In 2017, the NHL held its first expansion draft in quite some time. With Seattle set to enter the league in a few years, teams will once again have to prepare for another expansion draft, this time in 2021.
It’ll be a little different for the Flames, though: in 2017, they didn’t have too many good players who needed protecting (hence why Curtis Lazar was one of their protected forwards, and they legitimately didn’t have any better options at the time). In 2021, they probably will – and that means they may very well lose a good player for nothing.
The expansion draft is still a couple of years away, but the Flames will likely be preparing for it far earlier than that, so let’s take the time to muse on what any one of us would do, as well.
With the same rules in place as 2017, it’s too early for us to consider entry-level exempt players: every single player the Flames currently have in the NHL, AHL, and ECHL will be open for the taking.
Knowing that, it’s just a matter of who they’ll choose to protect. They can go either the route of seven forwards, three defencemen, and a goalie, or eight skaters and a goalie. Recall that the Flames have really boosted their defence over the past couple of seasons though, and that includes the emergence of several young defencemen – so protecting more than three defencemen may be on the board for this team, even at the risk of exposing more skaters.
Flames players presently under contract for the 2021-22 NHL season (because why protect someone who’s going to be a free agent anyway) are:
- F Johnny Gaudreau
- F Sean Monahan
- F James Neal
- F Mikael Backlund
- F Elias Lindholm
- D Mark Giordano
- D Noah Hanifin
This doesn’t include impending restricted free agents who are almost certain to sign new deals carrying contracts past that year: in particular, F Matthew Tkachuk and D Juuso Valimaki. Strong contenders to be added to this group include F Sam Bennett, F Mark Jankowski, F Dillon Dube, F Andrew Mangiapane, D Rasmus Andersson, and D Oliver Kylington.
(There are some goalies among there as well, but seeing as how we don’t have a clue who will be in net for 2019-20, I figure we’re good to ignore that position at the moment.)
That likely leaves as few as nine and as many as 15 potential players for the Flames to protect, barring any future trades or signings.
In determining a preliminary “who to protect” list, it’s probably best to start with the players who, under absolutely no circumstances, the Flames will want to give up. I’m going to assume those first players to be:
- F Gaudreau
- F Monahan
- F Lindholm
- F Tkachuk
- D Hanifin
- D Valimaki
That’s already got me at four forwards and two defencemen, and has me leaving out the two longest tenured Flames in Backlund and Giordano.
It’s bad optics to leave Giordano exposed, but he’ll be 38 years old and on the last year of his contract; it may be the smartest risk for the Flames to take, particularly if Andersson and/or Kylington prove themselves invaluable within a few years’ time (not to mention any potential TJ Brodie or Travis Hamonic extensions). One season of a 38-year-old Giordano probably won’t be worth several seasons of a relatively young, really talented defenceman, should it come to that.
That could completely shift whether or not the Flames opt to protect seven forwards or just eight skaters.
If the Flames go the eight skater route, then we probably already know the four forwards they’ll have to protect. If they don’t, however, then they’ll have room for another three, possibly including Backlund, who will be 32 but may still be playing at a high level. If he’s still elite defensively, then they’ll have room for whichever other two forwards stand out over the years; if he isn’t, then he could be exposed, and the Flames would be able to fit in three other standout forwards.
A lot of the Flames’ decisions for the upcoming expansion draft are going to depend on just which young players make themselves invaluable over the next couple of seasons, as well as what positions they play – and whether the organization is going to be able to stomach leaving Giordano exposed for the final year of his contract, even if he still is playing at a Norris level. That, or if they’ll want to make a trade to protect even more players, as some teams did in the 2017 expansion draft.
The good news is, even if the Flames lose a good player, they can only lose one.
It’s early yet, but it might be time to start thinking about this. How would you start preparing for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft? Who’s on your radar to protect at all costs? What would you do?