2021 Expansion Draft Preview: Central Division

Which players will be protected? Which will be exposed? Which decisions will give GMs headaches? Our Seattle expansion draft divisional previews continue with the Central teams.

Anton Khudobin (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

So far, I’ve previewed the North and East Division teams for the 2021 expansion draft. You can read those breakdowns here:

North preview
East preview

The mini previews continue with the Central Division. Which teams should we expect each franchise to expose and protect? Which players are most likely to attract the Kraken’s tentacles?

First, here’s a quick refresher of some particularly important expansion draft rules:

The 2021 NHL Expansion Draft will be under the same rules for Seattle as the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Seattle will select one player from each team excluding the Golden Knights for a total of 30 (min. 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies) not including additional players who may be acquired as the result of violations of the Expansion Draft rules.

Seattle must choose a minimum of 20 players under contract for the 2021-22 regular season and those with an aggregate Expansion Draft value that is between 60-100 percent of the prior season's upper limit for the salary cap. Seattle cannot buy out players chosen in the Expansion Draft earlier than the summer following its first season.

Current NHL teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goalie, under the following conditions.

* All players with no movement clauses at the time of the draft, and who decline to waive those clauses, must be protected and will be counted toward their team's applicable protection limits.

* All first- and second-year NHL players, and all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward protection limits.

In addition, all NHL teams must meet the following minimum requirements regarding players exposed for selection in the draft (games likely pro-rated for a shortened season):

* 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.

* Players with potential career-ending injuries who have missed more than the previous 60 consecutive games (or who otherwise have been confirmed to have a career-threatening injury) may not be used to satisfy a team's player exposure requirements unless approval is received from the NHL. Such players also may be deemed exempt from selection.

One more tidbit to remember: the Kraken get a three-day early negotiation window for UFAs from July 18 to 20 and are the only team receiving an early window before free agency begins July 28. Any UFA Seattle signs during that period will count as the expansion-draft selection for that player’s previous team. In 2017, the Golden Knights only signed one UFA, but it’s a different landscape now. Multiple prominent player agents have told me within the last month that their clients consider Seattle a legitimately attractive destination.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Key UFAs: Dougie Hamilton (D), Petr Mrazek (G), Jani Hakanpaa (D), Brock McGinn (LW), Jordan Martinook (LW), James Reimer (G), Cedric Paquette (C)

Key RFAs: Andrei Svechnikov (LW), Alex Nedeljkovic (G), Jake Bean (D), Warren Foegele (LW)

No-movement clauses: Jordan Staal (C)

Help us, Seattle:
Defenseman Jake Gardiner has 32 points in 94 games while averaging just 16:29 of ice time across his two seasons as a Hurricane. He’s not a $4.05-million player, especially considering he was a frequent healthy scratch this season. The Kraken would need enticement to take him, but he’s not completely devoid of usefulness. He could revive his career if given a larger puck-moving role, and he only has two years left on his contract.

Toughest decision: The Hurricanes are expected to use a 7-3-1 protection scheme. Shutdown wizards Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are auto-protects as the first two defensemen, but what about the third? The Canes’ decision to let pending UFA Dougie Hamilton speak to other teams really complicates things. In previous editions of my Seattle mock draft, I had Brady Skjei and his $5.25-million cap hit being exposed and claimed. But if it’s now a legitimate possibility Hamilton changes teams this off-season, it would be disastrous for the Canes to lose Skjei and Hamilton. I thus wonder if GM Don Waddell has to consider protecting Skjei at this point. That would expose promising puck-mover Jake Bean, however. It may take a side deal with Seattle for Waddell to retain Bean.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Assuming he’s exposed, Bean is an ideal expansion pick. He’s young, he’s an RFA who hadn’t accomplished enough yet to earn a massive raise on his entry-level pact, and he possesses the upside to become a power-play quarterback down the road. If Skjei winds up exposed, he’s a quality claim despite his price tag, as the Kraken will need some quality blueliners to play top-pairing minutes. He’s a well-rounded player who skates extremely well. Goaltender Petr Mrazek is a UFA to watch, too. When healthy, he’s been mostly good the past couple seasons, but he’s relinquished the starting job to Alex Nedeljkovic. Mrazek would be an interesting platoon partner with a younger netminder in Seattle’s net. If the Canes decided to protect center Morgan Geekie over right winger Jesper Fast, the latter’s likeability and coach-friendly game would make him excellent expansion-draft fodder.

