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Photo Credit: © Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Expansion Draft Playbook: Central Division Part 3

As the expansion draft protected lists were released on Sunday morning (just a little later than we expected) one wave of speculation got quelled for good.

Now that the lists are out, another wave begins. Did the teams make the right choices? And what choices will the Vegas Golden Knights make?

Vegas has stated their picks will be made Tuesday, rather than Wednesday. This makes sense on two fronts. One, it’s best not to leave something that important to the last minute. I learned that in college, even if I never applied the lesson. Two, it gives the Golden Knights negotiation leverage over teams wanting to make trades. Now those teams know they’re working on Vegas’s deadline, not their own.

Of the Jets’ final two Central Division rivals, one is not considered likely to be seeking any trades, while the other is virtually guaranteed to be actively pursuing them. The St. Louis Blues protected list is set, and they don’t seem inclined to alter it just yet. Nashville, on the other hand, is thought to have some work to do in regards to theirs.

Nashville ended up having to expose veteran goal scorer James Neal in order to protect their plethora of skilled defensemen. It’s tough all over this time of year, however, and the Preds will get little sympathy on that front. Here’s a breakdown of the expansion draft plans of the two final division rivals of the Winnipeg Jets.

Nashville Predators:

Four Forwards: Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Ryan Johansen

Four Defensemen: Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban

Goaltender: Pekka Rinne

The Predators were a team that just about everybody knew were going to go with the eight-skaters-and-a-goalie path in their expansion draft protection plan. As it turned out, just about everybody was right.

This carries some complications for the reigning Western Conference Champions. There was no doubt all season that they would protect Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen up front, and Viktor Arvidsson earned it by virtue of a stellar 31-goal campaign. On the back end, no one will question the Preds choice to protect their top-four, who comprise one of the best defense corps in the entire NHL.

The only controversial decision Nashville made was exposing James Neal over Calle Jarnkrok. Jarnkrok had a solid season last year, as the first round pick from the 2010 draft put up his second straight year of 15 goals or more. He’s still young at just 25 years old, but he lacks Neal’s pedigree. Neal has scored over 20 goals in every season he’s played, including the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.

Jarnkrok also lacks Neal’s cap hit, however. Neal is going to cost the Predators $5 million next season, after which he is a free agent. Jarnkrok is going to cost them $2 million, and he’s under contract until 2022. Jarnkrok is four years younger as well.

Still, in the short term, Neal is a better player. That’s why there’s so much talk of the Preds swinging a deal with Vegas to not take him, but as you read above, it has yet to happen as of this writing. Vegas might claim him, they might not. But will the Preds risk it? They may have no choice.

St. Louis Blues:

Seven Forwards: Patrik Berglund, Ryan Reaves, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Sobotka, Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko

Three Defensemen: Jay Bouwmeester, Joel Edmunson, Alex Pietrangelo

Goaltender: Jake Allen

The St. Louis Blues had a much simpler time in the expansion draft. Like other teams, they wouldn’t be able to protect everyone but they did have the advantage of having some of their more promising players, like Colton Parayko and Robby Fabbri, being exempt from the draft.

That’s not to say St. Louis doesn’t have some good pieces available for Vegas to pick over, but they didn’t have nearly the dilemma that, say, Minnesota did.

Some may be surprised to see Ryan Reaves’s name on the protected list. I’m not. His brand of toughness, coupled with an ability to play regular minutes, is a rarity in the NHL. He’s the last of a breed, but not only is he a better fighter than half the other heavyweights who once held sway in the league he’s also a better player. You won’t find another player like him in free agency, nor in the draft either, not for years if ever, and the Blues know it.

For the Golden Knights, it will likely come to a choice between Jori Lehtera and David Perron. They might surprise with Nail Yakupov if they still see something in the 2012 first overall pick, but more likely they take the safer options.

Perron had the better year last year. Unlike Lehtera he stayed healthy, and while healthy he managed to put up 18 goals and 46 points in all 82 games. Perron’s 28 goal season in 2014 with the Edmonton Oilers may be well behind him, but he has a long history of serviceable secondary scoring.

Perron presents Vegas with the same issues as James Neal, though with a lower potential payoff. He’s 29 years old and carries a 3.75 million dollar cap hit through next season. That said, since he’s a UFA after next year he can be flipped to a contender for picks or prospects.

Lehtera may be newer to the NHL, but he’s no younger. He had a down year last year with just 22 points in 64 games, and his 44 points in 2014-15 represent a career-high. His cap hit is higher as well, just through one extra season. In all likelihood Vegas passes on his heftier price tag in favor of the more offensively-gifted and cheaper Perron.

Either way, however, the Blues will emerge from the expansion draft largely the same team that entered it. It’s more than many teams can say.