The next NHL expansion draft is a little under two years away as the new Seattle franchise will enter the league for the 2021/22 season. It may seem like the draft is in the very distant future, but it is never too early for teams to start thinking about their protected player lists, especially after the amount of talent and high draft picks we saw Vegas acquire during the 2017 expansion draft.
The expansion draft gives the Seattle franchise the opportunity to select one player from the other NHL franchises (Vegas is exempt). The same rules that were used in the Vegas expansion draft will be used for Seattle’s. That is certainly very fortunate for Seattle, but is unfortunate for the teams who may have to part ways with a solid asset. The Sabres were a team who were not really affected by the last expansion draft. They were lucky enough to have both Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart exempt from the draft as they only had two years of professional experience at the time.
Last time around, the Sabres went with the 7F/3D/1G option and protected Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Evander Kane, Johan Larsson, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly, Nathan Beaulieu, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Robin Lehner. They traded a 6th round pick to Vegas to assure they would not pick Linus Ullmark. Vegas selected William Carrier who has been a solid 4th liner for the Golden Knights. He would be nice piece to have today, but losing him was not necessarily a big blow to the Sabres.
Here’s a quick rundown of the protection list guidelines:
- Teams can protect either 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goalie; or 8 skaters (forwards or defensemen) and 1 goalie
- Players who have accrued less than 2 professional seasons at the end of the 2020/21 season as well as unsigned draft picks are exempt and do not have to be protected
- Players with a “No Movement” clause in the contract must be protected if they decline to waive the clause
- Teams must expose at least 2 forwards who are under contract in 2021/22 and have 40 GP in the prior season or 70 GP in the previous two seasons
- Teams must expose at least 1 defenseman who is under contract in 2021/22 and has 40 GP in the prior season or 70 GP in the previous two seasons
- Teams must expose at least 1 goalie who is under contract in 2021/22 or is an RFA
- Seattle must select at least 14 forwards, 9 defensemen, and 3 goalies
According to those guidelines, the following Sabres players are eligible to be selected by Seattle in the 2021 expansion draft:
Zemgus Girgensons (UFA 2020)
Marcus Johansson (UFA 2021)
Johan Larsson (UFA 2020)
Conor Sheary (UFA 2020)
Jimmy Vesey (UFA 2020)
Casey Nelson (UFA 2020)
Carter Hutton (UFA 2021)
It was very bad news for Buffalo when the league announced that the Seattle team would begin play in the 2021/22 season rather than the 2020/21 season. If the expansion draft was a year earlier, then Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson, Lawrence Pilut, Henri Jokiharju, and Rasmus Asplund would have all been exempt. Unlike the 2017 expansion draft, the Sabres may have to part ways with a talented player or a draft pick in 2021.
The addition of Henri Jokiharju also adds some spice to the Sabres expansion draft decision. Do they decide to go with the 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, 1 goalie protection or do they decide to go the 8 skaters and 1 goalie route? A greater number of players would be exposed to the expansion draft, but you get the ability to hold on to some valuable blueliners in return. 7 teams went with the 8 skater-protection in the 2017 expansion draft. With Buffalo’s defensive depth, it is an option that may be considered.
With all of that being taken into account, here are the players that I believe will be protected or will be considered for protection:
Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Brandon Montour, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner
Protecting Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart is self-explanatory. Casey Mittelstadt had an underwhelming rookie season, but he is only a year removed from being considered one of the top prospects in hockey. Brandon Montour will only be 27 at the time of the expansion draft and is expected to be a key piece for the blueline. Jeff Skinner has a big contract, but I think it’s very unlikely that he will perform bad enough for the Sabres to consider leaving him unprotected. He also has a “No Move” clause.
Right off the bat, that is 4 forwards and 2 defensemen that will most likely be protected by the Sabres. If they decide to go with the 8-skater route, than no additional forwards outside of these 4 will be protected.
On the Bubble
Rasmus Asplund, Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Victor Olofsson, Lawrence Pilut, Rasmus Ristolainen, Evan Rodrigues, Tage Thompson
The Sabres will have a lot of players “on the bubble” of their protection list for the 2021 expansion draft. Now it is important to remember that this draft is a little under two years away. There is a lot that can change during that time period and many of the younger players on this list can either boom or bust.
Rasmus Asplund had a rocky start to his career in Rochester, but really improved as the year went on. He’s a center who could add some much-needed skill and energy to the Sabres’ bottom six. Henri Jokiharju excelled in his first pro season at 19 years-old and he could be Dahlin’s defense partner in the near future.
Colin Miller will have one year left on his contract and will be 28 years-old at the time of the Seattle expansion draft. This puts him on the outside looking in unless he really impresses in an expanded role with the Sabres.