Projected protected list (7-3-1)

F – Sebastian Aho
F – Morgan Geekie
F – Nino Niederreiter
F – Jordan Staal
F – Andrei Svechnikov
F – Teuvo Teravainen
F – Vincent Trocheck
D – Brett Pesce
D – Brady Skjei
D – Jaccob Slavin
G – Alex Nedeljkovic

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Key UFAs:
Vinnie Hinostroza (RW)

Key RFAs:
Nikita Zadorov (D), Pius Suter (C), Brandon Hagel (LW), Alex Nylander (LW), David Kampf (C), Adam Gaudette (C)

No-movement clauses: Patrick Kane (RW), Jonathan Toews (C), Duncan Keith (D)

Help us, Seattle:
When the NHL ruled unofficially retired blueliner Brent Seabrook exempt from the expansion draft due to his career-ending hip injury, it was a win for Chicago, as he has a no-movement clause and no longer must be protected. There was no chance of Seattle using an expansion-draft pick on him, but will his $6.875-million AAV be in play as a piece Chicago can trade as part of a side deal? Seabrook obviously wouldn’t have to worry about packing up and moving to Seattle. It would be a paper transaction only.

Toughest decision: The Blackhawks don’t appear to have a brain-buster to worry about now that left winger Alexander Nylander has been deemed exempt from selection due to injury. Had they been obligated to protect him, they would’ve had to expose one of their freshly acquired young forwards: center Henrik Borgstrom or center Adam Gaudette. Now GM Stan Bowman can protect both.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: We can’t forget that the Kraken still have to spend at to at least 60 percent of the cap. Might Calvin de Haan therefore be a reasonable selection despite his $4.55-million AAV? He brings veteran leadership and a self-sacrificing game on the blueline. On an expiring deal, he’d be handy in winter 2022 as a trade-deadline rental chip if the Kraken aren’t contenders. And if the Hawks intend to pursue a big-ticket acquisition on defense such as Hamilton or Seth Jones, they likely wouldn’t mind shedding de Haan’s AAV even though he has trade value. And yet: I wrote all those de Haan thoughts before the news broke that Duncan Keith was interested in a trade to Western Canada or the Pacific Northwest to be closer to his family. It’s thus entirely possible he waives his no-movement clause to be exposed, which would allow Chicago to protect de Haan and use him as a trade asset later.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Alex DeBrincat
F – Henrik Borgstrom
F – Adam Gaudette
F – Brandon Hagel
F – Patrick Kane
F – Dylan Strome
F – Jonathan Toews
D – Calvin de Haan
D – Connor Murphy
D – Nikita Zadorov
G – Kevin Lankinen

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Key UFAs: Mikhail Grigorenko (LW), Michael Del Zotto (D), Mikko Lehtonen (D), Brandon Dubinsky (C)

Key RFAs: Patrik Laine (RW), Alexandre Texier (C), Andrew Peeke (D),

No-movement clauses: None

Help us, Seattle:
Because the Blue Jackets are in danger of not having enough forwards meeting the exposure requirements, we could see them expose a top-sixer in left winger Gustav Nyquist or center Max Domi. Nyquist missed the entire 2020-21 season after shoulder surgery, while Domi is set to miss a good chunk of next season for shoulder surgery. Both players carry cap hits of more than $5 million. If the Kraken knew Domi wouldn’t play at all next season, he’d be an easier add, because they could stash him on LTIR. As far as we know, he’s still expected to return during the season, so his cap hit will count when he does. Domi has one year left on his deal, and Nyquist has two years, so losing the latter would bring greater relief for Columbus’ payroll.

