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Expansion Plan: Projecting the Winnipeg Jets’ protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

The Jets are lacking financial flexibility, but exposing a veteran could alleviate the cap concerns if Seattle bites. Even if they don't, though, Winnipeg has an opportunity to keep its core together, even if a difficult decision will have to be made at the bottom of the lineup.

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.)

• • • 

Things haven’t fallen apart in Winnipeg, but the Jets’ situation has certainly become a lot more challenging than they would have hoped when they were beginning to look ahead to the 2017 expansion draft.

This summer, Winnipeg moved out Jacob Trouba and had to largely stand pat in the free agent market while lineup regulars from last season such as Brandon Tanev, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, not to mention deadline pickup Kevin Hayes, headed elsewhere. The Jets have meanwhile had difficulties getting deals done with key free agents. Restricted free agent Andrew Copp went to arbitration with the club, while Kyle Connor hasn’t put pen to paper quite yet and the only talk surrounding Patrik Laine is that negotiations haven’t progressed much or at all.

The good news, however, is that once Winnipeg gets its contract conundrums sorted, picking and choosing who to protect should be a relatively easy process. It’s clear who the core pieces are up front, especially, and the only protection spots that are presently worth wondering about come at the bottom of the lineup. Meanwhile, the Jets are clearly confident in Connor Hellebuyck’s ability to get the job done in goal, which leaves the future of the blueline as the only question, though the situation regarding the rearguards could become clearer as the draft draws near with a pair of key contract set to expire.

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

  • Blake Wheeler (NMC)
  • Mark Scheifele
  • Patrik Laine
  • Kyle Connor
  • Nikolaj Ehlers
  • Adam Lowry
  • Andrew Copp

Defensemen:

  • Josh Morrissey
  • Sami Niku
  • Logan Stanley

Goaltenders:

  • Connor Hellebuyck

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Bryan Little, Jack Roslovic, Neal Pionk

STRATEGY: As inadvisable as Bryan Little’s contract may have been in hindsight, it’s worth nothing that Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was wise to limit the veteran center’s no-movement clause to only a couple of seasons. If he’s still on the roster come the end of the 2020-21 season – hardly a guarantee given Josh Morrissey, Jack Roslovic, Andrew Copp, Sami Niku and Neal Pionk will all need new contracts at some point before then – Little is almost guaranteed to be exposed. He’s actually not a half-bad pick from the Winnipeg roster, either, given Seattle is going to have a need for at least some veteran talent and need to take on contracts worth at least 60 percent of the salary cap.

Beyond exposing Little, though, Winnipeg will go about keeping its forward core together, its starting goaltender in the blue paint and anchoring its defense with two of the team’s top rearguards.

Worth noting is that there’s a possibility the Jets exercise the ability to expose Dustin Byfuglien and then re-sign him once the draft has passed. If Winnipeg is still contending and the big man is still producing, there’s no reason for Byfuglien to bolt and no reason for the Jets to want him to depart, particularly not the then-36-year-old is willing to remain in town on a short-term pact.

THE NO BRAINER: If Josh Morrissey isn’t one of the five-most underrated defensemen in the NHL right now, we don’t know who is. His ice time has grown steadily each season and he’s set to become one of the pillars on the blueline this season, if he wasn’t considered one already. If Byfuglien does split as a free agent – which we haven’t projected, but is entirely possible – then this is Morrissey’s defense corps and he must be protected, no ifs, ands or buts.

THE TOUGH DECISION: The development of Jack Roslovic and Mason Appleton over the next season will be worth keeping an eye on. If one or both can step into consistent middle-six roles, it's going to make life leading up to the expansion draft all the more difficult for the Jets’ brass. With the money that has already been spent on the top six without any consideration given to the impending Connor and Laine contracts, one of Roslovic or Appleton may earn themselves protection if they can be more cost-effective bottom-six options than either Copp or Lowry.

LESSON LEARNED: Don’t pay to protect anyone or make any contract disappear. The Jets moved out the 2017 13th-overall pick in order to persuade the Golden Knights into taking Chris Thorburn, getting back the 24th-overall selection and picking promising Kristian Vesalainen. It’s revisionist history, sure, but the higher pick would have still allowed the Jets to take Vesalainen, but would have also seen the Jets pick when Nick Suzuki or any of the five prospect defenders who were taken after him – Cal Foote, Erik Brannstrom, Jusso Valimaki, Timothy Liljegren or Urho Vaakanainen – were on the board. That would benefit the Jets right about now.

Up Next: Seattle Expansion Draft Projections

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 | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | Minnesota Wild | Montreal Canadiens | Nashville Predators | New Jersey Devils | New York Islanders | New York Rangers | Ottawa Senators | Philadelphia Flyers | Pittsburgh Penguins | San Jose Sharks | St. Louis Blues | Tampa Bay Lightning | Toronto Maple Leafs | Vancouver Canucks | Washington Capitals

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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