Leafs Aren’t Playing So Let’s Speculate About Expansion

The Leafs having a week without games makes it challenging to come up with current Leafs content (did you know that Joffrey Lupul led stretches in practice today?). Since the Board of Governors are meeting this week and they discussed expansion, that seems like as good a reason as any to do some long form speculation.

Over the past few years we’ve seen the excitement sucked out
of the trade deadline, free agency, and while the draft is still a joy, the
amount of trading has been in step decline there too. That’s why I think the
prospect of the NHL expanding is so exciting for many of us, because it’s an
opportunity to tune in and watch two full teams of players relocate in a matter
of hours (I’m going to assume two teams purely out of my hatred of an odd
number team league.)

While the NHL in no way needs to or should expand, the
prospect of an expansion draft is quite exciting and potentially has a number
of benefits for a team like the Leafs that spend to the cap ceiling and
certainly aren’t short on salaries that are worth clearing out as well.

With the potential expansion being the first of the cap era
we are looking going to see radical changes from the relatively straight
forward approach taken in the 2000 Expansion
Draft
. With no idea what the next draft will look like it’s tough to say
what will be different, but with the Leafs not playing until next Tuesday,
we’ve got time to speculate, and that’s what we’ll do.

The 2000 Draft Rules (via Wikipedia):

“26 of
the 28 teams existing in the league at the time of the draft were each allowed
to protect either one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards or two
goaltenders, three defensemen, and seven forwards. The Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville
Predators had their entire rosters protected, as they were the two newest
franchises in the league, only being in existence for one and two years
respectively.

For
teams protecting only one goaltender, there was no experience requirement for
those left unprotected. For teams protecting two goaltenders, each goaltender
left unprotected must have appeared in either 10 NHL games in
the 1999–2000 season or 25 games in the 1998–99
season and 1999–2000 seasons combined. A goaltender had to be in
net for at least 31 minutes in each game for the game to be counted against
these totals.

At
least one defenceman left unprotected by each team had to have appeared in at
least 40 games in the 1999–2000 season or 70 games in
the 1998–99 season and 1999–2000 seasons combined. At least
two forwards left unprotected by each team had to have met the same
requirements.

52
players were chosen in the draft, two from each participating franchise. Only
one goaltender or one defenseman could be selected from each franchise. Both
the Blue Jackets and the Wild were to use their first 24 selections on three
goaltenders, eight defensemen, and thirteen forwards. The final two picks for
each team could be any position.”

How wonderfully straight forward that was. Pick the best
team you can of these unprotected players, each team loses two guys, but you’re
not at risk for losing two defensemen or goaltenders, and you could make trades
to keep teams from selecting your unprotected players (San Jose made deals with
each team to protect Nabokov).

There are number of new issues that arise due to the salary
cap and infinitely more complex CBA that will make it much more difficult to
quickly summarize the rules of the draft.

Frank Seravalli touched on a number of these issues earlierthis week:

As one governor pointed out on Monday: the last time the NHL
expanded in 2000, there was no salary cap. If the NHL does decide to expand
this time around, there is concern teams would use the expansion draft as
another buyout period of sorts, using it as a chance to cut ties from
prohibitive contracts by leaving those high-priced players unprotected.

There is also the issue of whether players with no-movement
or no-trade clauses should be open to claims in the expansion draft. Any
expansion team drafting would also have to keep an eye on their own salary cap
restrictions.

The No Movement
Clause

This will be an interesting battle for those of us who are
fans of labour relations. The NHL is already making the statement that any
clauses would be void when it comes to the expansion draft. In the case of the
No Trade Clause, I’m inclined to agree since it specifically has trade in the
name. The no movement clause is a much stickier situation, and not one I can
imagine the NHLPA accepting easily. In fact, I’d imagine the No Trade Clause
will be fought equally hard.