Toughest decision: It’s safe to say forwards Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic are protected. Probably Boone Jenner, too, as his gritty game, faceoff ability and expiring contract will make him a nice rental piece to sell at next year’s trade deadline. If GM Jarmo Kekalainen wants to retain Nyquist and Domi, it would mean exposing checking left winger Eric Robinson. One of those three is likely the odd man out.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: I have Columbus exposing Nyquist, but that doesn’t mean Seattle selects him and pays him $5.5 million for each of the next two seasons. If Robinson isn’t available, GM Ron Francis could pick Dean Kukan as a depth defenseman, though his status could change if Columbus trades Seth Jones before the protection deadline of July 17. 

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Cam Atkinson
F – Oliver Bjorkstrand
F – Max Domi
F – Boone Jenner
F – Patrik Laine
F – Eric Robinson
F – Jack Roslovic
D – Vadislav Gavrikov
D – Seth Jones
D – Zach Werenski
G – Joonas Korpisalo

DALLAS STARS

Key UFAs: Jamie Oleksiak (D), Andrew Cogliano (LW), Sami Vatanen (D), Justin Dowling (C), Mark Pysyk (D)

Key RFAs: Miro Heiskanen (D), Jason Dickinson (C), Joel Kiviranta (RW)

No-movement clauses: Tyler Seguin (C), Jamie Benn (LW), Alexander Radulov (RW), Ben Bishop (G)

Help us, Seattle:
With Jake Oettinger cementing himself as Dallas’ long-term starter and Ben Bishop controlling his own fate with a no-movement clause, there’s a logjam in Dallas' net. A healthy Bishop would push Anton Khudobin to third string, and he’s making $3.33 million a year. With two seasons left on his deal and a reputation as one of the best goaltending insurance policies in the league, he’d have enough appeal to be attractive Seattle as a 1B or even a piece Ron Francis claims for the purpose of immediately flipping. A Khudobin claim could be mutually beneficial for Dallas and Seattle.

Toughest decision: Center Tyler Seguin, left winger Jamie Benn and right winger Alexander Radulov have no-movement clauses. Unless one of them is willing to waive his, the Stars will have to expose a good forward. The decision will likely come down to centers Radek Faksa and Jason Dickinson. The underlying numbers say Dickinson was the better two-way player this season, but Faksa faced tough defensive assignments, played through a wrist injury and just signed a four-year contract extension last year, so he probably has the inside track over the RFA Dickinson. I’m not saying that’s the decision I would make – only that it’s the decision I predict GM Jim Nill makes. Of course, the best option might be to wave a draft pick at Seattle in a side deal, enabling Dallas to retain both forwards.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Faksa and Dickinson are easy picks if available. They’d bring strong two-way play to the Kraken’s middle six. If they aren’t available, there’s the Khudobin option. If Francis wants to bargain hunt, he’ll look at big right winger Joel L’Esperance, who has quite the impressive goal-scoring track record at the AHL level. Perhaps he just needs an extended chance.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Jamie Benn
F – Radek Faksa
F – Denis Gurianov
F – Roope Hintz
F – Joe Pavelski
F – Alexander Radulov
F – Tyler Seguin
D – Miro Heiskanen
D – John Klingberg
D – Esa Lindell
G – Ben Bishop

DETROIT RED WINGS

Key UFAs: Jonathan Bernier (G), Luke Glendening (C), Bobby Ryan (RW), Valtteri Filppula (C), Marc Staal (D), Darren Helm (RW), Alex Biega (D), Sam Gagner (RW)

Key RFAs: Jakub Vrana (LW), Filip Hronek (D), Tyler Bertuzzi (LW), Dennis Cholowski (D), Adam Erne (RW), Evgeny Svechnikov (LW), Michael Rasmussen (C), Christian Djoos (D), Gustav Lindstrom (D)

No-movement clauses: None

Help us, Seattle:
General manager Steve Yzerman is almost done shedding pricy contracts from the previous regime, but a few remain. Center Frans Nielsen has a year left at $5.25 million, and defenseman Danny DeKeyser has a year left at $5 million. The Wings also inherited two seasons of right winger Richard Panik at $2.9 million in the Jakub Vrana trade. Panik obviously isn’t part of Detroit’s long-term plans. The catch here is that the Red Wings have little motivation to make side deals for cap help. They’re in the business of collecting picks and prospects, not trading them away and, because they’re years away from contending and have plenty of cap space, they don’t have an urgent need to clear many more ugly contracts.

