Earlier this month the NHL announced that the league will add its 32nd team for the 2021-22 season, as Seattle has been named the next NHL expansion team. The expansion draft is a long ways off, not taking place until June 2021, so getting a clear picture of who a team might lose in the draft isn’t an easy exercise. However, while a lot can and will change between now and then, we can still look at the Caps’ current roster to get a feel for what things might look like in June 2021.
Seattle will play by the same rules as Vegas for the expansion draft. As you might remember, this could result in the teams with deeper rosters losing a somewhat significant player. Here’s a reminder of how expansion draft rules will work:
Since this exercise is a bit hard to forecast given the timeline, let’s start by taking a look at all of the players on the Caps current roster that will still be under contract in June 2021.
Evgeny Kuznetosv: Kuznetsov will turn 29 the month before the expansion draft and will have four years left on his deal at a cap hit of $7.8 million. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he isn’t protected.
TJ Oshie: Oshie will be 34 years old with four years remaining at a $5.75 million cap hit in June 2021. It’s more likely than not that injuries and/or age will have caught up to Oshie by this time, making him a likely candidate to be unprotected. But he probably won’t be too appealing to a Seattle franchise looking for younger, cost-controlled assets.
Tom Wilson: Wilson will be 27 with three years remaining on his current deal that comes with a cap hit of $5.16 million. Given that Wilson has emerged as a legit top-six power forward since last season and his age, it’s likely the Caps will protect him. Sure, this surge in production we’ve seen since last season could go away, in which case Wilson would be a massively overpaid bottom-six grinder whom the Caps would certainly leave unprotected, but I’d bet against that happening.
Lars Eller: Eller falls under the “it depends” category more than a lot of the other players who will still be under contract. He’ll turn 32 a month before the expansion draft and will have two years remaining at a cap hit of $3.5 million. With such short term remaining by that point and a manageable cap hit, it’s unlikely the Caps will be desperate to get rid of Eller. But, he’ll likely be far from a pivotal piece on a team that could very well be in something of a retool or rebuild by this time. So, if the Caps have younger forwards who emerge and are eligible for the draft, or if the team decides to protect eight skaters, Eller could be left exposed.
John Carlson: John Carlson will be protected.
Dmitry Orlov: Orlov will be 29 going on 30 with two years left on a deal with a cap hit of $5.1 million. While recency bias may lead some to doubt Orlov’s abilities, as he and partner Matt Niskanen have been pretty bad so far this season, the entirety of Orlov’s body of work suggests he’s a solid top-four defender on a good contract. Unless the first two months of this season are the start of some unexpected, premature decline, protecting Orlov is a no-brainer.
Michal Kempny: Kempny will be 30 with one year left on his deal. It’s unlikely that he would be protected given Carlson, Orlov, and a number of young defenders who may have improved their value by the time of the draft.
And then we have three guys who are probably the three best players in the history of the franchise but aren’t under contract for the 2021 season as of yet.
Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin’s current deal runs out after the 2020-21 season. He’ll be 35, turning 36 before the 2021-22 season begins. With how well he’s playing now, it’s hard to imagine him hanging up the skates at age 35. Will the Caps do what they did with TJ Oshie and wait to re-sign Ovechkin until after the draft so they don’t have to use a roster spot on him? Or will they sign him prior to that and use a protected spot on the greatest player in the history of the franchise? I don’t see any scenario other than one of these two playing out.
Nick Backstrom: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Backstrom is a free agent after next season. Can anyone imagine Backstrom not being re-signed? I sure can’t. And it’s unlikely to be a one-year deal, so he’ll be on the roster at the time of the draft. I’d bet on Backstrom being in DC and being protected.
Braden Holtby: Holtby is also a free agent after next season. Will the Caps re-sign a guy entering his age-31 season to what will be a big dollar deal? That depends a lot on the development of Ilya Samsonov. Could Holtby be re-signed and given the Marc Andre Fleury treatment? Or will he be gone after next season? If Samsonov doesn’t live up to the hype, Holtby will probably still be here and protected. Otherwise Samsonov will probably be the goalie protected.
And then we get into the young players already in DC who a) may or may not establish themselves as NHL regulars and/or b) may not still be in DC for one reason or another.
Jakub Vrana: Of all the young players on the Caps roster today, he’s the most likely to still be with the Caps and be worth protecting. In fact, if the draft were held today, he’d be protected. Unless he’s traded, which seems unlikely, Vrana should be in DC in three years and be a valuable contributor, definitely worth a protected slot.
Andre Burakovsky: I’m not certain Burakovsky will even be with the team next season, let alone three seasons from now. But, if he is is still in DC, it’s because he’s righted the ship and gotten back to being the player he was becoming before wrist injuries derailed his development. So, he’s either gone long before expansion or he’s etched out such a valuable spot for himself that he’ll definitely be protected.
Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler, Lucas Johansen: Man, if all of these guys develop, the Caps are going to have their hands full deciding who to protect. Chances are, just by percentages and nothing specific to these four guys, that not all of them will blossom into NHL regulars. But, if more than one of them becomes a top-four defender, the Caps will have an interesting decision on their hands. If Carlson and Orlov are protected, and then more than one of these guys needs to be protected, maybe the Caps will go the eight skater route with their protection list so they can protect more than three defensemen.
Beyond that, with prospects such as Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, there’s too much unknown to ponder what their status may be when the expansion draft rolls around.
I’m pretty confident that Kuznetsov, Wilson, Vrana, Carlson, and Orlov will all be in DC still and all be protected. Beyond that, there are certainly guys who are likely to be protected, such as Ovechkin and Backstrom, but there’s too many questions marks still to say for sure.
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk
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