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An Obscenely Early Look at Who the Devils Protect in the Next Expansion Draft

Expansion is (likely) coming to the NHL. Again. Lets take a WAY too early look at how it might impact the Devils.

Vegas Golden Knights v New Jersey Devils
When the next expansion draft comes, expect Simon Nemec to go nowhere other than Newark
Photo by Josh Lobel/NHLI via Getty Images

Last week, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and the Smith Entertainment Group put out a statement requesting the NHL to initiate the expansion process to bring an NHL team to Utah.

While that request is simply that at this time, a request, NHL expansion has been brewing behind the scenes for some time now since the Seattle Kraken entered the league prior to the 2021-22 season. Smith has been very vocal about wanting to bring a team to Utah while Atlanta has also been discussed as a potential site for an expansion team, perhaps with a new arena built in Alpharetta or somewhere else in the Atlanta suburbs. Other cities like Houston and Quebec City have been mentioned in the past as potential future homes of NHL teams as well.

It’s safe to say that NHL expansion is probably moreso a forgone conclusion and an inevitability than a possibility at this point. The league received $500M and $650M in expansion fees when Vegas and Seattle, respectively, joined the club, and those are revenues that are not shared with the players. The expansion fee might be well over $1 billion this time around and that could be a conservative estimate considering the Ottawa Senators were just sold for just under $1 billion. Critics of NHL expansion may have valid points when they say the talent pool is already watered down too much and expansion being a money grab, but if you were to wave over $1 billion in my face, you can bet that I will in fact grab the money.

Expansion won’t happen tomorrow, as the NHL’s Board of Governors would have to approve it in each individual case and even if they do, the process of building an expansion team from the ground up takes time. Bids have to be approved, ownership groups have to start making payments to the NHL, and the incoming teams have to hire a staff. It took the Kraken about two and a half seasons from when the Board of Governors approved their bid to when the puck dropped for the first game in franchise history. Vegas operated on a similar timeline from when the league allowed Bill Foley to hold a season ticket drive in the market to gauge interest. The Smith Entertainment Group said in their statement that they’re ready to play immediately in the Delta Center or could start in the next several years once a new arena is constructed. Assuming the league prefers to play in a new facility and not risk uncertainty with the arena like what has and continues to plague the Arizona Coyotes through most of their existence, I think a conservative estimate of when a Utah and/or Atlanta team could start play would be in time for the 2027-28 season, assuming the Board of Governors approves an application sometime this year.

Of course, this is a New Jersey Devils blog, so one asks how does this impact the Devils, and the simple response is that at some point, there will be an expansion draft that does impact the Devils. The Devils lost Jon Merrill to Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft and Nathan Bastian to Seattle in 2021, later reacquiring Bastian when the Kraken put him on waivers during their inaugural season. The Devils roster will likely look dramatically different between now and June 2027, when they’ll have to submit their list of protected players to the league, if expansion does indeed take place then.

With the team on a bye this week and the quiet part of the NHL season upon us, I thought it would be fun to take a way-too-early look at who the Devils would likely protect and who they’d likely choose to expose. So for the purposes of this exercise, we will operate under a few ground rules.

  1. I always like to operate under worst-case scenario, so I will operate under the assumption that there will be two expansion teams entering the league in the same season, meaning the Devils lose two players instead of just one. Because if you’re going to money grab, why take “only” 1.5 billion dollars when you can double that? It’ll also mean the expansion draft is an actual draft with Utah and Atlanta strategizing how they build their rosters versus each other, which would be fun and a great way for the NHL to market itself if they had any idea how to market the game.
  2. The expansion draft rules will remain the same as they were for Vegas and Seattle, as the league will want to give Utah and Atlanta as much of a fair opportunity as the two incoming teams that preceded them. That means players who are on NMCs are auto-protected (unless the player chooses to waive their NMC), teams have the choice of going the “7-3-1” or “8 skaters, 1 goaltender” route, and first and second year pros and unsigned draft picks are exempt. It also means clubs need to meet the minimum requirements in terms of players they expose and their contractual status combined with games played. This will be tougher to project because most players aren’t signed that far into the future, so for these purposes, we’ll ignore it.
  3. Our first season of play for Utah/Atlanta will be the 2027-28 season. This is key as one player the Devils would have to otherwise auto-protect, Ondrej Palat, will no longer be under contract by then unless the Devils extend him for some reason. Other players such as John Marino, Erik Haula, Tyler Toffoli, Nathan Bastian, and others will have had their current deals expire before then.
  4. I’m operating under the assumption that the Devils don’t trade or move any controllable players who are unsigned long-term. So for the purposes of this exercise, players like Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz will still be on the Devils or in the Devils system in 2027, as well as most prospects like Graeme Clarke and Nico Daws. I’m also operating under the assumption that any players who are signed long-term will be here unless their contracts have expired, a list that includes Meier, Bratt, J. Hughes, Hischier, Palat, Hamilton, Siegenthaler, and others.
  5. The Devils opt to protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goaltender.

