What to do, what to do?
The Dallas Stars find themselves set up for an interesting dilemma when the expansion draft rolls around in mid-June. While they likely won’t find themselves as hurt by the draft as other teams around the league, they will have a tough decision to make when it comes to their forward group.
Antoine Roussel will be at the center of that discussion as the fan favorite will likely be one of the handful of forward candidates to be left unprotected for the expansion draft.
This season, Roussel has stepped up. He’s been one of the better even-strength players on the team this season and is looking to force Jim Nill to use a protection spot on him. He has always seemingly been one of Lindy Ruff’s favorite players as the head coach of the Stars is quick to point out Roussel’s relentless effort after many games. Since Roussel joined the Stars you really can’t point out a shift that went anything less than 100%. With expansion looming, the decision on Roussel was already going to be a tough one before this season started. With his excellent play so far, he has really stood out from his competition for a protection slot.
Who will he be competing with for one of those slots? Let’s take a look.
Barring any major moves, there are four forwards who have surely locked up protection spots, leaving three up for grabs. The Stars have to protect Jason Spezza and Jamie Benn due to no-movement clauses and they would have protected those players anyway.
They will also almost certainly protect Tyler Seguin and Radek Faksa. Seguin for obvious reasons and Faksa has established himself as a key component of this team moving forward while still being a relatively inexpensive player to hold on to for several years.
The Remaining Contenders
With three spots remaining, I’ve identified four contenders for those spots. They are Roussel, Cody Eakin, Brett Ritchie and Val Nichushkin. Patrick Eaves, unless he receives an extension in the next six months, is on an expiring contract making it unlikely he gets chosen in the expansion draft. Same goes for Patrick Sharp and Ales Hemsky. Nill will want to protect players he has under control already.
So who is the best candidate to be left out?
Nichushkin is an interesting one as he currently isn’t under contract and is playing his hockey in Russia. He expressed his interest in returning after two seasons but that situation is incredibly murky at best right now. Still, losing a former first-round pick who has shown a lot of potential for nothing would hurt quite a bit. I’d be surprised if Nill left Nichushkin unprotected.
That narrows it down to three players fighting for two spots. Ritchie, Roussel and Eakin. Let’s look at a performance metric on a game-by-game basis for this season.
All data via corsica.hockey unless otherwise stated.
Above is a rolling total of each players’ expected goal differential while playing 5v5 hockey. Expected goals is a shot metric (like Corsi or Fenwick) but it adds a key element, shot quality. You can find a much more thorough explanation on it here.
As you can see, Eakin hasn’t risen above zero all season. Sure he was injured for a good portion of the season but he is on a steady dip downwards. Ritchie, however, had a horrid start to the season but has worked hard to get into the black.
And then there is Roussel. Roussel has been the Stars’ best expected goal performer at 5v5 this season. Him and Radek Faksa have become quite the duo and as I mentioned before, Roussel is really trying to force Nill into protecting him.
Production-wise, the story is the same. Eakin has managed just one secondary assist playing 5v5 hockey in 15 games while Ritchie and Roussel have been two of the better forwards in terms of their production rates. Roussel is first on the team in 5v5 primary points per 60 minutes of play with 1.7 while Ritchie is fifth with 1.21.
Now obviously a decision like protecting a player during an expansion draft will take in many more factors than just their current season. We can take a look at a few more numbers and include the previous two seasons as well.
While I’m including just four key metrics above, this is pretty consistent across just about every key metric used to evaluate performance. I’ve included expected goals against rates in the above chart as for some reason Eakin has developed a reputation for being a more “defensive” forward despite allowing a higher rate of quality chances than most of his teammates, including Ritchie and Roussel.
Even including the past two seasons, Ritchie and Roussel have outperformed Eakin at 5v5. Including special teams helps Eakin a little but not enough to really move the needle in his favor.
Another factor that makes Roussel (and Ritchie) an attractive option for protection is their contract status. Roussel is signed through next season at just $2M per year while Ritchie is set to be a restricted free agent and won’t command a big salary. Eakin is making $3.85M against the cap through the 2019-20 season and is currently struggling to dig himself out of a fourth line position. Unless you’re the Islanders, do you really want to be committing that kind of money to a fourth line player?
While things can change as there is still plenty of season left, if I had to make this decision now Eakin would be the player I would leave unprotected. For me, Roussel has done more than enough to warrant keeping him around. He would almost certainly be snatched up by Vegas should he go unprotected, and I don’t think Nill should take that risk.