Expansion Plan: Projecting the Montreal Canadiens' protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

The Habs have been searching for a group that can become true Stanley Cup contenders. They'll lose a good player in the expansion draft, but years of solid drafting have put the team in a good situation to make up for it.
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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.)

• • • 

The Montreal Canadiens are in a good situation right now. They're not in rebuild mode – missing the playoffs with one day left in the regular season was better than most people expected – but they have one of the better prospect bases with depth at every position, something that can't be said about a lot of teams heading into the expansion draft. In reality, things are really looking up for the Canadiens heading into the long-term future.

Speaking of the expansion draft, the Habs are in a good position, regardless of who isn't protected. The Canadiens lost Alexei Emelin in 2017 to Vegas and with a host of talented, young defensemen, Seattle could go that route, too. Star prospects Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling, among others, won't have to be protected, so Montreal's most valuable young assets can fill the void left if Seattle elects to draft a forward instead.

Carey Price is the lone full-NMC the Canadiens have, and that's not an issue when it belongs to your team's biggest star. From there, it's making sure you have the right mix of veterans to fill spots the young guns won't be ready for, and the Canadiens won't have an issue doing that.

Forwards:

  • Brendan Gallagher
  • Artturi Lehkonen
  • Tomas Tatar
  • Max Domi
  • Jonathan Drouin
  • Jesperi Kotkaniemi
  • Paul Byron

Defensemen:

  • Victor Mete
  • Jeff Petry
  • Shea Weber

Goaltender:

  • Carey Price (NMC)

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Brett Kulak, Phillip Danault, Noah Juulsen, Cale Fleury

STRATEGY: As stated above, Montreal's youth is promising, but the club will need to make sure key veterans are protected. A bit of this could come down to banking on unprotected UFAs sticking around. Joel Armia and Phillip Danault will be free agents in 2021, which could result in Seattle deciding to take a young defender like Noah Juulsen or Cale Fleury instead. Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar will also be UFAs, but outside of something drastic happening over the next two years, it's unlikely the Canadiens would fathom letting them hit the open market and will pay dearly to keep them around.

After that, the Canadiens will no doubt keep Jonathan Drouin, who is looking for a bounce-back campaign after struggling to score near the end of 2018-19. He's still a valuable part of the team's offense and when he's on his game, he's one of Montreal's best players. A little deeper down the lineup, Paul Byron isn't likely to spend much time in the top six over the next few years, but his leadership and ability to play any role asked of him makes him valuable. On the youth side, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the future of Montreal's center group and after a season of ups and downs, he'll be given a more prominent role leading up to the expansion draft.

The one interesting option becomes defenseman Shea Weber. He'll be 36 in 2021 and Seattle won't want to hold on to his $7.85-million cap hit until 2026. But if they do end up taking him, the Habs will have more cap room to sign players like Kotkaniemi, Poehling and Suzuki – assuming they develop into quality NHLers – to more lucrative deals. Is he worth the risk? He's your leading man, and the Canadiens have some significant cap space over the next few years, so it is for now.

THE NO BRAINER: Domi saw his career turn around greatly in 2018-19, with his 72 points beating his previous best by 20 from his rookie season in 2015-16. Maybe it's because he likes the spotlight, but Domi had good chemistry with Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen and gave the team good hope for the future up front. Keeping the veteran forward heading into his prime will be important, starting with giving him a long-term deal next summer.

THE TOUGH DECISION: The Canadiens won't want to lose Juulsen, and he'd be a prime candidate for Seattle in 2021. The issue for Montreal, however, is that while he has shown flashes of potential as a top-four, right-handed defenseman, Juulsen has missed significant time over the past two seasons due to foot and facial injuries. He's just 22, but with significant development time missed as of late, the Canadiens could elect to move on from him knowing Fleury, Alexander Romanov and Josh Brook are in the system.

LESSONS LEARNED: Sign your top talent before the expansion draft. The Canadiens didn't sign Alexander Radulov in 2017, meaning the Habs didn't need to protect him. But in the end, they couldn't come to terms on a new deal and he left for Dallas, quickly becoming a top star with the organization (no pun intended). In this case, the biggest worry is keeping Gallagher, but nothing suggests they'd let him walk at this point.

Up Next: Nashville Predators

Previous:Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes |Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | Minnesota Wild

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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