Over the next few weeks, we will be breaking down each team’s situation as it pertains to the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Which players are eligible, who will likely warrant protection, and which ones may be on the block to avoid the risk of losing them for nothing? Each team is required to submit their protection lists by 4:00 PM CDT on July 17th. The full eligibility rules can be found here, while CapFriendly has an expansion tool to make your own lists.
The Los Angeles Kings have come a long way since the last Expansion Draft… a long way in the wrong direction. After winning Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 and topping 100 points in 2016, the Kings were still clinging to their hopes of remaining contenders when the Vegas Golden Knights made their expansion selections in 2017. It was arguably at that point that things began to unravel for the franchise. Even with four defensemen protected, all of whom were well worth it at the time but only one of whom remains on the team now, Vegas still stole from the blue line with the reliable Brayden McNabb. McNabb has been a fixture for the Knights ever since; meanwhile, L.A. has watched as protected players Tanner Pearson, Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez, Derek Forbort, and Jeff Carter all departed.
After years in the basement of the league, the Kings are now on their way back to relevance, fueled by a few holdover veterans, a couple new core players, and a treasure trove of talented youth. Their Cup days may be well behind them, but there are brighter days ahead – and expansion will not slow them down. L.A.’s current roster has so few established assets and is so heavy in exempt young players, the Kings face little risk in the impending draft. By their recent standards, they will lose a good player and maybe even a young player, but by league standards they should be one of the teams least impacted. This is not a roster where the Seattle Kraken will be able to find their own McNabb.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Lias Andersson, Andreas Athanasiou, Dustin Brown, Michael Eyssimont, Martin Frk, Carl Grundstrom, Alex Iafallo, Boko Imama, Adrian Kempe, Anze Kopitar, Brendan Lemieux, Blake Lizotte, Matt Luff, Trevor Moore, Drake Rymsha, Austin Wagner
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
D Michael Anderson, F Jaret Anderson-Dolan, D Tobias Bjornfot, F Quinton Byfield, F Samuel Fagemo, F Arthur Kaliyev, F Rasmus Kupari, F Tyler Madden, D Markus Phillips, F Vladimir Tkachyov, F Akil Thomas, F Alex Turcotte, F Gabriel Vilardi
The most difficult question for the Kings as they face expansion is the first one: what is their overall approach? A team that is currently straddling the line between rebuild and playoff pursuit. L.A. is loaded with talented prospects and certainly values their youth, but they are also loaded with cap space and have sworn to add more veteran talent this off-season. When making decisions on who to protect and who to expose, they need to decide what the next step for the franchise is. Will they risk established veterans, knowing it would be a step back in their return to relevance? Are they comfortable enough in their deep stable of prospect to expose unproven young players instead?
The x-factor in this whole conversation is young defenseman Clague, as the Kings’ decision on him will also determine whether they protect three defensemen and seven forwards or eight skaters, including Clague as defenseman No. 4? A well-regarded prospect, Clague has been given opportunities in L.A. but has little to show for it. The 23-year-old was a second-round pick in 2016 and was heralded as a skilled, puck-moving defenseman, but so far that ability has not appeared at the NHL level. Could Clague blossom in Seattle if the Kings let him go? Sure. However, they have numerous other impressive defense prospects in the system to replace him. Protecting Clague also comes at a steep cost: three forward slots. If Clague is not exposed, several other young forwards are.
Assume then that Clague is exposed as the Kings go with three defenseman: icon Doughty and affordable top-four defenders Roy and Walker. Maatta brought needed veteran presence and stability to L.A. this year and MacDermind is an impressive physical specimen, but neither is worth protecting over Clague, nevertheless three forwards.
