By Steve Lichtenstein
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After watching their team suffer through a dreary 28-40-14 season, Devils fans could probably list at least a half-dozen players who they wouldn’t mind seeing in a Vegas Golden Knights uniform come October.
Devils general manager Ray Shero needs to make his own list by Friday, as every NHL team must submit the names of the players they wish to protect when Vegas conducts its expansion draft on June 21.
The protected lists come in two formats — one with a goalie, three defensemen, and seven forwards, and the other with a fourth defensemen protected but only four forwards. First- and second-year players are exempt, as are players who are on the long-term injured list, such as New Jersey’s Ryane Clowe.
The choice would seem obvious. The more players you can protect, the better, right? Why choose to protect eight skaters when you can protect 10, especially if you’re a defensively porous club like the Devils?
Apparently, the four-four formation hasn’t been ruled out by Shero. Devils experts such as The Record’s Andrew Gross have concurred with that strategy.
The argument is that the Devils really only have four forwards — Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac — who are no-brainers to protect. Since the rules call for teams to expose at least two forwards who are under contract for the 2017-18 season, Mike Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly must be available at the expansion draft by default. They’re the only two non-exempt forwards the Devils currently have under contract.
Beau Bennett, Jacob Josefson, and Stefan Noesen would still have to be protected to maintain their restricted free agent status, but any of them would be easily replaceable if lost in expansion. Though to be fair, Shero is supposedly fond of the grit provided by Bennett and Noesen. Josefson, however, has been an absolute bust since his first-round selection in the 2009 Entry Draft.
As poorly as the Devils’ defensemen performed last season, the expansion draft decisions are not so easy. Captain Andy Greene will be protected. So will restricted free agent Damon Severson, despite a horrific campaign in which he registered the league’s third-worst plus/minus at minus-31. It would still be shocking if Shero gave up on one of his few puck-movers who will turn just 23 this summer.
That leaves Ben Lovejoy, John Moore, John Merrill and Dalton Prout, who are all signed for next season. I would thank my lucky stars if Vegas GM George McPhee selected either Prout or Merrill, the two most abominable of the Devils’ backliners last season. The 25-year-old Merrill in particular has been a big tease to the organization. His 6-foot-3 frame and adept skating have surfaced all too infrequently and he has committed gaffes galore during his four seasons.
While a joint Lovejoy/Moore body-mind melding would form one heck of a hockey player, individually they are each quite flawed. Lovejoy, a strong net-front presence with poor puck-moving skills, probably would get my nod in a seven-three alignment over Moore, who surprisingly led all Devils defensemen with 12 goals in 63 games last season but is not as sound in his own end.
All this mental exercise could be pointless if Shero uses one of his 11 draft picks to grease Vegas’ wheels. Though the NHL will institute a trade freeze on Saturday, teams will be allowed to conduct roster business with Vegas right up to the draft. That apparently includes side deals whereby teams can direct McPhee to keep his hands off a certain player at the draft and/or to select a certain player. Rumors are circulating that Anaheim, Chicago, and Columbus have already entered into expansion draft-related agreements with Vegas.
My guess is that Shero will work something out as well, whereby the Golden Knights will select a predetermined player. Maybe it will be Smith-Pelly, who is coming off a disappointing season, to say the least, but has potential. He just turned 25 on Wednesday and is on a reasonable $1.3 million contract that can be re-upped after next season in restricted free agency.
If not, the four-four format seems to make the most sense since it would allow Shero to avoid choosing between Lovejoy and Moore:
Forwards: Hall, Palmieri, Henrique, and Zajac
Defensemen: Greene, Severson, Lovejoy, Moore
Goaltender: Cory Schneider
In that case, I would predict (OK, pray) that the Golden Knights would then choose Merrill over the expensive Cammalleri ($5 million AAV through 2018-19) or the less-skilled muckers, since I have seen that there are still some folks around the league who have faith in Merrill’s upside.
Then Shero can finally pivot his attention away from roster subtractions and focus on additions through the Entry Draft and free agency. Heaven knows, the Devils could sure use some.
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