Thursday March 17th, 2016

The expansion process is finally picking up steam in the wake of this week's NHL general managers meetings.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman revealed on Wednesday that if the league decides to expand for the 2017-18 season, an announcement will happen before the upcoming entry draft in June. That timetable will ensure that a new franchise has sufficient time to prepare for an expansion draft in the summer of 2017.

And if that happens, we can expect plenty of player movement ahead. 

NHL mock expansion draft

Little is official at this point, but this much we know: Each existing team will be allowed to protect one goalie, seven forwards, and three defensemen, or one goalie and eight skaters in total ahead of a draft. Players in their first or second years in the pros (including time spent in the AHL) will be exempt. There's been no decision yet on the status of players who have no-movement clauses.

The two protection plans allow for some flexibility. A team deep in defense like Nashville might, for example, place more value on retaining a fourth blueliner than on its fifth, sixth and seventh forward. Another team might prefer to hold on to as many players as possible.

Still, either option will force most teams to make some very painful decisions. Which is exactly the point. This plan ensures that a solid pool of established veterans and promising prospects will be up for grabs. And that's good news for Las Vegas and/or Quebec City as they attempt to hit the ground running.

But planning for the consequences of an expansion draft means more than just the compilation of lists. We're likely to see a surge in trade activity as well. Given the alternative, it makes sense to turn at-risk assets into protectable futures like picks and unsigned prospects.

Much of that activity won't take place until after the 2017 Stanley Cup has been won and every organization is in a position to take stock of itself. But the impact will be felt ahead of the trade deadline, and possibly even sooner. It all comes down to assessing the market.

There will be good skaters to be had as teams decided who is and isn't expendable. But the real intrigue will surround the netminders.

NHL GMs on track with goalie gear, expansion draft ideas

Consider some of the keepers who could be in play over the next year as a result of the protect-one rule: Frederik Andersen (Anaheim); Mike Smith (Arizona), Malcolm Subban (Boston); Semyon Varlamov (Colorado); Antti Niemi and Jack Campbell (Dallas); Jimmy Howard (Detroit); Laurent Brossoit (Edmonton); Darcy Kuemper (Minnesota); Mike Condon (Montreal); J-F Berube (New York Islanders); MacKenzie Skapski (New York Rangers); Andrew Hammond (Ottawa); Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh); Philipp Grubauer (Washington); and Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson (Winnipeg).

That's a deep list, and it doesn't even take into account those goalies whose current contracts will expire on July 1, 2017, a group that includes Scott Darling (Chicago), Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia) and Brian Elliott (St. Louis).

There's a little bit of everything there, including Cup-winning experience and high-ceiling potential. But with so much supply, it's going to be a buyer's market.

Look for some wink-wink side deals as well, where teams will offer assets to an expansion squad to ensure they won't pick a certain player or prospect. The Capitals, for example, might offer a draft pick and a bad (but useful) contract like Brooks Orpik's as an incentive to leave the very promising Grubauer alone. The Sharks did just that back in 2000 by sending veteran Jan Caloun and two picks to Columbus to ensure that the Blue Jackets would not draft Evgeni Nabokov.

There's still plenty to be determined, but all signs point to a very busy year ahead.

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The numbers game

• Here come the Flyers. At 8-1-1 in its last 10 games, Philadelphia has grabbed the final wild card spot in the East. The Flyers, who are one point ahead of the Red Wings and two points behind the Penguins, play those teams a combined four times in their final 13 games (Pens three times, Wings once) including a home game against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

• Blackhawks star Patrick Kane has reached the 90-point mark for the first time in his NHL career. Now leads the league scoring race by 13 points.

•​ Alex Ovechkin's 17 career overtime goals now rank second all time behind ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr (19).

Hot links

• Here's the ultimate hockey list for St. Patrick's Day: The top-five green hockey jerseys.

• Damien Cox offers his take on the top 30 prospects for this year's draft.

The Big Short: Pint-sized Johnny Gaudreau delivers thrills

• The latest Blackhawks' “What's Your Goal?” video is just as great as you'd expect. Gotta love some old-time hockey.

• Forget about bumping the draft age to 19. If they're going to make a change, one NHL exec wants to move it to 20.

• This is different: All three members of Michigan's top line were named as one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

• Jaromir Jagr is beginning to eye retirement ... when he's 60.

• Hey, Canada: Gary Bettman says the NHL is still going to have playoffs this year and you should watch even if you don't have a team to root for.

• Here's how close Alex Ovechkin came to playing out his NHL career as a Columbus Blue Jacket.

• Is a bit of puck luck all that separates the Red Wings from a 25th consecutive playoff berth?

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