How the Leafs should deal with the expansion draft

Credit: NICK TURCHIARO/ICON SPORTSWIRE

The expansion draft may be less than two months away, but the implications of how it can affect many teams across the NHL is always on the minds of many hockey fans. While it is not entirely clear which players will be available for the Vegas Golden Knights to choose from, the impact on teams could be huge as they are forced to face difficult decisions.

This is a dilemma that the Toronto Maple Leafs have to face themselves over the next few weeks. Let's take a look at how the expansion draft will affect the Leafs and what decisions they should make in preparation for the important day.

Exempt from the draft

The following list is of Leafs players who are protected from the expansion draft, as provided by Cap-Friendly:





When looking at this list, a number of things stand out.

First, the Leafs are lucky to have the expansion draft happen now as their rookie core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Nikita Zaitsev are exempt.  A majority of the Leafs players who have spent time with the Marlies this season, including Kasperi Kapanen, Frederik Gauthier, and Rinat Valiev, among others, are also exempt from the expansion draft.

Two surprising names that are protected are Nathan Horton and Stephan Robidas. The following quote, provided by Cap-Friendly, can provide some context as to why both players are protected from the expansion draft: 
Players with potential career-ending injuries who have missed the previous 60+ consecutive games due to an injury, do not meet the criteria set forth by the league in respect to the minimum exposure requirements for players, and in certain cases these players may even be deemed as exempt from the Expansion Draft selection process. Source.
This definitely applies to Horton as he has been placed on LTIR for his entire tenure with the Leafs thus far. Robidas has also been out of the lineup since 2015 but has a contract set to expire this offseason and appears likely to retire. Both players are included in a list of injured players exempt from the draft.



Kasimir Kaskisuo is the only goalie on the Leafs roster who won't be exposed to the draft, spending this past season in the minors in both the AHL and ECHL. Essentially, most of the Leafs rookie stars are safe from the draft which will make the decision process of who to protect much easier.

Protected from the draft


Source: The Canadian Press


Everyone not included on the list above is obviously not exempt from the expansion draft, but determining who will be protected isn't extremely easy. 

For the expansion draft, each team has two different options in terms of how many players they can protect, which are:
  1. Protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie or,
  2. Protect eight skaters (forward/defenseman) and one goalie
Looking at this list, it makes the most sense for the Leafs to choose the first option. It allows the team to keep 11 players total and gives them the most leverage to decide who to keep and who to expose. With that said, here's who I think the Leafs will choose to protect:
  • Frederik Andersen
  • Tyler Bozak
  • Connor Brown
  • Connor Carrick
  • Jake Gardiner
  • Nazem Kadri
  • Leo Komarov
  • Brendan Leipsic
  • Josh Leivo/Matt Martin*
  • Morgan Rielly
  • James van Riemsdyk
* = Unclear as it appears both could be protected.

Eight of the players included on this list are absolute no-brainers, all of which played a vital role in helping the Leafs return to the playoffs this season. Why would the team expose players like Kadri, Andersen, Rielly, Gardiner, and van Riemsdyk and risk losing them for nothing?  There is absolutely no good reason for that so it is important these players remain on the team for the foreseeable future.


The other three players are a bit more difficult to decide upon. Part of the problem lies with whether or not the Leafs should protect Matt Martin, Eric Fehr, or some of the young guns, especially after the team extended Ben Smith to a one-year deal earlier this week. This is because of a rule set in place for the minimum exposure requirements.

As per Cap-Friendly: 

Each team must expose two forwards who are under contract in 2017-18 and have either played in 40 or more NHL games last season, or has played in 70 or more NHL games in the last two seasons.
Martin, Fehr, and Smith all meet this requirement which means at least two of these players will be exposed to the expansion draft. The Smith re-signing could signal that the Leafs are looking to protect Martin from being available for Vegas, but doing so makes little sense given his current contract which pays him $2.5 million for the next three seasons.  

If the Leafs feel Martin's contract could scare off the Golden Knights from taking him, then protecting some of their young guns to fill out the final two spots is the better option.  Keeping Leipsic and Leivo over Kerby Rychel and Seth Griffith makes sense given their larger impact on the franchise, and perhaps the perception they have a higher upside. 

As for Carrick, he appears to be higher on the defensive depth charts compared to players like Martin Marincin, so keeping him makes sense.

Exposed for the draft

Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
With that said, here are the remaining players who I believe will be exposed by the Leafs for the expansion draft:

  • Joffrey Lupul
  • Milan Michalek
  • Colin Greening
  • Kerby Rychel
  • Seth Griffith
  • Garret Sparks
  • Antoine Bibeau
  • Ben Smith
  • Roman Polak
  • Matt Hunwick
  • Curtis McElhinney
  • Brooks Laich
  • Andrew Campbell
  • Steve Oleksy
  • Josh Leivo/Matt Martin*
  • Martin Marincin
  • Alexey Marchenko
* = Unclear as it appears both could be exposed.

As previously mentioned, it's unclear whether Leivo or Martin will be exposed due to Smith's new contract. For the most part, however, the Leafs don't have a difficult decision to make with many of the players included on this list.

Lupul has been out of the lineup since last season and doesn't appear to be returning any time soon. Michalek and Greening were salary dumps from the Dion Phaneuf trade and weren't expected to remain with the team long-term. Griffith and Rychel aren't as high on the prospect charts as Leipsic and Leivo so they are up for grabs.


Marincin and Marchenko didn't play much of the season and don't appear to have the confidence of Mike Babcock to remain in the lineup, making them potentially exposed. As the Leafs can only protect one goalie, which will obviously be Andersen, Sparks and Bibeau have no choice but to be available for Vegas to take.



The remaining players on this list are pending free agents and, unless the Leafs want to sign one or more of these players before the expansion draft, it makes little sense to save them. That means players like Boyle, Polak, Hunwick, and McElhinney will be accessible for the Golden Knights. 

Conclusion

For the most part, the Leafs have little to worry about in regards to the expansion draft. All of their key rookie talents are exempt, there are few veterans that need to be protected, and most of the players getting exposed are either pending UFAs or lower on the team's depth charts.


Smith's re-signing does bring a question mark as to whether Leivo or Martin will be protected given the guidelines set in place by the NHL. Both players do provide some value to the team so determining which of two will be protected won't be easy to solve.


In short, the Leafs should be glad the expansion draft is occurring early on in their rebuild towards becoming a Stanley Cup contender. Should there be another expansion draft in a few years time, however, the Leafs will have a much more difficult task in trying to keep everyone on board.

All information for this article is from Cap Friendly.
You can follow Michael Mazzei on Twitter @MichaelMazzei3. 

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