As of this exact moment there are 47 players
with No Movement Clauses
who will be under contract during the 2017-18
season, the potential time of expansion. Dion Phaneuf is the only Leaf on that
list, and he has to provide a 12 team list to where he’d accept a trade. At
least 16 of the NMC players have modifications on their clause that allows for
trades to occur. And while most of the names are the Toews, Crosby, Kessel
level of player, there are some hilarious relics on that list as well, Vinny
Lecavalier, David Clarkson, and Dustin Brown being the most notable.

Clearly those are the names that make nullifying the clauses
important in the eyes of organizations and closer to home, there would be a
small uprising if Toronto didn’t have to opportunity to lose Phaneuf’s contract
in the draft.

In total there are 117 players who have either a no movement
or no trade clause in 2017, and plenty more will be added between now and then
as well.

So considering all of that, what is the likely way of
incorporating NMC/NTC’s into the expansion draft? The simple approach would be
to essentially honour the contract, but approach the player on if they are
willing to waive the clause.

If they’ll waive it, cool. You’re good. If they won’t waive
it, that’s where the teams should have two options available to them:

Option A: You are
now obligated to protect that player in the draft, and you use one of your
protection spots on them. You probably shouldn’t feel bad if you are team like
the Penguins are you’re using these on Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang. You
might feel a little worse about Marc-Andre Fleury, but it’s fair and you can’t
win them all.

Option B: You
really don’t want to protect that player, so instead you now have the option to
buy them out.

For the Leafs it would be nice if there was at least one
compliance buyout given to each team as compensation for entering into this
expansion draft process, but even without that, it seems reasonable fair to
create a circumstance where teams can avoid protecting a player that they may
not seem strongly about.

Of course, they’ve now completely lost that player, but that
too is beneficial to this expansion process, as the league will need a robust
free agent market to help build the new teams, and to offset the radical
movement of salary around the league.

ENTRY LEVEL DEALS

It’s not that rookies and young talented players weren’t
important in the last expansion draft, but they’ve taken on a new life under
the CBA. A savvy GM of a new franchise would wisely wade through the waters of
each team’s prospect pools selecting the best of the unprotected entry level
contracts, and then rely on fighting their way to the cap floor through free
agency and other means.

As
noted on Historical Hockey Stats and Trivia
regarding the 2000 Draft:

“All
first- and second-year professionals were exempt from selection as were any
unsigned draft choices, except choices from Europe from 1996 or earlier.”

So assuming similar rules are applied, you’d still have a run
on expiring ELCs, and expansion teams being able to lock into a number of
players who will remain restricted free agents for a number of years, giving
them an advantage.

Of course, you could change the rule so that all entry level
contracts are exempt from the expansion draft, but then you are now having a
team that will enter the bottom of the league and will have to grow a prospect
pool from scratch. Essentially the league will need to find a reasonable way of
giving expansion teams some reasonable access to younger talent, with not
draining an organizations prospect pool.

The Leafs being a team that now finds itself at the top of
the league when it comes to prospects, could be a likely target in the
expansion draft, which would truly be unfortunate when so many of us see this
as an opportunity to dump Lupul, Bozak, or Phaneuf.

Under the guidelines of the 2000 draft Kapanen, Marner,
Dermott, and Nylander are likely safe unless time served in Europe or the AHL
before their contracts kicked in counts, in which case Kapanen and Nylander
would need to be protected.

The real risk would be around players like Connor Brown,
Scott Harrington, Brandon Leipsic, and even more likely the Percy’s, Leivo’s,
and Soshnikov’s of the world.

THE CAP AT LARGE

For an expansion team, you are entering the draft with a cap
hit of zero. After years of watching the Leafs anchor themselves with horrible
contracts, this sounds like a wonderful dream, but it’s probably a significant
pain in the ass when trying to reach the cap floor.

The rumoured $74M cap for the 2016-17 season means that the
floor would be $58M. It also means there’s a possibility that goes up again for
the 2017-18 season when expansion could likely occur.

Let’s assume the team is going to need to spend $60M before
the season starts in October. They’ll definitely have the option to add more
salary during free agency, and honestly that would be my strategy as a GM, but
there’s also little doubt that they’ll need to establish enough of a base
during the expansion draft as free agency would be incredibly competitive
following an expansion draft where potentially 30 teams have just all lost 2
roster spots a piece.

