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.)
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A dynasty in the cap era is winning two Stanley Cups in a short period, which the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins have accomplished in the past decade. And while the Washington Capitals finally proved doubters wrong in 2018, winning the Cup for the first time in franchise history, winning a second and establishing a pseudo-dynasty will be all the more challenging.
Fortunately, the Capitals haven't had to sacrifice major talent to keep the dream of another championship alive. Brett Connolly and his nine playoff points were the biggest loss from the 2018 title team, with the group's core otherwise staying intact. But that's set to change soon with a handful of the team's biggest stars due new deals at a time when Washington remains in win-now mode. Getting a majority of the team's top players inked long-term does mean the Caps will need to move one or two core players to create space, but having secondary scoring options such as Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik signed until 2023 for less than $3 million means Washington can fill holes when push comes to shove.
PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G):
- Nicklas Backstrom
- Lars Eller
- Evgeny Kuznetsov
- Alex Ovechkin
- Jakub Vrana
- Tom Wilson
- Carl Hagelin
- John Carlson
- Dmitri Orlov
- Michal Kempny
- Ilya Samsonov
NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Braden Holtby, T.J. Oshie
STRATEGY: Oh Washington, the joys of protecting a team without a deep prospect pool. It's much easier to make decisions when it's unlikely there's a bright star on the horizon. So, while Lucas Johansen and Jonas Siegenthaler will need to be protected, there's enough talent for Seattle to choose from that makes it difficult to believe the NHL's 32nd franchise will go for inexperienced defensemen.
But the Capitals do have some difficult decisions to make, particularly with Braden Holtby, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin in need of contract extensions between now and 2021. Backstrom and Ovechkin are no-brainers to come back, but what about Holtby? If the Caps can find the room to make it happen, they will sign Holtby to an extension next summer and not worry about his future. The issue? Making it work will be a challenge. Pheonix Copley is signed until 2022, but Ilya Samsonov is the heir apparent. If Holtby, who will be 31 two years from now, signs, Copley, who is just two years younger, could become trade fodder. This also means the Caps could end up exposing Holtby, a world-class goaltender with a handful of good years left in order to keep Samsonov, who could be a second-stringer or split-time starter in 2020-21.
The rest of the protected list is straight-forward, however, with key top-six scoring threat T.J. Oshie among the potentially exposed skaters. Nobody will deny Oshie's value to the Capitals, but he'll be 33 in 2021 and carries a $5.75-million cap hit through to 2024-25. If he remains in Washington, the Capitals will leave him unprotected in hopes of gaining cap relief.
THE NO BRAINER: John Carlson is a top-five defenseman in the NHL. At 29, he's coming off of a career-best 70-point season and he'll be a Norris Trophy contender yet again this season. Carlson carries an $8-million cap hit until 2025-26 and has his best years ahead of him, so keeping the cornerstone of a blueline that won't have a top defensive prospect for a couple of seasons is mandatory for success.
THE TOUGH DECISION: Washington's top pick in 2016 (28th overall), Lucas Johansen, still projects to be a top-four defender, but an upper-body injury limited him to 45 games in his sophomore campaign. When he returned to action in February, he couldn't find his footing and finished on a down note. He'll need at least another full season before earning consideration for a full-time top-four role – and when that times comes, it could end up being in Seattle.
LESSON LEARNED: Years of strong regular-season results have left the farm system depleted, with no one ready to step in and become more than a depth contributor. That's fine in the short-term when your core is locked down, and Washington has 11 current roster players signed to at least 2022-23, but the Capitals need to begin finding ways to bring in young talent without sacrificing the top of the roster.
Up Next: Winnipeg Jets
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(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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