Without further adieu, here is the Devils way-too early protection list for the 2027 Expansion Draft.

Forwards

Timo Meier - With a no-move clause that kicks in beginning next season, Meier is automatically protected and will remain with the Devils through this process. Meier has had an injury-riddled first full season in New Jersey, which will give detractors pause when they see he’s protected, but I expect he bounces back to the player he’s always been and his struggles this season will be long-forgotten by the time Utah and Atlanta come poking around. No, the Devils will not ask Meier to waive his clause. No, he’s not waiving it anyways. Moving on....

Jesper Bratt - Bratt also has a no-move clause beginning after this season so his spot on the Devils roster is safe for the foreseeable future. Bratt has cooled off a bit since a white-hot start to the season, but he’s still over a PPG pace on the season and should remain a productive forward throughout the first half of that deal, at a minimum. Utah and Atlanta would surely like to get their hands on a Jesper Bratt-type, but they will have to look elsewhere to find one.

Jack Hughes - Hughes does not have a no-move clause in his contract, but make no mistake. He is the Devils franchise player and one of the faces of the NHL. His 2023-24 season has gotten sidetracked due to injury but he is a player who is capable of winning the Hart Trophy and being on the shortlist for “best player in the NHL” when things are going well. Hughes is going nowhere.

Nico Hischier - I’m cheating a little bit on this one as technically, Hischier is not under contract past the 2026-27 season. But he is the captain of the team and a key player for them going forward. Its difficult to envision a scenario where the Devils don’t extend Hischier once they’re eligible to do so, and its difficult to see them letting him get away so easily when he’s such an important player for what they are building. I suppose it is possible that Hischier is unsigned and the Devils expose him, and that wouldn’t be unprecedented as the Avalanche did that with their captain Gabriel Landeskog in the Seattle expansion draft, but I’ll guess the Devils are a little more aggressive to get a deal done with Hischier with a year to go on his deal.

Dawson Mercer - Its tough to think of Mercer as a player who needs protection when it feels like it was just yesterday he broke camp with the Devils for the first time, but he’s a productive player who is a fixture in their Top 9. And even though I’d recommend against it, he has some flexibility where he can slide over to center in a pinch. As long as Mercer is still on the Devils roster at this point, he should be protected. And he will be protected.

Alexander Holtz - Lindy Ruff might not watch the game very well when it comes to #10 but the rest of us do and we see a young forward putting up 12 a PPG despite playing with minor leaguers and future beer leaguers on the 4th line. I expect Holtz eventually gains the trust of the coaching staff, whether its this one or the next one, and is a fixture for the Devils somewhere in the middle six moving forward.

Arseni Gritsyuk - How about a real wild card for the final forward protection slot! Gritsyuk is in the middle of a productive season for SKA in the KHL but presumably will want to make the jump to the NHL at some point. He is under contract through the 2024-25 season, so if he signs his ELC to begin in 2025-26, he’s barely be exempt by the “first or second year professional” clause (KHL time doesn’t count as a ‘professional’, as Kirill Kaprizov was exempt for the Wild in the Seattle draft).

However, I’m going to guess the Devils will want Gritsyuk in North America for a potential playoff push in 2024-25 and that they’ll want to get him signed as soon as his KHL season comes to a close. I also think Gritsyuk will want to get any low-salary ELC years burned as quickly as possible if he does come to North America so he can potentially make more money sooner in his NHL career. So I’m gonna take a leap of faith that he comes over next spring, necessitating protection moving forward. Someone who is better versed in the CBA can fact-check all of this, but the point of this article is to cover contingencies like this and Gritsyuk would certainly fit the bill.

