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 Blue Jackets were one of the biggest victims of the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, trading a first-round and second-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for the team selecting William Karlsson and taking on David Clarkson’s contract. Karlsson has blossomed into the best center in Vegas’ young franchise history, while the Blue Jackets now have a hole down the middle and could have used those high draft picks to help fill it.
The team has seemingly spent the past four years making sure that history would not repeat itself this year. The Blue Jackets can protect all of their core players, leaving next to nothing of value for Seattle, and the only deal that they will make with the Kraken would have to be mutually beneficial.
Eligible Players (Non-UFA)
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
Kudos to GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who has taken most of the decision-making out of his team’s expansion process. The Blue Jackets may have taken a step back this season and looking to re-tool in the off-season, but at least they will not lose any players of great value.
Well, that’s not entirely true. By all accounts, Columbus will lose star defenseman Jones, but it will be on their own terms. While it may seem like a waste, the Blue Jackets are very unlikely to deal Jones before the Expansion Draft and thus must protect him so that they can make a deal later on this off-season.
Fortunately, Jones is not exactly stealing a protection slot from a top player. Fellow blue line standout Werenski and the reliable Gavrikov can still be protected in the 7-3 scheme, while future starters Peeke and Lehtonen are exempt, leaving only the likes of depth defenders Kukan, Harrington, and Carlsson exposed.
The decision in goal is even easier. With one half of their top tandem exempt in Merzlikins, the Blue Jackets simply protect the other side in Korpisalo, leaving untested Johnson exposed.
At forward, things are a little trickier – but not by much. Career Blue Jackets and locker room leaders Atkinson, Jenner, and Bjorkstrand are most importantly all productive scorers and will be safe. Despite down seasons to begin their Columbus tenures, there is no way that the team exposes Laine or Domi. On the flip side, Roslovic’s first season with the team was perhaps the highlight of the campaign and he is also not going anywhere.
This leaves just one protection slot open up front with three realistic candidates: Nyquist, Robinson, and Stenlund. This may seem like an easy decision to the casual onlooker, as Nyquist is a well-known name whereas Robinson and Stenlund have only recently established themselves as NHL assets. However, Nyquist is far from a lock due to the fact that he missed the entire season following off-season shoulder surgery. He will be 32 before next season and is a year removed from game action. Can the Blue Jackets really commit to $11MM over the next two seasons for an aging player whose return to form is uncertain?
They can, and the going theory is that they will. It isn’t a knock on Robinson or Stenlund, who both proved themselves to be valuable to Columbus this season, but the upside of Nyquist is simply much higher. In 2019-20, his first season with Blue Jackets, Nyquist was second on the team in scoring a key piece on special teams, all areas that struggled this year in his absence. With 40+ points in each of his seven full NHL seasons, including a 60-point campaign just two years ago, Nyquist is nothing if not consistent and reliable and would be a difficult player for the Blue Jackets to lose as they look to right the ship.
Of course, Nyquist’s age and contract are still a concern, even if he is able to bounce back. However, the Blue Jackets are not in any salary cap trouble and could use the veteran presence as they look to push more young talent onto the roster. Seattle may not be in the same boat; the Expansion Draft could yield far more well-paid veterans of value than affordable youngsters and the Kraken may not be keen to take an older, expensive player like Nyquist given his injury concerns and uncertain future. If the Blue Jackets decide to bank on this possibility, Robinson or Stenlund could be protected. They each made a good case this season; Robinson played in all 56 games and recorded career highs in goals and points, while Stenlund has recorded ten points in 32 games in back-to-back seasons, a26-point full-season pace. Either bottom-six forward could continue to provide value to Columbus, but at least one must be exposed if not both.
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.
Regardless of which players they choose to protect, the Blue Jackets will only expose the bare minimum required, likely by design. After all, Stenlund was just signed to a one-year extension last month with the Expansion Draft in mind. Barring an extension or outside addition, only the designated two forwards and one defenseman will be exposed among those meeting the requirements, as none of the other eligible players – Pu, Sherwood, Thurkauf, Carlsson, Harrington – are worth protecting.
Columbus leaves little for the Seattle Kraken if they protect Nyquist, which seems likely. It is a group of exposed players lacking in NHL experience or considerable upside. Robinson and Stenlund offer physical play and 25-point upside as bottom-six forwards, but at 26 and soon-to-be-25 respectively, there may not be much room for improvement. Kukan, 27, has had a hard time staying in the lineup in Columbus and looks to be best suited as a No. 7 defenseman on a good team. Harrington, also 27, was used even less, was less productive, and has more tread on his tires. Carlsson, though younger and bigger than Kukan and Harrington, was unable to unseat them with the Blue Jackets and would have much more competition with the Kraken. Unless Seattle GM Ron Francis has a special affinity for one of these players, Columbus seems like a prime team for a pick-and-trade, moving their selection to a contender seeking depth.
With all of that said, the Blue Jackets do still remain a fascinating candidate to make a side deal with the Kraken. With three first-round picks, including No. 5 overall, and a need at center that they would love to address with the top forward prospect in the draft, Columbus has the means and the desire to land the No. 2 pick from Seattle if they are open to moving it. The new franchise could certainly benefit from an extra first round pick if they move back and may even be able to change the Blue Jackets’ protection plan as part of the deal.