Victor Olofsson is an intriguing prospect who is known for his offensive skill and high-end shooting abilities. Many have him penciled into the Sabres’ top six next season and he may even get an opportunity on Jack Eichel’s wing. I have a hard time believing the Sabres will leave him unprotected if he proves to be a consistent 20-goal scorer in the NHL.
Lawrence Pilut is a young, puck-moving defenseman who excelled in his 1st season in North America. He is a modern defenseman and is a LHD which is not a position of great depth for the Sabres.
Rasmus Ristolainen is a player who has been falling down the depth chart with the new additions to the blueline. At the time of the expansion draft, he will be 26 years old with one year and a $5.4M cap hit left on his contract. He has struggled 5v5 in a top four role and I have a hard time believing we will see much improvement from him in his 7th NHL season. The incoming young defensemen are likely to continue to push Ristolainen further down the depth chart.
Evan Rodrigues has proven to be a very valuable forward to the Sabres and is an all-around player who can play up and down the lineup. I expect him to sign a team friendly deal this summer and he should provide great value going forward.
Tage Thompson has some great tools with his size, puck skills, and shooting ability, but he had a very rough season in Buffalo last year. He is still a player who can be a middle six winger and it will be very interesting to see how he develops over the next two seasons. The hope is that a better coach and a better role will help him reach his potential.
My protection list
Forwards: Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson, Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues, Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson
Defensemen: Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, Brandon Montour
Goalie: Linus Ullmark
Notable Unprotected Players: Rasmus Asplund, Will Borgen, Colin Miller, Lawrence Pilut, Rasmus Ristolainen
Obviously, there is a lot that can change between now and June 2021, but these are the players who I believe will be protected for the Seattle expansion draft. I decided to go for the 7/3/1 protection list rather than the 4/4/1. It boiled down to wanting to protect one of Rodrigues, Olofsson, and Thompson rather than protecting one of Pilut, Miller, or Ristolainen. It would hurt to lose a defenseman like Lawrence Pilut, but it may hurt even more to lose one of young goal scorer like Victor Olofsson. Essentially, I believe the 5th forward will be more valuable than the 4th defenseman.
I believe Victor Olofsson can and will be a 20-goal player in the NHL. Evan Rodrigues has proven to be a solid, all-around forward for Buffalo. I think Tage Thompson can be an effective middle six winger. However, if Thompson does not show much improvement over the next two years, I would have no problem protecting Rasmus Asplund over him.
Henri Jokiharju is the 3rd and final protected defenseman due to his skillset and top four potential. He was able to hold his own at the NHL at only 19 years old, so it will be interesting to see how he continues to develop. I am also very intrigued by a Dahlin-Jokiharju pairing for the Sabres.
Goaltending was a pretty easy decision as Carter Hutton will be 35 years old and a UFA in 2021. I do not expect Hutton to get a 2nd contract with the Sabres. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen not having to be protected is certainly beneficial as we could see a Ullmark-UPL tandem in Buffalo for the 2021/22 season.
And in the end…
Seattle selects Lawrence Pilut
Unlike the other available options on D from the Sabres, Pilut is younger and has solid potential. He is fantastic at carrying the puck up the ice and is no slouch defensively despite his small size. It is also worth noting that Ristolainen and Miller will be both be in the final years of their contracts during Seattle’s first season.
Rasmus Asplund could be another intriguing option for Seattle if he continues to develop and excels in an NHL role. If that is the case, then I believe the Sabres may decide to protect Asplund over one of Olofsson, Rodrigues, or Thompson (dependent upon their performance the next two seasons).
It would certainly sting to lose a player like Lawrence Pilut as the Sabres do not have much depth on the left side of their defense after Dahlin. They do have some LHD prospects coming up through the system with Jacob Bryson, Mattias Samuelsson, and Ryan Johnson. I do not think that it is out of the question that we see Jacob Bryson, maybe even Mattias Samuelsson, in the NHL by the 2021/22 season.
However, I think there is a strong chance that Buffalo may send an asset Seattle’s way to assure they do not select a player like Pilut or Asplund. We saw them do that during the Vegas expansion draft as they gave up a 6th round pick to protect Linus Ullmark. We also saw bigger assets being moved last expansion draft, such as Shea Theodore from Anaheim and Alex Tuch from Minnesota, to assure that Vegas stayed away from a few of their unprotected players. So in the end, Seattle probably will not be given the chance to select Pilut if the Sabres send some assets their way.
The 2021 offseason is certainly shaping up to be yet another wild one for many teams. It will be interesting to see what teams have learned from the Vegas expansion draft and how they will apply that to the Seattle expansion draft. I have a feeling that we will see teams much more inclined to hold onto their youth rather than aging veterans. But in the end, it’s the NHL and nothing that happens ever makes much sense.