Notable Forwards Exposed: Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Chase Stillman, Josh Filmon

Notable Forwards Exempt: Lenni Hameenaho, assuming he doesn’t sign his ELC this summer. Cam Squires.

Defensemen

Luke Hughes & Simon Nemec - I lump the two fairly recent high lottery picks together for a reason as I expect both will be cornerstones of the Devils blueline for years to come. Both have experienced growing pains in their first full NHL seasons but you can’t deny the talent and upside both players possess. Luke should be a fixture on the Devils top PP unit and be a Norris Trophy candidate when he reaches his peak, and Nemec has more than held his own playing top pairing minutes as a 19-year old. Neither player has begun to scratch the surface on what they’ll ultimately be as NHL players, and neither player will be going anywhere anytime soon.

Seamus Casey - It is very well possible that Casey elects to stay at Michigan another season, but much like the Gritsyuk scenario I played out above and much like Luke Hughes last year, I can envision a scenario where Tom Fitzgerald wants a player like Casey available for a Devils playoff run next spring (if he’s even capable of jumping right into the NHL out of college....I’ll let the prospect experts answer that one). Casey is the Devils #1 prospect with Luke and Nemec graduating this year and should remain in the organization for years to come. He’s too valuable to risk exposing.

Wait, doesn’t Dougie Hamilton have a NMC?: Hamilton does have a NMC. He will also have one year remaining on his contract at that time, which would normally mean he’s auto-protected. However, there is a buyout window prior to the expansion draft and I believe the Devils will choose that route with Hamilton rather than potentially risk losing a defenseman they prefer to keep.

Hamilton is still a productive offensive player when available, but that “when available” caveat is key here as he’s missed significant time in two of his three seasons in New Jersey. There are already warts with his defensive game and all of this seems unlikely to improve in what would be his age 34 season in the final year of his contract. The Devils would only save $3.5M against the cap by buying out the final year of his deal and take on a dead cap charge of $1.75M the following year, but that would be preferable to losing a younger player you’d rather protect. Even if the Devils don’t have to burn a protection slot on Casey, I STILL think they go this route with Hamilton to protect somebody else.

Notable Defensemen Exposed: Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl, Daniil Misyul, Santeri Hatakka, Topias Vilen, perhaps Ethan Edwards

Notable Defensemen Exempt: Daniil Orlov, Charlie Leddy, Chase Cheslock, Daniil Karpovich

Goaltender

Jakub Malek, I guess: The reality is that there will likely be an external addition at some point and whoever that is winds up taking this spot. I don’t believe the Devils goaltender for 2024-25 is currently in the organization, let alone their goaltender three years from now.

So why Malek over more established options like Schmid or Daws? I don’t want to put undue pressure on Malek to be the savior, but there’s a bit of an unknown factor with him as opposed to Schmid or Daws and he’s playing well in Liiga. He also hasn’t been exposed to a Lindy Ruff-Dave Rogalski coached team yet either, so bonus points there as well.

By the time the expansion draft rolls around, we’ll see whether or not Schmid or Daws are even still in the organization and if either one has become entrenched as the NHL starter, but I have my doubts on both and I think the Devils need to get serious when it comes to upgrading the position if they want to win a Cup before 2027, so I expect an external acquisition or two to usurp them at some point.

Notable Goaltenders Exposed: Akira Schmid, Nico Daws, Tyler Brennan

Notable Goaltenders Exempt: Whoever the Devils draft in the next two years

Who is Taken from the Devils?

Jonas Siegenthaler - Entering the final season of a team-friendly deal he signed back in 2022, Siegenthaler seems like the ideal expansion draft selection for a team. Either Utah or Atlanta can take him with the intention of flipping him elsewhere for draft capital, or they can take him and extend him and he can be a steady veteran presence for whatever they try to build.

If I were Tom Fitzgerald or whoever the Devils GM is in 2027, I’d probably look to move Siegenthaler myself at that time to a team with a thinner blueline depth chart and get that draft capital for myself. But even if he does, he’s going to have to expose a solid defenseman regardless. Case in point....

