Expansion Plan: Projecting the Toronto Maple Leafs’ protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

Not one of the forwards who was protected last time around remains with the franchise, but that opens up room for the Maple Leafs to keep its core together – though there is one tough decision that has to be made.
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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.)

• • • 

Want a window into how quickly things can change for an organization? Ahead of the 2017 Vegas expansion draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs protected the following forwards: Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Connor Brown and Josh Leivo. While true that those were the seven forwards protected because Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander didn’t require protection, it’s interesting to note that not a single one of the seven on that protected list are on the Maple Leafs’ roster today.

Unfortunately for Toronto, it’s no longer the case that their trio of young guns is expansion exempt. That means Matthews, Marner and Nylander will all now require protection, and they’re not alone. A number of the talented young players who were exempt last time around are set to be exposed barring protection from the Seattle expansion draft, a handful of which would be worthwhile pickups for the NHL’s 32nd team.

One note on the Maple Leafs: with every current roster defenseman not named Morgan Rielly set to see their contract expire at season’s end, we’re projecting that Toronto will make a play to keep Jake Muzzin in town. The Maple Leafs are currently projected to have upwards of $26-million in spending room, and even a $10-million cap hit for restricted free agent Marner would leave Toronto with $16-million to spend and no other major free agent considerations. While Tyson Barrie is another potential signing option, this projection assumes that he tests the open market next summer.

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

  • John Tavares (NMC)
  • Auston Matthews
  • Mitch Marner
  • William Nylander
  • Kasperi Kapanen
  • Andreas Johnsson
  • Jeremy Bracco

Defensemen:

  • Morgan Rielly
  • Travis Dermott
  • Jake Muzzin

Goaltenders:

  • Frederik Andersen

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Alex Kerfoot, Frederik Gauthier

STRATEGY: This team is, has and will continue to be powered by its deep and dangerous offense, so the best way forward for the Maple Leafs come expansion is ensuring that the attack remains both of those things. That shouldn’t be all that difficult for Toronto, who will be required to protect John Tavares, who they would have protected regardless, and then use the remaining spots up front on the core of its forward group, including Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who has much more to give than the seven goals and 27 points he scored last season after a slow start to his campaign. Add to it the offensive prowess of secondary scorers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson and the Maple Leafs should have everything they need to exit the expansion process with a core group of forwards that can produce a top-five results with their eyes closed.

The only other note on the Maple Leafs’ protection strategy is that Frederik Andersen, who we’re suggesting get a contract extension, is protected over any of the other netminder. Joseph Woll has upside, as does Ian Scott, but neither will be a full-time NHL keeper in the near future and goaltending can make or break a contender, which the Maple Leafs will surely be for the next several seasons.

THE NO BRAINER: Help is on the way in the form of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, but the blueline is thin right now. That means Toronto must cling to Morgan Rielly, who is the No. 1 rearguard now and could maintain that spot on the roster for the next decade. Frankly, doing so is an even easier choice than keeping Marner or Nylander. The blueline is Rielly’s to guide into the future and he’s one of the most obvious protections on the team.

THE TOUGH DECISION: What do the Maple Leafs do in the middle of the lineup? There are a few options, but in this projection, Kapanen, Johnsson and Jeremy Bracco get protection. But here’s the thing: if Bracco makes the leap to the NHL and produces, does he make one of Kapanen or Johnsson expendable? And if so, do the Maple Leafs then consider keeping Kerfoot, who will still be under contract at $3.5 million and can fill that third-line center role? There’s value in having strength down the middle, so it might be something to consider.

LESSON LEARNED: There’s really not many gripes to be made about the Maple Leafs’ 2017 draft protections, but it’s probably not wise to use protections on role players this time around, which is what Toronto did in 2017 with Leo Komarov and Matt Martin. Leave players of that ilk up for grabs and ensure the top and most promising talent remains, which is almost assuredly what Toronto will do when it comes time for the Seattle expansion draft.

Up Next: Vancouver Canucks

Previous:Anaheim Ducks | Arizona CoyotesBoston 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 | New Jersey Devils | New York Islanders | New York Rangers | Ottawa Senators | Philadelphia Flyers | Pittsburgh Penguins | San Jose Sharks | St. Louis Blues | Tampa Bay Lightning

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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