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.
When the Vegas Golden Knights entered the NHL in 2017, it was unclear who might become the expansion team’s biggest rival. Las Vegas was located close to a number of Pacific Division foes, but with deep-seated rivalries already in place in Southern California, it was unclear if there would be room for the Knight. The Seattle Kraken don’t have that problem. The Vancouver Canucks, located on the same body of water less than 150 miles north, will be immediate geographical rivals of the NHL’s newest team. While Seattle may not be as competitive right off the bat as Vegas – opposing teams learned their lesson in the last Expansion Draft – an attainable goal for the club in their inaugural season could be to get the best of the rival Canucks in the season series and the division standings. The rivalry could get off to a hot start if the Kraken can steal a player of value out of Vancouver in next month’s draft.
The problem? Just as they did in the last Expansion Draft, in which they lost stay-at-home defenseman Luca Sbisa, the Canucks have again set themselves up well to protect their key players from exposure. Seattle will have a number of options, but it is hard to picture any of them swaying the tide in the new rivalry.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Jay Beagle, Brock Boeser, Loui Eriksson, Micheal Ferland, Jonah Gadjovich, Jayce Hawryluk, Matthew Highmore, Bo Horvat, Lukas Jasek, Kole Lind, Zack MacEwen, J.T. Miller, Tyler Motte, Petrus Palmu, Tanner Pearson, Elias Pettersson, Antoine Roussel, Jake Virtanen
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
The Canucks really only have decisions to make at one position: forward. In goal, last summer’s free agent addition Holby was expected to be a player that Seattle might pursue, but after a poor season the 31-year-old not longer looks like an attractive option. Vancouver will protect the younger and superior Demko and won’t put any effort into a side deal to protect Holtby. No other goalies are eligible for selection. On the blue line, only five non-UFA defenseman are eligible for selection and Bowey was acquired specifically to meet the exposure requirement on defense. Barring a trade addition, the Canucks face the easy choice of protecting top-four defensemen Myers and Schmidt and choosing the younger, more experienced, and more highly-regarded young player in Juolevi over Brisebois. Even if any of their impending UFA defenders were re-signed, including veterans Edler and Hamonic, it is unlikely to change the protection plan on the back end. Signed or not, the Kraken selecting and extending career Canuck Edler would be a fun start to the rivalry albeit an unlikely result.
Up front, things are not so simple. The Canucks have a whopping 18 eligible non-UFA forwards and it is a mix of both NHL contributors and promising prospects. The locks are core forwards Horvat, Boeser, Pettersson, Miller and the recently-extended Pearson, leaving two spots available for the remaining 13 forwards. From there, it may be easier to begin with who won’t be protected. Veterans Ferland (injury), Beagle (injury), and Eriksson (overpaid and ineffective) will be exposed. Roussel is also very likely to fall into that group after consecutive seasons of poor play and injury concern. Prospects playing overseas in Jasek and Palmu also have no chance at protection. MacEwen, if only by process of elimination, is also unlikely to be protected as a one-dimensional checking forward.
What is left is a group of six bubble forwards, all with a case for why he should be protected. Despite a disastrous 2020-21 season, the best NHL resume of the bunch belongs to Virtanen Even with just five points in 38 games this year, the 2014 sixth overall pick has 100 points in 317 games, outpacing his fellow bubble candidates. The Canucks shopped the struggling Virtanen this year, but also refused to give him away for less than what they felt he was worth. If that sentiment remains, the team will not allow Seattle to get him for nothing.
