30 IN 30 - PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (2nd Place Regular Season, Stanley Cup Champions)
The much anticipated Marc-Andre Fleury chip has finally fallen in Pittsburgh...well at least partially. The goalie has waived his 'no movement clause' for the good of the team, and put himself at obvious risk for selection and/or trade. Matt Murray will finally be in the protection fold, leaving the Golden Knights very few options on expansion day. An obvious result after fielding four 35+ year old contributors in the bottom half of their lineup. Add in the fact nearly anyone appears capable of success next to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and GM Jim Rutherford's job looks a lot easier. Pens player's lack both the market value outside Pittsburgh and the motivation to leave. Teams are generally cautious in signing former-Pens who's stats have been inflated by the two superstars (...well at least they should be). Plus, who has the motivation to leave? Wouldn't you want to ride shotgun to Crosby and tap in 15 open-netters a year? Maybe win a Cup? That's the dream right there! So finding a series of bargain-rates within the free agent abyss - both professional and college - isn't much of a challenge for the Pens. Nevertheless, at least one big decision will have to be made before the expansion draft. Could the addition by subtraction help the team re-load for next year?
PROTECTION LIST STRUCTURE
- Crosby (*NMC)
- Malkin (*NMC)
- Kessel (*NMC)
- Letang (*NMC)
It's incredible to think that a Stanley Cup champ could be this protected from expansion. The core appears to be safe and sound, and a youngster like Jake Guentzel is exempt from the process. With the aforementioned goalie issue already on it's way to a solution, the only decision left to make for the Penguins is the 3rd protected D-man slot. With an NMC in place and clear distance from the pack talent-wise, Kris Letang takes the number one spot, but after that it's pretty wide open. On first glance prospect Derrick Poliout may receive cursory consideration, but his professional career appears to have had more downs than ups thus far. Olli Maatta has shown unfortunate regression in his game, and at 22 could be coming to a cross-roads with his identity as a top-four defencemen. A 'fan favourite' in Edmonton, Justin Schultz has proven worth as a depth d-man with power play upside, which frankly is more in-line with his expectations out of college than the top-pairing label given to him by Oiler fans after his stint in the AHL. Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole have also provided serviceable work for the self-titled 'motley crue', while taking up minimal cap space on a top heavy roster.
From our brief statistical analysis, Maatta appears to show his worth in the regular season, but anyone that watched this years playoffs would argue otherwise. His complete drop off in scoring production is a concern for a guy that logs big minutes with some of the best forwards in the league. His incredibly high goals for differential, obviously looks good as does his league average Corsi rate. But in our opinion his $4.083M cap is comparably excessive when looking at the Penguins D-core in isolation, when the pair of Schultz and Cole, arguably a more effective duo, are making less in total than Maatta alone. With negotiating leverage over both Schultz and Cole, for the organizations part in rejuvenating their careers, it's not unreasonable to assume both players would sign discount deals to stay in Pittsburgh. The strategic play for the Penguins appears to be protecting Justin Schultz. His ability as a young power-play quarterback is enough for team looking at the bottom half the Penguins roster come expansion day. By protecting him and the minute munching Brian Dumoulin (Letang's primary D-partner) you inadvertently could protect Ian Cole as well. Olli Maatta is generally the more appealing option for Vegas, his age and long term deal trumps Cole's pending 2018 unrestricted free agency. As a lefty playing the right side, Cole's market value dwarfs in comparison to the right shots available through the draft. By dangling Maatta out there, the Penguins could put the blinders on Vegas to either pick him or a prospect.
Derrick Pouliot also has an outside chance at protection. The 11 NHL games he suited up for this season may have been less than impressive, but Pouliot's next contact - probably a two year bridge - will come in at a bargain rate; an important quality for the Cup champs holding four big star player contracts and looking to add to add to the lineup this offseason with a three-peat in mind. Leaving Pouliot exposed would force Vegas to make a judgment call on his actual NHL ability.
WHATS LEFT UP FRONT?
Up front, a rather inexperienced group will be left available for selection. The Golden Knights could look to 25 year old checker Tom Kuhnhackl, or enigmatic Swedish prospect Oskar Sundqvist. Kuhnhackl may have two Stanley Cups to his name, but his checking line abilities will be a dime a dozen come draft day. Sundqvist on the other hand, appears to have his game back on track, putting up 46 points in 60 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) this season. The effort gained him a 10 game call-up to Pittsburgh, albeit with little impact. As a 6'3 210lb centre with streaky scoring upside, Sundqvist could be the dark-horse selection for George McPhee & Co.
GOLDEN KNIGHTS SELECTION
Without a trade yet in place, Marc-Andre Fleury holds the most value. He is the runaway selection if left unprotected. Whether or not the team keeps him or flips him back into the market, he leaves the remaining options in his shadow.
HOWEVER...Pittsburgh would be stupid not to trade Fleury and receive something in return. In that scenario, Olli Maatta slips into our selection spot. Playoff performance aside, the Stanley Cup champs did lean on him at times this season. Prospect Derrick Pouliot hasn't caught on a legitimate NHL defencemen quite yet and was purposely pushed out of the lineup by management with their late season acquisitions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit. A bit of a red flag. If we're Vegas, we're taking the player that was hot and cold at the NHL level, not the AHL level.
Next up: Washington Capitals