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Unprotected

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

LAS VEGAS - And so for the next 72 hours or so, Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee stands at the very epicenter of the hockey universe.

Sunday morning McPhee was handed the protected and unprotected lists produced by the National Hockey League's other 30 teams and shortly thereafter McPhee and his staff began poring over those lists to see how they compared to the mock lists they have been working and reworking for the better part of a year. 

No doubt the moment those lists were formally presented McPhee's phone lit up with calls from other GMs looking to spin the expansion draft into something of value for them.

It is an unprecedented moment in the history of the NHL's expansion process with McPhee able to approach restricted and unrestricted free agents before he must produce a final list that will be revealed as part of the NHL's annual awards ceremony Wednesday night.

McPhee's breadth of power extends to making deals with teams who covet some of the players left unprotected by other NHL clubs. So, in theory, McPhee could select Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba and then flip him to say Tampa or Dallas in exchange for different assets.

McPhee holds all the cards and for this brief period of time is the single-most important figure in hockey.

It's also the most important time in his long career as an NHL executive as McPhee must balance the lure of dealing for future assets - some believe he could end up with as many as four additional first-round picks in the next year or two via expansion draft deals - with selecting a roster that fans in Las Vegas will connect with when they begin the real business of playing hockey as the NHL's 31st franchise in October. Furthermore, McPhee has to spend enough money to get to 60% of the salary cap or about $45 million.

In short, McPhee is a busy man.

Here's a look at some interesting elements of the lists that were released Sunday morning.

It's believed several teams already have deals in place with McPhee to avoid selecting top players that were exposed Sunday morning. Anaheim, which exposed defensemen Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson, is believed to be one of those teams so don't look for Vatanen or Manson to be going anywhere unless it's via trade.

The same is believed to be the case with Minnesota, another team with a glut of attractive defenders. The Wild protected Jonas Brodin but exposed Marco Scandella and Dumba, both of whom are of interest to other NHL teams looking to bolster their blue line, including the Dallas Stars.

Veteran Columbus beat writer Aaron Portzline reported earlier in the week that Columbus had a deal in place to have Vegas select from a small group of players exposed (likely William Karlsson), which would allow them to keep Josh Anderson, Jack Johnson and backup netminder Joonas Korpisalo, who just signed a two-year contract extension. It's believed a first-round pick is part of that deal.

The goalie situation is perhaps the single-most fascinating part of McPhee's strategy to watch unfold. When it leaked earlier in the week that three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury was willing to waive his no-move clause for purposes of being exposed by Pittsburgh in the expansion draft, the belief was that McPhee would take Fleury and make him the Golden Knights' first-ever starting netminder. Any idea that McPhee might take Fleury, who has two years left on his deal with a $5.75 million cap hit, and then flip him to, say, Calgary went out the window with Saturday's deal that saw veteran netminder Mike Smith go from Arizona to Calgary.

Did the Fleury move allow Detroit GM Ken Holland to expose Petr Mrazek with little fear he'd be taken? Maybe. Still it was a curious move protecting veteran Jimmy Howard, who is older, 33 compared to 25, and more expensive (two more years with a cap hit just under $5.3 million), while exposing Mrazek who might represent an excellent one-two punch in goal with Fleury.

Still with goalies, the Coyotes protected unrestricted free agent Chad Johnson, 31, whose rights were acquired in the Smith deal with Calgary, but exposed youngster Louis Domingue, 25, who has shown flashes that suggest he has the goods to be an NHL starter. The Coyotes are among several teams whose goaltending situation remains unclear. Winnipeg is another as the Jets need a starter to be a playoff threat. There are also a handful of teams looking for backup help, which suggests McPhee could leverage players like Domingue, Malcom Subban, who was left unprotected by Boston, Linus Ullmark exposed by Buffalo or Antti Raanta, who was a terrific backup to Henrik Lundqvist in New York, into other assets moving forward. There's also Philipp Grubauer in Washington who has high end talent and whom McPhee drafted while he was the GM there. Our guess is that McPhee takes defenseman Nate Schmidt instead.

And finally with netminders, we were surprised that Colorado exposed Calvin Pickard, who is coming off a strong tournament for Canada at the World Championships, especially given the inconsistency and injury issues veteran Semyon Varlamov has faced in Colorado. Hard to imagine McPhee would have jumped on Varlamov, even though McPhee drafted Varlamov back in the day in Washington. Similarly, it's hard to imagine McPhee would have much interest in another former Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth, who was signed to a new deal by Philadelphia in the off-season.

Lots of familiar veteran names were exposed and while McPhee does have to spend money to get to the floor and he has indicated he's willing to take on an unwanted contract or two from other teams provided the incentive is right, don't look for too many of these players to end up donning a new Golden Knights jersey. In fact, we'd be shocked if any of the following are selected by the Golden Knights; Bobby Ryan coming off a terrific playoff in Ottawa, Detroit's gritty, veteran defenseman Nicklas Kronwall, veteran netminder Roberto Luongo, former Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown and his teammate Marian Gaborik.

Veteran players we do like as a fit? We were a bit surprised Eric Staal was exposed by Minnesota after a renaissance season for the longtime Carolina captain. Is Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher anteing up a big return for Vegas to stay away from the top Wild players? If not, we like Staal as a potential first captain in Vegas. James Neal, fresh off a run to the Stanley Cup Final with Nashville, was our pick a long time ago to be exposed and would provide instant offense for a team that figures to struggle to score. Michael Grabner is available via the New York Rangers after a 27-goal campaign, while veteran defender Calvin de Haan might make sense especially given that McPhee did some scouting for the New York Islanders before taking the Vegas job last off-season. Montreal veteran Tomas Plekanec has been tabbed by many, including us, as the Habs' donation to the Vegas cause and it makes sense on a number of levels. And unless the Ottawa Senators can steer McPhee clear of veteran defenseman Marc Methot, exposed when Dion Phaneuf declined to waive his no-move clause, it's easy to see Methot playing top four minutes for the Golden Knights.

Under the radar names that popped out for us included emerging young defenseman Jake Dotchin, 23, who played well for Tampa after being called up from the American Hockey League last season. He's a right-handed shot and played some with Victor Hedman last season. Unless GM Steve Yzerman has a side deal in place, it's hard to imagine Vegas ignoring this kind of ready to play asset. Jonathan Marchesseault had a breakout year for injury-plagued Florida last season, leading the team with 30 goals. He's small and while not a natural center, he could play down the middle. Plus, he's known to Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, who was unceremoniously fired by the Panthers during a season of upheaval in south Florida. Got to figure that's the pick for Vegas.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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