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Who will the Arizona Coyotes protect in the Las Vegas Expansion Draft?

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The Arizona Coyotes have some decisions to make ahead of next summer's expansion draft.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the offseason in full swing, this is typically the time when teams like the Arizona Coyotes (and their fans) pause to catch their breath before the next season starts anew. But Arizona's future plans may hit a bump in the road thanks to a new neighbor to the Northwest.

Las Vegas.

The newest NHL franchise will conduct an expansion draft in 2017 to stock its roster with 30 NHL players and prospects. While the rules are a bit complex, the easiest provision to understand is that one player must come from every NHL team. That includes the Arizona Coyotes.

So who should the Coyotes protect? Who will be left exposed? And of those vulnerable to the expansion draft, who might Las Vegas choose?

The Rules

There are two options that NHL clubs can elect to take when deciding which roster players to protect. But regardless of whom they protect, they must expose at least one defenseman and two forwards who are both under contract in 2017-18 season and have played either 40 games in the 2016-17 season or 70 games between 2015-17.

Once those requirements are met, the Coyotes have two choices.

Option 1 - seven forwards, three defensemen, one goaltender
Option 2 - eight skaters (forwards and defensemen), one goaltender

The first option gives Arizona two additional players that they can protect, but it leaves more defensemen exposed. The second option would give Arizona more roster flexibility, but less coverage as a whole.

Players with no-movement clauses must be protected, and those protections count against the total. Luckily for the Coyotes, John Chayka's predecessor, Don Maloney, was particularly stingy on no-movement clauses; the only player next summer who will have one is Chayka signing Alex Goligoski, whom the team would almost certainly protect anyway. Mike Smith is the only other player with any kind of clause, but this season his no-movement clause became a no-trade clause, which does not require protection.

So with Goligoski protected, Arizona can either protect seven forwards and two defensemen, or seven other skaters. What strategy makes the most sense for the Coyotes? It depends on what they choose to prioritize.

The Exemptions

Players in their first or second professional seasons are exempt from the expansion draft without costing a protected slot. That means every pick from 2015 and 2016 onward (such as Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley) is safe. Additionally, highly touted picks like Christian Dvorak, Ryan MacInnis, and Brendan Perlini do not have to be explicitly protected, because they do not have enough professional seasons under their belts). Furthermore, any picks not under contract (such as those playing in the NCAA) do not have to be protected either.

Perhaps most importantly, Max Domi will have only completed two seasons by the time next summer rolls around, which means that he should still be exempt from the expansion draft without requiring protection. That is extremely important for the Coyotes given Domi is a must-protect moving forward. Recent acquisition and highly talented offensive-defenseman Anthony DeAngelo is in a similar position.

But "professional" seasons include the AHL and Europe, so the list of players who might need protecting is longer than one might originally think. So let's look position by position to see what makes the most sense for the Coyotes.

The Goalies

The goaltending position is probably the easiest for the Coyotes to sort out. Only two goalies are currently eligible to be selected: Mike Smith and Louis Domingue.

Domingue took a big step forward last season in Smith's absence, and Smith's contract still looks like an overpay despite his strong finish to the season. Given Smith is 34 and Domingue is 24, it's an easy call for the Coyotes to make.

The Defensemen

The blue-line is where Arizona faces its first major predicament. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski are shoo-ins to be protected regardless of what's in their contracts. But beyond that, Arizona's choices become much tougher.

As of now, Arizona has only one other defenseman under contract beyond the 2016-17 season: Kevin Connauton. That will likely change when RFAs Michael Stone and Connor Murphy receive new deals. The Coyotes are high on Murphy, so protecting him is an easy decision.

But that leaves three defensemen protected. If Arizona decides to protect either Stone or Connauton, they would not be able to protect any more than four forwards.

