The National Hockey League will be expanding to 32 teams for the 2021-22 season. The Seattle Kraken will (hopefully) make its debut this Fall. As when Las Vegas joined the league back in 2017, there will be an expansion draft for the Kraken to fill out its first roster. 30 other NHL teams be forced to submit a list of players to protect from this draft and need to expose others. While the expansion draft is in July, teams need to keep this in mind as they evaluate their players for this season and decide what to do ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12. I noted in last week’s post that this was an additional challenge for this year’s NHL Trade Deadline for all teams, including the New Jersey Devils, to consider. Let us go over the Seattle expansion draft with respect to the Devils in this post.
The Seattle Expansion Draft Rules
The NHL has decided to use the same rules as they did for the Las Vegas draft back in 2017. Las Vegas will be exempted from this draft, so 30 teams will be exposing players. Since the rules are unchanged, the Devils have to protect a certain number of players and they also have to expose players at each position that meet specific requirements. Due to the shortened 2019-20 and 2021 seasons, there has been some reduced game requirements for that. From CapFriendly’s FAQ about it, here are the basic things to know:
- Teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goaltender or 8 skaters and 1 goaltender.
- Players who have a No Movement Clause must be protected unless the player waives it.
- Players with fewer than two professional seasons as of 2021 and unsigned draft picks on the team’s reserve list are automatically exempt. (This means Nikita Gusev is exempt)
- Players who are injured with either a possible career-threatening injury and missed the last 60 (or more) games are also exempt.
- Teams have to expose at least 1 goaltender who is signed for at least next season or is a pending restricted free agent after 2021.
- Teams have to expose at least 2 forwards and 1 defenseman who is signed for at least next season and either played 27 games this season or 54 games combined over the last two seasons.
Most of these rules should not concern the Devils. They do not have anyone with a No Movement Clause. They do not have anyone with a long-term injury. The last rule will be the tricky one for the Devils this season. Let us go over what I think the Devils should do position by position. I think the Devils will go with the 7-3-1 option for protection if only because protecting 11 players is more advantageous for a young, developing team than protecting 9.
Protect (1): Mackenzie Blackwood
Expose For Requirements: Evan Cormier
Also Exposed: Scott Wedgewood, Aaron Dell
In the System & Exempt: Gilles Senn
This is the easiest position for the Devils to prepare. Blackwood is the man in the net for the forseeable future. Wedgewood has played quite well this season but it is not difficult for the the Devils (and other teams) to find decent backups should Wedgewood or Dell are claimed. It could even be Gilles Senn in the future. Cormier is helpfully an RFA after this season, so he meets the exposure requirement for the position.
Protect (3): Damon Severson, P.K. Subban, Dmitry Kulikov
Expose For Requirements: Will Butcher
Also Exposed: Ryan Murray, Sami Vatanen, Connor Carrick, Matt Tennyson, Josh Jacobs, Colton White, Colby Sissons, David Quenneville
In the System & Exempt: Ty Smith, Reilly Walsh, Nikita Okhotiuk, Kevin Bahl, Michael Vukojevic, Jeremy Groleau
Say what you want about Damon Severson, Dmitry Kulikov, and P.K. Subban but they are among the Devils’ best defensemen over this whole season that need to be protected. Severson has been the team’s best 5-on-5 defenseman and a big reason why Smith has found success in his rookie season. I know some fans will bristle as he has been deemed “soft” by people who apparently can judge when professional hockey players are “soft,” and said fans think teams win games by “not being soft” instead of pushing the play forward, scoring goals, and such. Too bad, he shall be protected.
There are arguments for the other two I chose. I can understand an argument to leave Kulikov open as he is a pending unrestricted free agent. However, I think he has played well enough this season that I think the Devils should consider a short extension. He has been a far better fit in Lindy Ruff’s systems than I would have expected. Should the Devils push their younger defensemen forward, he is providing the veteran play that can help them be stable if/when struggles come. Subban has played much better than he did last season. Like Kulikov, he has fit in real well with the structure the new coaching staff has provided. He also did not have an aging Andy Greene to drag him down. Personally, I still think Subban is getting dealt in 2021-22 after his signing bonus is paid out. So rather than daring Seattle to take on that cap hit (and to pay that signing bonus), I think he gets protected as well.
