up too many dollars. Though some may think they want to keep guys protected in order to get rid of their contracts, Boston better not do it with Bergeron.
His scoring has declined significantly so far in 2016-17. That's the reality of having to play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice. But Bergeron's normally a sure-bet to score 30 goals and 60 points most seasons. He's also vital in shutting down the opponent's top scorers. Boston's Stanley Cup window is closing and they're incredibly mediocre in the prospect pool.
Maybe they want to get rid of contracts, but getting rid of Bergeron's would be just as silly as when they traded Tyler Seguin.
30 30. Kris Letang
I kindly ask everyone to forgive me for saying the Kris Letang contract signed back in 2013 was a disaster and the Penguins would regret it. All Letang did last season was play like a Norris Trophy winner and show that he really is one of the NHL's top blueliners.
2015-16 was a career-high for Letang in goals (16) and points (67) plus he scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for Pittsburgh. He's elevated his game in his own end, as he shut down the San Jose Sharks' high-flying offence to help the Pens win their second Cup since 2009.
The Penguins defensive depth is fairly weak outside of Letang. Perhaps they've thought about leaving him available to get rid of a hefty contract so they can fill out other holes on their roster. But losing Letang means this Pens team is giving up four goals most nights. They'll keep him because they have no choice.
29 29. Jonathan Quick
The Los Angeles Kings went from nobodies for years to on the edge of a dynasty. They've won two Stanley Cups since 2012, and it's thanks to the elite play from goalie Jonathan Quick.
He's among the best goalies in the world. There's a reason he won the 2012 Conn Smythe when L.A. won its first-ever Stanley Cup. He relishes the postseason, where he's 46-35 with a 2.27 GAA and .921 save percentage with nine shutouts. Now, the Kings have a great core on forwards and defence. But you need a money goalie to win the Stanley Cup.
Quick is 30 years old, injury prone and his contract may be something the Kings would like to get rid of in four years time, but he's too valuable right now. He's worth keeping around as this Stanley Cup window heads into its final years. Dean Lombardi has an easy call in keeping him.
28 28. Max Pacioretty
For a Montreal Canadiens team that can't usually score that much, Max Pacioretty does score a lot. He finished off 2015-16 with his third-straight season of scoring at least 30 goals and 60 points. Though some question the captain's ability as a leader (and rightfully so after last season's meltdown), there's no denying Pacioretty is a mega star who can always score the big goals for the Habs.
Pacioretty has scored 106 goals over the last three regular seasons and is as reliable as it comes. He's one of the NHL's premier power forwards and is only 28-years-old. The Canadiens would be insanely foolish to move on from him this early. They play in the most demanding hockey market and he gives them the chance to win a Stanley Cup.
No Pacioretty means little scoring, and that would mean the Canadiens have to hope Carey Price can post a shutout every night. Marc Bergevin better keep him...
27 27. Shea Weber
Some may think that the Habs would want to leave Shea Weber exposed because his contract doesn't expire until he's 41 years of age. But when Bergevin gave up the Habs' franchise defenceman in P.K. Subban to get Weber, it showed he has faith in the 31-year-old to be the piece that gets them over the top. It would literally make no sense to give up on Weber in year one.
Oh yeah, and Weber looks like he's the Norris Trophy favorite after his first two months with the Canadiens. He's shutting down the opposition's best players and he's probably scoring 20 goals again. The Canadiens need to trust that Weber will be able to play at a high level for many more years. He's among the best defencemen of his era and could be what they need to win a Cup.
26 26. Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist may be 34-years-old, and one would maybe think they want to get rid of his contract while it's still high. Thing is, Lundqvist remains a Vezina candidate each season and the Rangers don't have any better options in goal. With that, they're better off trusting King Henrik to keep this Stanley Cup championship window open.
He's a sure bet for 30 wins each season when healthy and he's money in the playoffs. The Rangers haven't missed the playoffs since 2010 and have reached the Eastern Conference Final three times since 2012. They just haven't been able to finish.
Many thought a rebuild would be on the way for the Rangers after last year's early playoff exit. With more youth injected into the lineup, this window is open longer. The logical choice is to keep Lundqvist around for the rest of his contract.
25 25. Claude Giroux
The Flyers are kind of stuck in a period of not being sure what their direction is. They have too many expensive contracts, not any elite prospects on the way and they're never bad enough to win a luxury draft pick. They also aren't good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup. But they always play to win-now.
