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Expansion Rumblings: Las Vegas to have 48-hour period to sign free agents prior to expansion draft

Pierre Lebrun of ESPN has news of a free agent signing period for Las Vegas prior to the expansion draft.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pierre Lebrun of ESPN has reported that the new expansion franchise in Las Vegas will have a 48-hour period to sign unrestricted and restricted free agents prior to the expansion draft. According to his report, any such free agent left unprotected by a team will be eligible to be signed. If Las Vegas signs such a free agent, they would then be unable to take a player from that team. There is still a question of whether or not teams will be able to match offers for restricted free agents; eventually the league will respond with an answer.

This does point to a potentially interesting scenario for the Tampa Bay Lightning. There has been plenty of talk about what the Lightning’s protected list could look like, but a lot of it is going to be dependent on moves that the Lightning may make between now and the expansion draft. With this possibility regarding free agents, another scenario comes to mind.

Right now, the Lightning’s protected list starts with Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, and Victor Hedman due to the No Movement Clauses (NMCs) in their contracts. This leaves the Lightning with four forwards, two defensemen, and one goaltender, to fill out their protected list. I’m also not going to assume that any player would waive his NMC to be left unprotected, but I believe there’s a slim possibility that Filppula could agree to it.

For forwards, the list is led by Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Vladislav Namestnikov. On defense, it’s Anton Stralman, Andrej Sustr, and Slater Koekkoek. For goaltender, it will almost certainly be Andrei Vasilevskiy. The only way this scenario would change is if Steve Yzerman decides to re-sign Ben Bishop and trade Vasilevskiy prior to the expansion draft, but I think this is unlikely.

With the emergence of Namestnikov and Brayden Point as reliable forwards, along with Tyler Johnson’s expiring contract and the coming salary crunch next summer, Yzerman could trade Johnson prior to the draft. If the trade brought back picks or players not eligible for the expansion draft, this scenario would create one more slot for the forwards. Or the scenario could bring back a defenseman that would be more valuable to protect over Sustr or Koekkoek. For now though, I’ll assume the prior since the idea is to create less expansion draft problems.

Drouin, Kucherov, and Palat are locks to be protected as they are nearly irreplaceable for the Lightning in it’s current pool of prospects, and are all high-end contributors to the team. That leaves one spot left between Killorn and Namestnikov. With Killorn’s contract size and length, it may be tempting to leave him unprotected with the hope that Las Vegas will not take him. And with the possibility of moving Johnson, and maybe Filppula after the draft, the team should want to secure it’s center depth by protecting Namestnikov. Namestnikov would present a very tempting target for Las Vegas as a young, capable center that is still on a cheap contract for one more season.

On the blue line, the team has decided not to play Slater Koekkoek early in the season. This could be in an effort to hide him from Las Vegas by putting him on an even slower developmental path than he was already on. Sustr, though, may not be as valuable, or irreplaceable, to protect over Koekkoek. The team might choose to protect Stralman and Koekkoek, since Koekkoek’s ceiling is higher than Sustr.

So the team’s protected list might be as follows:

Forwards - Stamkos, Filppula, Callahan, Drouin, Kucherov, Palat, Namestnikov
Defense - Hedman, Stralman, Koekkoek
Goaltender - Andrei Vasilevskiy

The most likely players to be taken then from the unprotected list would be Killorn, Jason Garrison, Sustr, and Braydon Coburn. Killorn’s contract could be unsavory for Las Vegas. Garrison and Coburn’s advanced age, lower expected roles, and short contract lengths would be uninteresting. Kristers Gudlevskis would also be available, but there will be more accomplished back-up goaltenders available in the expansion draft.

In this situation, if Las Vegas decided that they were not interested in Killorn, a bottom six forward like J.T. Brown or one of the defenders could lead Vegas to make a different decision on a Lightning player:

Sign Ben Bishop.

One of the issues that expansion teams often have is finding an accomplished goaltender that isn’t either in their mid-30s or on a horrendous contract. Las Vegas could choose to select a player from the Lightning and then attempt to sign Ben Bishop in free agency. But then they’d be taking the risk that he might sign somewhere else.

Las Vegas could take advantage of the exclusive free agency period and guarantee that they’ll get a top end goaltender to backstop their team in its formative years. A lot of this scenario will come down to which goaltenders are available in the draft and how Las Vegas feels about Bishop as their potential answer, and whether Bishop is even interested in Las Vegas.

Using CapFriendly.com’s new Las Vegas expansion draft tool, I’ve gone through all 30 teams and made rough guesses of who might be available. The most accomplished goaltenders that will be under contract or RFAs for 2017-18 include the following list.

  • Mike Smith (ARI, 34, $5.666, UFA 2019)
  • Robin Lehner (BUG, 25, $2.225, RFA 2017)
  • Cam Ward (CAR, 32, $3.3, UFA 2018)
  • Antti Niemi (DAL, 33, $4.5, UFA 2018)
  • Jimmy Howard (DET, 32, $5.291, UFA 2019)
  • Roberto Luongo (FLA, 37, $4.533, UFA 2022)
  • Craig Anderson (OTT, 35, $4.2, UFA 2018).

While there are some mid-level goaltenders available, there and some other goaltenders that will be UFAs and fall into the same category, and none of them are slam dunk choices. The biggest wild card will be the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have Marc-Andre Fleury under contract with a NMC, but they also have a very good young goaltender in Matt Murray. If Pittsburgh doesn’t figure out a solution and are forced to leave Murray unprotected, he would be an excellent choice for Las Vegas that could keep them from signing Bishop. Fleury could also be a tempting choice because is 31 with a $5.75 million cap hit and isn’t a UFA until 2019.

Like any hypothetical, there’s a lot that can happen between now and then. The Lightning could trade Bishop at some point. Las Vegas could have no interest in Bishop. Bishop could have no interest in Las Vegas. A good young goaltender could be left unprotected by another team that might be a better option.

The expansion draft is a long way away, but you can guarantee that every team in the league, and Las Vegas, are taking a long look at every possible scenario.