2021 NHL Expansion Draft Preview: North Division

Which players will be protected? Which will be exposed? Which decisions will give GMs headaches? Our Seattle expansion draft divisional previews begin with the North teams.
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The 2020-21 NHL campaign concludes in less than a month, and one of the strangest off-seasons in league history will follow. The flat salary cap of $81.5 million will continue to make teams and free agents behave differently than in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic torched revenues, with pay cuts and short-term deals likely to remain frequent. And, as an enormous extra wrinkle this time, we get the 2021 expansion draft, starring the Seattle Kraken. By now, GM Ron Francis is deep into his roster planning and negotiating side deals with other teams, while 30 NHL franchises – with Vegas Golden Knights sitting out – begin to sweat over their protection schemes.

Which players should we expect each franchise to expose and protect? Which players are most likely to attract the Kraken’s tentacles? Our team-by-team expansion draft mini-previews begin with the North Division franchises.

First, here’s a quick refresher of some particularly important expansion draft rules, per the NHL:

The 2021 NHL Expansion Draft will be under the same rules for Seattle as the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Seattle will select one player from each team excluding the Golden Knights for a total of 30 (min. 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies) not including additional players who may be acquired as the result of violations of the Expansion Draft rules.

Seattle must choose a minimum of 20 players under contract for the 2021-22 regular season and those with an aggregate Expansion Draft value that is between 60-100 percent of the prior season's upper limit for the salary cap. Seattle cannot buy out players chosen in the Expansion Draft earlier than the summer following its first season.

Current NHL teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goalie, under the following conditions:

* All players with no movement clauses at the time of the draft, and who decline to waive those clauses, must be protected and will be counted toward their team's applicable protection limits.

* All first- and second-year NHL players, and all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward protection limits.

In addition, all NHL teams must meet the following minimum requirements regarding players exposed for selection in the draft (games likely pro-rated for a shortened season):

* One defenseman who is a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons.

* Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons.

* One goalie who is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22. If a team elects to make a restricted free agent goalie available to meet this requirement, that goalie must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the team's protected list.

* Players with potential career-ending injuries who have missed more than the previous 60 consecutive games (or who otherwise have been confirmed to have a career-threatening injury) may not be used to satisfy a team's player exposure requirements unless approval is received from the NHL. Such players also may be deemed exempt from selection.

One more tidbit to remember: the Kraken get a three-day early negotiation window for UFAs from July 18 to 20 and are the only team receiving an early window before free agency begins July 28. Any UFA Seattle signs during that period will count as the expansion-draft selection for that player’s previous team. In 2017, the Golden Knights only signed one UFA, but it’s a different landscape now. Multiple prominent player agents have told me within the last month that their clients consider Seattle a legitimately attractive destination.

CALGARY FLAMES

Key UFAs: Derek Ryan (C), Josh Leivo (RW), Brett Ritchie (RW), Joakim Nordstrom (C), Michael Stone (D), Nikita Nesterov (D)

Key RFAs: Juuso Valimaki (D), Dillon Dube (RW), Oliver Kylington (D)

No-movement clauses: Jacob Markstrom (G), Milan Lucic (LW)

Help us, Seattle:
Milan Lucic carries a $5.25-million cap hit and has already agreed to waive his NMC. Would the Kraken take on his salary in exchange for a pick or prospect? He hails from nearby Vancouver and could become a fan favorite. The Flames’ farm system isn’t overflowing with talent, however, so GM Brad Treliving can’t dangle futures like they’re nothing.

