Over the past 6-or-so months, ever since it became painfully clear that the Devils were not a playoff-caliber team in 2016-17, people have been trying to figure out which routes the Devils had to pull themselves out of the NHL’s basement. The entry draft, as is pretty much always the case in the NHL, was going to be one of the main ways for the team to focus on improving, but this off-season provided a unique opportunity in the form of the expansion draft as well. Yes, the arrival of the Golden Knights, the NHL’s newest franchise out in the Las Vegas desert, provided a chance to more rapidly improve with less of the waiting and uncertainty tied up in the entry draft. Devils fans have been targeting it as a way for the team to improve in a hurry for months now, and the allure of a pre-expansion draft trade is easy to see.
The rules of the expansion draft (see CapFriendly’s great expansion draft tool) mean that there is added incentive for some teams to move established players on their roster for fear of losing them for nothing. This incentive works from two angles. First is the limit on the number of players each team is able to protect. As many of you know and as Gerard and the staff discussed in this post yesterday regarding the Devils, teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goalie or 8 skaters (including any combination of D and F they want) and 1 goalie. So if a team has 4 or more quality defensemen, they either have to expose at least 3 more forwards, or risk losing one of those defensemen for no return. Additionally, teams are required to expose at least 2 forwards and 1 defenseman who are under contract and meet a games played requirement (40 games in the last season or 70 over the last two). This means that even if a team only has 3 defenders or less than 7 forwards they really want to protect, they could still be required to expose some of them if there aren’t other players who are under contract and meet the requirements on their roster.
Enter the Devils. The Devils are a team with, to put it diplomatically, a not-huge amount of players in absolute need of protection from a team-building standpoint. They have 21 picks in the next two drafts and many areas of need they could stand to fill with a quality player entering their prime. With teams such as the Predators or the oft-mentioned Ducks being theoretically ripe for a trade that gets them assets in lieu of having to expose a very good player for nothing, Devils fans have been clamoring for the pre-expansion draft trade as a route to improve the team (particularly on defense). With teams under the gun to make a deal, negotiating leverage for a team in the Devils’ position should theoretically be at its highest point.
There is also the flip side of the expansion coin, in the form of exposure requirements. Defenders of the widely-panned Kyle Quincey for Dalton Prout trade that happened at the deadline have pointed to the potential to use of Prout as a trade chip for a team needing someone to expose as the basis for the deal. Any team that lacks eligible players under contract to expose could be forced to leave a piece of their defensive core off of their protected list. The thinking is that the Devils can offer up Prout as expansion fodder to a team like Florida, for instance, who would have to expose one of the trio of Aaron Ekblad, Jason Demers, and Keith Yandle as things currently stand due to a lack of other signed players meeting the requirements. In return, the Devils could acquire something of value like a prospect or a pick (or Prout could be part of a larger package that brings back a more substantial piece).
These hypotheticals understandably have elicited significant excitement for the Devils’ fanbase, but time for a move to be made is very rapidly running out. Ray Shero has until just 3:00 PM tomorrow to make moves before the expansion draft roster freeze takes effect. If the Devils are unable to swing any kind of move ahead of that deadline, it will feel like a early failure in an offseason that needed a lot to go right for the Devils to have any shot at competing next season. Obviously, there are other avenues through which the team can improve, but the opportunity presented by the expansion draft has been one that has been discussed a tremendous amount since the trade deadline passed, and if Shero comes away empty-handed when the rosters freeze tomorrow afternoon, people (including myself) probably won‘t be super happy.
This pessimistic feeling that nothing is going to get done may just be a lack of patience on my part, given that the next 24 hours could be extremely eventful, but the past five years of Devils hockey has that effect on people. I also understand that “making moves for the sake of making moves” can be bad business. At the end of the day though, if the Devils are unable to get something done, the reality will be that a potential opportunity to improve the team immediately has been missed, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. So my plea to Ray Shero is this: please make me look like a jackass for writing this panic piece a day ahead of the roster freeze. If you do not give someone the opportunity to respond to the tweet linking this piece with “Nice article, dips**t,” I will be sorely disappointed. So make it happen, Ray. Make the blockbuster deal to acquire someone like, I don’t know, Hampus Lindholm, so I am forced to log off forever for having ever doubted you. Otherwise, we’re that much closer to the status quo for next season and the status quo is ... [checks 2016-17 standings] ... bad.