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How does the NHL expansion draft work? A primer

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Do you not understand the intricacies of an expansion draft? No worries; we're here to help with this handy expansion draft primer

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The NHL announced at the recent annual GM meeting in Boca Raton that it would make a decision in June regarding expansion. Any decision on expansion would take effect in the 2017-18 NHL season. The possible options are:

  • Decline to expand, leaving the NHL at 30 teams for the foreseeable future
  • Expand to 31 teams by adding a franchise in Las Vegas
  • Expand to 32 teams by adding a franchise in Las Vegas and likely Quebec City (though you might not want to rule out Seattle entirely)

It's been over fifteen years since the NHL's last round of expansion, when the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets), Minnesota Wild, and Columbus Blue Jackets were all added between 1998 and 2000. The world, however, was a different place back then. The internet was around, but not a primary source of news as it is today. The advent of social media makes finding information in real time relatively simple, giving a completely new feel to any future expansion draft.

In 2000, you'd check the Sports section of your local newspaper the next morning to see who Columbus and Minnesota selected. Now? You'll hear it on Twitter within seconds of it actually occurring. Chances are TSN and Sportsnet will make a 5-hour event of it that will be not at all disappointing, but some people will burn a vacation day to watch.

To prepare you for this momentous day, we here at PPP Light Kitten Manufacturing and Pug Ranch LLC have a handy primer here to help you through the expansion draft, and what to expect.

(1) When is the Expansion Draft?

The NHL will confirm this date in June. If expansion goes ahead, it's likely that the draft will take place in June 2017, prior to the NHL entry draft. In terms of timing vis-a-vis the NHL schedule, that means it will probably take place 2-3 days before the draft, placing it anywhere from 7 to 10 days after the Stanley Cup Final, depending on how long it goes.

(2) How Many Players, and Who, Can Teams Select in the Expansion Draft?

This answer is contingent on the number of teams that will be admitted into expansion. Each team will be eligible to draft a maximum of one player per team. Thus, if there's one team, 30 players will be drafted. If there's two teams, 60 players will be drafted.

As for who, that depends on the protection rules allotted by each team. In expansion drafts, each team is entitled to protect a certain number of players. In 2000, teams could protect either:

(a) Seven forwards, three defensemen, and two goalies

(b) Nine forwards, five defensemen, and one goalie

The problem with the 2000 rules was that the quality of players left, well, flat out stunk. The best available players were likely third/fourth liners, number 4-5 defensemen, and backup goalies. Case in point: in the three expansion drafts from 1998 to 2000, the Leafs gave up Kevyn Adams, Tommi Rajamaki, Yannick Tremblay, and Rob Zettler. Other than Zettler- who had 22 points in 136 GP as a Leaf- anybody remember these guys? Me neither.

The NHL has an eye to Las Vegas here, and knows from the Thrashers fiasco that it cannot expect to put a team in a non-traditional market, have it suck for a prolonged period of time, and succeed. It is therefore unsurprising that the NHL will be instituting new protection rules that are much more favourable to the expansion franchise(s). Teams will now only be able to protect either:

(a) seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie; or,

(b) eight skaters, and one goalie.

This will allow expansion teams to field a much more competitive lineup quicker. For teams that go with option A, you can still get decent depth forwards and perhaps a good second pair defenseman. Option B- which may be chosen by teams like Anaheim that have a lot of young blueliners they may wish to protect- opens up the possibility of taking a decent top six forward. In either case, the move to protect one goaltender only ensures that a lot of solid 1A goalies (think Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay, James Reimer in San Jose, or Jimmy Howard in Detroit) are available.

Sure, an expansion team won't be competitive out of the gate; but you also avoid a situation like the early Atlanta Thrashers, who finished their inaugural season with only 39(!!) points, and didn't top 60 points in their first three seasons. It's clear the NHL's goal is to build a competitive Las Vegas (and Quebec/Seattle) franchise sooner rather than later.

(3) Are There Players Who Don't Require Protection?

Yes. Any player in their first or second season of AHL or NHL hockey will be exempted from the expansion draft.

Note that I expressly included the AHL. What this means is that, as soon as you start playing in the AHL, the clock begins ticking. For the purposes of a 2017 expansion draft, only players that played their first season in 2015-16 or later will be exempted. Obviously, the number of prospects who have yet to play in the AHL or NHL would be part of this category.

As for  the Leafs and Marlies current rosters, this would include less people than originally expected. Only one player currently on the Leafs roster- Rinat Valiev- would be eligible for exemption. Only one player on the Marlies- Tobias Lindberg- would be as well.

The biggest question, however, would be what constitutes a full season. Is it simply playing in the AHL/NHL at all in a particular year? Or is a certain threshold of games (i.e. 40+) required? This question will be crucial to Leaf fans with respect to William Nylander, who played 37 games with the Marlies in 2014-15. If that counts as a "season" for expansion purposes, he will require protection. If not, however, he is exempt, leaving the Leafs an extra protection spot. Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman are also potentially not exempted.

