Lots of changes in Pittsburgh since the 2017 expansion

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As we eagerly await the release of the Seattle Kraken 2021 expansion roster, I have to think about the Penguins’ protected versus unprotected roster for the 2017 Vegas Expansion Draft. I spoke about it here four years ago. It feels like an eternity in many ways.

Here are the players Pittsburgh was protecting. They chose the rarely used eight-skater route (instead of keeping 7F + 3D) because they wanted to keep all four defenders locked up.

Forward: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist

Defenders: Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta

Goalie: Matt Murray

Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang’s choices were automatic, given their no-move clauses, but these guys were all slam dunks to remember anyway, so that’s okay.

Going to 8 skaters was smart as it keeps the top 4 defensemen on the team safe. The only choice was who to protect as the last attacker between Hornqvist and Rust. Bryan Rust is a playoff hero and elevates his game at the right time, but his regular season stats aren’t that good.

Among the 2015-17 regular forwards in the squad, Rust is dead last, 13 of 13 in Points / 60. His regular season stats aren’t impressive. He has shown little of his ability to play and pass. Rust is a useful and good player in his own right, and worth it, but his skills are quite replaceable in a setting like this.

I think a lot of times it’s now taken for granted or taken as an old hat that Bryan Rust is a leading player in the NHL and a legitimate NHL first lineman. In June 2017, this was definitely not the case. Even in 2017-18 the following season, Rust scored just 13 goals in 69 games, despite going almost 400 5v5 minutes with Sidney Crosby and nearly 250 with Evgeni Malkin. That’s a lot of top-notch real estate, as Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are completely gone and Rust was lucky enough to step in and didn’t quite understand the touch-in-goal for a while.

It’s sad to see the fall of Justin Schultz and especially Olli Maatta from this point. Four years ago, Schultz had just finished a 51-point season and was in his prime at 27. He would leave Pittsburgh a bit out of favor after injury and the performance put his last games on a sour note.

Maatta was quietly a baseman in the 2017 Pens Stanley Cup race. With Kris Letang injured, Pittsburgh needed Maatta and I thought he played one of the best hockeys of his career in that streak. Maatta would even play all 82 games of the 2017-18 season, but his performance appeared to be reduced the following year as his skating ability dropped very quickly to NHL caliber as injuries accumulated and caught up with him.

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While Pittsburgh and Vegas had made a deal to ship Marc-Andre Fleury there, making the list a largely ceremonial list, here are the players who were technically available.

Before

Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino *, Matt Cullen *, Chris Kunitz *, Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, Josh Archibald, Oskar Sundqvist, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Tom Sestito *, Kevin Porter *, Garrett Wilson *

Defenders

Ian Cole, Trevor Daley *, Ron Hainsey *, Chad Ruhwedel *, Mark Streit *, Derrick Pouliot, Frank Corrado, Cameron Gaunce *, David Warsofsky *, Tim Erixon, Stuart Percy

Goalie

Marc-André Fleury (waived the immobilization clause for the purposes of the expansion project)

* UFA imminent on 1/7

Of the exposed players, only Rust and Chad Ruhwedel remain in Pittsburgh as players. It’s pretty crazy to think that two-thirds of the HBK line from the previous spring would be on the expansion roster, despite Bonino being a free agent who shouldn’t be returning.

Interesting to see Sundqvist appear here, he would be notoriously traded just days after his expansion for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, sparking fires that didn’t quite go out.

There was no doubt that Pouliot would be exposed given that his career never really took off, but it put an end to the disgrace for the 23-year-old who, five years earlier, was the 8th overall pick. Pouliot also played his last game in the Pens organization and would be traded in the offseason for a future third-round pick.

Pens will only protect four players in 2017 and 2021, can you name them without cheating? (This is not a trick question, it is quite easy).

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The answers are: Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Dumoulin. We already know with the NMC clauses that Crosby, Malkin, and Letang are safe for the 2021 expansion, and I’m heading off to the safest branch ever to project a day sooner for you Brian Dumoulin won’t, in fact, the Seattle Kraken’s choice out of Pittsburgh. No one else from 2017 is eligible.

The Pens’ 2021 roster is due to be delivered to the league today at 5 p.m. The league is officially reviewing / approving and distributing to all clubs and Seattle tomorrow. We’ll see if any news or reports are released today on the exact details of Pens’ latest protection list, but it will certainly be very different from what Vegas saw in 2017.


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