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NHL Roundtable: Most vulnerable to expansion, East wild-card race

This week’s NHL Roundtable takes on which teams would be most vulnerable to an expansion draft, the Eastern Conference wild-card race and more.

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Every Friday, a trio of staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Jeremy Fuchs, Sam Page and Al Muir talk expansion draft, a three-team race for the wild cards in the East, rookie coaches and the wisdom of trading Evgeni Malkin. First up:

Now that we know the basic parameters of a likely expansion draft, which current team is most vulnerable to the process?

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​​Sam Page: I don’t think I’m being too much of a homer in picking the Predators. It’s not that they’re the most stacked team in hockey. It’s that the proposed system punishes teams whose four best players are defensemen. Nashville’s best move in case of such a draft would be to trade Shea Weber and protect Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, something they undoubtedly don’t want to do. 

Al Muir: The Preds could preserve their blueline by using the option that allows them to protect eight total players, but that would mean just four forwards ... oof. Either way, they're going to sustain a pretty deep cut. The Wild are in the same boat. I’m sure they'd love to keep Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon, but that’s not going to happen. If two franchises are granted, they could lose both Scandella and Spurgeon, and they don’t have the depth in the system to replenish that kind of talent.

Jeremy Fuchs: This is a tough one. I could go so many ways here, but I think it’s Calgary. It’ll protect the stars, obviously. But what about some of its really good depth? Josh Jooris and Micheal Ferland seem ripe for being taken. Do the Flames protect their big three defenseman and leave themselves with no depth? Some tough calls. Teams like the Rangers and Kings could struggle with this, too.

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AM: It’ll be really interesting to see how the league and PA decide to handle players with no-movement clauses. If they have to be protected, and I think they will be, there’ll be some ridiculous talent up for grabs. Think about Pittsburgh, which would have to protect a 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury while exposing its 21-year-old goalie-of-the-future, Matt Murray. What a gut-punch for that organization.

The Penguins, Flyers and Red Wings are locked in a three-team battle for two Eastern Conference wild-card berths. Who falls short?

SP: Pittsburgh will make it. It’s too talented. As for the coin flip, I’ll say Detroit keeps the streak alive on the strength of its goaltending, which has played worse than Philly’s of late but has more natural talent. Still, the Flyers’ young, dynamic top line should give fans in the Motor City nightmares.  

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AM: I'm with you on the Pens, Sam. has their playoff chances at 92.8% as of Friday, and I'm buying into that. Not just because of their talent (even without Evgeni Malkin) and their experience but because it would require both the Red Wings and the Flyers to pass them in the standings for Pittsburgh to fall short. I don’t see that happening. I’m taking the Flyers for the other spot, though. This is a team that’s come together over the past few weeks to play its best hockey of the season. It’s not just that the Flyers have gone 8–1–1 in their past 10, it’s who they’re beating: a home-and-home against the Lightning, a must-win against the Wings, a terrific all-around effort against the Blackhawks. They’ve shown another level, and that’s what it’s going to take down the stretch as they play the Pens three times and the Isles twice along with the Caps and Red Wings once each. Add in the return of Jake Voracek and I think they’ve got what it takes.

JF: I’m with Sam. It’ll be the Flyers. Sidney Crosby is back playing at an all-world level. Petr Mrazek of Detroit has proven he has the ability to steal games. Plus I hear that kid Larkin is pretty good. Not sure if Philly’s defense (outside of the wonderful Shayne Gostisbehere) is good enough to withstand some of the better teams in the East.

Which of the NHL’s three rookie coaches has made the biggest impression on you this season?

SP: I went back and forth between Dave Hakstol and John Hynes, but Hynes has kept the Devils above .500 despite their abysmal forward corps. Philadelphia has been bailed out by surprising goaltending and at least has the aforementioned top line. New Jersey’s top three is Tyler Kennedy–Adam Henrique–Devante Smith-Pelly. And it only gets worse from there! How are the Devils not cruising to a lottery win?

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AM: Even though two are likely to fall short of the playoffs, each has proven to be a solid hire. Jeff Blashill had the toughest task, replacing a legend behind the bench and trying to keep the playoff streak going while transitioning the Wings from the Pavel Datsyuk/Henrik Zetterberg era to the Dylan Larkin/Petr Mrazek/Andreas Athanasiou/Anthony Mantha generation. It hasn’t been seamless, but I think he has this team moving in the right direction. Hakstol’s done a nice job as well. There were real questions about his ability to make the jump from the college ranks and he’s quickly put those to bed. The next guy to get hired out of the NCAA needs to send him a thank-you card. But I’ll agree with Sam that Hynes has probably done the most with the least this season. I love Henrique and Kyle Palmieri has had a breakthrough year, but the rest of New Jersey’s forwards might not be as good as what Las Vegas will ice as an expansion team. I don’t think he could have squeezed another drop out of those guys. Who else can you say that about?

JF: Yep, Hynes has been really good. He’s turned a young team into one that’s disciplined and really hard to play against. Plus, he’s loosened things up from the era of Lou Lamoriello. This team is fun, has a top-five goalie and could make a playoff run next year.

A Pittsburgh columnist suggested this week that the Penguins should trade Evgeni Malkin. Crazy talk or a necessary step to right the franchise?

SP: The Penguins’ problem is they never replaced Jordan Staal, not that they never got rid of Malkin. I mean they could try it, but it’s hard to imagine a deal where they’re not worse off. 

AM: That’s it exactly. At this point, what exactly is a winning scenario in a Malkin trade? It can’t just be about “improving depth” or “creating cap space.” You can’t trade your dollar for four quarters. Malkin is a top-10 player. If you’re moving him, you need value in kind to fill a specific need, like Drew Doughty or P.K. Subban. Otherwise, there’s no reason to do it. 

I mean, Pittsburgh’s problem isn’t Malkin or Sid or the cap space they eat up. It’s years of misguided management that’s failed to surround them with the right complementary assets and that’s taken a blowtorch to the farm system in the process.

JF: We continually see that depth down the middle is critical to win a Cup. And now you’re going to give away a top-five center? That seems crazy. Pittsburgh has struggled to build a solid team around Crosby and Malkin, but they are better off getting rid of dead weight (I’m looking at you, Phil Kessel) than losing a true difference-maker.