Thing is, they have plenty of quality forwards but most of them aren't going to be superstars. Except Claude Giroux, who nearly won the Hart Trophy in 2012 and deserves to be kept around in Philly for the long run. After 76 points in 2010-11, he followed it up with 93 the next year. In 2013-14, he scored 86 points then followed it up with 73 in 2014-15. Last season, he scored 67 in 78 games.
Giroux is the face of the Flyers and finding flashy stars like him is never easy. The Flyers need to protect Giroux more than any other player on the roster.
24 24. Duncan Keith
The Blackhawks have too many superstar players that need to be protected. Their number one defenceman, Duncan Keith, is vital to helping this team win more Stanley Cups. We know Stan Bowman is going to make sure he's protected, but let's explain anyway why Keith has to stay.
Chicago has all the formulas needed to win a Stanley Cup: Depth all over the ice, clutch superstars, a reliable goalie and most importantly...defence. Keith's a top-five blueliner and is a proven winner, constantly shutting down the best players in the playoffs and on the international stage.
He's a beloved and respected veteran in the locker room. Chicago values Keith as a reliable superstar. If they let him go, they would see a lot more goals surrendered than for.
23 23. P.K. Subban
Nashville was willing to give up the franchise's best player ever in Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, who was coming off of his worst season as a professional. David Poile obviously saw something in Subban that made him pull off the gutsy trade, so why would he even think about leaving Subban available in the draft?
Subban is a world-class defender as long as he has an elite goalie behind him. Pekka Rinne is definitely not on Carey Price's level, but he's no laughingstock, either. Subban has a rocket of a shot and is among the most dangerous players on the power play. Nashville is on the edge of being a Stanley Cup contender, and keeping Subban around is in the best interest of this team.
22 22. Johnny Gaudreau
The Calgary Flames were supposed to have a lengthy rebuilding process headed their way, but as it turns out, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are two of the NHL's rising stars and give this team plenty of time to compete for a Stanley Cup and for the next five years. Probably beyond that, too.
Gaudreau is one of the most exciting players to watch. He's incredibly fast and has great puck skills. He broke out in 2014-15 with 24 goals then scored 30 and 78 points last season. He and Monahan could easily become the NHL's best two-man combination in hockey very soon. We know Brad Treliving is going to keep Gaudreau safe from the draft. The former Hobey Baker winner is simply too talented, and at age 23, his 40-goal seasons are on the horizon.
21 21. Cory Schneider
This Vancouver Canucks fan typing this out remains disgusted that they traded away a top-five NHL netminder for a ninth-overall pick. Since that pick wasn't Connor McDavid or anyone close to his talents, we shall be mad at Mike Gillis for a long time.
People overlook Cory Schneider's incredible stats because the New Jersey Devils are a mediocre team and don't play in the biggest hockey market. But Schneider's been amazing with New Jersey. In 2014-15, he registered a 2.26 GAA and .925 save percentage with five shutouts. Last season, he had a 2.15 GAA, .924 save percentage and four shutouts.
The Devils do not have any superstars on their roster besides Schneider. He's really the one guy that HAS to be protected without a doubt. And Ray Shero will make sure that he stays in New Jersey. Sorry Vegas, roll the dice on another goalie.
20 20. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
The Coyotes best player is being asked to carry a franchise that's been mired in mediocrity for five seasons now. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of the NHL's few bonafide studs and certified G's - and you can't teach that. In case you didn't know, he's scored 20-plus goals in the last two seasons. As a defenceman. On a very porous Arizona team. With really no other superstars. Yeah, he's that good.
Ekman-Larsson doesn't get recognized enough because nobody watches the Coyotes. And few people watch hockey in Arizona. He's one of the most talented defencemen of this generation and he has to be protected. The Coyotes don't even have a long-term future solidified in The Desert. Why would letting Ekman-Larsson goal to Vegas help?
19 19. Anze Kopitar
Anze Kopitar is one of the NHL's most valued players. He doesn't score much (25 goals and 60 points is probably the best you'll get from him nowadays), but his value goes well beyond the scoresheet. He's one of the best shutdown forwards ever and can come through in any given moment on the ice.
He's perfect for Darryl Sutter's system: He's big, physical and is excellent in protecting the puck and can score goals but do an even better job of making sure the opposition doesn't score. Kopitar is a huge reason the Kings are one of the NHL's top teams every year, and Dean Lombardi knows that.