Toughest decision: The Wings likely have to decide between rugged right winger Givani Smith and versatile veteran Vladislav Namestnikov for their seventh protected forward. Yzerman is obviously committed to youth, and Smith is almost six years younger, so that’s a vote for him. Namestnikov, however, has an established track record as a veteran who can play in any situation on any line. He probably has much more trade value down the road. So if we think of Namestnikov in terms of what pieces he could yield in a trade, you could make a case he has better protection value than Smith.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: An experienced defenseman should be available for selection. Assuming Detroit holds onto Filip Hronek, Dennis Cholowski and Gustav Lindstrom, DeKeyser and Troy Stecher should be exposed, with Stecher probably the most likely Wing to get snapped up. It’s not a guarantee that Detroit protects Lindstrom over him, though.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Tyler Bertuzzi
F – Adam Erne
F – Robby Fabbri
F – Dylan Larkin
F – Michael Rasmussen
F – Givani Smith
F – Jakub Vrana
D – Dennis Cholowski
D – Filip Hronek
D – Gustav Lindstrom
G – Thomas Greiss

FLORIDA PANTHERS

Key UFAs: Alexander Wennberg (C), Brandon Montour (D), Chris Driedger (G), Nikita Gusev (LW)

Key RFAs: Sam Bennett (C), Anthony Duclair (RW), Gustav Forsling (D), Lucas Wallmark (C), Juho Lamikko (C)

No-movement clauses: Jonathan Huberdeau (LW), Sergei Bobrovsky (G), Keith Yandle (D)

Help us, Seattle:
Rookie Spencer Knight was the goaltender coach Joel Quenneville entrusted when facing elimination in the 2021 playoffs. The Panthers would kill to be rid of Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract, which carries a $10-million AAV for five more seasons. There’s just no way Seattle bites on such a massive commitment, however. A more realistic ask in a side deal might be for help with Keith Yandle’s two remaining seasons at $6.35 million per, but he controls his fate with a no-movement clauses until it changes to a 12-team no-trade list a year from now. The Panthers are in very tough spot with their blueliners. Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar are no-brainers to protect, but Gustav Forsling emerged as an important shutdown asset, too. Unless Yandle does the franchise a solid and waives his NMC, Forsling will be tough to retain without a side pact. Given Yandle’s relationship with the organization is reportedly pretty strained, we can’t bet on him to help out.

Toughest decision: Exposing Forsling won’t be fun, but it’s not a tough decision in that Zito has no choice barring a side deal. The real pickle will come when filling out his forward list. Does he use the last spot on RFA right winger Anthony Duclair or checking center Noel Acciari? Duclair managed 32 points in 43 games in a scoring role when healthy. Acciari brings a defensive skill set to the table, but perhaps the Panthers can fill his role with someone who costs less than his $1.67 million.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: Even if side deals come into play, the Kraken will harvest something useful from Florida. They could target coveted UFA goaltender Chris Driedger as a UFA and count him as their expansion-draft claim. In almost any scenario, beastly blueliner Radko Gudas will have to be exposed. He should interest Seattle as a bludgeoning checker who could become a fan favorite.

Projected protected list (7-3-1):

F – Aleksander Barkov
F – Sam Bennett
F – Anthony Duclair
F – Patric Hornqvist
F – Jonathan Huberdeau
F – Frank Vatrano
F – Carter Verhaeghe
D – Aaron Ekblad
D – MacKenzie Weegar
D – Keith Yandle
G – Sergei Bobrovsky

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Key UFAs: Mikael Granlund (C), Pekka Rinne (G), Erik Haula (C) Brad Richardson (C), Erik Gudbranson (D)

Key RFAs: Juuse Saros (G), Dante Fabbro (D), Eeli Tolvanen (RW), Mathieu Olivier (RW)

No-movement clauses: Roman Josi (D)

Help us, Seattle:
Centers Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen make $16 million combined, with five and four seasons left on their deals, respectively, and have combined for 113 points in 216 games over the past two seasons. Predators GM David Poile would probably be tickled if the Kraken acquired one of them, but there’s little motivation to do so with an official expansion claim, not when there’s potential to hold the Predators hostage. If Nashville, for instance, eats half Johansen’s salary and kicks in a pick, perhaps the Kraken would consider acquiring a stopgap scoring-line center at a $4-million AAV. Johansen even has a geographical connection as a former Portland Winterhawk.

