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 2017 NHL Expansion Draft seemed like it was going to be a difficult blow to the Ottawa Senators. Coming off of a strong season and deep playoff run, a then-talented Senators lineup left several notable players exposed. The Vegas Golden Knights selected Marc Methot, a top-four defenseman who had provided an invaluable defensive and physical presence to the team. Yet, Methot – who was flipped by Vegas to the Dallas Stars – played just two more injury-riddled seasons before retiring. While the Senators’ downfall did begin in the 2017-18 season, it had nothing to do with the expansion loss of Methot.
This time around, the situation is almost exactly reversed. The Senators are coming off another poor season, but do seem to finally be back on the rise. Their rebuilding roster is full of exempt talent and those top performers who are eligible can largely all be protected. One way or another, Ottawa will likely lose a young player, but they have youth to spare and will be giving up potential rather than concrete value.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Vitaly Abramov, Michael Amadio, Drake Batherson, J.C. Beaudin, Clark Bishop, Connor Brown, Logan Brown, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Davidsson, Jack Kopacka, Zach Magwood, Nick Paul, Logan Shaw, Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, Austin Watson, Colin White
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
The first decision that the Senators need to make is whether or not this roster, as currently constituted, is worth using all of their protection slots on. Ottawa arguably has multiple protection slots at both forward and defense that could go to superior players, if only the team went out and acquired them. While most clubs across the NHL are struggling to protect all of their valuable assets, the Senators have room to spare with so much of their young roster exempt from protection. Ottawa has the opportunity to acquire players who would be exposed on other teams at discount prices ahead of the Expansion Draft, as they are one of the few teams with both the ability to protect them and the picks and prospects to acquire them. If they choose, the Senators could use the impending threat of expansion to step out of their rebuild and back into competitive status by adding veterans from a desperate market.
For this exercise, assume they don’t add anyone else; those questions still exist internally. Ottawa went out and re-acquired Dzingel even though he was on an expiring contract and the Senators were not in playoff contention this year. To this point, the two sides have not agreed on an extension and there has been no word of one either. However, it is to the team’s benefit to have some veterans in the locker room and Dzingel’s best seasons were earlier in his career in Ottawa. Rather than let the Kraken negotiate with him prior to the Expansion Draft, the team needs to decide if they want to re-sign him and if so should do so before another team can enter the fray. If Stepan is willing to stay in Ottawa, contrary to popular belief, the same scenario would apply to him.
Again, assuming Dzingel and Stepan remain UFA’s they are unlikely to be protected, especially if talks on a new contract have not gone far. Forward still remains the major area of decision-making for the Senators, as there are many eligible names and plenty of untapped potential. The likely locks include top young scorers Tkachuk and Batherson and veteran Connor Brown. Hard-working fan favorite Paul is also very likely to be protected.
Beyond that, Ottawa could go in a number of directions. They are however restricted by the exposure quota. Protecting the aforementioned four players leaves three spots available, but also just four forwards who meet the exposure requirements, meaning all three cannot be used on veteran lineup regulars. The leading candidates of those four to be protected are likely White and Dadonov. White has had an up-and-down couple of years, but the Senators believed in him enough to sign him to his current long-term contract. The same logic applies to the veteran Dadonov, who Ottawa chased as a free agent last off-season and signed to a substantial deal. He failed to impress overall in his first season with the club, but displayed his elite ability in spurts. It seems unlikely that they would part with either one already if they can help it. This would leave third line center Tierney and bottom-six winger Watson to meet the quota. Neither would be a major loss for Ottawa, but either one could argue for their protection over White or Dadonov based on consistency and two-way contribution.
