Halftime Sports

Mock drafting Seattle’s NHL expansion team

July 11, 2020

National Hockey League

NHL Seattle is slated to make its expansion draft selections about one year from now ahead of their inaugural season in 2021-22. Whether COVID-19 will push those dates back is another conversation, but for the sports junkies like me who also grew up on the Be-A-GM modes of the video game universe, we can hardly wait to see another round of league-wide roster chaos like that which ensued when Vegas joined the fray in 2017. 

Just to jog some memories, remember that each existing team can choose to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie from Seattle’s selection. From there, NHL Seattle GM Ron Francis will likely cut a number of side deals with the league’s thirty other GMs to lay off (or take on) certain players in exchange for ample draft-pick ammunition, just like Vegas’ George McPhee did three summers ago. 

Some necessary disclaimers as we wade through this exercise:

  • The rosters NHL Seattle picks one summer from now will look quite different than they do today. There is quite a bit of roster turnover year-to-year in the NHL, and teams will be especially diligent on this front ahead of Seattle’s draft.
  • It’s difficult to know what to do with the players slated to be free agents before Seattle drafts. As The Athletic did in their own mock draft, I’ll just leave those players on their current teams for now, even if that’s an imperfect solution.
  • And finally, the big ugly elephant in the room is how bad CapFriendly’s “crowdsourced” player protected lists are in their Expansion Draft Simulator. I followed through on my plan to use the CapFriendly sim because it would allow others to do their own mock drafts and The Athletic’s much better player protected list is behind a paywall, but realized CapFriendly’s setup is poor while making the selections.

Want to see the squad I landed just picking the best of the best available on CapFriendly’s sim?

So yeah, it’s horribly unrealistic. We still made it under the $79.5 million upper cap limit, too! Something tells me the Jets would want to hang on to their 2nd overall pick from 2016 who was well on his way to a fourth straight 30-goal campaign over, say, third-line center Adam Lowry.

To compensate, I leaned on a combination of stats and age/trajectory to make changes to the CapFriendly unprotected player lists as I saw fit. The end result still won’t be anything near the team Seattle actually drafts when the time comes, but it’ll be a heck of a lot closer than a Laine-Point-Boeser first line.

Below, I’ll walk through the logic behind my selection from each of the thirty unprotected lists (Vegas is exempt) before revealing my final team.

Anaheim Ducks

Back in my naive, younger days when I thought this would be a simple simulation with minimal cross-referencing and hoop-jumping thanks to my handy dandy online expansion draft engine, I came across Anaheim’s actually reasonable protected list. Unless the rebuilding (reloading?) Ducks leave their leading scorer Adam Henrique up for grabs, Seattle will either opt for Anaheim’s first round center in 2016, Sam Steel, or their first round center from 2018, Isac Lundestrom. Eric Stephens from The Athletic protected Steel – CapFriendly protected Lundestrom. I’ll take Steel and bet on his potential shining through eventually, even if his 22-point season this year didn’t exactly display it.

The Pick: Sam Steel

Arizona Coyotes

Arizona is tricky because they have a bunch of veterans like Niklas Hjalmarsson on contracts set to expire in 2021. Among those available, I have a hard time believing after 22 goals in 2019-20, Conor Garland will actually be left unprotected. Elsewhere, forwards Derek Stepan and Christian Fischer as well as goaltender Antti Raanta deserve looks. This was still early in the exercise, and the GM in me thought I had just gotten some dumb luck that the Yotes left Garland up for grabs while holding onto Lawson Crouse. I tabbed the former fifth-rounder here.

The Pick: Conor Garland

Boston Bruins

Boston is also difficult to project because of the massive uncertainty surrounding star defenseman Torey Krug’s future. Assuming he re-signs (and there’s no reason to think that doesn’t happen), the B’s could have a tough time hanging onto Matt Grzelyck, who may be the odd defenseman out after Boston protects Krug, Charlie McAvoy, and Brandon Carlo. I suppose I cut them a break here (which is a little alarming considering my roots in upstate New York) in taking career bottom-six winger Nick Ritchie.

The Pick: Nick Ritchie

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres’ setup is more cut-and-dry – as things stand, they’ll either have to part with Henri Jokiharju, a 21-year old bona fide NHL defenseman, or Brandon Montour, an established second-pairing 26-year old D-man. The Athletic protected Jokiharju; CapFriendly protected Montour. I plucked Jokiharju, thinking the favorable rules allowing expansion teams to load up on quality defenseman would allow the young Finn a nice environment to continue to develop his game on the third pairing.

