Expansion Plan: Projecting the Columbus Blue Jackets’ protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

Jarmo Kekalainen has freedom to protect his best with zero no-movement clauses blocking the way, and that means Columbus should be able to keep its core intact without the risk of another William Karlsson-esque gaffe.
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Welcome to the Expansion Plan, our summer series projecting the protected lists for the 30 NHL franchises who will participate in the June 2021 Expansion Draft.

Over the next two seasons, every team – save the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be exempt – will be planning for the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise and Seattle GM Ron Francis will begin to consider the options for his inaugural roster. As such, over the course of the next 30 days, we will profile one team, in alphabetical order, and forecast their potential list of protections and exposures, as well as address each team’s expansion strategy, no-brainers, tough decisions and what lessons they learned from the 2017 expansion process.

This exercise requires some important ground rules. The 2021 Expansion Draft will follow the same rules as the 2017 Expansion Draft, but some assumptions are necessary. These are the guidelines followed:

  • No pre-draft trades
  • All no-movement clauses are honored
  • Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams
  • Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (eg. Nicklas Backstrom protected by the Washington Capitals, Tyson Barrie not protected by Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team.)

• • • 

It took one off-season for the entire direction of the Blue Jackets’ expansion plans to change. Had Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky remained key cogs of the roster, it was plain as day that both were going to be protected, although the former was much more a sure thing than the latter. But with Panarin bolting to Broadway and Bobrovsky heading for the Sunshine State, there’s no need to protect either. That wipes the slate clean and gives GM Jarmo Kekalainen plenty of options.

Making Kekalainen’s job slightly easier, too, is that he doesn’t currently have a single no-movement clause to work around. True as it may be that the NMC situation can change with one signing here or one trade there, that the Blue Jackets don’t have a single player with such a clause right now puts them ahead of where they were entering the 2017 draft, when four players were protected, including Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell, who was later bought out by Columbus.

The best-case scenario for Kekalainen is one in which he keeps his options open. The Blue Jackets’ all-in attempt didn’t go bust, but it didn’t boom, either. That means Columbus has to do something of a reset, and if there’s nothing handcuffing Kekalainen, he can continue to build without losing an important player.

PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G):

Forwards:

  • Cam Atkinson
  • Gustav Nyquist
  • Boone Jenner
  • Oliver Bjorkstrand
  • Josh Anderson
  • Pierre-Luc Dubois
  • Alexandre Texier

Defensemen:

  • Seth Jones
  • Zach Werenski
  • Markus Nutivaara

Goaltenders:

  • Joonas Korpisalo

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Alexander Wennberg, Sonny Milano, Gabriel Carlsson

STRATEGY: For how expansion-team-friendly the draft rules are, they do allow established franchises the opportunity to keep their cores together so long as NMCs haven’t been handed out like candy to veteran players. That means Columbus gets to keep the players you would expect in town. Just run down that list, which includes top goal scorer Atkinson, first-line center Dubois, top-six wingers Anderson and Bjorkstrand and Nyquist, who was this summer’s notable acquisition. Not bad at all. Heck, the Blue Jackets even keep their blueline together by protecting Jones, Werenski and Nutivaara.

Two notes: Texier has accrued a professional season, so that means he needs to be protected after his impressive foray into the lineup late in the season. If he keeps that up, he’ll be worth protecting, too, and you can understand why scouts had him as one of the Blue Jackets’ top prospects. Also, the Blue Jackets can get away with protecting Korpisalo and keeping Elvis Merzlikins, who will only have two seasons under his belt and thus be exempt. That’ll do.

THE NO BRAINER: The foundation of the franchise is Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. They are as important to Columbus’ success now and in the future as any other players, so spending two protection spots on the pair of rearguards is the easiest decision Kekalainen is going to have to make. Pair them together, split them apart, whatever the Blue Jackets choose to do, it doesn’t matter. The top end of the blueline is the one area where Columbus has an edge on the majority of the league.

THE TOUGH DECISION: Do you let Nick Foligno walk? He’ll be a free agent in 2021, meaning the Blue Jackets captain could walk not long after the expansion draft if he isn’t signed. Locking him up, though, means one fewer protection spot and a very difficult choice between retaining a promising young player such as Texier or letting Foligno potentially suit up in Seattle. Foligno is a player whose contract status will be incredibly intriguing heading into the final season of his pact.

LESSON LEARNED: Don’t overpay to keep a player. It cost the Blue Jackets a first-round pick and second-round pick to influence the Golden Knights’ selection of William Karlsson in a deal that also included Vegas taking on David Clarkson’s contract. The entire thing backfired spectacularly, with Karlsson breaking out and turning into a legitimate top-six pivot.

Up Next: Dallas Stars

Previous: Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche |

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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