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The Expansion Draft is a giant, dampening field on the NHL trade market

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Some teams like the Leafs may defer all or part of their deal-making to the summer.

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It’s all their fault.
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The Expansion Draft Rules

The expansion draft takes place right after the playoffs are over and before the entry draft.

The 30 NHL Clubs must submit their Protection List by 5:00 P.M. ET on Saturday, June 17, 2017. The Las Vegas team must submit their Expansion Draft Selections by 5:00 P.M. ET on June 20 and the announcement of their selections will be released on made [sic] on June 21.

Source

Like previous drafts, teams need to meet rules for which players they may protect and which they may expose. There are two schemes the team can use to decide who to protect:

Protected Lists

* Clubs will have two options for players they wish to protect in the Expansion Draft:

a) Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender

b) Eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goaltender

* All players who have currently effective and continuing "No Movement" clauses at the time of the Expansion Draft (and who to decline to waive such clauses) must be protected (and will be counted toward their club's applicable protection limits).

* All first- and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward their club's applicable protection limits).

Teams must also meet requirements for who they expose:

Player Exposure Requirements

* All Clubs must meet the following minimum requirements regarding players exposed for selection in the Expansion Draft:

i) One defenseman who is a) under contract in 2017-18 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.

ii) Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2017-18 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.

iii) One goaltender who is under contract in 2017-18 or will be a restricted free agent at the expiration of his current contract immediately prior to 2017-18. If the club elects to make a restricted free agent goaltender available in order to meet this requirement, that goaltender must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the club's protected list.

Each team will only lose one player, unlike in the last draft where teams lost two. So the risk a team takes in deciding who to expose is not extreme, but someone is going for nothing.

The Leafs Current Situation

The Leafs have no players they must protect. They do have a long list of exempt players that includes Nathan Horton.

Goalies

The Leafs goalie situation is simple. They will protect Frederik Andersen and have two goaltenders in Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks who only require a qualifying offer to meet the exposure requirements. They can also extend Curtis McElhinney and meet the requirement that way.

There does not seem to be any market for goalies to meet that exposure requirement either. All teams either have someone or can simply offer a contract extension to an existing AHL goalie or backup. Dustin Tokarski and Al Montoya have both received extensions recently.

The coming draft might make some teams deal an extra goalie they can’t protect, but Toronto isn’t likely to make moves.

Defenders

Unless a team has limited forwards they either must or want to protect, using the eight skater system to protect more than three defenders is unlikely. The Leafs would have to be willing to expose multiple juicy options at forward to use that method. The more likely approach is that they will be able to protect only three defenders while exposing the rest. One of the rest must meet the exposure requirements.

These are the Leafs defenders who are not exempt from the draft:

Toronto Maple Leafs Defenders January 27, 2017

DEFENSE AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY 40/70
DEFENSE AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY 40/70
Rielly, Morgan 22 D $5,000,000 UFA (2022)
Gardiner, Jake 26 D $4,050,000 UFA (2019)
Polak, Roman 30 D $2,250,000 UFA (2017)
Marincin, Martin 24 D $1,250,000 RFA (2018)
Hunwick, Matt 31 D $1,200,000 UFA (2017)
Carrick, Connor 22 D $750,000 RFA (2018)
Loov, Viktor 24 D $692,500 RFA (2017) 40GR
Corrado, Frank 23 D $600,000 RFA (2017) 29GR
Campbell, Andrew 28 D $575,000 UFA (2017) 40GR

A check mark only means the games played requirement for exposure is met. The player still has to meet the contract status requirements to meet the exposure requirements. This information is available in an interactive and detailed form at Cap Friendly.

Nikita Zaitsev is not on this list, as he is exempt. The obvious three to protect are Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and one of Connor Carrick or Martin Marincin. Both of those players meet the exposure requirement, and Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick could both be made to meet it by simply giving them an extension on their contracts.

Note: don’t confuse meeting the exposure requirement with being exposed. All players not exempt and not protected are available to be taken.

This is the area that is handcuffing the Leafs into inaction on the trade front. There is already a choice to be made between risking the loss of Carrick or Marincin. The next few weeks of play may change minds about who should be protected and who put at risk, but the acquisition of a new defender of higher value would mean both of them must be exposed.

One thing teams have to bear in mind when assessing the risk of losing a player they want to keep, but may not be able to protect, is that Vegas is required to hit 60 percent of the current salary cap with their selections. That is $43,800,000 spread over 30 players. Twenty of those players must be under contract to the summer of 2018. The incentive is there for Vegas to take players more in Marincin’s salary range than Carrick’s, but both have contracts that run for another year.

Toronto could eliminate the risk of losing one of these defenders for nothing by trading them ahead of the draft. Since they are in site of a playoff position, that seems very unlikely now, but one of the decisions the Leafs will likely make after the season concerns Marincin and his future on the team.

For some teams, the defender protection conundrum is spurring them to action, most notably the Anaheim Ducks, who have very good defenders they can’t protect and a real incentive to trade one of them and get something rather than nothing. But there are not many of those teams, and they will want back either picks or exempt prospects or they haven’t really solved their problem. They also need to play out the season and may choose to defer this problem to the few days prior to June 17 instead of now at the deadline.

There does not seem to be any teams that can’t meet the exposure requirements fairly easy with what they have on their rosters, so that need is not making anyone act now.

Forwards

The Leafs problem here is a little different. These are all the non-exempt forwards.

