The NHL’s 2021 season has certainly been an unusual one. The schedule was shortened to 56 games, and each team is only playing games within the league’s restructured divisions, largely due to COVID travel restrictions in Canada.
It’s probably safe to expect the 2021-22 season to look a bit more normal, with one glaring exception: The league’s number of teams will once again grow, from 31 to 32, as the Seattle Kraken officially join the NHL’s ranks. That means that this offseason will include an expansion draft on July 21, in which former Hurricanes general manger Ron Francis will select one player from each existing NHL team (Vegas excepted) to fill out his roster.
With that in mind, it’s a good time to revisit the Canes’ mock expansion protection list I made last offseason. While the core of the list will stay the same, there’s a few changes that need to be made based on bounce-back seasons and trades.
The obvious change is the Canes trading Haydn Fleury, who would have been a prime target for Francis, to Anaheim at the trade deadline. It was extremely unlikely that the Canes would have protected Fleury, and now in addition to balancing their D pairings with the addition of Jani Hakanpaa, they no longer risk losing him for nothing.
But there are a few other adjustments needed from my original list, which we’ll take a look at below.
Before we get started, a few reminders on the expansion draft’s rules, which will be the same as 2017:
- NHL teams can protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie or eight skaters (regardless of position) and a goalie
- All players with no movement clauses must be protected unless they agree to waive it
- First and second-year players and unsigned draft picks are exempt and don’t count towards protection totals
- Every team must expose one defenseman who is under contract in 2021-22 and played in at least 40 games in 20-21 or 70 total games the last two seasons (wouldn’t be stunned if those numbers get adjusted with a likely shortened season) and two forwards that meet the same requirement
- Every team must expose one goaltender who is under contract for 2021-22 or a restricted free agent (an RFA goalie must receive a qualifying offer prior to the expansion draft)
While the rule about first and second year players being exempt isn’t nearly as advantageous as it was for Carolina in 2017, when the team didn’t have to use protection slots on any of Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin, it does come with one plus: Martin Necas, who is blossoming into a star forward in his second season as a full-time NHLer, is exempt.
We’re going to go with the seven forwards and three defenseman model. While the Canes could use the eight skaters model in order to protect four defensemen (more on that in a bit), that would leave the team forced to expose one of its top forwards.
Now, the list, including some notes about fulfilling the Canes’ exposure requirements.
Original list: Jordan Staal (NMC), Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trocheck, Warren Foegele, Morgan Geekie
New list: Jordan Staal (NMC), Sebastian, Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, Jesper Fast
There’s a couple noteworthy changes here, though most of it stays the same. Staal has to be protected due to his no-move clause, and would anyway as the team’s captain and lockdown two-way center. There was no chance of any of the big three of Aho, Teravainen and Svechnikov being exposed then, and there isn’t now.
While I had Trocheck on my original list, it’s worth noting I didn’t consider him a total lock, and wanted to see him prove he could get back to his Florida form as a dynamic top-six center. Has he ever. Trocheck has been every bit the player the Hurricanes hoped he could be, a dominant force in all three zones. He’s not going anywhere.
The big changes I made are swapping Nino Niederreiter and Jesper Fast in for Warren Foegele and Morgan Geekie.
Coming off a down year in 2020-21 and with a $5.25-million cap hit for two more seasons, this time last year the Hurricanes probably would have been thrilled to see Francis take Niederreiter off their hands.
But he’s had exactly the kind of bounce-back year Carolina needed from him, as he sits third on the team with 15 goals. Coming off this kind of season, and with just one year left on his contract, it’s hard to imagine the Canes exposing Niederreiter now.
When I last did this exercise, Fast was a bit of an unknown commodity. But he’s proven himself to be a great fit for this team, capable of playing either alongside Jordan Staal on the checking line or up the lineup in a pinch. He’s a strong two-way winger who can play on both the power play and penalty kill. With two years left at a very reasonable $2 million AAV, it seems logical the Canes would want to protect Fast.
Morgan Geekie comes off the protected list after not becoming the lineup regular many expected after his cup of coffee last season. If the Canes either qualify Warren Foegele or re-sign him before the expansion draft, I could see them protecting him instead of Fast, but I’d have the Swedish winger ahead of Foegele on the pecking order as of now.