Up front, the locks are simple. Star center Kopitar, the recently-extended Iafallo, and young standout Kempe are all safe. Beyond that, the final four names could be anyone from a long list (which is why protecting Clague remains a possibility however unlikely.) The first decision will be the most polarizing, as it pertains to the up-and-down Brown. A career King, Brown started to decline even before the last Expansion Draft and was left exposed as L.A. hoped they might be rid of his long-term contract. However, in the years since he has returned to form, playing at a 50+ point full-season pace this year for the third time in four seasons. Brown’s contract is also down to just one year, no longer a detriment to the team. If there were only four forwards to protect, this becomes a more difficult decision, but with seven spots it is likely that Brown stays a King for at least one more season, even if not all fans will be happy about it. His experience and leadership is invaluable to the young team and he would be an easy target for Seattle if exposed.
The remaining three forward spots are a more interesting debate. Athanasiou and Moore, though older than some of the other candidates, are still relatively young and entering the primes of their careers. Each played well in his first season in Los Angeles, recording a matching 23 points to tie for fifth in scoring among Kings forwards. With that said, both are restricted free agents as well and contract negotiations could come into play. However, neither player meets the exposure requirements to fill the quota and are superior players to the other candidates, making them useless to expose other than to distract the Kraken from other options.
The Kings do have four forwards that meet the exposure criteria, two of whom must be protected. Grundstrom, Lizotte, Wagner, and mid-season trade addition Lemieux all satisfy the exposure requirements, but which two should fill that position? There is some reason to believe that Lizotte will. The undersized forward earned a suspiciously quick extension after a down year, which could mean that the Kings had ulterior motives. There is also something to be said for the Kings adding Lemieux when the team already had physical bottom-six wingers in Grudstrom and Wagner. Lemieux also may have been brought in for expansions purposes. And yet, Wagner is probably the least valuable player of the group and likely to be exposed.
Grundstrom stands out as an outlier. The youngest of the group, Grundstrom was a 2016 second-rounder taken just six spots behind Clague. A physical forward with offensive touch, Grundstrom made the most of limited ice time in just 47 games to lead this group of four in scoring, finish among the top nine forwards in goals and points, and lead the team in hits. Grudnstrom is the favorite to be protected.
Of course, there is one more forward to consider and that is impending RFA Andersson. The 2017 No. 7 overall pick came to L.A. after struggling in New York and unfortunately found more of the same. He recorded just six points in 23 games, matching a career high but still falling short of expectations. A one-dimensional offensive player, Andersson is a difficult young asset to hand starts and ice time. Yet, his draft stock implies immense potential and at 22 years old he could still turn into a star elsewhere. Can the Kings risk giving him up?
In net, the decision is much easier than elsewhere on the roster. Despite his longevity and career achievements, Quick is currently just an overpaid backup. His play has actually been improving and L.A. may not be as desperate to move his contract as they once were, but there is no question that young Peterson is the current and future starter and will be protected.
Projected Protection List
Skater Exposure Requirement Checklist
When Vegas had their expansion draft, a minimum of two forwards and one defenseman had to be exposed that were under contract and played either 40 games in the most recent season or 70 over the past two combined. Due to the pandemic, those thresholds have been changed to 27 games played in 2020-21 or 54 in 2019/20 and 2020-21 combined. In creating our expansion list for each team in this series, we will ensure that these criteria are met.
At the end of the day, the Kings need to focus on themselves and what they know they have rather than what could be. Could a Clague or Andersson be selected by Seattle and become a great player? Sure. Could they also go to Seattle and not even be able to crack the roster, ending up back in L.A. or elsewhere on waivers? Of course. What the Kings know to be true is that they have the means to protect all of their main contributors from this past year, when the team took a major step forward, and that they have arguably the deepest and most talented pipeline in the NHL to replace any departing young player.
Whether it is taking a risk on a Clague or Andersson, adding a role player like Lemieux, Wagner, MacDermid, or Strand or swinging for the fences and hoping for a resurgence from Quick or Maatta, the Kraken have options. Their decision may be even harder than L.A.’s, who should feel confident moving forward without whoever Seattle lands on.