With an NHL roster consisting of 23 players, there’s a need
to spend an average of $2.6M per player in order to be compliant with the
league.

This is something that should be exciting for teams that
have players like Fayne and Bickell buried in the minors. And it’s equally
exciting for a team like the Leafs that can leave Bozak, Lupul, and Phaneuf
unprotected and hope for the Nonis era to continue being erased.

It’s less exciting for teams like Arizona that may have to
expose some salary, but other than Mike Smith, don’t really have any bad
contracts you want to see leave the organization. Having to expose Martin
Hanzal out of the league deciding to have to make a certain amount of salary
available is pretty much a guarantee that you lose Martin Hanzal.

It seems like the league will have an interesting split of
teams excited to shed salary and those terrified of watching their top talent
leave without compensation, which is something that might need to be considered
in this process.

CAN TEAMS BE
COMPENSATED?

Obviously giving out 60 additional draft picks in the next
entry draft following expansion would be excessive, but is it possible to allow
teams to assign players that they would like compensation for when they’ve left
them exposed? Let’s say that each team gets to identify 2 players that the
league would have to provide a third round draft (arbitrary round chosen for
the sake of the example) for if that player is selected.

It is something that certainly would need to be figured out
in much greater detail than what I am willing to do here, but with the
challenge of putting together a set of rules that is fair to the 30 existing
teams while attempting to make the expansion teams competitive will probably
need to include some incentives.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE LEAFS?

The Leafs are a team that is sitting pretty heading into
expansion.

If Toronto repeats their approach to free agency this season
(with the exception of a long term signing of Steven Stamkos) and goes
primarily with one year deals, they shouldn’t have to worry about having too
many players to protect in an expansion draft and can focus on safe guarding
their future talent while exposing players like Phaneuf, Bozak, and Lupul.  

Assuming the structure is similar to the 2000 Entry draft at
least as far as positional caps on how many players you can protect, the Leafs
should be quite comfortable with protecting one goaltender, five defensemen,
and nine forwards.

There are bound to be numerous changes to the Leafs roster
by the time we actually get around to seeing any of this come into play, but
with Bernier scheduled for free agency that year there is no need to protect
him, meaning whoever the Leafs other goaltender is at that time is easily
protected.

Protecting five defenseman starts with Rielly and Gardiner,
but Harrington, Percy, and Marincin would also be covered, although it’s again
safe to assume the lineup we see today won’t be close to what it looks like at
the end of the next season.

Finally, the forwards. Protecting nine forwards is the
biggest challenge. Andreas Johnson will have completed two pro seasons at that
point. Connor Brown as well. Depending on how pro seasons are defined Kapanen
and Nylander would be eligible too unless entry level players are completely
off limits. There are a handful of other young players you’d hope to see the
Leafs protect, and are fortunate enough from a current roster standpoint they
really only need to safe guard Kadri. Komarov and van Riemsdyk are options as
well, but as they would be heading into the last year of their contracts, if
you don’t think you’ll want to re-sign them they certainly aren’t worth
mortgaging the future over.  There is of
course the Stamkos factor, where may also be protecting an elite center, but it
would certainly be fine to use of the spaces on him, so you’re essentially
looking at protecting 2-4 roster players and the five best Marlies who would be
eligible to be taken. That’s not a bad situation.

The fallout from an expansion draft is equally beneficial to
the Leafs. It’s likely that some cap space has been cleared for them, and even
if it hasn’t, there are numerous teams that would need to find ways to get back
to the cap floor or restock their vacant positions. The Leafs, who should be a
better team by then, are still likely in a position where they need to be
thinking about the future more than winning now and can capitalize on what
should be a seller’s market.

CONCLUSION

There is a lot regarding a potential expansion draft to
think about, and right now pretty much everything is speculation. It’s safe to
say if there was Leafs hockey going on this week this would not be a topic that
would even be on the radar at this point.

