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 the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, the St. Louis Blues opted to protect expiring assets and role players like Patrik Berglund, Ryan Reaves, and Vladimir Sobotka and as a result lost top-six forward David Perron to the Vegas Golden Knights. The Blues watched as Perron enjoyed what was then the best season of his NHL career and led the Knights to the Stanley Cup Final while they missed the playoffs.
Fortunately, the team learned from their mistakes. They re-signed Perron the following season, won the Stanley Cup, and now three years later Perron is coming off the best campaign of his career. This time around he will be safe, as will most of the Blues’ top players. However, a deep, talented roster will not be able to completely avoid another impact loss in expansion.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Sam Anas, Ivan Barbashev, Sammy Blais, Kyle Clifford, Jacob de La Rose, Tanner Kaspick, Jordan Kyrou, Mackenzie MacEachern, Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Zach Sanford, Brayden Schenn, Nolan Stevens, Oskar Sundqvist, Vladimir Tarasenko, Robert Thomas
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
In contrast to successful team-building, depth and long-term security are the enemy of the Expansion Draft. The St. Louis Blues have built a strong roster with talent throughout the lineup and most of those players are signed beyond this season. With only eight skaters or seven forwards and three defenseman who can be protected, the Blues will expose a number of valuable assets and there is little they can do about it. But they will try.
The first question for the Blues is really what protection scheme to use, which comes down to x-factor number one: Vince Dunn. Following a resurgent season, Dunn was back in the good graces of St. Louis, at least until the trade talks returned of late. As promising as the 24-year-old defenseman may be, the Blues have refrained from giving him a true top-four role and he has also failed to produce top-four numbers. He was fifth in average time on ice among St. Louis defensemen in 2020-21 and while he was third in defensive scoring, most of his production came on the power play. He was fifth in blocked shots and fifth in hits, noticeably behind Krug in both, a player that specializes in neither. While he skates well, Dunn is susceptible to turnovers and is caught out of position frequently. When determining whether or not to protect Dunn, the upside argument for is strong, but the depth argument against is stronger. Compared to Faulk and Krug, the Blues’ two best all-around defensemen this season who the club has committed extensive money and term to, and Parayko, who has a unique blend of size and skill and has been steady throughout his career, it is hard to claim that Dunn is more worthy of protection in a 7-3 scheme despite his age and potential.
With all that said, there is a way to keep Dunn in addition to the three likely locks for protection on the blue line. The Blues could instead go with the eight-skater protection scheme, in which Dunn faces a much easier battle for a protection slot with the veteran Scandella. Of course, the trade-off for the Blues in protecting Dunn is exposing three extra forwards. Depth comes in to play here as well, as the forward corps is no different than the defense in terms of too many valuable players. With top scorer and 2017 Expansion casualty Perron locked in, as well as captain and elite two-way center O’Reilly, consistent top scorer Schenn, and all-world sniper Tarasenko, Dunn’s competition for protection are other fellow young players. Would the Blues really rather keep him over breakout rookie Kyrou? Or promising 21-year-old Thomas? It seems very unlikely, even as Dunn showed improvement this year. And thus the trade rumors. St. Louis will do its best not to lose Dunn for nothing given the promise he has shown, but if they are unable to make a trade before the Expansion Draft, they will let Seattle have the option of taking him over a future top-six forward.
The scheme resolution and acceptance that Dunn would be an attractive target if left exposed doesn’t make the decisions up front any easier for the Blues though. Even with seven forwards under protection, there will still be talent available to the Kraken. This is where x-factor number two comes in: Jaden Schwartz. Perron, O’Reilly, Schenn, Tarasenko, Kyrou, and Thomas are not going anywhere. Sure, there is some debate over Perron’s age or Tarasenko’s injury concerns, but neither argument is strong enough to leave a player of their caliber exposed. So, the Blues have one spot left at forward. Currently, Schwartz is slated for unrestricted free agency. The long-time St. Louis top-sixer may be too expensive for the team to re-sign, especially as he eyes a weak free agent market, but they will try. If the Blues come to an agreement with Schwartz before the Expansion Draft, they may decide to officially sign him or protect him as a UFA. Once Seattle has a chance to speak with Schwartz, their offer could mark the end of any handshake agreement he had with the Blues, so St. Louis could want the added security.