Toughest decision: The Flames will obviously protect defensemen Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, who are in their primes. But since they’re likely to use a 7-3-1 scheme, they’ll have to decide between Chris Tanev and Mark Giordano as the third defenseman. Tanev is six years younger and also cheaper at a $4.5-million AAV but has three seasons left on his deal is an “old” 31 because he sacrifices his body so much. Giordano is a grizzled 37 with a $6.75-million cap hit but only has one season left on his contract and is revered as the Flames’ captain.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Giordano would make a fine leader for a young franchise and, with an expiring contract, would be flippable as a rental next winter should Seattle not be in playoff contention. If Francis wants a cheaper upside pick: Kylington could provide some defensive depth.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Mikael Backlund
F – Dillon Dube
F – Johnny Gaudreau
F – Elias Lindholm
F – Andrew Mangiapane
F – Sean Monahan
F – Matthew Tkachuk
D – Rasmus Andersson
D – Noah Hanifin
D – Chris Tanev
G – Jacob Markstrom

EDMONTON OILERS

Key UFAs: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (LW), Tyson Barrie (D), Adam Larsson (D), Mike Smith (G), Dmitry Kulikov (D) Alex Chiasson (RW), Gaetan Haas (C), Tyler Ennis (LW),

Key RFAs: Kailer Yamamoto (RW), Dominik Kahun (LW) Jujhar Khaira (C)

No-movement clauses: None

Help us, Seattle:
James Neal was a hit on the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Could it work with the Kraken, too? Doubtful. He’s four years older now with a cap hit of $5.75 million for two more seasons. It would take a nice side deal for Francis to take the bait. A better compromise would be Zack Kassian, who carries a $3.2-million AAV for three more seasons and plays a rugged brand of hockey that might appeal to a new fan base. The Oilers could also end up at Seattle’s mercy when it comes to Oscar Klefbom. His eligibility was up in the air all year because a shoulder injury cost him the 2020-21 season, but it appears he’ll be selectable, and it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which the Oilers can use a protection spot on him. If they hope to keep Klefbom, however, they could try to work out a side deal and give Seattle something in exchange for not taking him.

Toughest decision: In Nugent-Hopkins, Larsson, Smith and Barrie, the Oilers have multiple important contributors hitting unrestricted free agency. Barrie is the least likely to return of that group and, according to GM Ken Holland’s comments after the season, Smith is the most likely. But does Holland try to bring back his UFAs before the expansion draft or after it? Doing so before the July-17 deadline means he has to protect those players. Doing so afterward means he doesn’t but also that the Kraken are free to negotiate with them. Plenty of teams will make handshake agreements with UFAs to re-sign after the expansion draft, but the Oilers have some unique cases in that Nugent-Hopkins, Larsson and Barrie are high-end UFAs not perceived to be locked in with their franchises. It’s not the same as Alex Ovechkin in Washington or Gabriel Landeskog in Colorado. There’s some risk in the Oilers leaving their UFAs dangling out there.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Barrie’s offensive skill is undeniable, and he’d be an intriguing UFA target if the Kraken want to entertain fans immediately with offense. Nugent-Hopkins is young enough to be a franchise building block at 28. Assuming neither is available and the Oilers hold onto left winger Tyler Benson, Dominik Kahun makes sense as a high-floor depth option for Seattle who isn’t devoid of upside at 25.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Josh Archibald
F – Tyler Benson
F – Leon Draisaitl
F – Jujhar Khaira
F – Connor McDavid
F – Jesse Puljujarvi
F – Kailer Yamamoto
D – Ethan Bear
D – Darnell Nurse
D – Caleb Jones
G – Mike Smith

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Key UFAs: Tomas Tatar (LW), Phillip Danault (C), Joel Armia (RW), Eric Staal (C), Erik Gustafsson (D), Jon Merrill (D)

Key RFAs: Jesperi Kotkaniemi (C), Artturi Lehkonen

No-movement clauses: Carey Price, Jeff Petry, Brendan Gallagher

Help us, Seattle:
With only about $12 million in cap space and so many important UFA decisions to make, the Habs would probably be comfortable with exposing Jonathan Drouin and his $5.5-million cap hit. Drouin, away from the team for personal reasons, could use a fresh start and has more upside than most of the players that will be available to the Kraken league-wide. A Drouin pick could constitute a win-win scenario.