That would leave Klas Dahlbeck, Kevin Connauton and Jarred Tinordi on the outside looking in. Dahlbeck has not yet shown that he is more than a stay at home defenseman. While that's not a bad thing, it's also relatively easy to replace in free agency. So Arizona might decide it's worth exposing Dahlbeck to hang on to a couple of extra forwards. Connauton meanwhile put together a respectable season between the Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets last year, but he will be 27 by next summer.

Tinordi might be an end-of-season call; if he develops his game and can start to move the puck up ice more efficiently, then he would be a very difficult prospect to expose. If his off-ice issues resurface or he proves to be more of an anchor in his own end than a buoy, then Arizona might be willing to risk him going to Las Vegas.

The Forwards

Again, there are a few obvious choices here. Anthony Duclair, and Tobias Rieder are both on the list. Both of these players figure to be major parts of the Coyotes' core moving forward.

Beyond those three, the Coyotes have some depth pieces that they would probably prefer to hold onto. Jordan Martinook, Tyler Gaudet, Henrik Samuelsson, and possibly Anton Karlsson (who may or may not be exempt depending on the NHL's rules for European leagues) will be expansion draft eligible, along with veterans Brad Richardson and Jamie McGinn.

If Arizona protects more than three defensemen, only one of these players can be protected, which will mean some young talent would be exposed to Las Vegas. This is where I would expect Las Vegas to pick from.

Protection Scenarios

If I am George McPhee, I'm looking to add young players wherever possible. Arizona has a plethora of them that they are not going to be able to protect without making a trade. In the past, teams have protected extra players from expansion by trading conditional picks in exchange for not selecting certain players.

But assuming Arizona does not make any deals, here are a couple of protection scenarios that I think make the most sense for the Coyotes.

Option 1:

Protect: Anthony Duclair, Tobias Rieder, Jordan Martinook, Tyler Gaudet, Jamie McGinn, Henrik Samuelsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Connor Murphy, Louis Domingue

Expose: Anton Karlsson, Brad Richardson, Michael Stone, Kevin Connauton, Klas Dahlbeck, Jarred Tinordi, Mike Smith

This scenario would allow the Coyotes to preserve most of their young forward corps as well as retain McGinn on the wing as a veteran scoring threat. Arizona could also absorb the loss of Brad Richardson, especially if the Coyotes were able to negotiate an extension with Martin Hanzal. That would leave two center spots open for Arizona's glut of young, promising centers.

But Arizona would have to leave somebody exposed on defense. The Coyotes have invested considerably more in Murphy at this point than Tinordi. And there is the suspension issue. But Tinordi has the capability to be a perfectly decent NHL defenseman, and will only be 25 after this season. Plus, you can't teach size.

Las Vegas selects: Jarred Tinordi

Option 2:

Protect: Anthony Duclair, Tobias Rieder, Jordan Martinook, Brad Richardson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Connor Murphy, Jarred Tinrodi, Louis Domingue

Expose: Tyler Gaudet, Anton Karlsson, Jamie McGinn, Michael Stone, Kevin Connauton, Klas Dahlbeck, Mike Smith

Taking the second option would allow the Coyotes to retain Tinordi as their most NHL ready defensive prospect, but at the cost of exposing three more forwards than in the first scenario. Inevitably, that means someone young is at risk.

Tyler Gaudet has made a strong case to be Arizona's fourth line center heading into the future, while Anton Karlsson has the potential to be a bottom-six NHL regular in the future. His time in the SHL has not exactly been outstanding, but Karlsson might be a prospect worth taking a risk on for Las Vegas.

Las Vegas selects: Anton Karlsson

Final Thoughts

Arizona's embarrassment of riches in their prospect pool has been a cause of excitement for several years. With expansion on the horizon though, it will be a tall order for Arizona to hold on to all of its talented younger players.

Still, the Coyotes have quite a bit of flexibility heading into the 2017 offseason. And some players may play their way on or off the protected list this upcoming season.

So expect a highly useful player to depart Arizona for Las Vegas next season. But the most important pieces of the puzzle for the Coyotes will still be around for the long haul.