Even though 29 other teams plus Vegas would love him to be exposed, this is such an easy choice for Lombardi. He's not going to let the franchise player slip away. Not a chance.
18 18. Brent Burns
The San Jose Sharks just re-signed their franchise defenceman to an eight-year deal worth $64 million. That alone should tell you why the Sharks are going to protect him in this year's draft. But in case GM Doug Wilson lied to us about the extension, here's a look at why they have to keep Brent Burns.
He's simply one of THE top-notch blueliners right now. He guided the Sharks to the Stanley Cup FinaL by shutting down the top forwards in the playoffs. Even though the Sharks lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Burns was able to shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He would have easily been the Conn Smythe Trophy winner if the Sharks swam with the Cup.
Burned scored a career-high 27 goals and 75 points last season. For a guy whose also played forward over the years, you can bet he'll be putting up similar stat lines for years to come. The Sharks will keep their window open by protecting him.
17 17. Mark Scheifele
The Winnipeg Jets rebuild is finally over and they're ready to be an annual playoff team. Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine have since formed one of the NHL's best twosomes. After being patient with the former 2011 first-round pick, the Jets saw a breakout from Scheifele in 2015-16. He scored 29 goals and 61 points - finally emerging as the franchise superstar they hoped they drafted.
He's off to another blistering start in 2016-17. He and Laine are going to soon overtake Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as the top tandem in the Central Division. Luckily for the Jets, Laine's protected because of his entry-level deal. Winnipeg just gave Scheifele an eight-year extension worth $49 million. They would not have done that if they wanted to leave him exposed to Vegas. Moving on.
16 16. Victor Hedman
While Steven Stamkos is the face of the Lightning, Victor Hedman is the arms and legs...if that makes any sense.
The second-overall pick from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft took a while to find his ground, but he's finally established and looks ready to be a long-time candidate for the Norris Trophy. The 6-6 smooth-skating blueliner would have topped his career-best 13 goals and 55 points (set in 2013-14) by now if it weren't for injuries that prevented him from playing the whole season.
With Steven Stamkos missing plenty of time over the years, Hedman held his ground and helped the Lightning surge into the playoffs. He's just as important to them as Stamkos. GM Steve Yzerman is a genius. He knows that. He'll keep Hedman.
15 15. Brad Marchand
Brad Marchand used to only be known as a 5-9 pest that delivered cheap shots but could also score 20 goals a season. Now, he's one of hockey's best scorers. He scored the game-winning goal for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey Final. Marchand is now established as a guy who'll score (or come close to) 30 goals a season.
As I mentioned about the Bruins having so many hefty contracts they may want to leave exposed, don't even think that Marchand will be one of them. He's one of the NHL's premier speedsters and is especially dangerous on the special teams. Marchand could soon overtake Patrice Bergeron as this team's best forward. He's easily the top choice for Don Sweeney to protect.
14 14. Vladimir Tarasenko
The Blues have a plethora of talented players: Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Jake Allen, Kevin Shattenkirk and of course Vladimir Tarasenko himself. But Tarasenko is far and away the Blues' best player, and they are going to make sure he doesn't head to Vegas.
Tarasenko showed he was a true superstar in 2014-15 when he scored 37 goals and 73 points. It was no fluke as he followed it up with 40 goals and 74 points the next season as the Blues fell two games short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Tarasenko is one of the game's flashiest scorers with his insanely ridiculous speed, puck movement and snipe talents. The Blues championship window won't be open much longer as salary cap woes will prevent them from icing all these stars together. But they are not going to let Tarasenko go.
13 13. Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby is the NHL's best goalie not named Carey Price. He won the Vezina last year and guided the Capitals to a President's Trophy title after going a ridiculous 48-9-7 with a 2.20 GAA and .922 save percentage. Though his Capitals fell to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, Holtby did his part in that series.
He's money in the playoffs and gives the Capitals every chance to win. This team is loaded from the crease and out. Though Washington will have a tough time deciding what players should be left available to Vegas, don't count on Holtby being one of them. There aren't many other goalies in recent years who are so consistent or great like him. Moving along.
12 12. John Tavares
The New York Islanders would be on a lengthy rebuild year-in and year-out if it weren't for Tavares. Despite having no other superstars on his club, John Tavares has guided the Islanders to three postseason trips over the last three seasons. He has a pair of 80-point seasons under his belt and should only add to that.
