The 2017 Vegas Expansion Draft forever altered the NHL landscape. Teams, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, were fleeced for extra picks to ensure Vegas GM George McPhee would select the right player, and Vegas immediately became a Stanley Cup contender with a war chest of additional draft picks.
In 2017, Vegas plucked Marc-Andre Fleury from the Penguins and held up Penguins GM Jim Rutherford for an additional second-round pick to ensure the transaction.
That was an all-time bluff by McPhee to let Rutherford think he could select anyone else but Fleury.
The Pittsburgh Penguins philosophy for the 2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft when former Jim Rutherford protege, Seattle GM Ron Francis comes calling should be simple: Give them salary or give them nothing.
In fact, the Penguins roster construction and lack of depth talent should enable Rutherford to offer assets he can afford to lose. Unless Rutherford wants to shed a salary, the Penguins will be able to offer Seattle almost nothing, at all.
The rules will be the same. A team may protect seven skaters, three defensemen, and one goalie. Or, teams may lock up eight skaters and one goalie.
Players who have played two years or less in the NHL are exempt from the draft, which means Penguins defenseman John Marino will be safe from the Kraken.
Marino has become a rising star not only with the Penguins but across the NHL. He garnered significant votes and finished in the top 10 of the deep Calder Trophy field last season. Marino scored 26 points (6g, 20a) in 56 games.
The first six Penguins forwards to be protected are easy to list to assemble. The protected will be the Penguins top-six unless the Penguins want to free up cap space.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, and Jason Zucker are safe. The Penguins will have a choice between Jared McCann, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev. Two of them will be unprotected.
Last season, Tanev and Blueger were breaths of fresh air on the ice. Each used their speed and tenacity to create a suppressive fourth line.
Tanev had 25 points (11g, 14a) in 68 games and led all Penguins with 244 hits. Last July 1, he signed a six-year, $21.5 million deal, so his expansion draft attractiveness might be diminished. After this season, Tanev, 28, will have four years remaining.
Blueger is traditionally a gradual learner. Last season, he scored 22 points (9g, 13a) in 69 games and even finished 26th in Selke Trophy voting (Tanev finished 19th).
While both are important to the Penguins, neither are indispensable.
Jared McCann, 26, signed a two-year, $2.94 million deal this offseason. The Swiss-Army knife forward is a defensive center and a LW with offensive promise. Unfortunately, his career-best is just 35 points, which he set in each of the last two seasons.
Should McCann be left available, he is certainly Francis’ type of player and be snatched up. However, the Penguins may choose to leave Tanev and his larger salary available.
This season will determine which is left available and probably becomes the Seattle selection.
Our apologies for the lack of high drama so far. It gets even duller, too.
The Penguins will be able to protect Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, and Marcus Pettersson. Again, that list is unless the Penguins want to shed a salary.
Newly acquired Mike Matheson is the early leader in the clubhouse to be left unprotected. However, with a strong season, he could, perhaps, supplant Pettersson. Chad Ruhwedel and Zach Trotman will also be exposed, but neither figures to garner much attention.
In net, Casey DeSmith is the unlucky goalie who will watch the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft with some interest. Though DeSmith’s undrafted pedigree doesn’t match his solid performance and Seattle will likely have higher profile goalies from which to choose.
So, the Pittsburgh Penguins unprotected list will include either Jared McCann or Brandon Tanev, and very likely Mike Matheson.
Perhaps Rutherford could benefit by repeating history. The Penguins could offer Francis an additional asset to select Matheson, thus freeing the Penguins of Matheson’s remaining five years at $4.8 million per season.
Who knows, that asset could even be McCann, which would free up nearly $8 million. Since next season will be a flat salary cap, that would be a best-case scenario for the Penguins; to have an extra $8 million with plenty of free-agent bargains available.
When the Seattle Kraken comes calling, the Penguins can give them nothing, or Rutherford can try to give them everything, including salary.
Either way, this time, Rutherford and the Penguins appear poised to win the Expansion Draft game.