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Draft, salary cap complications slow NHL expansion talks

How to handle the NHL's salary cap, no trade clauses and a player draft for expansion are complicated, time-consuming issues.

It turns out the unwillingness of the NHL’s Board of Governors to vote on the expansion applications of Las Vegas and Quebec City this week was based on more than simply deciding if those two cities were the right markets.

While the $17 million slice of the expansion pie sounds appealing, it seems some teams are weighing that against what they’d risk losing in exchange. It would mean a smaller cut of shared league revenues for one thing. And it might cost them some significant player assets as well.

That uncertainty raised several questions from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Gary Bettman talks NHL expansion, Olympic participation

“What will be the terms of an expansion draft?” he told reporters in Pebble Beach. “What would be the terms of an expansion draft if it were one or two teams? What will be the role or the position in the entry draft? And within that there are a lot of sub-issues that have to be addressed in terms of not only the terms, [but] how many [players] can you protect, how many do you have to draft, [and] how does the salary cap complicate all that?”

In other words, there’s an understanding that someone who is paying $500 million for franchise is going to want more than just a seat at the table. They’ll want legitimate NHL players who will allow them to ice a competitive team right out of the blocks.

And that means exposing a much deeper pool of talent than in the past.

The protection rules have varied in previous expansion drafts, but one thing stayed the same: the house always won.

Take the 1999 rummage sale that stocked the incoming Atlanta Thrashers. Each of the 26 existing franchises was allowed to protect either one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards or two goaltenders, three defensemen, and seven forwards.

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Both options were designed to expose few players of substance, forcing the Thrashers to settle for the likes of Norm Maracle, Maxim Galinov and Ed Ward. It added up to a lousy haul of talent that looked even worse when several of the players that Atlanta selected failed to make it to opening night. Mark Tinordi retired. Alexei Yegorov asked for his release. Phil Crowe was dumped for future considerations.

No surprise then that the Thrashers won just 14 games that season and didn’t make their first playoff appearance until 2007.

And there’s no way that kind of thing would fly this time around.

A future draft might then force existing teams to make much tougher choices by limiting their protected lists to one goalie, three defensemen and five forwards ... or possibly even less. And that's a level of risk that some teams—especially those in Stanley Cup contention—might not be willing to take right now.

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But there’s more to this than simply shuffling bodies. The cap issue is the most fascinating angle of this whole exercise, and easily the most complex. There's never been an expansion draft during the cap era, and there’s no telling how it might impact the proceedings. Would an expansion franchise be required to obtain a certain salary level via the draft? Would existing teams be required to expose a certain amount of salary? Would the expansion team be exempt from the cap that first season? Would salary level impact the ability of an existing franchise to protect a player? There’s no telling.

And what about players with no-movement clauses in their contracts? According to General Fanager, there currently are 176  and when you glance over the list of names, there are plenty who’d likely be exposed if that option were available, especially by teams looking to clear space.

The NHL is operating under the assumption that those clauses would not be in effect in an expansion draft situation, but that’s something they would have to address with the NHL Players’ Association. You’d expect the union to back the integrity of the clauses but at the same time, there would be 23 additional NHL jobs available per expansion team. That might be enough of a carrot to buy some flexibility.

All told, there’s still significant ground that needs to be covered before the admission of Las Vegas or Quebec City ever gets put to a vote. And that means this process won’t be resolved any time soon.