(Kate Frese/Sports Talk Philly)
By Dan Heaning, Sports Talk Philly staff writer
With the Stanley Cup Final upon us, the hockey world is focused on who will win the most coveted trophy in sports. Yet, if that series goes to seven games, it’ll be a mere week when the Expansion Draft for the newest NHL franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights.
Before the excitement of the Final captures everyone’s attention, let’s go through who the Philadelphia Flyers will need to protect in that draft as the time to clear any doubt is waning.
First, the Flyers will more than likely go with a 7-3-1 protection plan: Seven forwards, three defensemen, one goalie. While the 8-1-1 strategy would give them more flexibility, it would actually result in leaving an extra forward exposed.
That’s because general manager Ron Hextall needs to protect Shayne Gostisbehere and Radko Gudas. Leaving either defenseman exposed will result in Vegas picking them right up without hesitation. Plus, on a weak blue line, any quality defender is essential.
Now, that brings us to protecting seven forwards, one other defenseman and a goalie. The Flyers, by rule, must protect captain Claude Giroux and center Valtteri Filppula due to their respective no-movement clauses. Two down, five to go.
The next batch are necessary, not by rule, but due to their value to the team. Wayne Simmonds, Jake Voracek, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn will all be protected unless something unforeseen occurs.
All of these players are too important to the team to simply let go without any returning value. While Simmonds, Couturier and Voracek aren’t on the block, letting a 50-point producer like Schenn go without getting anything in return is not how you build a hockey team. Six down, one to go.
Now, this is where things get interesting. Michael Raffl, Jordan Weal, Matt Read, Nick Cousins, Dale Weise, Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier are all left and interesting pieces for Vegas to consider.
I’m not going to entertain the idea Vegas will take Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, why take a fourth liner when the above players are available? That makes no sense.
When talk of the expansion draft began, Weise and Read were the players most mock drafts projected to go to Las Vegas. Neither Read or Weise are in the Flyers long-term plans. Yes, Weise is signed for another three years, but his role on the team isn’t so vital that Hextall needs to protect him. If the Golden Knights select Weise, no big fuss.
Meanwhile, Vegas may want a player with more term or a salary they negotiated in place of Read’s one remaining year at slightly over $3 million. So the early consensus guys may not even be picked at all.
That leaves us with determining whether to protect Raffl, Weal, Cousins, Leier or Laughton. An argument can be made to protect any one of these players and another argument can be made to let them go.
Cousins hasn’t shown much in the way of offense in his first two years. However, he took over for Laughton at the third line center role two seasons ago and proved more stable than Laughton. Though, at this juncture, Cousins can be seen as a bottom-six, if not fourth-line, player. He certainly has offensive potential, but realizing that potential in Philadelphia doesn’t seem to be in the cards. He should be exposed.
Weal played very well last year with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and then, in 23 games, with the Flyers. But is that small sample of 23 games enough to keep him over a proven commodity like Raffl or a first-round pick like Laughton? Is Weal’s potential greater than Laughton or Leier’s? Is he more likely to be Marty St. Louis or Cory Conacher?
Laughton’s future in Philadelphia is murky regardless of whether he’s exposed or not. After making the team in 2015-16, Laughton spent most of last season in Lehigh Valley. With either Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick joining a pipeline of centers already including German Rubtsov, Mikhail Vorobyov and Pascal Laberge coupled with a logjam at forward already on the roster, Laughton may no longer be in the Flyers plans.
Leier is an interesting option. He’s only played in 16 NHL games and racked up one goal and an assist, but he’s shown offensive flash in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks. He could be a good second or third-line player, according to his Hockey’s Future scouting report.
Raffl had a rough go last season. However, his body of work shouldn’t be ignored when considering protecting him. He’s scored 20 goals once and produced over 20 points in his first three seasons. Even though he typically starts in the offensive zone, his Corsi-For remains strong. So even though he’s not posting 20-goal campaigns every year, his process is where it should be. The problem comes with the abundance of forwards the Flyers possess. Where does Raffl fit into a team that could fill three lines without him?
The Flyers may have to offer up Raffl in order to keep the younger players. If Raffl is exposed, he should be the player Vegas takes. Unlike Read, Raffl will have two years on his deal so the new franchise won’t have to worry about re-signing him right away and they’ll have a good second to third line winger. Laughton could be an option due to his youth, but his development might give Vegas general manager George McPhee trepidation.
Therefore, with the doubts in all the above players’ games, the Flyers should re-sign and protect Jordan Weal. Yes, he could be a bust with his small sample this season just being a flash-in-the-pan, but he might be the most intriguing piece for McPhee to pluck from Philadelphia outside of Raffl. With Weal protected and Raffl exposed, it’s a slam dunk for the Golden Knights.
After all that, it’s time to figure out who should be the third defenseman Hextall protects.
Bill Meltzer gave a sample of the Flyers protection list and he projected Andrew MacDonald as a protected player. This is due to the team potentially needing a veteran to eat minutes along with Gudas while potentially two rookies, a sophomore (Provorov) and a junior (Gostisbehere) comprise the rest of the backline.
Meanwhile, The Hockey News projected Philadelphia would protect Brandon Manning. The best rationale for protecting Manning is that MacDonald’s contract acts as pseudo protection anyway. Plus, if the Flyers can lose that contract in any way, that route should be taken.
The remaining defensemen that the Flyers could protect are a collection of players that really won’t tantalize Vegas.
Honestly, the Golden Knights won’t take MacDonald or Manning either. With the forwards Philadelphia will expose, taking either doesn’t make much sense. But, if there’s even a remote possibility that Las Vegas takes MacDonald for any reason, they shouldn’t snuff that out by protecting a player with a contract they will need to shed sooner rather than later.
So, protect Manning, not because he needs to be or because he’s vital to the team, but because Hextall needs to protect a third defenseman and not shut the door on the remote possibility that Vegas selects MacDonald.
Lastly, the Flyers need to protect a goaltender: Michal Neuvirth or Anthony Stolarz. Again, neither one of these guys are likely to be taken due to the forward crop available but the team needs to protect someone.
To that degree, Philadelphia should protect Stolarz for similar reasons why they should protect Manning. Neuvirth is signed for the next two seasons at a $2.5 million cap hit per year. That’s not a devastating deal, but if that can come off the books for nothing then that’s not too bad.
Though, if the Flyers would rather pursue a goalie like Jonathan Bernier than Ryan Miller then they’ll need Neuvirth to complete the platoon.
If they’d rather sign someone like Miller or bring back Steve Mason and play them for 50 or more games than having Stolarz around to groom into the backup role is ideal.
Therefore, who they protect might give fans a precursor to what Hextall’s plans for the offseason will be for the goaltending position.
Given the makeup of this Philadelphia Flyers team, they'll more than likely lose a forward. So it's not about the third defenseman or which goaltender to protect, but what move can Hextall make to keep the players he wants and, potentially, give McPhee a chance to do him a favor.
Forwards: Giroux, Filppula, Voracek, Simmonds, Couturier, Schenn, Weal
Defensemen: Gostisbehere, Gudas, Manning