The Philadelphia Flyers didn’t have too many decisions on their hands with their protected list for the expansion draft, but even a small move can tip your hand at times.
Eight or nine of the eleven protected players were rather self-explanatory, but the last forward slot, the goaltender, and arguably the third defenseman slot were all up for debate heading into Sunday morning’s announcement.
The first six forwards protected (Sean Couturier, Valtteri Filppula, Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek) were all givens, but there were a few candidates for the seventh protected slot. Ron Hextall elected to protect Scott Laughton with his final spot.
Laughton has had a lot of expectations from Flyers fans since being drafted in the first round and becoming the team’s top prospect (in a weak prospect pool). He had a five-game tryout in his draft year (the 2013 lockout-shortened season) with nothing to show for it before returning to Oshawa and tearing it up.
He got another chance with the Flyers in the 2014-15 season, a 31-game look, before playing in most games (71) of the 2015-16 season. However, a scary injury in the playoffs ended his campaign and it seemed that the organization was down on him heading into training camp. Laughton had just 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in his first 107 career games. He got into two NHL games last season but mostly worked on his craft in the AHL.
Laughton thrived with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in a strong, two-way role in the top-six en route to a playoff berth. He recorded 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) and was a team-high +17 on the season. He was doing it all for the Phantoms and even chipped in some offense while on the penalty kill.
It feels like Laughton has been in the Flyers organization forever, as he’s had NHL exposure in four of the past five seasons, but the young forward is just 23 years old and has his best hockey ahead of him. By protecting Laughton, the organization shows that they have confidence in him after last year’s campaign and didn’t want to potentially lose him for nothing.
The Flyers have a crowded bottom-six heading into training camp, but Laughton should be towards the top of the list among candidates vying for those roles.
With Laughton protected, that left a handful of forwards exposed. None were more surprising than Michael Raffl.
The Austrian forward has had a strong two-way game his whole career, but he has lacked the finishing touch consistently with just 21 goals (42 points) in his last 134 games after scoring 30 goals (50 points) in his first 135 games. That includes an abysmal 11 points (8 goals) in 52 games last season.
However, Raffl brings more to the table than meets the eye. He is always one of the team’s best possession forwards and play drivers, and his forechecking and ability to win a puck battle are second to none. Raffl is the best proven forward available to the Vegas Golden Knights via the Flyers, and he carries a reasonable cap hit of $2.35 million over the next two seasons.
Losing Raffl would hurt the Flyers’ forward depth, but it wouldn’t be a loss that they couldn’t recover from.
The other forward that would hurt to lose is pending free agent Jordan Weal. The 25-year-old finally broke out in March of this past season with 12 points in 19 games to end the season, including six points in five games late into the year. The Flyers have reportedly been negotiating with Weal and his agent, but they have yet to agree to terms.
With that being said, it’s very possible that Hextall and Weal have a handshake agreement in place to sign a deal after exposing him, provided that Vegas passes on him. The Golden Knights are giving teams every chance possible to negotiate to keep an unprotected player and Hextall could do that here with Weal.
Other noteworthy forwards left unprotected include Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Matt Read, and Dale Weise. None of these three would be huge losses for the Flyers, and Vegas would almost be doing them a favor by taking them. Bellemare is a fourth-line grinder at best, and while Read and Weise provide value on the third line and in the bottom-six, they wouldn’t be sorely missed.
Read is a solid role player but getting his $3.6 million off the books for this season would help the Flyers improve elsewhere, perhaps in net.
The 28-year-old Weise has a lower cap hit at $2.35 million, but that carries all the way through to the end of the 2019-20 season. The veteran forward has a rough ride in his first season with the Flyers and could be easily replaced by a younger forward.
On defense the Flyers protected their three easy selections as well. Shayne Gostisbehere, Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning are the three blueliners unavailable to Vegas.
Manning was the only question mark, with the possibility of the Flyers protecting an AHL defenseman in hopes that Vegas might want Manning. But this still leaves Andrew MacDonald and his $5 million cap hit unprotected and exposed to Vegas. If Hextall can work his magic and convince the Golden Knights to take MacDonald, the city might have to build a shrine to him.
In net the Flyers protected another young asset in Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz has shown promise in a few NHL games but his AHL numbers weren’t that impressive last season.
With Stolarz protected that leaves Michal Neuvirth exposed to the Golden Knights. There are a lot of goalies available in the expansion draft, including several that are better than Neuvirth, but there is a chance that personal bias wins out or that Hextall bribes Vegas to take Neuvirth.
Losing Neuvirth would leave the Flyers without a starting goaltender, but there are plenty available whether it be via free agency or via a trade with Vegas.
Ron Hextall continued his forward-thinking plan with a smart protection list for the upcoming expansion draft. Although we will not find out how it all shakes down until Wednesday, it appears that the Flyers are in good shape heading into the NHL Entry Draft on Friday. They may lose a good role player in Raffl, but with the influx of young talent in Oskar Lindblom and the number two overall pick, he might not be missed as much as some think.
The Expansion Draft will be held on Wednesday night in conjunction with the NHL Awards show. The players announced to Vegas will go in reverse order of the standings, from the Avalanche to the Capitals, with the Flyers’ player being announced 13th.
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