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.
In 2017, the New York Islanders were one of the few lucky teams not to lose a player in the Expansion Draft, as the Vegas Golden Knights selected free agent goaltender Jean-Francois Berube. They paid dearly for that privilege though, trading a first-round pick, second-round pick, and defenseman Jake Bischoff (as well as the contract of Mikhail Grabovski) in order for Vegas to take Berube. The team was also the only one to protect three forwards and five defensemen.
This time around, the Islanders are unlikely to pay a heavy price to keep their unprotected players from being selected in the NHL Expansion Draft and they are also expected to go with a more orthodox protection scheme. Will they lose a good player? Sure. However, two-time reigning GM of the Year winner Lou Lamoriello has left his team in decent shape as expansion approaches.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Kieffer Bellows, Cal Clutterbuck, Austin Czarnik, Michael Dal Colle, Jordan Eberle, Ross Johnston, Otto Koivula, Leo Komarov, Andrew Ladd, Anders Lee, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Dmytro Timashov
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
When you miss the playoffs or even exit early, it is easier to look toward the future when it comes to making difficult decisions in regards to the Expansion Draft (see: Philadelphia Flyers). However, when it comes to the Islanders, their current deep playoff run could make that difficult. The team faces several decisions in which they must choose between a top veteran or a younger future piece and must sort that out.
However, there are some no-brainers to start. In goal, the team specifically signed Appleby only to expose him, allowing them to protect starter Varlamov. On defense, the tongue-twisting top pair of Pelech and Pulock are locked in for protection. At forward, young core pieces Barzal and Beauvillier and captain Lee are also guarantees.
After that, things get difficult. The seemingly easy call is to protect their other top-scoring veteran forwards. Bailey, Nelson, Eberle, and Pageau are all key pieces to this season and playoff run and are all signed long-term. However, Bailey and Eberle will both turn 32 next season and carry expensive contracts for several more years, but have shown signs of decline in recent seasons. They will both certainly be contributors for another year or possibly longer, but are they worth losing another forward and missing out on using the cap space elsewhere?
If any of that core group of top-nine forwards is not protected, other candidates include reliable fourth liners Clutterbuck and Martin. However, the player who deserves the most consideration is young Bellows. The 23-year-old forward is a 2016 first-round pick who produced with the USNTDP, in the NCAA, the WHL, and most recently the AHL. His scoring has yet to translate to the NHL, but it seems like a safe bet. With more time and opportunity, Bellows could easily be a top goal-scorer for an NHL team. Do the Islanders risk that team being the Seattle Kraken?
One thing that is certain is that the depth up front will ensure the Islanders use the 7-3 protetion scheme. On defense, behind Pelech and Pulock, it may seem like top-scoring defenseman Leddy should be the final pick and he very well may be. After some down years, Leddy impressed this season and was invaluable to the Islanders’ success. He also plays a key leadership role as an experienced, long-time member of the team.
However, Leddy’s age and his expiring contract could make him a diminishing asset for the team. In his place, they could keep the younger, more affordable, and arguably equally valuable Mayfield. Initially more of a stay-at-home defenseman, Mayfield has rounded out his game in recent years and with that his role has increased. At $1.45MM for two more years, Mayfield is a bargain and would have a greater total impact on the team if Leddy leaves after next season, even if Leddy is the superior performer next season alone. Is that enough to make him the selection? Another outside-the-box candidate would be 22-year-old Aho, who showed potential last season but took a step back this year.
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.
The Islanders’ current playoff run could very likely determine their approach to the Expansion Draft. If they feel strongly about their success in winning the East Division or if they are able to advance to the next round, they may feel that they are close enough to winning a Stanley Cup that they keep all of their top-performing veterans. Yet, if they win the Cup, perhaps that focus shifts back to the future and the emphasis becomes long-term assets. Either way, the Islanders will have to expose good players and after giving up a king’s ransom to Vegas in the last round of Expansion and already with a relatively shallow prospect pipeline and missing several draft picks, they are unlikely to make any side deals.
If available, a top veteran like Leddy, Bailey, or Eberle would be an easy pick for Seattle. However, assuming they are protected, Mayfield does stick out as the top option. The only issue there could be that there will be many teams who expose solid defensemen and don’t have any quality forwards available. A young, high-upside forward like Bellows may be hard to pass up. The Kraken will have plenty of options and the Islanders will lose a good player – likely their No. 4 defenseman or top forward prospect – but they will survive.