He scored 38 goals and 86 points in 2014-15 but fell to 33 goals and 70 points last season. Tavares is set to become a free agent in 2018 and the rumors are already swirling that he's going to head to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Keep dreaming.
Tavares looks keen to stay with the Islanders for now. Even if he's not, GM Garth Snow is not going to let Vegas take him for nothing. Tavares is the backbone of the Islanders franchise and is not going to become the backbone of Vegas. Sorry, Nevada.
11 11. Tyler Seguin
In the most one-sided trade of the 2010s, the Dallas Stars acquired a bonafide superstar by giving away unproven prospects and solid (but not great) roster plays. Tyler Seguin has since transitioned the Stars into an era of perennial Stanley Cup contention. The Boston Bruins hated his curfew rule-breaking, but the Stars love his goal-scoring.
Seguin scored 37 goals in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. He has scored over 70 points in each of the past three seasons and would have surely matched his 84-point 2013-14 campaign if he didn't miss time in the last two seasons. Seguin and Jamie Benn are a flashy dual in Dallas and it helps them compete in an extremely tough Atlantic Division.
The Stars were smart to take a chance on Seguin by trading for him. They won't take the chance of leaving him available to Dallas.
10 10. Alexander Ovechkin
Some people have forgotten about how great 'Ovie' really is.
Maybe it's because they've grown accustomed to the Capitals' constant playoff failures while seeing Sidney Crosby win two Stanley Cups while the Chicago Blackhawks form a dynasty and Steven Stamkos becomes the NHL's best pure goal-scorer. Oh, and the legend of Connor McDavid is going to take away some attention from Ovechkin, too.
The Great Eight cannot be forgotten, however. Alexander Ovechkin is scoring 50 goals a season which is impressive - considering how often the top defencemen in the NHL are trying to shut him down every night.
Ovie and the Capitals just haven't been able to get over the hump and win the Cup. But why would leaving him unprotected be a smart move? How does it help this team win a Stanley Cup?
Oh right, it doesn't. Moving on...
9 9. Jamie Benn
The Dallas Stars were rather irrelevant from 2009-2013, missing the playoffs each season with few stars to get excited about. Then, the Victoria, B.C. native formed a deadly dual with Tyler Seguin and hockey is right back on the map in Texas.
Jamie Benn broke out for good in 2013-14, scoring 34 goals and 79 points. He followed it up with 35 goals and 87 points in 2014-15 to win the scoring title. He followed that up with a career-bests in goals (41) and points (89). Benn has taken Dallas to the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, thanks to his incredible chemistry with Seguin.
Because of how much he's turned this franchise into a juggernaut, keeping Benn will be the easiest choice the Stars have had in a long time. He's the new franchise icon and will give them plenty of time to compete for a Stanley Cup.
8 8. Steven Stamkos
The NHL's best pure goal-scorer has turned the Tampa Bay Lightning into one of the NHL's elite teams after years of mediocrity. They've made the Eastern Conference Final three times with him - reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. Steven Stamkos is a sure-bet for 50 goals every season when he's healthy.
Sadly, he hasn't been healthy for a long time. The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season meant he could only suit up for a maximum of 48 games. The following year, he missed most of the season with a broken leg. He missed all but one playoff game in 2016 because of a blood clot. Now, he has to deal with a knee injury that keeps him out until March.
But the Lightning have learned how to win without Stamkos. They did finish second in the Atlantic in 2013-14 and reached the Eastern Conference Final last year when Stamkos didn't show up for the playoffs until Game 7. He's had a major impact on turning this team around. When healthy, they're an elite team.
So yeah, he's going to be protected. Otherwise, Steve Yzerman wouldn't have broke the bank to re-sign him in the offseason.
7 7. Evgeni Malkin
People know that Evegeni Malkin is one of the NHL's top players, he just has to play behind Sidney Crosby. It's just a side effect in Pittsburgh.
That being said, the Penguins wouldn't be an elite team without Malkin. With the top defencemen playing against Crosby each night, Malkin is able to pick up the slack if the captain is having an off game. Plus, Malkin does have two Art Ross Trophies and a Hart Trophy.
Geno hasn't played more than 69 games in the past three seasons, but he's still put up 72, 70 and 58 points in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively. Malkin is a force on the Penguins offence, and if the Penguins left him exposed, they would see their Stanley Cup window close. Crosby's great, but every Batman needs a Robin in sports.
