5 NHL Teams with Tough Decisions to Make Ahead of Seattle Expansion Draft
The clock is ticking for NHL teams, who have only until July 17 to submit their protected lists to the NHL ahead of the Seattle expansion draft.
The rules state that teams are allowed to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. Players who have accrued two or fewer professional seasons (as defined in the CBA) are also exempt. All other players are left exposed to Seattle, which will choose one from each NHL team (Vegas excluded) to claim for free.
For some teams set to lose replaceable depth players, this is little more than a minor inconvenience. Other teams are in danger of losing more consequential players and therefore have some difficult choices to make. And for a few teams, the chaos may even create opportunities to add players themselves.
Here are five NHL teams with difficult decisions to make ahead of Saturday's deadline to submit their protected lists for the Seattle expansion draft.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Decision: Can the Lightning successfully incentivize Seattle into picking Tyler Johnson?
So many of the NHL's mechanisms serve to reward teams that fail and punish teams that are successful. Tampa Bay won back-to-back Stanley Cups and now is set to lose a number of players because of the limits of the salary cap.
The expansion draft is untimely for the Lightning and makes the situation worse. Depending on which type of protection scheme general manager Julien BriseBois elects to use, Seattle seems set to happily pluck away either key third-line center Yanni Gourde or one of young defensemen Mikhail Sergachev or Erik Cernak.
Any of those losses would be a substantial blow to the team's hopes for a third consecutive Cup. BriseBois has already acknowledged that he would like to discuss a potential deal with Seattle in hopes of steering them toward a different player. Perhaps useful but overpriced veteran Tyler Johnson or maybe Alex Killorn.
Seattle has all of the leverage, though. For BriseBois, the expansion draft mission is to see if there's a reasonable package of draft picks and/or prospects that will convince GM Ron Francis to stay away from the team's top players who are vulnerable to selection.
Decision: Should the team protect Matt Duchene?
While other teams are forced to expose interesting players by rule, the Predators may do so as a strategic play. TSN's Pierre LeBrun dropped something of a bombshell on Monday when he reported that the Nashville Predators are considering leaving forward Matt Duchene exposed in the expansion draft. It's a remarkable story when put in context. Duchene was highly regarded and considered a top player on the market just two years ago when Nashville signed him to a seven-year contract at an $8 million annual average cap hit.
There is logic to the possibility. Duchene struggled last season, producing just 13 points in 34 games. Now 30, there's a possibility his best hockey is long gone. After a mediocre season and with Viktor Arvidsson already traded to Los Angeles for draft picks, the Predators are, to some extent, hitting the reset button. It's potentially in their best interest to get out from the remaining five years of Duchene's expensive deal.
Yet while Duchene maybe isn't worth an $8 million cap hit at this juncture, he still might be a very good player. The Predators are light on offensive talent. Duchene's low production last season is at least in part the result of poor puck luck, and in 2019-20, he played to the standard of a first-liner. Furthermore, if Duchene is exposed and Seattle passes on him, it could make for an awkward situation next season if he feels unwanted.
New York Rangers
Decision: Can the Rangers use the advantage of available protection spots to acquire a player?
Most of the discourse surrounding the expansion draft relates to worries about losing a player. The Rangers roster is constructed as such that there may be an opportunity to exploit the situation and add one.
At forward, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil are six obvious forwards to protect. On defense, it's Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren. That leaves one protection spot left to use at both forward and defense. Many of the team's more important players, such as Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko, are exempt. Only replaceable depth remains exposed from the roster.
With protection spots open, it raises the question: Should the Rangers exploit the squeeze the expansion draft might be putting on other teams and try to add a skater on the cheap?
There are many potential candidates. One is St. Louis Blues defenseman Vince Dunn. The 24-year-old offensive defenseman has likely been on the trade block for a while and is not projected to be protected by the Blues. The Rangers are in need of more offensive production from the left side.
If the team is forced to trade Pavel Buchnevich this summer for salary-cap reasons, they could be in the market for a cheaper winger. Hurricanes RFA Warren Foegele could be available and would provide some of the north-south game the team is aspiring to add.
Decision: Which forwards should be left exposed?
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel are getting protected, and Bryan Rust is likely to join them. That leaves three spots left to use on a group of seven forwards who each are arguably deserving of protection from Seattle.
Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen are likely two, although the merit of that is debatable. Zucker had a poor season (18 points in 38 games) with injuries thrown in. There are equal arguments to be made that he's due for a bounce-back or that his $5.5 million cap hit through 2023 is suboptimal for a team battling cap issues. Kapanen was an expensive trade acquisition last summer, did OK on a line with Evgeni Malkin and is only 24, but he is a possession anchor.
Jared McCann had a tremendous season, tallying 32 points in 43 games and contributing defensively. However, even though he is a good shooter, he's unlikely to repeat a 15.1 shooting percentage and will need a raise in 2022.
Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger are two of the best defensive forwards in the league, while Brandon Tanev is also a strong two-way checker.
Finally, Jeff Carter was acquired at the deadline and gave the team a much-needed offensive injection.
Losing a solid forward to Seattle seems inevitable, but Pittsburgh has a big challenge in deciding which ones to leave available.
New York Islanders
Decision: Can the Islanders afford to lose Jordan Eberle for free?
The Islanders have enjoyed successful playoff runs in consecutive seasons but find themselves at something of a pivotal moment. The team has a number of players in need of raises with little wiggle room under the cap with which to work. The expansion draft is also a particular problem for the Islanders, a team built on its depth that it must expose in some part to Seattle.
The Athletic's Arthur Staple seems to believe that Jordan Eberle is the most likely of the bunch to be on the move. With Oliver Wahlstrom on deck and a Zach Parise-Lou Lamoriello reunion potentially in the cards, losing the 31-year-old Eberle, on a $5.5 million cap hit through 2024, is perhaps the path of least resistance.
But that's a tough player to lose for nothing. Eberle still has a lot of magic in his stick. He's still an incredible driver of offense, and his point totals are more than respectable, particularly in Barry Trotz's defensive system. If possible, does it make sense for Lamoriello to try to salvage some much-needed assets in a trade involving Eberle?
Nick Leddy may be the more preferable player to hand over to Seattle without compensation. The 30-year-old defenseman has a $5.5 million cap hit through 2022, and his defensive performance has declined in recent seasons. The Islanders have a number of defensemen who have surpassed him on the depth chart.