As for the two forward exposure requirement, it’s relatively simple. If the Canes extend a qualifying offer to Foegele, either he or Fast fills one spot. As long as Steven Loretnz plays seven more games this season, he fills the other.
Original list: Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton
New list: Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton OR Jake Bean
This is where things really start to get interesting. There’s no reason to spend time on Slavin and Pesce here. They’re staying.
When I did this list in November, I assumed the Hurricanes would have Dougie Hamilton extended by now. But they’ve tabled contract talks to the offseason. Hamilton has certainly made the case to be re-signed, as he’s once again been an elite play driver from the back end and sits fourth among NHL defensemen in both points and assists this season.
Both sides seem to want to get a deal done, but Hamilton won’t come cheap, and it’ll be a matter of finding a term and price both sides can agree on. If he’s re-signed before the draft, this is simple: Slavin, Pesce and Hamilton all get protected.
Of course, not re-signing Hamilton until after the expansion draft could be a strategic move. The Canes could more or less have an agreement in place with Hamilton but wait to sign it, leaving them an open protected spot for Jake Bean.
If the Canes aren’t using a spot on Hamilton, using the last one on Bean makes sense. While he’s hit a bit of a rookie wall in recent weeks, Bean has shown his promise as an offensive defenseman in the NHL, capable of moving the puck up the ice and making plays in the offensive zone, with a goal and 10 assists on the season.
Either way, the exposure requirement on defense is settled, as Brady Skjei fulfills it.
Original list: Alex Nedeljkovic
New list: Alex Nedeljkovic
This entry is both the same and very, very different. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about Nedlejkovic the first time around:
“I don’t actually expect this to be Nedeljkovic, though him playing his way into the team’s long-term plans still isn’t out of the realm of possibility.”
*narrator voice* He played his way into the team’s long-term plans, and I now very much expect this to be Nedeljkovic. The NHL’s Rookie of the Month for March has been superb this season, with a 10-4-2 record, .930 save percentage, 1.92 goals-against average and three shutouts. As long as Nedeljkovic plays two more games this season, he’ll be an RFA after the year, and qualifying and protecting him should be an easy decision.
James Reimer will more than likely be moving on, and while the Canes could also look to re-sign pending UFA Petr Mrazek, that could take until after the draft. Regardless, Nedeljkovic looks more than capable of being the team’s goalie of the future, and he should be the pick here.
As for the goalie requirement, extending Jeremy Helvig a qualifying offer will take care of that.
While it’s possible the Canes cut a deal with Francis, as they did with Vegas (which took Connor Brickley) in 2017, barring that, the departing face is likely to be one of these players:
Jake Bean - If Bean goes unprotected, Francis taking him feels like a lock. Francis drafted Bean 13th overall in the 2016 draft. Bean has played reasonably well as a rookie defenseman, and should still have plenty of untapped potential as a top-four blueliner and NHL power-play quarterback. This would likely be an easy call for Francis.
Brady Skjei - This is an interesting case, especially if Bean is protected. On the one hand, Skjei comes at a pretty hefty price tag, with a $5.25 million cap hit for three more seasons. On the other, he seems to have really settled into the Canes’ system and has arguably been their best defenseman in recent weeks, breaking up plays, stepping up in the neutral zone to force turnovers and using his skating to join the play in the offensive zone.
This one still feels unlikely, but is more plausible than it was before this season.
Warren Foegele - Assuming he’s qualified, Foegele could be a likely pick if he’s exposed and Bean isn’t. Francis also drafted Foegele, who’s developed into a solid two-way forward and good penalty killer capable of making plays on the forecheck to chip in offense and also playing on the penalty kill.
Foegele has also proven he’s a player who elevates his game late in the season and into the playoffs. This is a pick Francis would probably feel good about.
If Foegele’s protected, Jesper Fast could also be the pick here.
Morgan Geekie/Steven Lorentz - Two young forwards Francis drafted who have shown well in limited action in the NHL, capable of both playing a strong two-way game in the bottom six and also chipping in some offense, Geekie or Lorentz are both plausible, if unlikely, selections.
While the Hurricanes are almost certain to lose a more impactful player than Connor Brickley this time around, they’re still in a good spot to project their core and good number of their top supporting players. Losing a player like Bean, Skjei or Foegele would sting, but would certainly not be the end of the world for a loaded Carolina team.