The Pick: Henri Jokiharju

Calgary Flames

It’s anyone’s guess what Calgary’s protected list looks like a year from now. Flames GM Brad Treliving seems to believe young defenseman Juuso Valimaki will be exempt from the expansion draft after missing the entire season due to injury, while veteran blueliners TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic are both out of contract after the upcoming playoffs. Reigning Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano could be available, but he’ll be 37 at the time of the expansion draft while carrying a $6.75 million contract with one year left. I chose to avoid the issue altogether and picked up yet another bottom-six winger in Austin Czarnik, hoping to deploy my available funds later in the draft.

The Pick: Austin Czarnik

Carolina Hurricanes

Canes GM Don Waddell will almost certainly have to trade one of his coveted defensemen for futures or cut a deal with the Whalers/Hurricanes legend Francis to have him lay off some of Jake Bean, Haydn Fleury, Brady Skjei, and/or Jake Gardiner. As for me, I took no mercy on Carolina, prying Bean, their 2016 first-rounder, forming the young nucleus of what should be a solid D-corps for years to come with Jokiharju.

The Pick: Jake Bean

Chicago Blackhawks

As The Athletic’s Eric Duhatschek notes, the Blackhawks may be able to find a way to secure an exemption for D-man Brent Seabrook and his hideous contract, no-move-clause and all, so they can use the protected spot on a more valuable asset. It doesn’t make much of a difference to me – Chicago doesn’t have much tantalizing fodder for Seattle. I’ll take 23-year old left-shot D Lucas Carlsson and stash him in the minors.

The Pick: Lucas Carlsson

Andre Burakovsky

Colorado Avalanche

Colorado actually had a reasonable protected list on CapFriendly, which was reassuring given their plethora of talented players who Seattle will be eyeing. Though goaltender Pavel Francouz is intriguing, this decision comes down to Andre Burakovsky or Tyson Jost. The Athletic (quite reasonably) protected the 25-year old Burakovsky, who put up 45 points in 58 games this season; CapFriendly held onto Jost, who was the tenth overall pick in 2016 but hasn’t put it all together at the NHL level yet. This may have been stretching the limits of equity, but Colorado will have a tough time keeping their young core together near contract extension time, so I snapped up Burakovsky, who will slot in nicely on my second line.

The Pick: Andre Burakovsky

Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s pretty clear Columbus will have to part with a defenseman. The Athletic protected Vladislav Gavrikov in addition to the obvious selections of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones; CapFriendly questionably protects the oft-injured Ryan Murray instead. On a team where David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, and Gabriel Carlsson were all staring me in the face, I didn’t feel too guilty about picking up Gavrikov, who won’t produce much offensively but ranked as a top-seventy defenseman league-wide by Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score Value Added index.

The Pick: Vladislav Gavrikov

Dallas Stars

Pretty slim pickings here – on CapFriendly, I’m looking at adding fourth-line center Jason Dickinson, defensive defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, or 2014 first-round defenseman Julius Honka, who spent this season playing in Finland. At this point, Honka may simply be a bust of a fourteenth-overall pick, so I’ll opt for Oleksiak, who has never topped fourteen points in an NHL season but surprisingly graded out as a #3 defenseman by Luszczyszyn’s index.

The Pick: Jamie Oleksiak

Detroit Red Wings

Not even CapFriendly could mess this one up – all of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Tyler Bertuzzi are accounted for, so Seattle’s selection from the Red Wings will end up being the throw-away it was always meant to be. I’ll take a flyer on 22-year old winger Givani Smith, who acquitted himself well enough in twenty-one games of NHL action this year.

The Pick: Givani Smith

Edmonton Oilers

Unless Andreas Athanasiou plays lights-out alongside Connor McDavid next season, the Oilers will probably be best suited doing an 8-1 protection format that shields defensemen Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Ethan Bear, and Caleb Jones. Instead, CapFriendly ended up protecting the largely unattractive forward group of Athanasiou, Zach Kassian, Tyler Benson, and, comically, James Neal. Out of Bear and Jones, the latter is the more likely to be prioritized by Edmonton (they actually protected Adam Larsson on CapFriendly too), so I cut them a little break and swiped Bear, a former Seattle Thunderbird in the WHL.

