BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Nothing is set in stone, but NHL general managers got their first glimpse of a potential expansion draft Wednesday as their three-day series of meetings with the league wrapped up.
"It's good to know what we're potentially dealing with," observed Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving after his group got a sneak peek at potential expansion-draft rules.
It's good for the GMs because it allows them to plan ahead should the NHL indeed decide to expand to Las Vegas or Quebec City or both.
And as Treliving pointed out, teams will get a full year to plan before any expansion draft.
"What I would say generally about them is that they are very similar to the expansion draft rules that we had previously, except it is designed and intended to create a somewhat deeper draft so the expansion club can be more competitive early on," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
"But in a one-team expansion, the most a team can lose is one player per team. In a two-team expansion, they can lose two players per team, and if we don't expand, they don't lose any players."
Teams will have two options in who they protect: either they safeguard seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie; or they protect eight skaters (whether they're defensemen or forwards) and one goalie.
First- and second-year pros -- including those playing pro hockey at any level -- will be exempt from the expansion draft. But if they're entering their third year of pro hockey, they're no longer exempt. Teams would have to either protect them or expose them.
Unsigned draft picks (think college or European players) are exempt from the expansion draft for two years from their draft year but not in Year 3, so teams will have to either rush to sign those guys or simply expose them in the expansion draft.
The total salaries for the players made available by each team in the expansion draft must be at least 25 percent of the previous season's payroll for that team. Daly explained: "The other variation that makes this expansion draft different is we would contemplate having some thresholds based on salary to make sure that the expansion club can be competitive based on the ranges we have in the CBA. Teams would have some obligation to expose a level of salary. And in terms of drafting players, teams would have to draft a certain threshold of salary."
Now, what remains undetermined at this juncture is one whale of a wild-card: What happens with all those NHL players with no-movement clauses?
"I don't think it's that complicated, but it's an issue that hasn't been resolved in terms of how we intend to treat that," Daly said. "It's something that we're going to have to have a discussion [about] with the players' association."
In fact, a meeting has already been scheduled with the NHL Players' Association to discuss just that, Daly said.
The bottom line in all this is that this potential set of expansion draft rules will provide any Las Vegas or Quebec City team with a better opportunity to hit the ground running than expansion teams had in the past.
"The notion is if you are going to bring a new team or two new teams into the league, you want them to have perhaps a level of competitiveness that is a little greater than we have had in the past from expansions, but again, that has yet to be decided," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Some GMs already had a quick read on what type of players they would have to expose.
"I think it means you might lose a No. 4 or No. 5 defenseman, or a No. 6 or No. 7 forward, or a decent goalie," said Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray.
Which in itself is a step up from the third-pairing defensemen and fourth-line forwards mostly available in past expansion drafts.
After all, you should get something for a $500-million expansion fee.
What's very interesting is that only one goalie can be protected this time around no matter which option a team chooses. So let's get theoretical for a moment: Let's say the league and NHLPA agree that players with no-move clauses are going to be available in the expansion draft, and let's say you're the Pittsburgh Penguins, do you protect veteran Marc-Andre Fleury in goal or 21-year-old up-and-comer Matt Murray?
Now, maybe it'll be a moot point if no-movement clauses end up protecting players from the expansion draft, but what if that's not the case?
"Then I would think the Penguins would try to trade either goalie and get an asset back before the expansion draft," observed one GM before leaving Wednesday.
And that's what you'd see all over the place in the 12 months leading up to a potential expansion draft: trades and moves galore by teams trying to soften the blow of losing a good player in the expansion draft.
Stay tuned, this is just the beginning of a very interesting process. If, of course, the NHL does indeed expand.
Bettman said again Wednesday that the issue still hasn't been decided. The league awaits the official recommendation from the 10-owner executive committee regarding expansion, and there's no firm timeline for when that might be ready.
The only deadline to speak of is that if no decision has been reached by the June draft, any expansion team would be unable to begin play in time for the 2017-18 season.
Salary cap update
It's rare for GMs to get a salary cap projection, that's usually a board of governors update, but the league did provide a new projection Wednesday in response to the angst over the Canadian dollar this season.
The projected number given Wednesday was $74 million (ballpark), down about a half million from the $74.5 million governors were given at Pebble Beach in early December.
But, as Daly added in a caveat Wednesday, it would be a flat cap if the five percent escalator is not included. That's an issue the NHLPA and the league have to negotiate in June.
The five percent escalator has been enacted for all but one season since the 2005 cap system went into effect.
But given the 18 percent escrow players are currently forking over from their paychecks, this is not an easy decision for the NHLPA. Players on long-term contracts would probably prefer not to include the five percent escalator and keep the cap lower to minimize next year's escrow payments; however those headed to free agency this summer no doubt want as high a cap as possible so there's as much money available as possible on the open market.
The 30 clubs have similarly divergent goals. The big-market, high-spending teams want the cap to be as high as possible, otherwise they're going to face tough payroll decisions this summer; the mid- to lower-market teams want a flat cap not only because it will help curb spending but also because it might help them take advantage of those big-market teams who may have to shed a good player or two due to the cap.
This season's cap is $71.4 million.
"You're looking probably at, at the high end, approximately a $74 million cap [for next season] with a basic inflator, and without you're looking at a flat cap," Daly said. "Our practice with the players' association really has been over the last couple years to try to sit down and talk about a reasonable projection for revenue growth and build in that inflator. So that's what I'd say, it's somewhere probably between the current cap and $74 million."