With that said, Virtanen’s $2.55MM cap hit is also the heaviest of the bunch and was a roadblock in trade dealings this year. His ongoing legal troubles are also a serious cause for pause. If Vancouver feels that the Kraken will not select Virtanen based on these issues on top of his poor production this year, they could expose him. That idea becomes more likely when considering that three other, more affordable forwards outscored Virtanen on a per-game basis this year: Motte, Hawryluk, and Highmore. All three have a strong case for protection too. Motte, 26, when healthy last season, saw a major uptick in ice time to near top-six levels. A talented defensive forward involved in the checking game and serving on the top penalty kill unit, Motte has proved himself valuable to the Canucks and his timely offense in last year’s postseason helped to make him a fan favorite. However, with Motte out of the lineup down the stretch, it was Highmore who took on a similar role and thrived following a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks. Recording five points in 18 games and taking on some short-handed responsibility, Highmore, 25, looked at home in a bottom-six role with Vancouver. His ease of transition to a new team could peak the interest of Seattle. Hawryluk, 25, surprisingly has the second-best career offensive profile within the bubble, with 27 points in 98 games despite playing for three different teams over three years. Underutilized by the Canucks this year, Hawryluk showed promising flashes with more opportunity late in the year.
The two names remaining are prospects Gadjovich and Lind. Both 2017 second-round picks, Gadjovich and Lind are each high-scoring junior products who have improved every year in the pros and were point-per-game players in the AHL this year, as well as seeing their first NHL action. Both should see increased roles next year with the Canucks, potentially ahead of any of the aforementioned bubble forwards. The upside is certainly greater for either scoring winger than any of the group outside of possibly a resurgent Virtanen. If Seattle was to select either one, they would not be selecting “prospects”. Both will lose their waiver exemption next season. If the Kraken want to take and keep Gadjovich or Lind, they would need to be prepared to hand them a roster spot, as neither would be likely to clear waivers. This calculus would of course change if the Kraken plant to select then trade one of the promising young players.
One mitigating factor to the selection of Lind, as well as Hawryluk, is that they are unsigned restricted free agents. Seattle must select 20 players under contract in 2021-22. With just ten slots to use on both unrestricted and restricted free agents, the team may not feel that Lind or Hawryluk are worthy of a spot. Vancouver could extend Hawryluk to make him a more attractive selection and possible convince Seattle to take him over another more valuable forward. They will not do the same with the coveted Lind.
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 several top young players and near future contributors exempt and all core players protected, the list of options for Seattle is not strong. Vancouver does not appear to be a team that offers any UFA’s worth selecting, so the team will still lose a current roster player. However, they stand almost no chance of losing a player of any great meaning. The greatest impact would perhaps be if the Kraken went with the surprise selection of Holtby, as it would force the Canucks to find a new backup this off-season. However, this season provided little evidence that Holtby would be a worthwhile pick, especially at his current cost. There are no defenseman of value to Vancouver available and it hard to envision Seattle going in that direction anyway.
So again, it all comes back to forward. With Vancouver opting to protect defensive ace Motte and budding power forward Gadjovich with their final two protection slots, the Kraken will be looking at the other four bubble forwards and MacEwen, as barring trade incentive from the Canucks they will not touch any of the overpriced veterans. Virtanen and Lind have the highest upsides, but each come with concerns. Virtanen is expensive, has off-ice baggage, and is coming off a poor season. If selected, he likely has no trade value as the Canucks were unable to deal him themselves this year. Lind would have to be selected with the intention of being a key, everyday starter. He would not clear waivers and would require a roster spot and would take up a valuable unsigned draft slot if selected. Lind is still a very viable option in this scenario, especially if the Kraken are high on him, as his junior and minor league production shows NHL potential and he would have trade value to other teams if he cannot crack the Seattle roster. If either of these two are selected and blossom with the Canucks new rivals, it will sting.
If the issues surrounding potential top-nine forwards Virtanen and Lind are too much for the Kraken, they will likely look for a dependable fourth-liner in Highmore or MacEwen rather than a depth option in Hawryluk, who is also unsigned. In fact, Highmore’s recent success jumping from Chicago to Vancouver and thriving in a bottom-six role could inspire the Kraken. If they don’t love Lind and don’t want to risk Virtanen, then Highmore is the likely choice.