Toronto Maple Leafs Forwards January 27, 2017

FORWARDS AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY 40/70
FORWARDS AGE POS CAP HIT EXPIRY 40/70
Lupul, Joffrey 33 LW $5,250,000 UFA (2018) 24GR
Laich, Brooks 33 C $4,500,000 UFA (2017)
Kadri, Nazem 26 C $4,500,000 UFA (2022)
Van Riemsdyk, James 27 LW $4,250,000 UFA (2018)
Bozak, Tyler 30 C $4,200,000 UFA (2018)
Michalek, Milan 32 LW $4,000,000 UFA (2017) 20GR
Komarov, Leo 30 C $2,950,000 UFA (2018)
Greening, Colin 30 LW $2,650,000 UFA (2017) 39GR
Martin, Matt 27 LW $2,500,000 UFA (2020)
Rychel, Kerby 22 LW $863,333 RFA (2018) 38GR
Brown, Connor 23 RW $686,667 RFA (2017)
Smith, Ben 28 RW $675,000 UFA (2017) 12GR
Leipsic, Brendan 22 LW $653,333 RFA (2017) 40GR
Griffith, Seth 24 RW $625,000 RFA (2017) 16GR
Leivo, Josh 23 LW $612,500 RFA (2018) 38GR
Froese, Byron 25 C $575,000 RFA (2017) 12GR

A check mark only means the games played requirement for exposure is met. The player still has to meet the contract status requirements to meet the exposure requirements. This information is available in an interactive and detailed form at Cap Friendly.

Even if the Leafs use the 7/3/1 scheme, they have some choices to make on who to expose. Many fans believe the Leafs should expose Tyler Bozak or Matt Martin because they don’t like those players. This is not going to happen unless the choice is between one of those players and a prospect of high value. No team will give away for free an NHL player of value if they don’t have to.

The desired result for the Leafs is to manoeuvre Vegas into taking a player the Leafs would lose on waivers and don’t see as part of their NHL roster next year.

Assuming Bozak and Martin are protected, the Leafs can protect five other forwards, and the obvious choices are James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, Connor Brown and Brendan Leipsic.

That leaves Kerby Rychel, Seth Griffith and Josh Leivo exposed. The Leafs have shown a willingness to go to almost absurd lengths to keep Leivo and Frank Corrado on the roster and not expose them to waivers. It seems unlikely to me that the same management who did that are happy about risking multiple young prospects. They might pick one to leave laying around for Vegas, but not all of them.

To sort this out, the Leafs can either expose someone on my protected list and lose them in the expansion draft for nothing but some cap space, or they can trade some of them before the draft. They can also cut to the chase and just trade the prospects.

This is where it seems like the Leafs have deals to make, but to make them now means insisting on exempt prospects or picks in return. We saw what the pick market is during the season for a marginal NHL player in the Peter Holland trade. Waiting until after the season is over and dealing to fix the excess of forwards seems like the most profitable choice.

That leaves the Leafs with one small, fairly easily fixable problem. They need two forwards who meet the exposure requirements and they have none who are not on my protection list. Ben Smith only needs 12 more games and a contract extension. Byron Froese only needs 12 games and a qualifying offer. The other option is to play Seth Griffith for 16 games and give him a qualifying offer. The next option after that is to claim on waivers or trade for someone who does qualify. This is also a problem that can wait until the season is over. The Leafs will have made their final decisions of who to protect and they will actually know if Ben Smith has got enough games in.

Note: due to the rules on potentially career ending injuries, Joffrey Lupul will likely be considered exempt once the Leafs have played 60 games this season. He is not going to be the player taken.

Conclusion

Everyone’s favourite fantasy trade right now is van Riemsdyk for some defender of amazing talent. To make that deal, even if you can find it, you need to be getting back someone who is worth losing whichever of Carrick or Marincin you want to keep, as well as van Riemsdyk himself. You have to get someone to overpay you. Since it is defenders who are supposedly so rare they are fetching record prices, not forwards, this seems very unlikely. After the expansion draft, the entire picture changes.

There are a few teams who need to move out forwards to avoid losing them, and they may make a classic trade for a pick and a prospect at the deadline for them, but the Leafs are not a team that must do that and despite the common antipathy amongst fans to Tyler Bozak, they have no one they need to get off their roster in order to free up space for more rookies. The Leafs certainly do not need fewer centres.

There is another way to solve the too many forwards to protect problem, but it is hard to do. If the Leafs had on their roster a player they are willing to give away who is such a temptation to the Vegas Golden Knights that they will overlook players as young as Rychel or Leivo to take him, they will have protected them without needing protection slots.

Both Bozak and Komarov would fit the bill for temptation factor and their salaries are enough to help Vegas get to the 60% while still scooping young and interesting players from other teams. But neither player meets the willing to give away criteria very well.

There might be a deal out there to add a player to use in that way, Antti Niemi, for example, but it feels clever rather than smart. The Leafs seem to lean towards conservative and smart all while maintaining two or three fallback plans at all times.

To add an extra wrinkle to this the Vegas Golden Knights are about to be allowed to make deals:

The Leafs may be able to choose exactly who they want Vegas to have by making a deal with them sometime after the trade deadline. For example, they could offer a few low-level prospects and AHL players to the Knights in exchange for taking Josh Leivo off of their hands. Before the Leafs make any move, they have to clearly understand their players, and make decisions on those players’ futures.

No matter what they do, they aren’t likely to do any of it now at the deadline. Not unless they are offered a deal too good to pass up deal, and Taylor Hall was already traded.