The Pick: Ethan Bear

Florida Panthers

Florida’s one of the rare teams that actually has a couple unrestricted free agents of note to deal with after the season in Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov. It’s unlikely they re-sign both, which makes looking for one of their defensemen more appealing to Seattle. Both The Athletic and CapFriendly protect Mike Matheson and his $4.875 million cap hit until 2026 over Mackenzie Weegar, who graded out vastly better than Matheson in GSVA. Not that I’m complaining – Seattle’s got their second-pairing right-shot defenseman.

The Pick: Mackenzie Weegar

Los Angeles Kings

File this one in the Detroit bin, where Los Angeles was simply so bad this year that they’ll really have no enticing options ripe for picking for their newly-minted division rivals. Though the Kings have a tremendous prospect pool, none of their youngsters like Alex Turcotte will have exhausted enough pro eligibility to require a protection spot and knock a better asset down to Francis. It was still a little ridiculous that CapFriendly left defenseman Matt Roy available, but I chalked that up to a simple oversight and took 22-year old pivot Blake Lizotte instead, who himself should have been protected but probably doesn’t factor too much into LA’s long-term plans regardless.

The Pick: Blake Lizotte

Matt Dumba

Minnesota Wild

This was a truly brutal look for the simulator. Notably, 23-year old leading scorer Kevin Fiala was left unprotected in favor of 37-year old Mikko Koivu, which made me realize these protected lists may have been made up to a year ago and only updated to reflect transactions. On defense, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon have no-move-clauses, and while the Wild may go 8-1 so they can protect both Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, they’d lose a quality forward in that scenario. The Athletic has them protecting Dumba, who’s on a great $6 million cap hit until 2023 – that’s closer to reality than CapFriendly’s protection of Brodin, whose contract expires in 2021 anyways. So, while it’s very unlikely Matt Dumba actually ends up in Seattle, I picked him with a clean conscience given that Brodin actually had a better season via the GSVA index.

The Pick: Matt Dumba

Montreal Canadiens

Another outdated/simply erroneous protected list. No, I don’t think it’s likely the Habs expose 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi in favor of third-line winger Arturi Lehkonen, do you? As with Minnesota, there’s actually a dilemma on defense if they go 7-3-1, as the Canadiens will have to leave two of Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen, and Cale Fleury out there. The Athletic chose an 8-1 protection list and saw the minute-muncher Chiarot walk away; on CapFriendly both of Mete and Juulsen are available, and I’ll gladly take the 22-year old left-shot D with three NHL seasons under his belt, even if he doesn’t have Juulsen’s first-round draft pedigree.

The Pick: Victor Mete

Nashville Predators

This is where CapFriendly passed the point of no return (or the point of being remotely helpful for me) as their engine exposed Filip Forsberg, who has never recorded below fifty points in a full year, while protecting Colton Sissons, who had fifteen points at the season’s pause. At any rate, as currently constructed the Preds are likely to do an 8-1 system to shield young rearguard Dante Fabbro, who’s a large piece of their future. That means a fairly capable forward will probably head Seattle’s way – in this case, that was Calle Jarnkrok, an effective bottom-sixer under contract through 2022 who graded out better than Sissons in GSVA.

The Pick: Calle Jarnkrok 

New Jersey Devils

If you’ve been following hockey for a couple of years, you know that the Devils are bereft of talent by NHL standards, but that didn’t stop CapFriendly from leaving 2015 sixth overall pick Pavel Zacha unprotected. That’s not as cardinal a transgression as it might sound – Zacha hasn’t really shown much over four NHL seasons  and will probably never live up to his high draft billing. That said, it’s worth pointing out that The Athletic protected him over gritty winger Miles Wood. One of them will probably be available in a year’s time, so we’ll take a chance on Zacha and hope he can experience a William Karlsson-like breakthrough in Seattle.

The Pick: Pavel Zacha

Casey Cizikas

New York Islanders

Try and follow me here: on CapFriendly’s list, the Islanders protected winger Josh Bailey and quality forward prospect Kieffer Bellows while leaving Jean-Gabriel Pageau and his brand-new deal paying him $5 million a year until 2026 up for grabs, along with bottom-six center Casey Cizikas. Pageau isn’t going to be available to Seattle, which means either Bailey or Bellows would actually be exposed on a more realistic list – both are actually out there in The Athletic’s article because they opted to protect Cizikas as well. Since I can’t nab Bailey or Bellows in the mock engine, I begrudgingly picked up Cizikas, who slots in as my (gulp) first-line center.

