Expansion Plan: Projecting the New Jersey Devils' protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

The New Jersey Devils made a couple of major acquisitions this summer. They're in a good spot for the future, but the 2021 expansion draft will see them lose a much better player than in 2017.
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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.)

• • • 

Two seasons ago, the New Jersey Devils finished dead last in the Eastern Conference with 28 wins, leading to the club selecting Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick a few months later. The team overachieved in 2017-18, making the playoffs on the heels of Taylor Hall's 93-point campaign and Hischier's arrival, but missed the post-season again this past season before landing the No. 1 pick once again.

But for a team that struggled like New Jersey did last year, the situation is more promising than it was two years ago. In 2017, the Devils lost defenseman Jon Merrill to Vegas, with Merrill becoming a third-pairing defenseman. The Devils will lose a more impactful player this time around, but the additions this summer will help the ease the pain.

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

  • Taylor Hall
  • Nico Hischier
  • Kyle Palmieri
  • Jesper Bratt
  • Joey Anderson
  • Pavel Zacha
  • Blake Coleman

Defensemen:

  • Damon Severson
  • Will Butcher
  • P.K Subban

Goaltender:

  • Mackenzie Blackwood

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Michael McLeod, Sami Vatanen, Miles Wood, Travis Zajac, Mirco Mueller

STRATEGY: The biggest question at this time is whether or not the Devils can sign Taylor Hall ahead of July 1 next summer. Having some extra scoring talent around him will make signing him an easier task than, say, six months ago when P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes weren't in the picture. For this, we're going to assume Hall likes what he sees and signs a long-term deal in hopes of making the Devils a contender once again.

The Devils have 11 contracts to deal with between today and 2021. Mackenzie Blackwood, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall are the obvious names that'll need to be brought back, but Sami Vatanen, one of New Jersey's top defenders, likely won't be signed until after the expansion draft. Signing him beforehand would make him a prime candidate for Seattle, and that's not a risk the Devils should take if they think he's still a valuable piece two years from now.

Not having to expose Hughes or Gusev (a UFA in 2021, but exempt regardless due to having not played an NHL game yet) makes this much easier. Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmeri and Jesper Bratt are easy choices, leaving the final three spots to Joey Anderson Pavel Zacha and Blake Coleman. Coleman was a late-bloomer to the NHL but after hitting the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, Coleman has proven himself as a quality depth piece for the Devils. Zacha and Anderson have had slow starts to their careers after showing promise at lower levels, but they should remain in New Jersey's stable for years to come.

The decisions on the point and in the crease don't get much easier. Blackwood is the future between the pipes for the Devils and the defense core is starting to show its strength.

THE NO BRAINER: He's not a big name yet, but Bratt looks to be on the verge of a breakout and will be a key member of New Jersey's rebuild. Just 21, Bratt was on pace for 53 points had injuries not limited his season to 51 games. Bratt, a creative top-six winger with a smart hockey mind, will be an RFA next season and if he continues up the offensive ladder, he'll cost a hefty price, but one worth paying if you're the Devils.

THE TOUGH DECISION: After years of dedication to the franchise, 2021 will be time for the Devils to expose center Travis Zajac. Zajac will be 36 when the draft takes place, and even if the Devils bring him back, it would be in a third-line role at a cap-friendly price. It wouldn't be worth using a spot to protect him, especially with the team looking to be a playoff contender by then.

LESSON LEARNED: The Devils didn't give up much in 2017, but they might have to move a draft pick or other assets to keep Severson if the team feels strongly about keeping him around. With the Devils not far from being a playoff contender, it might be wise to offer up a piece of the farm to Seattle in order to keep a solid veteran with top-pairing minutes around while Seattle looks to focus on the future. Instead, Seattle could take Cory Schneider's $6-million deal off their hands for the last year of his contract to help give New Jersey some extra cap relief, something they'll need after the big off-season they're going to endure in 2020.

Up Next: New York Islanders

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 | Montreal Canadiens | Nashville Predators

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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