6 6. Erik Karlsson
The Ottawa Senators found a new franchise icon with Daniel Alfredsson leaving the team three years ago. That would be Erik Karlsson, who has dominated the defence position in the ways we saw Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey do it. Sure, he's not the best DEFENSIVE defenceman in the NHL - but nobody for years has dominated so much as a scorer when his job is to play defence.
The Senators have been a mediocre team for years, but Karlsson is giving them a chance every night. His ridiculous speed and puck-moving talents make him a force to be reckoned with. The Senators rely a lot on possession and speed. Karlsson's emergence has given Ottawa plenty of hope.
This team has made plenty of questionable calls over the years when it comes to management. But keeping Karlsson is a no-brainer.
5 5. Jonathan Toews
Here's the funny thing: Everyone knows Jonathan Toews is one of the top-10 players in the NHL. He's a captain on a Blackhawks' dynasty that has three Stanley Cups and he does have two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada. Nobody is a bigger winner than Toews - who simply comes through in the clutch when it's counted on.
But the other funny thing is his stats don't exactly blow people away: He's scored 30 goals just twice in his career and only has one 70-point season. Nonetheless, his offence is just a bonus. He's arguably the NHL's top shutdown forward and undoubtedly the best leader and captain.
The Blackhawks would be nowhere without Jonathan Toews and his sidekick, Patrick Kane. The only reason Bowman would leave Toews unprotected is if some general managers got into some crazy conspiring plot. That ain't happening.
4 4. Drew Doughty
People love to overlook the defenceman position these days unless you're Shea Weber or Erik Karlsson in that you're scoring 20-plus goals and threatening for 50 points a season. Drew Doughty's scoring totals aren't all that sexy for a Norris Trophy winner, but he's still one of the biggest game-changers in hockey.
He's the best defenceman in the world when it comes to defending his own end of the ice. Doughty is also an impressive leader but also incredibly slick with puck movement and quarterbacking the power play. The Kings wouldn't have two Stanley Cups without Doughty because their strong defensive system relies on him shutting down the top opposition.
Doughty may be too high on this list to some, but try to imagine the Kings without him. Now, you have an idea.
3 3. Patrick Kane
Well, it wasn't until 2015-16 when we realized who the heart-and-soul player on the Chicago Blackhawks was. Not Jonathan Toews. Not Duncan Keith. Not Brent Seabrook. Not Corey Crawford. Not Marian Hossa. Not Artemi Panarin. Not Artem Anisimov. But Patrick Kane, rather.
Kane won his first-ever scoring title and Hart Trophy has season - and rightfully so. He was simply that much better than all of the other star Blackhawks and is the guy who has scored all of their clutch playoff goals.
As you know, Chicago is up against the cap for years as their core players carry heavily front-loaded deals. Some may speculate that they would maybe leave one of the contracts unprotected in hopes Vegas will pick it up and give Stan Bowman some much-needed cap space. That's possible, but it's not going to be Kane.
2 2. Carey Price
Some may not like having a goalie this high - but remember when the Canadiens were the best team in the NHL prior to Carey Price spraining his MCL a year ago? And then they unraveled and became one of the NHL's worst teams of 2015-16? Look no further than the definition of a true Most Valuable Player.
Price is the NHL's top goalie in the world, and he means more to the Canadiens than basically every other player on the Habs combined. No, seriously. Just look at the results of last year. In 2013-14, he guided them to the Eastern Conference Final. A year later, the Habs won an ultra-difficult Atlantic Division with Price winning the Hart, William M. Jennings, Ted Lindsay and Vezina Trophies.
With Price back in action, the Canadiens are the NHL's best team this year (no surprise.) They know leaving him exposed would be a nice way of telling fans they want to stockpile on top-five picks for the next decade.
1 1. Sidney Crosby
If Connor McDavid wasn't already protected, then he'd be occupying the top spot on this list. But he's not, so we go with the NHL's best player of the past decade in Sidney Crosby. What else is there to say about this young man?
He's guided the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups, is among the top-five goal-scorers and point leaders every season and has changed hockey in the Steel City forever. People forget this team was close to relocating until Crosby turned this squad into a juggernaut. Even if he's not the same player in five years from now, the Penguins will never move on from Crosby. He is simply a franchise icon.
Crosby could still be a top-10 scorer 10 years from now when he's 39. None of us would be surprised. He gives Pittsburgh every chance to win a Cup for years and years to come.
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