Kevin Bahl - Again, I’m cheating a little bit as Bahl can hit UFA after the 2026-27 season, but I could see Fitzgerald approaching Bahl’s camp and trying to buy out at least a year or two of UFA on his next contract, so I expect him to be eligible. Its possible he winds up protected if Casey stays at Michigan and doesn’t burn the first year of his ELC late next season. If he does, I think one can make a strong argument that Bahl should be protected. But ultimately, this is a numbers game, someone has to be the odd man out, and of all the options available, Bahl is the most replaceable.

What If The Expansion Process is Accelerated and They Start a Year Earlier?

I said earlier that I would cover worst-case scenarios and while the timeline for an expansion team is well-established, its possible that Utah is ready to play with a year’s time at the Delta Center. So if the expansion draft is in June 2026, how does that change things?

Not much would change at forward as Meier, Bratt, Jack Hughes, Hischier, Mercer, and Holtz should still be protected, but there is one notable change as Ondrej Palat is still under contract. If he is still under contract at that time, he is automatically protected due to the NMC in his contract. Fortunately with our Gritsyuk scenario, he should still be exempt so the Devils wouldn’t need to worry there, but the question at that point is whether or not the Devils want that slot available to protect another forward such as Graeme Clarke, Chase Stillman, Nolan Foote, or a TBD external addition to the group.

Tom Fitzgerald was smart not to include any bonus money in the final year of Palat’s deal when he signed him prior to the 2022-23 season, so a buyout of the final year is a potential option. The Devils would save $3.3M against the salary cap in 2026-27 and take on a $1.65M dead cap charge the following season, which isn’t ideal, but the Devils may very well need that $3.3M in savings available by then with players like Mercer, Holtz, Luke Hughes, and Nemec on their second contracts. For that reason, I think a Palat buyout is likely regardless of whether there’s an expansion draft or not, and if there is a draft in 2026, I think they opt to protect a younger forward.

What the Devils do with the defensemen is more interesting though. Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec are still no-brainers when it comes to protection, but the issue lies in the third spot. If Seamus Casey doesn’t sign after this season, he will remain exempt by then which does open up a spot, but Dougie Hamilton is due $7.4M in signing bonuses entering Year 6 of his 7 year contract. The Devils would get no cap savings in Year 1 of a buyout with 2 years to go on his deal....in fact, they’d add $41,667 in a dead cap charge on top of his $9M AAV. So a buyout with two years to go is out of the question. The Devils could try to trade Hamilton before then but he does have some say in the manner as he’ll have a no trade list for 10 teams. This may be the route the Devils prefer as John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Kevin Bahl might be more attractive options to protect, but as long as Hamilton is on the roster, his NMC must be honored. For this purpose, it will be and he is protected.

This brings us to goaltender and while I believe this slot still ultimately goes to whatever veteran the Devils add between now and then, my initial choice of Malek should remain exempt, so this would open the door for one of Akira Schmid or Nico Daws to be protected. Trying to pick between the two right now is like throwing darts, but since Daws is on the NHL roster at the moment, I’ll lean towards him until somebody takes his spot. In any case, I still expect defensemen to be the focus of Utah and/or Atlanta in the expansion draft, so I believe Siegenthaler, Marino, and Bahl would all be candidates to be selected.

Final Thoughts

The Devils will likely be harmed by future expansion more than they were the last two times around, but that comes with the territory of the team being better than it was the previous two instances. The rules are set up to give the incoming teams a fair shot to build something coming in, and its on teams like the Devils to minimize the impact on the NHL roster the best they can.

For a team like the Devils that has a lot of high upside players, there are only so many protection slots to go around, and those numbers shrink when you have to use a couple of them on players with no-move clauses, but such is life. That is preferable to the alternative, which would be the Devils not having enough good players to fill a protection list and them protecting John Moore, Mirco Mueller, and Janne Kuokkanen. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to those players but yes, these are actual players the Devils protected the last couple times around.

Of course, this is years down the road and rosters can change. Management can change. Player career trajectories can change. Trades happen. Free agents are signed to bump other players off the safe list. The fact the Devils will probably lose a good player or two is a testament to what they’ve built. It’s just another thing for Tom Fitzgerald to consider as he continues to build the roster moving forward.