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Expansion Plan: Projecting the Florida Panthers’ protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

The Panthers made some of the worst choices of any franchise at the Vegas expansion draft, but a hard lesson learned will mean Florida takes its chances and protect only who it can protect when Seattle comes calling.

Welcome to the Expansion Plan, our summer series projecting the protected lists for the 30 NHL franchises who will participate in the June 2021 Expansion Draft.

Over the next two seasons, every team – save the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be exempt – will be planning for the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise and Seattle GM Ron Francis will begin to consider the options for his inaugural roster. As such, over the course of the next 30 days, we will profile one team, in alphabetical order, and forecast their potential list of protections and exposures, as well as address each team’s expansion strategy, no-brainers, tough decisions and what lessons they learned from the 2017 expansion process.

This exercise requires some important ground rules. The 2021 Expansion Draft will follow the same rules as the 2017 Expansion Draft, but some assumptions are necessary. These are the guidelines followed:

  • No pre-draft trades
  • All no-movement clauses are honored
  • Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams
  • Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (eg. Nicklas Backstrom protected by the Washington Capitals, Tyson Barrie not protected by Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team.)

• • • 

There is no team that erred as badly as the Florida Panthers at the last expansion draft, and with all due respect to GM Dale Tallon, his decisions ahead of the Vegas selection process should provide GMs with the blueprint for what not to do with the Seattle expansion on the horizon.

What made Tallon’s decision so poor? Well, instead of keeping seven forwards and three defensemen, he went the four-and-four route, protecting defenders Keith Yandle, Aaron Ekblad, Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk as well as forwards Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad. There’s not much to bristle about when it comes to the forward group, but the defensemen…yikes. Yes, Yandle and Ekblad are top-four defensemen, but Petrovic has since been moved along and doesn’t yet have a contract for next season while Pysyk is a fourth – or even fifth – defenseman.

What makes it worse is that Florida then traded Reilly Smith and a fourth-round pick to Vegas in order to get the Golden Knights to select Jonathan Marchessault. Together, Smith and Marchessault have formed two-thirds of one of Vegas’ top lines and helped power the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup final in 2017-18.

Assuming Tallon is still around in Florida come the Seattle expansion draft, he’s going to get a chance to show what he’s learned from his earlier gaffe.

PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G):

Forwards:

  • Jonathan Huberdeau (NMC)
  • Aleksander Barkov
  • Vincent Trocheck
  • Evgeni Dadonov
  • Noel Acciari
  • Henrik Borgstrom
  • Denis Malgin

Defensemen:

  • Keith Yandle (NMC)
  • Aaron Ekblad
  • Michael Matheson

Goaltenders:

  • Sergei Bobrovsky

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Brett Connolly, Frank Vatrano, Anton Stralman, Sam Montembeault

STRATEGY: The Panthers must protect Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck, and that has nothing at all to do with Huberdeau’s no-movement clause. Those are the faces of the franchise and the offensive drivers. And after that, it becomes about keeping pieces of the offense intact. Dadonov has been excellent since his return to the NHL, Borgstrom has serious upside and Malgin has more to give. Defensively, the protection looks much the same, but this time with Matheson protected and a limit of three. Bobrovsky’s NMC means he stays.

The Cats will benefit from two things heading into the next round of expansion, too. First, notable prospects Grigori Denisenko, Owen Tippett and Aleksi Heponiemi won’t be eligible. And second, the core is all locked up through the draft at reasonable prices, which leaves money to re-sign Dadonov. Then, if money needs to be shed, a decision can be made regarding Matheson, who nearly $5-million per season for the foreseeable future. Chances are he’s a lock to stay and others – Connolly, Stralman, Vatrano – will be available as ways for Florida to potentially shed salary.

THE NO BRAINER: Enough has been said about keeping Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck in town, so let’s make a note here about using one of the protections on Borgstrom. He split his season between the AHL and the NHL last season and he looks primed to take a significant step forward next season. If he develops the way most expect, he could be a top-six fixture in two seasons’ time.

THE TOUGH DECISION: Connolly has upside and plenty of it, but eventually, something is going to have to give, particularly if Dadonov is re-signed. And even if Connolly is a consistent 20-goal player, does it not make sense to free up some cap dollars by shedding his $3.5-million contract? There may be a young player who can fill his role by the time Seattle is ready to step into the league.

LESSON LEARNED: Is there any way Tallon makes a pre-draft trade to protect a player? He can’t, can he? After the way that went last time, he has to take his chances with whoever he exposes, lest he walk into another situation where his attempt to persuade the expansion franchise one way or another blows up in his face.

Up Next: Los Angeles Kings

Previous:Anaheim Ducks | Arizona CoyotesBoston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks | Colorado Avalanche | Columbus Blue Jackets | Dallas Stars | Detroit Red Wings | Edmonton Oilers

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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