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 last time around, the Nashville Predators protected eight skaters in the Expansion Draft: Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Ryan Johansen, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban,and Pekka Rinne. Look familiar? With seven of those eight players still on the team and at least five of them again locks for protection, the Predators are likely to take the same approach with Seattle as they did with Vegas.
Four years ago, the result was losing a high-priced veteran in James Neal. However, Neal was coming off consecutive strong seasons in Nashville and the Golden Knights did not hesitate to select the scoring forward. If the Predators want the Kraken to also take a pricey player, they may have to help it along. There are other more attractive and much more affordable options on the roster this time.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Viktor Arvidsson, Nick Cousins, Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Rocco Grimaldi, Calle Jarnkrok, Tanner Jeannot, Ryan Johansen, Luke Kunin, Michael McCarron, Rem Pitlick, Anthony Richard, Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
The Predators have no shortage of difficult decisions to make, but it beats the position they were in earlier this season. Off to a horrific start to the 2020-21 season and looking ahead to the Expansion Draft, Nashville had almost everyone on the trade block so that they could protect what few core players and young assets they valued in expansion. Chief among them was Ekholm, whose contract expires at the end of next season. Rather than protect four defensemen – Ekholm, fellow top defenders Josi and Ellis, and young standout Fabbro – and expose a number of forwards, the team was entertaining trading Ekholm so that they could use a 7-3 protection scheme. However, as their season turned around and Ekholm trade talks grew quiet, that possibility slipped away. Whether they plan to re-sign Ekholm or not, the Predators are not giving away any of those four defensemen for free, locking them in to the eight-skater scheme once again.
With their defensive protections locked in, as well as in goal with new starter Saros taking over for free agent and potential retiree Rinne, all of the questions for Nashville are at forward – and there are plenty. The two sure things are Forsberg and Arvidsson. Forsberg is the undisputed best forward on the team and Arvidsson, despite a down year, still has too much value to give up for free and has a team-friendly contract. Beyond that pair, GM David Poile could go in any number of directions with his final two spots. The safe guess for at least one spot though is young winger Kunin. Acquired just last summer, Kunin is young and full of potential. A potential long-term top-six forward in Nashville, Kunin is unlikely to be exposed unless the Predators see something in him that causes them doubt in his upside.
So it could be down to just one forward slot, with at least five names in contention – the downside of the eight-skater protection scheme. The big names are Johansen and Duchene, the Predators’ $8MM centers. The problem is that names is all they are right now; neither has produced up to the expectations of their pedigree in several years. Nashville seems likely to expose both in hopes that Seattle likes one of them enough to take a massive amount of cap off their payroll, which they could better use elsewhere. If one of them was to be protected, it would likely be Johansen who has more history with the team and plays a more complete game, even when he isn’t producing.
With Johansen and Duchene likely crossed off the list, that leaves long-time middle-six forwards Grimaldi, Jarnkrok, and Sissons. Jarnkrok may seem like the obvious choice; he finished second among Nashville forwards in scoring this season while Sissons and Grimaldi were tenth and eleventh, respectively. Jarnkrok also led all forwards in plus/minus and was a key cog in the power play. Jarnkrok was also protected four years ago and is still on the same bargain, $2MM AAV contract he was then. Contracts could be the key here, though. Poile has had an extraordinary ability in his career to sign players to affordable, long-term contracts, such as Jarnkrok. However, Jarnkrok is entering the final season of his long-term deal, while Sissons still has four seasons left at $2.86MM per year. Nashville’s top penalty killing forward and top face-off man is also quietly a good complementary scorer as well, scoring at close to a 30-point 82-game pace over the past four seasons. If Sissons is exposed, the Kraken have plenty of reasons to select him. Would Poile risk letting another team, a Western Conference rival at that, benefit from his negotiating handiwork or will he instead protect Sissons and his affordable contract?
If Nashville was protecting seven forwards, a strong case could be made for 24-year-old Pitlick. One lone NHL game after leaving college in 2019 is the only reason Pitlick is eligible for the Expansion Draft and the team hopes it doesn’t come back to bite them. A star at the University of Minnesota who has been stellar in the AHL through two pro seasons and earned some NHL games this season, Pitlick looks like a future top-nine forward, but the Predators don’t have the luxury of protecting potential with only four forward slots.
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.
When the Predators signed Benning and Borowiecki to two-year deals last summer, it was with expansion in mind. They knew the pair were serviceable blue liners who could meet exposure requirements with bottom-pair time but also were not flashy enough for Seattle to select. In fact, if the Kraken do take a defenseman it is likely to be Carrier or Allard instead. In net, Ingram is a solid prospect who had a tremendous 2019-20 season, but his poor performance this year and his lack of waiver exemption likely makes him a non-option for Seattle.
Again, the value for the Kraken in likely to come at forward with so many names exposed. Jarnkrok, if exposed, would be affordable top-six scoring right off the bat for the new team. However, the expiring contracts for he, Grimaldi, and Cousins hurt all of their stocks. Pitlick or Trenin would be interesting project picks for Seattle, younger players who have shown flashes of great ability.
However, all eyes will be on Johansen and Duchene – and Kraken GM Ron Francis knows it. Even if he likes one of the two prime centers and even acknowledging that Seattle needs to hit $48.9MM and an $8MM salary would help, Francis also knows that the Predators have plenty of incentive to see either leave. Seattle could ask for an additional player, prospect, or pick in order to take Johansen or Duchene and Nashville will almost certainly comply. Johansen, a Vancouver native who played his junior hockey in Portland, is familiar with the area and could be an immediate fan favorite, the team’s top line center, and a captain candidate, especially if he can return to form. If he also came with another attractive asset or two, it would be a popular move by the team.