Toughest decision: Will the Habs go for an 8-1 protection scheme or a 7-3-1? It depends on whether they feel the need to re-sign any UFAs before the draft. Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar should be of interest to the Kraken during the early negotiation window, so GM Marc Bergevin might feel compelled to lock a UFA up early. Danault’s role as the shutdown center remains crucial to the Habs.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: If the Kraken don’t target a UFA or snap up Drouin, Jake Allen could make sense as the veteran half of a goaltending platoon alongside a younger option such as Florida Panthers UFA Chris Driedger. If Montreal opts for a 7-3-1 plan, one of Joel Edmundson or Ben Chiarot could be available on ‘D’ – though the Habs might be wiser to expose Shea Weber knowing Seattle would have little interest in a 35-year-old with five years left at $7.86 million per.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Josh Anderson
F – Brendan Gallagher
F – Jake Evans
F – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
F – Artturi Lehkonen
F – Phillip Danault
F – Tyler Toffoli
D – Ben Chiarot
D – Joel Edmundson
D – Jeff Petry
G – Carey Price

OTTAWA SENATORS

Key UFAs: Derek Stepan (C), Ryan Dzingel (LW), Artem Anisimov (C)

Key RFAs: Brady Tkachuk (LW), Drake Batherson (RW), Victor Mete (D), Marcus Hogberg (G)

No-movement clauses: None

Help us, Seattle:
Remember when the flat salary cap forced high-end UFA Evgenii Dadonov to take “less money” last off-season? A year later, after a disappointing first season, his contract looks more like an overpay, and Dadonov took a back seat to the Sens’ emerging young forward group. Given he’s just a year removed from being an effective top-six forward and has only two seasons remaining on his deal, would Seattle consider taking the plunge?

Toughest decision: Thomas Chabot is an auto-protect on defense, and Victor Mete’s youth and minimal cost make him appealing to keep around. But should GM Pierre Dorion expose expensive veteran Nikita Zaitsev or the younger, cheaper Josh Brown? Anyone playing fantasy GM will gravitate toward punting Zaitsev, especially when Jacob Bernard-Docker and Artem Zub emerged as promising long-term options on the right side, but the fact Zaitsev plays so many minutes reminds us that the coaching staff trusts him. We might not protect Zaitsev, but that doesn’t mean the Senators agree. Another difficult call is whether to expose prospect left winger Vitaly Abramov, who has signed for two more seasons in the KHL.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Aside from the Dadonov idea, Chris Tierney fits nicely if the Kraken hope to field a competitive team that also has ejector seats built in. Tierney can work in your middle six but is also tradable at the 2022 deadline with his expiring contract. The Sens will expose a couple young goaltenders with cap hits in the league-minimum range, so if the Kraken were spending most of their cap space elsewhere, they could balance the ledger nabbing whoever is available between Joey D’Accord, Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Drake Batherson
F – Connor Brown
F – Logan Brown
F – Nick Paul
F – Brady Tkachuk
F – Austin Watson
F – Colin White
D – Thomas Chabot
D – Victor Mete
D – Nikita Zaitsev
G – Filip Gustavsson

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Key UFAs: Zach Hyman (LW), Nick Foligno (LW), Joe Thornton (C), Frederik Andersen (G), Wayne Simmonds (RW), Alex Galchenyuk (LW), Riley Nash (C), Zach Bogosian (D), Ben Hutton (D), David Rittich (G)

Key RFAs: Travis Dermott (D)

No-movement clauses: John Tavares (C)

Help us, Seattle:
All Toronto’s highest-paid players are (a) vital cogs that GM Kyle Dubas would never want to expose or (b) assets valuable enough that they’d be key trade chips, so the Leafs have no obvious albatross they’re desperate to unload. That said, shedding left winger Alexander Kerfoot’s $3.5-million cap hit would free up some breathing room for a team with just 15 regulars under contract for 2021-22 at the moment.

Toughest decision: If the Leafs decided on a 7-3-1 scheme, they’d leave Justin Holl and Travis Dermott exposed on defense. Even under an 8-1 scheme in which they protect four defensemen, they have to be OK with losing one of Holl and Dermott. Going 8-1 also means exposing a big, agile checking forward in Pierre Engvall.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Kerfoot’s speed and ability to play in all situations make him an appealing choice. Dermott got nudged out this season as the Leafs began grooming Rasmus Sandin. It would be interesting to see what Dermott could do if entrusted with more minutes on a new team.

