Potential expansion has been a hot-burner topic in the NHL since the off-season, when the league announced it would begin a formal expansion process.
While no guarantees have been given either way - and commissioner Gary Bettman has made it very clear that the decision not expand at all is still very much on the table - both Quebec City and Las Vegas have been eagerly pursuing the opportunity to become the 31st and 32nd NHL franchises.
As Darren Dreger reported on Wednesday, general managers have been informed that a final decision on expansion will be made before the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, scheduled for June 24th. While team owners have plenty of concerns of their own to consider, the major issue for GMs as it stands would appear to be that of the expansion draft.
For the Canadiens, and GM Marc Bergevin, that means there may be some big decisions to come.
In his 30 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman laid out some of the ground-rules as set by the NHL for any possible expansion draft before the 2017-18 season - the earliest date the NHL would consider expansion for.
Friedman states that teams would have the choice to protect either one goalie, three defencemen, and seven forwards or one goalie and eight skaters - the latter meaning fewer players protected but allowing them to potentially protect four (or more) defencemen. He also notes that players with fewer than three years professional experience (in North America) will be automatically exempt.
Who should the Canadiens protect?
It seems like an easy decision for the Habs to opt to protect just three defencemen and, as a result, ten skaters total as opposed to just eight. However, as we take a look at the roster and the strategy of planning for an expansion draft in which you can only lose one-to-two players maximum depending on how many franchises are added, perhaps protecting eight skaters of any position is the better option.
The question, made more interesting by the fact that any potential expansion draft would not occur until after next season, is who to keep around?
There is a host of things to consider, and with reports that Bergevin could be very aggressive this summer, the roster make-up a year from now may not look altogether similar to the one that has called the Bell Centre home this season.
How much should the Habs value potential in their young players yet to enter their primes? At what age is a veteran players too old to use a protection on? These are things Bergevin and co. will need to consider if the NHL ultimately decides to welcome Quebec City and/or Las Vegas to the fold.
This is, of course, the most obvious decision of all. Whether the Habs choose to protect eight or ten skaters, the number of goaltenders that can possibly be protected remains the same: just one. Obviously, for Montreal, that goaltender is Carey Price. While Price has missed most of this season with an injury, he remains the best in the world at his position and no other player would even be entertained by Habs management for this spot.
That does open the question of what happens to Mike Condon. Should the Habs back-up take more steps forward in his development, he could potentially be a target in the expansion draft. However, there will likely be more appealing choices out there. The Anaheim Ducks, for example, would likely not be protecting Frederik Andersen, while the Penguins should be expected to have Matt Murray eligible for selection. Like every team, the Habs run the risk of losing their back-up, though they do have the benefit of Zachary Fucale being automatically protected.
Things start to get a little more interesting at this point, although there still seems to be a few obvious choices.
The important thing to keep in mind is that we're talking about an expansion that would happen the season after next at the very earliest. This means a player like Andrei Markov (who would be 39 in 2017) may, in all likelihood, be getting set for retirement.
P.K. Subban is obviously the first choice here, so the only decision the Habs have to make is regarding the other two spots. As it stands, none of the Canadiens current roster defencemen would be exempt from eligibility based on experience, so anyone could be up for grabs. Who, then, is most worth protecting?
The choice is not easy as there are three main candidates, each entirely deserving.
Beaulieu has taken a big step forward in his development this season, doubling his point totals from last year in fewer games played, while also working his way up the line-up - playing just over 17 minutes per game on average this year. He holds the advantage of being the youngest of these options at just 23 years of age, giving him the most room for future growth. By all metrics a top four defenseman already, Beaulieu should undoubtedly be protected by the Habs.
A welcome addition from the Edmonton Oilers at the deadline last season, Jeff Petry has since solidified his own role on the right-side of the Canadiens' second pair. Shut down for the remainder of the season after a sports hernia injury, his absence has certainly been felt on what has become a very shallow and inexperienced blue-line. Petry is among the Habs best players at driving possession, second among team defencemen in relative CF% at +2.67, and he would undoubtedly be very difficult to replace if lost to an expansion franchise.
Fighting with Petry for the final spot should be Montreal-native Mark Barberio. Perhaps a bit of a dark-horse, there is a compelling debate to be had over which of the two should be the third blue-liner protected by the Canadiens. With 10 points in 30 games this season, Barberio has gone from a depth signing for the Ice Caps to a player we should regard as a regular NHLer. While Petry may indeed be second among defenders in CF% Rel, the only man in front of him is, of course, Barberio.
The WARRIOR Chart comparison of the two makes this an agonizingly difficult decision. From a team-building standpoint, there are benefits associated with protecting each. Ultimately, my belief is that protecting Barberio may indeed be the more intelligent idea. First and foremost, we need to keep in mind that in the first year of expansion - if it is indeed 2017-18 - Petry will be 30 years of age, while Barberio should still be in his prime at age 27.
An even more important factor, perhaps, is the cap flexibility Barberio offers. Realistically, these two players offer similar results on the ice, and in both cases the results are very good. The difference is that Barberio is likely to bring it for much cheaper as a pending restricted free agent who currently makes under $1 million. Petry, on the other hand, will earn $5.5 million through the 2020-21 season.
The rest of the roster make-up should be considered as well. As noted earlier, the Habs are likely to be without the left-handed Markov who may indeed be playing out the final contract of his career. This leaves a hole on the Canadiens left side, where Barberio is a valuable asset - one who could likely line up for years to come behind (or even, at times, in front of) Beaulieu in the top four.
Petry, of course, is currently relied on as the team's second option on the right side, but that is a side with far fewer question marks as Subban will be patrolling it for the foreseeable future. The Canadiens system is filled with far more right-handed players than lefties on defence, including first-round pick Noah Juulsen, AHL All-Star Morgan Ellis, and even Magnus Nygren, who was the Swedish Hockey League's top defenceman in 2012-13.
