Just about every move any NHL team makes these days has to be executed with something extra in mind -– the upcoming expansion draft next summer, when Las Vegas will select one exposed player from each of the 30 current clubs.
Yes, that means the Sharks will lose someone in their organization to the still-to-be-named team that will begin play in the Pacific Division for the 2017-18 season.
To review, NHL teams have two options when it comes to players they can protect -– one goaltender and eight skaters; or one goaltender, three defensemen and seven forwards. The Sharks are likely to go the latter route, which provides protection for two extra players.
Obviously, plenty can change between now and next June 17, when the protected lists are due to the league. But the Sharks are set up well to deal with it when it comes.
Starting with the obvious, Martin Jones will be the protected goaltender. The Sharks don’t have any other goalie that would draw interest from Las Vegas, which should have a few options to grab an established starter.
At forward and defense, though, some decisions will have to be made.
Let’s assume that pending unrestricted free agent Joe Thornton gets re-signed, while Patrick Marleau and Tommy Wingels, also due to become unrestricted, do not. That would mean the Sharks would have to protect Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Mikkel Boedker, to start. Chris Tierney is also likely to be protected, especially if he continues to improve. (Joonas Donskoi will not have to be protected as a second-year pro, nor will top prospects Timo Meier or Nikolay Goldobin).
From there it gets tricky, as the Sharks will be required to expose two forwards that are under contract in 2017-18, and played in either 40 games in 2016-17 or 70 games combined in the prior two seasons.
Joel Ward will have one year left on his contract next summer, and will be 36 years old at that point. If he’s left unprotected, he could be a perfect veteran addition and role model to what will surely be a young team. George McPhee, reportedly set to become the GM of Las Vegas, knows Ward well, too, from their time together in Washington.
Other possibilities are Matt Nieto and/or Melker Karlsson. Neither is signed through 2017-18 yet, but I expect both will be extended at some point. Nieto is currently a restricted free agent likely to be signed soon, so if it’s a two-year deal, he immediately becomes a prime candidate for exposure next summer.
Defense, though, is the likeliest place the Sharks will lose a body.
Let’s assume that pending UFA Brent Burns gets the monster contract extension he’s expected sign. The Sharks would start by protecting Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
From there, they would have to decide whether to make Paul Martin, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon, David Schlemko, Dylan DeMelo or Mirco Mueller their final protected player on the blue line. Braun is probably the front-runner to be that third protected player as part of Sharks’ top defensive pair, partnered with Vlasic.
That’s what makes Doug Wilson’s summer signing of Schlemko to a four-year deal so vital. If Schlemko is chosen by Las Vegas, the Sharks still have two capable left-handed blueliners in Martin and Dillon. If either Martin or Dillon is selected, Schlemko is there to fill the void.
Mueller, though, could be an intriguing choice for an expansion team. A former first round pick in 2013 that hasn’t yet broken through, but who is still just 21 years old, there isn’t much room for him on the Sharks’ roster this season. If he gets big minutes and performs well on the AHL Barracuda this season, he could be the one that finds himself on the Las Vegas blue line come 2017.