The Pick: Casey Cizikas

New York Rangers

The Rangers aren’t going to have to part with anyone too notable unless a defenseman really emerges for them next season – CapFriendly has them leaving 25-year old second-liner Pavel Buchnevich unprotected, but that’s a complete pipe dream for Seattle. This is probably an Anaheim Lite scenario where Seattle gets their pick between two recent first-round centermen, Lias Andersson and Brett Howden. Neither one looks particularly close to a breakthrough, but CapFriendly lists Howden as available, so we’ll select him and let him work on his game in the minors.

The Pick: Brett Howden

Ottawa Senators

Assuming the Sens aren’t looking to lose their second-leading scorer, 26-year old winger Connor Brown, that leaves a couple of vaguely interesting young forwards for Seattle to consider. 22-year old Vitaly Abramov comes dirt cheap and helps fill out the roster a little further.

The Pick: Vitaly Abramov

Philadelphia Flyers

Again, something tells me the Flyers won’t actually protect an aging Matt Niskanen over cornerstone D-man Ivan Provorov, who’s just 23 and signed on a team-friendly deal until 2025. Right now, Philly has eight forwards that they’ll definitely want to protect but will only be able to shield seven of them. James van Riemsdyk’s numbers were down a bit this season and he doesn’t come cheap at $7 million until 2023, but he’s still the obvious choice for a Seattle team that will lack proven scorers.

The Pick: James van Riemsdyk

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are a team with a looming expansion-related issue in net at the moment, as they’ll only be able to protect one of Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. However, both Murray and Jarry are RFAs after this season, and it seems like a foregone conclusion the Pens won’t have both players on their roster at this time next year. For now though, we’ll take Murray, who was left exposed by both The Athletic and CapFriendly. The 26-year old certainly struggled this season, but it’s tough to argue with two Stanley Cup wins.

The Pick: Matt Murray

San Jose Sharks

Evander Kane and Jonathan Dahlen won’t actually be available to Seattle in all likelihood, so I pivoted and took a look at the Sharks’ previously-vaunted D-corps for help. Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have no-move-clauses in their contracts and with the Sharks likely using their last protected spot on Brent Burns, I’ll scoop up Radim Simek, a left-shot who was a replacement-level player this year but is signed at just $2.25 million until 2024.

The Pick: Radim Simek

St. Louis Blues

The reigning Cup champs won’t be able to keep the whole gang together, and right now Seattle has a few proven NHLers to decide between in David Perron and Zach Sanford on the wings and Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella on defense (assuming captain Alex Pietrangelo re-signs). Perron had a quite shocking season with 60 points in 71 games, and even though he’s already 32, that $4 million cap hit for legitimate top-six production could be too much to pass up for Seattle. St. Louis has no need to be desperate to keep Perron around, while Seattle will be hoping to lean on his experiences as a member of the Golden Knights in their inaugural 2017-18 season.

The Pick: David Perron

Alex KIllorn

Tampa Bay Lightning

Whether it’s a quality scorer like Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, or Ondrej Palat or a promising prospect like Mathieu Joseph or Alexander Volkov, the Lightning are nearly guaranteed to lose a solid asset to Seattle unless they can strike a massive deal with Francis. In fact, even with The Athletic doing an 8-1 protection setup, Tampa Bay still left Ryan McDonagh exposed in order to hang onto the much younger Cal Foote and Erik Cernak. I actually didn’t realize Cernak was up for grabs on CapFriendly, but given our stash of solid D-prospects already (with more to come, no doubt, as Francis loads up on draft picks in side deals), I’ll gladly take Killorn, who was pacing for 31 goals this season and is on a deal paying him $4.45 million until 2023.

The Pick: Alex Killorn

Toronto Maple Leafs

As Duhatschek points out, the Leafs’ roster will look quite different  when it comes time for the expansion draft than it does right now, as the team will exhaust every option to get its roster under the cap limit while accommodating its stars’ pricey contracts. Defenseman Tyson Barrie will likely hit the open market at season’s end, so it would be a little unrealistic to snatch up Travis Dermott. It’s the same thing up front – almost certainly, a middle-six forward like Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, or Alex Kerfoot will be moved, so the unprotected list Seattle gets to look at will become less attractive. Instead, let’s shift our focus to the net, where Jack Campbell is one of the league’s best backup netminders. Assuming Toronto hammers out a deal with the incumbent Frederik Andersen, Campbell could be available to pick up.

