It took 361 days, including a 142 day pause, but the 2019-20 NHL season is finally over. This was a season unlike any other, the likes of which I hope that we never have to witness again. A huge congratulations are in order for the 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning! The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in North American sports to win, and the COVID-19 induced bubble format presented an even greater challenge for everyone involved. This Stanley Cup win was well-earned to say the very least. The Lightning have been the deepest roster on paper for a while now, and they have been the Cup favourites in my mind for the last few seasons. I’m happy that they finally got it done, but I’m obviously the most happy for back-to-back champ Pat Maroon.
For all of the teams that have been watching from outside the bubble, speculation about what will happen in the coming days and weeks leading up to the draft and free agency has been running rampant. This is the most fun time of any season for me as a blogger because there are so many possibilities to consider.
There is an unusual wrinkle to consider this off-season, which is the expansion draft. As I’m sure you’re well aware of by now, the Seattle Kraken will commence play in the NHL for the 2021-22 season. At the conclusion of the 2020-21 season (likely the 2021 season), Seattle will get to choose one player from every other NHL team, with the exception of Vegas because they are so new. That hardly seems fair because they have made the playoffs in every year of their existence, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and a trip to the Western Conference Finals this season, but it is what it is.
The rules for the Seattle Expansion Draft will be the same as they were for the Vegas Expansion Draft in 2017. Each team will get to protect either 7 forwards, 3 defencemen, and 1 goalie OR 8 skaters and 1 goalie. The good news for the Oilers and all of the other teams involved is that 1st and 2nd year professionals are automatically exempt, which means that Seattle can’t steal our best prospects like Philip Broberg or Evan Bouchard.
The bad news is that the exposure requirements are set up to favour Seattle, much the same way they favoured Vegas. According to the rules stated on NHL.com, each team must expose:
* One defenseman who is a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons.
* Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons.
* One goalie who is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22. If a team elects to make a restricted free agent goalie available to meet this requirement, that goalie must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the team’s protected list.
These rules favour Seattle because they will get to choose from experienced NHLers that teams valued enough to sign to multi-year contracts. The rules say that Seattle must choose at least 20 such players, so at least 20/23 players on their future active roster will be established NHLers, unless they choose older prospects that earn spots in training camp. At the date of this writing (September 29, 2020), these are the Oilers that are signed through 2021-22:
Everyone seems to jump to the question of “who should we protect” when talking about the expansion draft, but the bigger question in my opinion is “who should we expose”. Who are the Oilers prepared to lose? Which of the players that meet the exposure requirements would be the best ones to potentially lose?
There will be no problem finding two forwards to expose. Any of James Neal, Zack Kassian, or Josh Archibald will fulfill that requirement without causing irreparable damage to the roster.
Mikko Koskinen has a no-movement clause, so he will have to be protected. I have a feeling that Koskinen will be asked to waive that NMC. If the Oilers sign an older veteran goalie to a one-year deal, then Koskinen will be the only goalie under contract for 2021-22 and the Oilers would have to expose him. If they sign one to a two-year deal, then it would be unlikely that Seattle would choose him as one of their three goalie picks, and the Oilers might be stuck with a problem in 2021-22. If Holland were to trade for a young goalie with starter’s potential, then the team might be inclined to protect that kid instead of Koskinen. The expansion draft will undoubtedly affect Holland’s goaltending decision this October.
Kris Russell also has an NMC, which he will undoubtedly be asked to waive should he even be around for the expansion draft. I can’t see the Oilers extending him with all of the prospects they have coming at LD. There are currently three defencemen who fulfill the exposure criteria for the Oilers, and they are three really good ones. Unless something changes, they must leave one of them exposed. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom absolutely need to be protected because they are the tradable assets that are worth the most on the roster (McDavid, Draisaitl, and Bear are the current roster players that I believe are untouchable). The Oilers could potentially afford to trade either Nurse or Klefbom to strengthen the forward ranks (that’s not the ideal route in my opinion), but they can’t afford to lose either one for nothing.
The guy that they should expose is Caleb Jones because he is the least valuable in the trade market of the three and he has the lowest ceiling of the three. Losing him would suck, but it would be better than losing Nurse or Klefbom for nothing. The way I see it, Jones must be exposed. However, that could change depending on what Holland does to round out his defence for this season. If Holland signs another defenceman less valuable than Jones through the 2021-22 season that would meet the games played requirement, then Jones could also be protected.