Toughest decision: Adam Vingan of the Athletic summed it up well earlier this month: Alexandre Carrier’s emergence as a surprisingly important member of the D-corps makes things quite complicated for the Preds. With Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro in the fold, they were already one of the better bets in the league to protect four defensemen in an 8-1 scheme, but why not five? Trading right winger Viktor Arvidsson this week supports the theory that Nashville will protect five D-men. They got future assets for him rather than risk losing him for nothing. Who would be the three forwards to protect, then? Left winger Filip Forsberg and right winger Luke Kunin are the easy picks, but Poile will have to make a call between center Colton Sissons and left winger Calle Jarnkrok. Each has the versatility to be an appealing Kraken claim. Poile said this week he’d be open to using side deals to protect certain assets, so maybe that’s what happens here.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: The Kraken should have a plethora of high-energy forwards to choose from – one of Jarnkrok or Sissons, not to mention Rocco Grimaldi, Nick Cousins and Yakov Trenin. Should Seattle go the UFA route with a Predator pick, center Mikael Granlund would make a fine building block given his ability to play any forward position in any role in any situation.

Projected protected list (8-1):

F – Filip Forsberg
F – Calle Jarnkrok
F – Luke Kunin
D – Alexandre Carrier
D – Mattias Ekholm
D – Ryan Ellis
D – Dante Fabbro
D – Roman Josi
G – Juuse Saros

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Key UFAs: Blake Coleman (LW), Barclay Goodrow (RW), David Savard (D), Luke Schenn (D), Curtis McElhinney (G)

Key RFAs: Ross Colton (C) Alex Barre-Boulet (C), Cal Foote (D)

No-movement clauses: Nikita Kucherov (RW), Steven Stamkos (C), Victor Hedman (D)

Help us, Seattle:
Center Tyler Johnson and his $5-million AAV passed through waivers unclaimed last season. Despite the fact he hails from Washington state, there isn’t much to gain from claiming him. Bolts GM Julien BriseBois would have to sweeten the pot for Francis.

Toughest decision: Does BriseBois go for the 7-3-1 scheme or the 8-1 scheme? If he protects seven forwards, a key defenseman must be left exposed in Erik Cernak or Ryan McDonagh. If BriseBois protects four defensemen, the four protected forwards would obviously be center Anthony Cirelli, right winger Nikita Kucherov, center Brayden Point and center Steven Stamkos, meaning Seattle would get a crack at center Yanni Gourde, left winger Ondrej Palat or left winger Alex Killorn. No matter what happens, the Bolts will be at the Kraken’s mercy a bit here. A side deal will be required unless BriseBois decides he’s at peace with losing one of his secondary forwards. Because Tampa has such good forward depth, the guess here is that BriseBois opts to protect his core four on defense.

Top candidates to crack the Kraken: If the Lightning go with an 8-1 plan and are OK shedding some salary from the forward group, the Kraken have the option of selecting from a group of winners. If they can stomach the cap hits, they can’t go wrong with Gourde or Killorn or Palat. If BriseBois cuts a side deal to protect them, Seattle could look at Ross Colton, who was one of the most efficient scorers in the NHL this season on a per-60 basis, contributing nine goals while playing just 10:34 per game. And what about Cal Foote on defense? The Bolts are just too good and too deep. They can’t save everyone. They’re going to lose a good player.

Projected protected list (8-1):

F – Anthony Cirelli
F – Nikita Kucherov
F – Brayden Point
F – Steven Stamkos
D – Erik Cernak
D – Victor Hedman
D – Ryan McDonagh
D – Mikhail Sergachev
G – Andrei Vasilevskiy

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