The Pick: Jack Campbell

Vancouver Canucks

Tanner Pearson is no slouch, but Seattle will have plenty of looks at 40-50 point wingers over the course of the draft. In net, however, the Canucks will have to negotiate an agreement with Seattle to get them to stay away from 24-year old Thatcher Demko, who has been one of the hottest young goaltending properties in the game for quite some time now. Veteran Jakob Markstrom had a fantastic year and it’s hard to imagine Vancouver letting him walk, but they’ll be hard-pressed to let Demko go all the same. For our purposes, though, this is a no-brainer as we complete our goalie trio.

The Pick: Thatcher Demko

Washington Capitals

This is a situation like Buffalo’s earlier – it’s pretty clear the Caps will probably only be able to protect one of wingers TJ Oshie and Richard Panik. Oshie will be 34 a year from now and won’t come cheap at $5.75 million until 2025, so it’d be easy to see the cap-needy Capitals leaving him unprotected and Seattle pouncing on him – Oshie had a strong year this season by both basic and advanced stats and is a Mount Vernon, Washington native. CapFriendly, however, made Panik available, who, while cheaper and younger, was not nearly as productive as Oshie. With a decent two-way game, Panik should be a regular for Seattle.

The Pick: Richard Panik

Winnipeg Jets

My defense was already rounded out by this point and Winnipeg had a few serviceable forward options available, such as Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton. The Athletic protected Copp and, upon further review, it seems like the Jets would do the same, but I’m not going to feel too guilty about stealing a 26-year old center who has never topped 28 points.

The Pick: Andrew Copp

That’s all thirty teams, and here’s the group we assembled.

All in all, it doesn’t seem like a Stanley Cup Final appearance is on the horizon, but this group won’t finish bottom three in the league, either. It’s a young squad, with only three players 30 or older and no defensemen over 27. The biggest hole is definitely at center, because the existing NHL franchises will be hard-pressed to let any useful pivot be made available to Seattle when choosing between a center and a winger of similar ability. Our uninspiring center quartet consists of Casey Cizikas, Andrew Copp, Pavel Zacha, and Sam Steel, and it could still be argued that each of those players would not be available to Seattle even if the expansion draft were today.

On the wings and  defense, there are some solid options and a tremendous amount of depth, statements that are almost certain to be true when the first Seattle team takes the ice because of how the expansion draft rules are configured. Killorn, Perron, and van Riemsdyk are the old guard who have each been near a point-per-game recently, while Burakovsky and Garland are on the cusp of their prime years and could flourish with maximum opportunity in Seattle.

Meanwhile, it’s unlikely Matt Dumba is actually available to Seattle, but Minnesota will have to make a move to ensure that the underrated Jonas Brodin, who was protected by CapFriendly over Dumba, doesn’t fall into Ron Francis’ lap. This ultra-young D-corps was helped slightly by CapFriendly’s bizarre protected player lists, but the practical takeaway here is that, just like in the Vegas draft, Seattle will likely have a strong eight-deep of defensemen because the majority of NHL teams will opt to protect only three of their own. Florida, Columbus, and Carolina are potential candidates to strike a side deal with Seattle to stay away from some of the defensemen that were considered.

Finally, the goaltending trio of Murray, Demko, and Campbell obviously lacks a Vezina candidate-type, but it’s a tremendous group overall, and there’s a fairly good chance all three will have to be left unprotected by their respective teams barring any side deals. 

This group took up only $62.4 million of the $79.5 million upper cap limit, so Francis will maintain maximum cap flexibility as Seattle may eye a big-name addition via the trade or free agent markets to attempt a year one postseason run, which is entirely possible. Luszczyszyn just wrote a great article that compiled the strongest team from The Athletic’s recent projected protected lists and found a projected 97-point team among those available, which would rank Seattle right outside the top ten squads in talent league-wide. That said, Francis may opt to strike a balance between selecting veterans ready to contribute and early-twenties types that could blossom into something special. Expansion topics are always a pleasure, but like everyone else, right now I’m just dying for hockey to return.

Will Shanahan
is a senior in the McDonough School of Business, and former Sports Executive and Editor of The Voice. He spends his days plotting visits to downstairs Leo's when the omelet line will be short and trying to recall memories of his middling high school football career.

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Hahaha this is HORRIBLE. Imagine how bad this team would be. It’s like you went out of your way to pick the biggest bust prospect on every team instead of a solid player. Oof

[…] Whoever Seattle takes, will have to face their division rivals from Los Angeles that has greatness waiting in the wings. […]