Ethan Bear is currently an RFA, and I fully expect the shortest contract that he would sign would take him through 2021-22. If that turns out to be the case, then he would meet the exposure requirements as well. However, I think the vast majority of Oilers pundits and fans alike would opt to protect Bear over Jones at this point due to his success in 2019-20 and the more shallow organizational depth on the right side.
Holland could also extend Matt Benning for at least 2 years and expose him. Benning has been a decent 3RD for the Oilers, and extending him would allow Evan Bouchard more time to develop, which is not a bad plan. The problem with extending Benning is that his qualifying offer is $2 million, and that might be too rich for a 6D.
Extending impending UFA Adam Larsson would accomplish the goal, but my sense is that the way forward is with Bear and Bouchard as the top 2 RD on the Oilers, and I doubt Larsson wants to play 3RD. He would be an expensive 3RD in the years to come. I’m not so sure that an extension for Larsson is coming.
If Holland were to find a way to protect Jones along with Nurse, Klefbom, and Bear (assuming he gets a multi-year extension), then the Oilers would only be able to protect 4 forwards instead of 7. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will 100% be protected. I expect that Kailer Yamamoto will also be protected.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is an impending UFA in 2021. Seattle could choose him and sign him to a contract if the Oilers were to expose him, but Seattle could also pick someone else and wait until Nuge hits the open market to sign him. They would get two of our players that way. Seattle will have an early negotiation window for UFAs like Vegas did, so they will be able to talk to Nuge to get a sense of where his head will be at that time should the Oilers not extend him before then. Leaving an unsigned Nuge exposed would be a bold move that I would only expect if the Oilers had no plans re-signing him. I sincerely hope that isn’t the case, and I would also hope that Holland would trade him before risking losing him for nothing if a divorce is on the horizon.
Aside from those four, there are a handful of other forwards to consider protecting. Jesse Puljujarvi is a player that has trade value and potential as a legitimate scoring winger for the Oilers. Tyler Benson is an exciting playmaking prospect that got a taste of NHL action last season and that could be ready for more. The Oilers spent two 2nd rounders on Andreas Athanasiou, and I could see them wanting to protect him should they re-sign him to anything more than a one-year deal this October. Maybe Holland will want to protect Zack Kassian because of his physicality and his ability to play with McDavid. Holland could also sign a UFA forward to a multi-year deal this October and choose to protect that player as well. Holland could also trade a top 4 D for a protectable forward.
Really, the question is does Holland want to protect Jones, or does he want to protect four of Nuge, Puljujarvi, Benson, Athanasiou, Kassian, or a potential October UFA forward signing? Given the fact that the Oilers have so much organizational depth at LD and very little in the pipeline up front, I’d be protecting the forwards and exposing Jones.
Leaving Jones exposed doesn’t necessarily mean that Seattle will take Jones. They could decide that they want one of the Oilers’ exposed forwards to strengthen their bottom 6. The other possibility is a side deal. The Oilers have $5.75 million tied up in James Neal, and I’d be BEGGING Seattle to take him off of our hands with a side deal. I’d give up an asset to incentivize Seattle to take Neal’s contract off of our hands. The pitch would be easy enough: the Oilers will give you an asset if you choose to take a consistent goal scorer that has experience as a leader on an expansion team that went to the Cup Finals in their inaugural season that will help you reach the cap floor. Even if that asset was the 2021 1st round pick, it would be worth it to move Neal’s contract after next season without taking another bad contract back. That cap space would allow the Oilers to go out and get that long coveted scoring winger in his prime, or it would allow the Oilers to make room for contracts for Philip Broberg and Evan Bouchard in the coming years.
Based on the current roster for the Oilers, here is my protected list for the Seattle Expansion Draft:
Forwards – McDavid, Draisaitl, Yamamoto, Nugent-Hopkins, Puljujarvi, Benson, Kassian
Defence – Nurse, Klefbom, Bear
Goalie – TBD
I will do a follow up to this article closer to the season when we know which contracts that Holland has added during the off-season, but I don’t think the final list will be much different than this.
Keep your eyes peeled for my next article, the one where I will reveal the 2020-21 Oilers roster as created by me. That will come by the end of the week!