The final forward spot will have to go to one of the Senators’ younger, less proven forwards. Top candidates include 2020-21 acquisitions Bishop and Amadio or prospects Abramov, Davidsson, or Logan Brown. Seeing as Bishop and Amadio both did little with their Ottawa experience this season and previously struggled with other teams, they are unlikely to be protected or selected by Seattle. Davidsson, who has produced in Sweden but failed to do so in North America, is probably not worth the investment. That leaves Abramov and Brown as the two most likely choices. Until recently, Abramov seemed like a safe bet given his strong AHL production, but after signing in the KHL for next season, his future contributions in Ottawa are now in question. Brown is a 2016 first-round pick with great size and presence at the center position who has shown flashes of promise in the AHL, but has yet to make an impact at the top level. Loaded with potential as both a physical force and skilled contributor, it would be hard to watch Brown leave and succeed elsewhere, but he has been given numerous chances to do so already in Ottawa.
In goal, there are plenty of options for the Senators, but who to protect should actually be a relatively easy decision for the club. Gustavsson, still just 23, looked excellent in his first NHL action this season, is a highly-touted prospect, and most importantly is waiver-exempt next season. If exposed, he is an ideal option to serve as Seattle’s No. 3 goalie next season and could blossom into an NHL starter. Unless the Senators want to use him as bait to draw the Kraken away from other exposed players, they need to protect Gustavsson or he will be taken. Daccord is not all that different from Gustavsson – a young, well-regarded, waivers-exempt goaltender. However, Daccord is two years older, has performed poorly in his brief NHL history, and is coming off of a season-ending surgery. Add in that he is signed long-term to a contract that becomes one-way, despite having shown that he can be a stable NHL presence yet, and Daccord is not as valuable as Gustavsson.
Funny enough, starter Murray is likely not in contention for protection at all. After a dismal start to his Senators career this season, Seattle is not touching his contract with three years remaining at a $6.25MM AAV. If they do, Ottawa will rejoice. As for 2020-21 primary backup Hogberg, he has signed overseas and the Senators have already revealed that he will not be qualified. The Kraken will not be interested in a 26-year-old UFA signed elsewhere. The final option in net, veteran Forsberg, is a career No. 3 who is also not a risk to be selected.
On defense, the decision is too easy, thus the question of whether Ottawa should add veterans to their roster before the Expansion Draft. Chabot is the lone lock and also the only player worth protecting on most NHL rosters. Waiver claim Mete looked good upon his arrival to Ottawa and is likely to be protected. The decision thus comes down to Zaitsev versus Brown: one is protected and the other fills the exposure requirement. Zaitsev was an everyday starter for Ottawa this season, but a poor one and signed to a bad, multi-year contract. Brown was a part-time player this year and showed little upside. Neither player should be protected, but the Senators will probably protect Brown as Zaitsev’s contract makes him the less likely of the two to be surprisingly selected by Seattle.
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.
With capable veterans in Tierney and Watson (or Murray and Zaitsev if Seattle is struggling to hit the cap floor), the Senators could provide an NHL veteran to the Seattle roster. The odds-on favorite in that scenario is Tierney, as the Kraken will not have many skilled centers to choose from in the draft. More likely though, it will be one of Ottawa’s young prospect forwards who is selected. Of the group, Abramov may still be the most attractive and his KHL commitment for next season could actually be seen as a benefit. The Kraken must select 30 players, most of whom are not waiver-exempt, but can only have 23 players on the roster. A talented scoring forward playing overseas next season is a safe way to add future potential that also doesn’t need a roster spot and can’t be stolen on waivers. Abramov could return in a year or two and step right into a starting role.
As noted, Daccord could also be attractive as a minor league goaltending option for the Kraken, who will have few players that can safely clear waivers and could value that depth in net with Daccord, who brings experience and a track record of success in the NCAA and AHL. His NHL numbers are a concern, but he would have another year to develop in the minors before Seattle had to decide on giving him a roster spot or risking him on waivers.
The other option for Seattle would be to negotiate with one of Ottawa’s impending free agent forwards. Without a ton of options to select from the active roster, instead agreeing to terms with a Dzingel or Stepan could be the way to go for the Kraken. Either one could be a superior forward to Tierney or Watson in the right system.