I also think that Kulikov and Subban has been better than the others I would expose. Murray has not been necessarily bad but he has not really elevated the quality of the defense. Vatanen has had his struggles in the run of play and opponents have enjoyed their time against him. Carrick, Tennyson, and the others are not good enough to be regulars on this team, so there is no need to consider protecting any of them.
The one of note is Will Butcher. The Devils have only three defensemen who meet the contract and games requirements to require exposure: Severson, Subban, and Butcher. Between those three, I really do think Butcher is the odd man out. Mostly because he has been the odd man out this season. The Devils are not so good that they can afford to just keep talent as a scratch. However, Butcher has failed to make a significant enough impact in his eight games so far this season to warrant more minutes. As much as I have preferred to see him over, say, Vatanen on some nights, the coaching staff does not think so. If the new regime has soured over Butcher’s skillset and what he could contribute - and I think they have - then this makes him an ideal candidate to be exposed. Whether Seattle will want a 26-year old Butcher with a cap hit worth $3.7 million per season for two more seasons is another question. Still, among the defensemen who can meet the exposure requirements, Butcher is the most sensible of the three to expose.
Protect (7): Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian
Expose For Requirements: Andreas Johnsson, Miles Wood
Also Exposed: Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Nick Merkley, Marian Studenic, Ben Street, Brett Seney, Brandon Gignac
In the System & Exempt: Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, Mikhail Maltsev, Jesper Boqvist, Dawson Mercer, Nolan Foote, Fabian Zetterlund, Nathan Schnarr, Cristoph Bertschy, Graeme Clarke, Tyce Thompson, Aarne Talvite
This is where the expansion draft requirements presents a problem. Remember that every team has to expose at least two forwards who are signed through next season and have either played 27 games this season or 54 games combined over the last two. The Devils have a lot of forwards who met the games requirements. They do not have a lot of forwards signed through 2021. They only have five forwards who are signed beyond this season and played long enough in the NHL so far: Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Andreas Johnsson. The Devils have to expose two of those five.
The Devils can ease their bind here by signing a number of their forwards to new deals. Zajac, Palmieri, Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, Bastian, and McLeod have all met the games requirements. Merkley will if he plays 17 more games. The Devils could sign a number of these players and make the choice to expose one of them to meet the requirements later on. I would like to think the players’ respective agents know this and may balk at signing to a new deal without some kind of assurance that they will remain in New Jersey. But that would be one way to expand the potential pool of forwards that can meet the expansion draft exposure requirements.
Another way would be for the Devils to acquire someone before the April 12 trade deadline. The Devils have loads of cap space. They can take on some other team’s bad contract for an asset and basically use them as expansion bait. I believe teams can make deals with Seattle to have certain players protected, so the Devils could work something out to make Seattle take the bait. I am not so confident that will work, but I am more confident the Devils can get someone within the next few weeks so they can keep someone else.
However, as those things have not happened yet, I have to pick two out of those five. Out of those two, I think Wood and Johnsson should be exposed. There is no way Hischier is going to be exposed. Absolutely none. Jesper Bratt is a young winger who has flourished alongside Hischier and Hughes. He should be protected and given more minutes. Pavel Zacha’s performances in March have returned to being more inconsistent - which has been common throughout Zacha’s career. Still, he is 23 and he is the Devils’ current scoring leader. That counts for something and the Devils can still benefit from what could be the best seasons Zacha has in his career. I think the Devils should protect him over Wood and Johnsson, who are pretty much What You See, Is What You Get players.
