- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2017

The NHL’s expansion draft is fast approaching and the Vegas Golden Knights could put the Washington Capitals in a tough position.

The Capitals must submit their list of protected players by Saturday and the NHL will announce Vegas’ selections on Wednesday. The Golden Knights have to select one player from among those left off each team’s protected list.

“We’re gonna have to react after they pick their player,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said last month. “Whatever player they pick, we’re gonna have to try and fill that hole.”

MacLellan said the Capitals will protect seven forwards, three defenseman and one goalie rather than eight skaters plus one goalie, which were the options teams had to choose from for the draft.

In the 72 hours leading up to the expansion draft after the NHL publicly reveals the protection lists Sunday, all sorts of discussions and deals could be haggled.

Former Capitals general manager George McPhee is now the GM of the Golden Knights. MacLellan, who served seven years as McPhee’s assistant general manager, said he expects to have discussions with his former boss, but knows McPhee won’t disclose who he is selecting.

Meanwhile, the Capitals have already begun making moves to enhance the odds they won’t lose a player too valuable.

Washington traded a 2018 fifth-round pick Wednesday to the Minnesota Wild for center Tyler Graovac, letting them protect Lars Eller. Eller provided stability on the Capitals third line last season after he was acquired from Montreal Canadiens for two second round picks last June.

But the loss might sting no matter what.

The Capitals are in real danger of losing defenseman Nate Schmidt, a restricted free agent who excelled in the playoffs. At his year-end press conference, MacLellan envisioned Schmidt as a top-four defenseman for next season alongside Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and John Carlson.

The problem, though, is the Capitals only get to protect three defenseman. Niskanen and Orlov were the Capitals’ best defensive pairing during the playoffs and it makes sense to pair them together going forward. Orlov is also a restricted free agent and MacLellan said he would be open to signing him to a long term extension.

That leaves Carlson, who is also a valuable defender. If the Capitals really want to go bold, they could trade Carlson for a draft pick or other assets beforehand — shedding his $4 million salary — to protect Schmidt. But the Capitals have shown no indication they would make such a move — and the defense would get worse in the short term in trading Carlson.

“Obviously there’s a possibility,” Schmidt said last month about Vegas. “It seems like everything (Las Vegas is) doing is the right thing. … This expansion, with how good the league is, there’s going to be a lot of good players that are going to be exposed on every team.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who eliminated the Capitals from the second round in the playoffs, added insult to injury with a recent roster move that will make it more difficult for Washington to keep Vegas from picking Schmidt.

Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins goaltender the Capitals struggled to crack in their seven-game series last month, agreed Monday to waive his no movement clause, meaning Vegas will likely select him instead of Capitals backup goalie Philipp Grubauer.

The move also allows Pittsburgh to protect Matt Murray, their 23-year-old starting goaltender.

Fleury, 32, would provide Vegas with a marketable name and a mentor to help younger players. Picking up the Penguins backup goalie would allow the Golden Knights to use their Capitals pick to grab Schmidt — meaning the Capitals will have to negotiate directly with Vegas to keep Schmidt.

“It’s going to be interesting to see the process,” MacLellan said.

Which players will the Capitals protect? Here’s an educated guess:

Forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Tom Wilson.Defenseman: Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson.Goalie: Braden Holtby.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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