When General Manager George McPhee, formerly the Washington Capitals GM, begins selecting players for the Las Vegas
Black Knights, Neon Knights, Desert Knights, Aces, Black Aces, Nighthawks, Red Hawks, (TBD) Knights, he may have a few established NHL players from the Pittsburgh Penguins roster to choose.
The Penguins forward depth likely means they will protect seven forwards and three defensemen. For the purposes of this discussion and to avoid nauseating repetition, we’ll assume the goalie situation is settled. It is also impossible to predict which players may be added along the way.
Forwards Protected List (7): Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist.
Daniel Sprong and Conor Sheary are exempt because they will be considered second-year professionals. Despite Sheary playing his third professional season, his first was not under NHL contract.
After the five above, the Penguins will have two more forward spaces. Smart money will go to Oskar Sundqvist getting a ticket because of his potential as a long-term shutdown, physical center with a touch of offense. Crosby has already sung Sundqvist’s praises and Sundqvist’s inclusion leaves one ticket for Eric Fehr, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl. If the Penguins acquire a top-six type winger, Sheary may become expendable. Money could also play a role as the Penguins leave Eric Fehr and his $2 million salary available.
Projection: The Penguins will protect Oskar Sundqvist and Rust. The Pens will choose Rust’s speed, versatility to occasionally log top-six minutes and the ability to add offense on the fourth line over Kuhnhackl, who is locked into a defensive fourth line role, and over Fehr. The move will also expose Fehr to the draft, perhaps to entice Las Vegas to skip over one of the defensemen.
Defense Protected List (3): The Penguins will protect Kris Letang.
After Letang, it’s a puzzle. Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, and Brian Dumoulin are the remaining souls who may sweat out Expansion Draft day.
The second and third protected defensemen will be a complex decision. The Penguins could choose to play chicken in order to keep Trevor Daley. By not signing the defensemen, the Penguins won’t have to protect Daley but Las Vegas will be able to negotiate with Daley before the expansion draft. If Daley rebuffs Las Vegas, the Penguins could sign the “free agent” Daley. Otherwise, Daley’s age and cost work against him.
If Las Vegas signs Daley, the Penguins will have lost a player they may not have been able to afford and be able to keep the young core of Maatta, Dumoulin, and Pouliot.
Olli Maatta could decide the other’s fate. Rebound strong with renewed foot speed and it is Maatta’s spot to lose. Ian Cole is solid, but his best asset will be his inexpensive cost.
Projection: The easy prediction is the Penguins keep Letang, Maatta, Dumoulin, allow Daley to become a free agent, and expose Derrick Pouliot and Ian Cole.
However, if you like to bet long shots, Pouliot is a dark horse to break into the trio. If the Penguins are the gambling type, they could expose Maatta in hopes that Las Vegas would bypass his $4 million salary. Pouliot’s cost should be less than Maatta, which could allow the Penguins to afford another defenseman… perhaps Trevor Daley.
Goaltender (1): Fleury/Murray. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, we will skip that debate. As of now, the Penguins could expose AHL Sean Maguire, after settling the Fleury/Murray debate, without much risk of losing the former Boston University netminder.