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A Somewhat Too Early Look at the New Jersey Devils Options for the Expansion Draft

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With just over three months to go, today we look at early projections of who the New Jersey Devils could protect and expose in July’s expansion draft.

NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

While there is still some of the 2021 NHL regular season to go (and the playoffs I guess), we are roughly three months away from the 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken, joining the league and evening out the number of teams in each division/conference. With expansion comes an expansion draft and our New Jersey Devils should be using the rest of the regular season to evaluate who should be protected and who should be left available.

The rules are similar to when the Vegas Golden Knights joined the league for players that must be made available: two forwards and a defenseman that must be signed for 2021-22 and have appeared in 40 contests in the 2019-20 Season, or 70 combined between the 2019-20 and 2021 seasons. Goalies simply must be signed for 2021-22 or be an RFA with a qualifying offer extended to them prior to expansion. Credit to NHL.com and CapFriendly.com for the rules and calculations of players meeting exposure requirements respectively.

Now depending upon when players can be re-signed and whether or not trades can be made prior to the expansion draft, the Devils might be in a bit of trouble. We’ll get to that towards the end of this article, but for now, let’s start looking at who will be unavailable (either protected or exempt) and who could be a choice of Seattle’s come July 21st.

As one final note, I’m not going to be discussing players who have spent all or almost all of the season in Binghamton (with one exception), as not only will they not meet expansion requirements, but they’re very likely not going to be selected

Goaltenders

Protected: MacKenzie Blackwood

Exposed: Evan Cormier

I don’t think anyone is shocked at the protected pick here, but the exposed player may be a surprise. Due to the rules for goalies in the draft, Cormier is the only player the Devils have in the system to expose due to his RFA status. Aaron Dell and Scott Wedgewood are both UFA, meaning that unless the Devils re-sign them prior to the expansion draft (which I don’t know if that is technically possible with how this offseason is structured), neither can be used to meet the requirement. The logical step is the Devils qualify Cormier prior to the draft and expose him. No matter what they choose to do, I don’t think Seattle will be interested in Dell, Wedgewood or even Cormier for that matter, so the player in net left exposed kind of winds up being a moot point.

Defense

Protected: Damon Severson, P.K. Subban, Jonas Siegenthaler

Notable Exemptions: Ty Smith

Exposed: Will Butcher

The Devils wind up being left with limited options for the player left out on the back end after subtracting Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen at the trade deadline. Only three defenders meet the requirements to be exposed in Severson, Subban and Butcher. Severson is really the only “must” protect for me from this group, as he factors to be the only one of the three that is in the team’s long term plans.

Butcher is my choice for defender made available to the Kraken, but I could understand people choosing Subban due to his salary. My argument would be that both players have just one season left on their current deals, and the Devils likely aren’t spending to the cap next season anyway. Keep the player who has done better in Coach Lindy Ruff’s system, and hope Seattle takes some deadweight salary off the club’s hands either here or with a forward to make further improvements.

Newly acquired lefty Jonas Siegenthaler rounds out my protection slots. With Ryan Murray as a UFA, Jonas sort of gets the slot by default, although I don’t see the team leaving a player they just acquired unprotected anyway.

Forwards

Protected: Nico Hischier, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Janne Kuokkanen, Yegor Sharangovich, Michael McLeod

Notable Exemptions: Jack Hughes, Jesper Boqvist, Mikhail Maltsev, Tyce Thompson

Exposed: Andreas Johnsson, Nathan Bastian**, Nick Merkley**

** = Does not satisfy requirements of expansion

Now for the part of this where things get really tricky. The Devils can protect up to seven forwards, while also needing to expose two as possible draft selections. The Devils are currently a team with a very young core, and I don’t see Hischier, Zacha, Bratt being left out to dry. Sharangovich and Kuokkanen have each had strong first seasons in New Jersey and I see them sticking around as well. Wood is a polarizing player to some fans, but he’s had a great year (and earned an A on his jersey) under Ruff and I don’t see the team letting him go for free. The final slot for me was a tossup between McLeod and Bastian, and I could honestly see it going either way; I went for the faceoff skill over physicality here, but I could very easily see the team choosing Nate.

Now for the big issue arises though in that again TWO forwards who meet the expansion requirements must be exposed, and outside of Hischier, Bratt, Zacha, Wood and Johnsson, no one on the current Devils roster meets the criteria. Remember above when I said deadweight salary hopefully chosen by the Kraken? That’s the definition of both Butcher and Andreas Johnsson in 2021.

Neither player has looked particularly good this season, though I will actually give Butcher a little less grief as he has not been an every night player. Johnsson has had a rough first year in New Jersey and I can understand some might want to give him another season with a full training camp and preseason to see if he can bounce back. The thing is the team needs to expose two forwards, and Johnsson has the least value out of all the forwards named in this article that meets the exposure requirements.

As for the second, in the current flat cap NHL world, I think there will be enough players available on the market this offseason that the Devils can trade for one who meets the requirements then leave them unprotected alongside Johnsson. I know the NHL allows trades virtually year round with the exemption of the holiday roster freeze. The trade deadline is a cutoff for playoff roster eligible players, so theoretically the Devils could go out and get someone today. The question I’m unsure of is if there will be an expansion draft roster freeze, as this could affect the Devils.

I really don’t want to see a player such as Zacha or Wood have to be left available due to the rules of the draft. Hopefully, the Devils can acquire a body to fill the expansion space. Otherwise, they may need to resort to paying a draft pick to Seattle to keep them from taking a player of value.

Final Thoughts and Your Take

My hope is that either Johnsson or Butcher gets selected, as it removes both a $3 million plus cap hit and a player not doing well under the current coaching regime. I think whether the Devils need to offer a draft pick to have a player not be selected will be determined by who is available around the league as well. No matter how you look at it, the expansion draft could shape up to be both an interesting and nerve wracking time.

Who are your early choices to protect from the Devils roster? Who do you leave exposed to Seattle? Do you think the Devils make a deal between the end of the season and July 21st to obtain another forward to expose? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!