If the Habs opt to protect eight skaters then this is a wash. There is little doubt that these four would be protected if they choose to go down that route, so it is really only a matter of contention if they can only protect three defenders. In that case, I'm inclined to give Barberio the slight, albeit surprising, edge.
As far as the Habs other defencemen go, there aren't any really worth consideration. Alexei Emelin and Greg Pateryn are two players that management shouldn't lose sleep over the idea of losing in the draft, and in reality they probably wouldn't hate the idea of Emelin's contract being taken on.
The decisions don't get a whole lot easier up front, although there are of course a few givens.
First, we need to clarify which forwards are automatically protected for having fewer than three years of professional experience. Michael McCarron, who is currently playing his rookie professional season, will be ineligible for the expansion draft, along with 2014 first-round pick Nikita Scherbak. It is possible both of these players will be on the Habs main roster in 2017 - McCarron especially - making our decision a tiny bit easier.
The likes of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and Lars Eller are likely the first four players protected by the Habs - and the only forwards protected if they choose to protect eight skaters. Each of the four are major parts of the Canadiens' current make-up, and are unquestionably ones the team can't afford to lose for nothing in an expansion draft.
Not much needs to be said about why the Habs would opt to keep these players around, so the focus of this section will be focused more on the remaining three open spots if the team opts for seven forwards instead.
With a number of potential candidates, there appears to be five main contenders worthy of the most consideration - some with more legitimacy than others, as you would expect.
Tomas Plekanec has spent his entire career with the Canadiens and remains a player that the team relies on to be a jack-of-all-trades. The Czech-national has been applauded throughout the years for his defensive acumen, and is consistently among the top scoring forwards on the team.
The decision to let Plekanec enter the expansion draft and be potentially chosen by a new team would not be one made lightly, but may in fact be the correct one to make. Plekanec would be 35-years-old in the 2017-18 season and playing the final year of his contract, at a cap hit of $6 million. With Galchenyuk proving his ability at centre, along with the presence of Eller and McCarron, the Canadiens might be willing to take the risk that an expansion team would pass on an aging UFA.
The Habs top prospect, Charles Hudon, is probably the forward most likely to be protected after the main four. Once a relatively unknown fifth-round pick, impressive seasons back-to-back in the AHL have led to Hudon's rise through the organization. At just 21-years-old, Hudon represents a player with a diverse skill-set who is knocking on the door of the NHL roster, making for a player expansion teams would certainly have interest in.
Jacob de la Rose, Sven Andrighetto, and Daniel Carr are likely the other three forwards the Habs might find it worthwhile to protect. De la Rose may not have the offensive upside the others bring, but the Swede plays a mature style of game that any team can benefit from. Perhaps the most trusted of any of the young forwards in the organization, it would come as no surprise if he were protected.
Andrighetto and Carr are interesting options, each with the potential to become scoring threats in the NHL but each probably coming with too little a sample size to separate. With the Habs only able to lose one-to-two players in a potential expansion draft, it would likely never get to the point that Andrighetto or Carr are selected regardless, so it may not be a distinction that even needs to be made.
After much deliberation, my personal belief is that the Canadiens would benefit more from protecting just eight skaters (of any position) from the expansion draft process, as opposed to seven forwards and three defencemen.
By choosing to go this route, the Habs are able to guarantee that their four best defencemen remain with the team. The quartet of Subban, Beaulieu, Barberio, and Petry have the ability to play as a built-in top four for seasons to come, and it would be difficult to risk losing that. While there are defencemen in the system - Juulsen and Simon Bourque, for example - there are none that seem ready to step into a top four role for what we hope to be a contending team, making the protection of these defenders of paramount importance for the Canadiens.
In review, that means the nine players protected by the Canadiens would be: Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Nathan Beaulieu, Mark Barberio, Jeff Petry Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and Lars Eller.
The following professional players would be automatically exempt: Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherback, Zachary Fucale, Jeremy Gregoire, Brett Lernout, Tim Bozon, Ryan Johnston, Mark MacMillan, and European professional players
Meaning these remaining players (currently under contract) would be exposed: Tomas Plekanec, Charles Hudon, David Desharnais, Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr, Torrey Mitchell, Jacob de la Rose, Paul Byron, Brian Flynn, Phillip Danault, Lucas Lessio, Stefan Matteau, Michael Bournival, Mike Brown, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov, Greg Pateryn, Victor Bartley, Tom Gilbert, Morgan Ellis, Mike Condon, Ben Scrivens, Mac Bennett, Joel Hanley, Darren Dietz, Connor Crisp, Dalton Thrower, Max Friberg, Gabriel Dumont, Bud Holloway, and John Scott.
Would you choose differently? Let us know in the comments!
While this decision might mean the loss of the Habs top prospect in Hudon, the reality is that the team can only lose one-to-two players at a maximum depending on how many franchises are introduced. It seems as though there are more replacements for a Hudon in this organization than there are for a Petry or a Barberio, and as difficult a decision as this will be, it might be for the best to expose Hudon to the draft.
Still, choosing to protect Hudon would be an equally good decision and we will undoubtedly have a better sense for what the right decision will be after next season. There is also the fact that ultimately, it may not make a huge difference. Expansion teams may opt for a more proven player from the Canadiens organization and leave Hudon alone.
There will be more details to come about the expansion draft - ones that could completely alter this list. Chiefly, we still don't know how No Movement and No Trade Clauses will be handled. This wouldn't be an issue for Subban and Petry, who should be protected, but it may be for someone like Emelin who does have an NTC in his contract, but would surely not otherwise be protected by the team.
Needless to say, the coming years will be very interesting ones if the NHL expands in 2017.