The reason to be excited about the prospect of expansion is
that it is a rebuild accelerant. The best teams are going to be hit the hardest
by an expansion draft, and that’s not the Leafs. A team with financial
flexibility like the Leafs have the opportunity to flex their muscle, and being
in a situation where they aren’t in the top competitive tier of the league,
they have the option to make smart long term decisions with minimal pressure.

While there are no guarantees that expansion happens, it’s
something we should hope for.

  • Gary Empey

    The interesting thing I have read on expansion this year is, the NHL is now very aware that sticking the new teams with bad contracts and bubble players is bad for business. That policy pretty well rings the death knell for the new teams trying to establish hockey in the expansion cities. Quebec being an exception.

    So it appears to me the NHL would like to have the new teams start with some good players and prospects. I expect there is a lot of resistance from the existing 30 GM’s.

    To try establish a team in Los Vegas that is going to replace the Oilers as perennial last in the league for the next five years is doomed to failure.

    My take is existing teams will be asked to expose one core player and one top prospect.

    I know if the Leafs are asked to protect one of either Nylander or Marner the fans reaction would be unanimous…… “F##k expansion”

  • Gary Empey

    Jon a major plus you didn’t touch upon is that our poor N.H.L. owners make over $30 million U.S. with expansion. Not a bad day at the office.

    Expansion has traditionally seen the new teams given yesterday’s garbage with them automatically feasting at the table of high draft picks for a few years. Top 10 picks is a likely scenario.

    The one exception to that rule was the N.B.A. which had the audacity to disallow the twin expansion Raptors and Grizzlies to select the number one player, one who would have been the future hall of famer Tim Duncan who was in town the other night. No other league and the N.B.A. for that matter has ever repeated that travesty. As soon as the next U.S.A. expansion team came aboard they were allowed a chance at the number one pick. If I was the owners of the Raptors I would have sued the N.B.A.’s asses off.

    The other subject that you didn’t discuss is the dilution of the product even more. Do I really want to see 60 more N.H.L. players??? No I don’t as most teams could literally switch half of their roster with an A.H.L. team, namely the lesser lights on the club and it would make no difference.

    I was amazed that no one and I mean no one saw the ludicrous situation of a second year expansion team in the C.F.L. almost winning the Grey cup. What this said was that 8 other teams were absolutely mediocre or worse.

    I do like the idea that the leafs along with other clubs could unload a number of skating stiffs on to an expansion team.

    For the first year or two a home team will likely pick up two easy points just as the Raptors will against the hopeless Philly team on Sunday. But you are paying top dollar to watch a collection of sunday garage sale players.

    But as I say the real winners are the owners with that nice cheque for $30 million U.S. Trust me it will be coming sooner than later and then well the same owners would just love two more clubs a short distance down the road.

    Good thought provoking article Jon.

  • Gary Empey

    Say no to expansion. Currently we have many teams trying to find decent goaltending, top 6 forwards and even bottom 6 forwards, of course all teams are looking for some help on defenseman. We have 660 players on NHL rosters with another 46 if expansion occurs, can not see where these players will come from unless we get players from European leagues and the KHL. A lot of those players currently have not been able to make the NHL now, so the league will have to become even more watered down than it already is. The league needs to reduce teams so that our current teams can be competitive and financially viable first.

    • Gary Empey

      Could the balance of equal teams not be obtained though by moving a team with attendance problems move to the West.ie:Seattle or Portland. That would help the dilution of current teams rosters and farm system. Although it wouldn’t get the owners the instant franchise money but it could help in the long term as hopefully attendance would be better and less money for equalization payments.

  • Gary Empey

    I don’t see why an expansion team should be allowed to take a player on an ELC or under 1 year (82 games) of NHL service, unless they are over the Free Agency age!

    Why should an expansion team be allowed to gut another of its prospects it has or is paying to develop outside the NHL.

    I also agree NTC players should be fair game and I can see why NMC players could be off limits (unless they state they are willing to wave before selections start).

    Regardless of everything above mentioned, the league is in no position to add more teams – get the ones here now under stable ownership and making money (ahem Florida, Arizona, Carolina and NJ).