Projected protected list (8-1):

F – Mitch Marner
F – Auston Matthews
F – William Nylander
F – John Tavares
D – T.J. Brodie
D – Justin Holl
D – Jake Muzzin
D – Morgan Rielly
G – Jack Campbell

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Key UFAs: Alexander Edler (D), Travis Hamonic (D), Brandon Sutter (C), Jimmy Vesey (LW), Travis Boyd (C)

Key RFAs: Elias Pettersson (C), Quinn Hughes (D), Olli Juolevi (D)

No-movement clauses: None

Help us, Seattle:
The Tanner Pearson contract might eventually become something the Canucks want to escape, but, uh, it’s brand new. Sorry about that, Canucks fans. Nate Schmidt brings great speed and a big dressing-room presence, but was he “$5.95 million a year for four more years” good in his first season with the team? Arguably not, though he still played significant minutes. The Canucks would love relief from the AAVs of Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle, but it’s unlikely Seattle bites on those veterans without an exciting sweetener in a side deal, especially when it comes to Eriksson.

Toughest decision: Since blue-chippers like defenseman Quinn Hughes and right winger Vasili Podkolzin are exempt from being selected, GM Jim Benning isn’t saddled with any agonizing calls. The toughest will be on forward No. 7 in an expected protection scheme of 7-3-1. Zack MacEwen was second in the NHL in fighting majors, so the Canucks could keep him around for his sandpaper, but Matthew Highmore showed more upside.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: When the Canucks signed Braden Holtby to a two-year deal last off-season, it was declared “expansion draft bait” by many, myself included, and that remains the perception. Stable veteran presence in net: check. Expiring contract that would be an attractive trade-deadline rental piece to shop next winter given his Stanley Cup experience: check. Socially conscious, inclusive personality that fits with Seattle’s progressive franchise culture: check. He’s a strong pick to end up in a Kraken uniform unless they opt for a depth piece like defenseman Madison Bowey. Keep an eye on right winger Jake Virtanen as a reclamation project, too.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Brock Boeser
F – Matthew Highmore
F – Bo Horvat
F – J.T. Miller
F – Tyler Motte
F – Tanner Pearson
F – Elias Pettersson
D – Olli Juolevi
D – Tyler Myers
D – Nate Schmidt
G – Thatcher Demko

WINNIPEG JETS

Key UFAs: Paul Stastny (C), Derek Forbort (D), Tucker Poolman (D), Mathieu Perreault (LW), Trevor Lewis (RW), Jordie Benn (D), Laurent Brossoit (G), Nate Thompson (C)

Key RFAs: Neal Pionk (D), Andrew Copp (C), Logan Stanley (D)

No-movement clauses: Blake Wheeler (RW)

Help us, Seattle:
The Jets aren’t in need of any obvious bailout on a particular player – not even when it comes to Bryan Little, who doesn’t currently even meet the exposure requirements after missing the entire year with a potentially career-ending eardrum injury and could be deemed exempt.

Toughest decision: The Jets arguably have none. More than any other team’s, their core of protected players appears to be set in a 7-3-1 scheme.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Did Logan Stanley’s late bloom begin at precisely the wrong time for Winnipeg? The towering defenseman who constantly draws Zdeno Chara comparisons flashed some intriguing potential in his rookie year, but it’s tough to imagine whom he’d usurp on the Jets’ protected list – not Neal Pionk, not Josh Morrissey and probably not Dylan DeMelo. If the Jets really believe in Stanley, they may have to strike a side deal to stop Seattle from nabbing him. The Kraken have another appealing choice if they want to go the forward route, of course, as Mason Appleton has established himself as a full-time NHLer who can bring moxie to a bottom six and costs just $900,000. His 12 goals and 25 points while playing 14:25 a night were quite valuable.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Kyle Connor
F – Andrew Copp
F – Pierre-Luc Dubois
F – Nikolaj Ehlers
F – Adam Lowry
F – Mark Scheifele
F – Blake Wheeler
D – Dylan DeMelo
D – Josh Morrissey
D – Neal Pionk
G – Connor Hellebuyck

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