The other possibility is that the Blues either don’t reach an agreement with Schwartz in time or simply decide that using a protection slot on a UFA is not worth it. This does not rule out a Schwartz return to St. Louis, but it does open up the conversation of who else is deserving of that final spot. Impending free agents Bozak and Hoffman are unlikely to return and will not be protected and checking forwards Clifford and MacEachern, while valued, don’t stand up against the team’s top-nine options. Barbashev, Blais, Sanford, and Sundqvist will all be in consideration and all have a decent case for protection.
Sanford was the leading scorer of the bunch this season, but each of the other three missed time, especially Sundqvist whose season was lost to a torn ACL midway through the year. On a per-game basis, it was actually Blais that led the way. Blais is also the youngest of the group and the most physical, which could give him a leg up. Then again, Blais also had the lowest time on ice per game and contributed the least on special teams. Barbashev was the only positive player of the group and the possession leader. The decision may be one of the tightest for any team at any position, especially with four valid options. As a result, it may not come down to performance at all. Sundqvist, though a great defensive forward, is coming off of a major injury and has two years left on his current contract at $2.75MM. The Kraken would be taking a risk by selecting him, which likely leaves him exposed. Barbashev and Sanford have been in the NHL for a similar amount of time and have similar career offensive numbers. However, the more important thing that they both have in common is that they are both unsigned restricted free agents. If that does not change before the Expansion Draft, it makes both players less likely to be selected – if only slightly – as Seattle must take 20 players with term of their 30 picks, meaning Barbashev or Sanford would have to be deemed worthy of one of a maximum ten slots for RFA’s and UFA’s. It also stands to reason that either one could replace the loss of the other. This leaves Blais as the unique member of the group: healthy, under contract, and not to mention coming off a season in which he showed flashes of top-six potential. He may not be the best player of the four, but he is the safest pick for protection.
Finally, in goal there is no decision at all. Binnington is the unrivaled starter and the clear protection selection. Though he has been slow to develop, Fitzpatrick finally showed this season in the AHL the potential that made him a second-round draft choice, but it isn’t enough to usurp Binnington.
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 Blues have the type of roster where they may want to look into a trade with Seattle for the Kraken to select a specific player in exchange for a draft pick or prospect rather than leaving so many valuable players exposed. Even with their seven best forwards, top three defensemen, and starting goalie protected, St. Louis faces the certainty of impact loss. If not traded beforehand, Dunn would be a major loss. If Sundqvist returns to full strength, he too would be a player the Blues would really miss and would be an asset to the Kraken. Either of Sanford or Barbashev could break out in a greater role in Seattle. Even prospect goalie Fitzpatrick or veteran defenseman Scandella would hurt. Would it be worth a mid-round pick just to hand-pick who was leaving ahead of time?
St. Louis has all the incentive to leave their pending UFA’s exposed in hopes that Seattle takes the bait. The team could very well be interested in all three of Schwartz, Hoffman, and Bozak, considering the former two will be top free agent scorers and the latter could help to address a need down the middle that expansion teams tend to have. However, there is such enticing value available to the Kraken elsewhere, that they too have incentive to talk to the Blues’ UFA’s but not select them, opting for a current roster player instead with the opportunity to circle back on any of Schwartz, Hoffman, or Bozak on the open market. Seattle could also take advantage of a vulnerable Blues team to add a valuable draft pick, still select a solid player, and again turn around and sign a free agent. There are many opportunities for the Kraken – far more than St. Louis would like.