Wood has also been much more productive than usual this season. However, if he is not crashing and darting ahead, then there is not much he is really providing. As the Devils need to identify wingers to play well and succeed with Hischier and Hughes, Wood really does not fit that. He has not played with either and for good reason. As I do not think he should be a part of the long-term future in New Jersey, I think exposing him makes sense in this spot. As for Johnsson, I thought he would be a great fit in New Jersey. While some of his 5-on-5 numbers look great, I do not think he has been responsible for the good value they imply. He has been anything but as he has been bounced around the lineup to “get going.” He has not “got going” as he is usually found in the bottom six of the forward lineup. Should he be claimed, the Devils can probably replace his spot rather easily. It is not like he has done anything to lock himself on a top line in 2021. I would not be shocked if the Devils pick up some “expansion bait” at forward to keep Wood from being exposed. Yet, if this is the group they have to pick from, then I would pick Wood and Johnsson to meet the requirements.
On the flipside, that I think the Devils should protect Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, McLeod, and Bastian is a testament to how well they have been for the Devils. All four made the New Jersey team out of a shortened camp this season. All four have played a lot for the Devils with only McLeod having been scratched a few times. All four have proven to be NHL caliber players. McLeod and Bastian may end up being fourth liners for a few seasons, but NHL teams need NHL caliber fourth liners. Should McLeod continue to grow on the PK and Bastian work his way back from injury to earn a spot as a “screener” on a power play, then that only helps their future value. Kuokkanen and Sharangovich have both been very good against some tough match-ups and with some tough assignments, especially in recent weeks on a line with Zajac. Both have been effective at winning pucks, battling opposition wingers, and helping Zajac flourish after a few weeks of struggling. Both are definitely NHL players and they might be part of the answer to the winger question that the re-building Devils have to answer to put around Hischier and Hughes. Therefore, I would protect these four in addition to Hischier, Bratt, and Zacha.
The others are available. Zajac and Palmieri may be moving on after this season. And maybe not even then; Palmieri may be traded by April 12. Merkley has had good moments but he has yet to stick in New Jersey. I think he will get more chances to do so in 2021 but I do not think he is a big risk to be picked by Seattle. If he is, then the Devils can replace his spot without too much trouble given the number of forwards in the system, which now have Tyce Thompson and Aarne Talvitie added to it. Studenic, Street, Seney, and Gignac are all Binghamton players anyhow, so there is no real need to have them protected.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
Pending the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12, the Devils only have one difficult area to address ahead of the Seattle Expansion Draft in July. That is at the forward position and specifically for deciding who to expose that meets the game and contract requirements. Even that may not be much of a challenge if management brings in someone who meets both just to expose by the deadline, and/or if management already has an idea to protect Hischier, Bratt, and Zacha out of the five eligible for those exposure requirements. Given how the players have been used and what I think their future is (or is not) with the Devils, I think this is what they should do when the Seattle Expansion Draft comes around based on what we know today.
I would like to know what you would do for the Seattle Expansion Draft. CapFriendly’s Expansion Draft Calculator is a fantastic tool to use to see what options the Devils and the 29 other NHL teams have for the expansion draft. It helpfully highlights players who meet the exposure requirements as well as marks how many protection slots a team has as you select who is and is not protected. It also lists who is exempt from the whole process, which is definitely to New Jersey’s benefit as they do not need to worry about Hughes, Maltsev, any of their prospects, or even Nikita Gusev for the impending Seattle Expansion Draft. Please use it as you wish and let me know who you would protect if you made the call and even who you think Seattle should pick from New Jersey out of all of the unprotected players.
I do not know what Seattle will do without knowing who else is available by position. I think Seattle would do the Devils a favor if they did claim Butcher or Johnsson. If only to give Tom Fitzgerald and his staff more breathing room for what could be a really expensive 2022 offseason. But, no matter what some fans may think, NHL teams tend to not do favors for others if they think they would be doing one. I do not think Ron Francis will do the Devils a solid - for free, at least.
Regardless, please leave it in the comments who you want the Devils to protect, who you want them to expose, whom you would be fine with Seattle taking, and what you think of this post. Thank you for reading.