Early indications, however, are that it sounds as though Nylander will not be exempted:

(4) What about Unrestricted Free Agents in 2017?

Well, believe it or not, they can be claimed, too!

As mentioned in question #1, the expansion draft will take place in June 2017. Under s. 10.1(a)(i) of the current CBA, an unrestricted free agent's contract is set to expire on June 30. This means, for all intents and purposes, that that player is still a member of the club with which they finished the previous season until July 1.

For an example, let's assume Brooks Laich- a UFA in 2017- plays all of next season with the Leafs. Laich will not become a free agent until after the expansion draft. While the draft is taking place, he will still be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs roster and eligible for: (a) drafting by an expansion team; or, (b) protection by the Leafs.

All of this, however, is pretty academic. After all, there's no guarantee that expansion teams can get a free agent to sign with their team. Many UFA veterans, if given the choice between a first-year expansion team and an established team trying to contend at equal money, would obviously be inclined to choose the latter. Teams also aren't going to waste a protection spot on a pending UFA who may not even return to the team. I highly doubt even Dave Nonis or Jim Benning could be that stupid, though both have surprised me before.

There has previously been rules allowing compensatory draft picks to teams that draft UFAs who sign elsewhere. The CBA is silent on this, nor has the NHL said anything about doing this. If this were to happen, there would be one obvious loophole: teams may take UFAs with no intention of signing them for the express purpose of loading up on draft picks. If the NHL wants these teams to be competitive, however, I can't see them allowing a rule that would enable expansion teams to punt away current roster players for future assets before they've hit the ice.

(5) What About Players With No-Movement Clauses (NMCs)?

This one is a bit trickier. Per s. 11.8 of the CBA:

(c) A no-move clause may prevent the involuntary relocation of a Player, whether by Trade, Loan or Waiver claim.

Note what this sentence doesn't include: an expansion draft.

On some level, this might be an oversight. The CBA was hurriedly drafted in 2013 after an almost four-month lockout. Aside from some key terms to be revised, many of the provisions- including about NMCs- are likely unchanged from the 2005 CBA. So, odds are that this provision on NMCs likely originated in the 2005 document, when thoughts of expansion were little more than a pipe dream.

On its face, 11.8(c) does not apply to an expansion draft. But let's look a little closer at the definition of "Trade":

"Trade" means the transfer, other than as a result of a claim by Waivers, from one Club's Reserve List or Free Agent List to another Club's Reserve List or Free Agent List of a Player's SPC, the rights to a Player (including his SPC, if applicable) on such Club's Reserve List or Free Agent List, and/or the rights to a draft choice in the Entry Draft.

While a "trade" as we know it would encompass an asset- be it a player, prospect, or pick- returning to the original team, the definition is fairly broad. It encompasses any transfer except waivers, and says nothing about a return being required. This might leave the door open for the NHLPA to categorize the expansion draft as a "trade" for CBA purposes, meaning that the NMC would be in full force.

Elliotte Friedman poses an interesting question if an NMC is in effect: does that player count as a protected player? After all, it would be one less player for a team to claim. A player with an NMC would have to agree to waive the clause to be claimed in the expansion draft. Regardless of how much glitz and glamour Vegas might promise, good luck convincing an established veteran- especially one on a good team- to waive an NMC his agent negotiated to play a lost season for a 65-75 point expansion team.

I can't really think of any counter-argument on this point. A player on an NMC is either: (a) valued enough by the franchise that the team would protect them in any event; or, (b) a bad contract. Not counting them as protected would likely only serve to reward incompetency for handing out NMCs to bad players (David Clarkson, anyone?). The rule really should be that a team can ask a player to waive their NMC in advance, but if they refuse, they count as a protected player.

(6) Who Should the Leafs Protect?

We'll have a deeper analysis on this on the coming days, but the short answer: we don't know.

There are definitely younger players who would constitute untouchables on this Leafs team that require protection: Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, and Garret Sparks come to mind. Maybe Brendan Leipsic as well (NOTE: Elseldo is writing the Leaf-centric analysis on this, don't expect to see him listed in that piece for reasons the rest of our writing staff still do not understand).

Beyond that? Tea leaves. The Leafs roster is in a state of flux. Lou Lamoriello committed to bringing back 50 to 60 per cent of this year's roster. It's really hard  to prognosticate what the state of the Leafs roster will be in June 2017, some sixteen months from now. Will some of the more valuable veterans like Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, and Leo Komarov be around? Will certain UFAs who shant be named join the team? Will the Leafs trade for a young, established piece, such as a right-handed defenseman? There's more questions than answers.

We'll try to answer those questions, but it isn't simple, or cut-and-dry.

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Hopefully this handy guide has given you a better idea of how the expansion drafts work.

For extra credit, take a look at the player photographed in the header of this post. If you can identify in the comments: (a) who he is; and, (b) why I chose him for this photo, you win.....uh, self-respect I guess.