Avalanche Face Tough Decisions in the Kraken Expansion Draft

With the NHL and NHLPA establishing an agreement on the 2020-21 NHL season, it means the 2021 Expansion Draft looms near.  The Colorado Avalanche were lucky enough to only lose Calvin Pickard to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, but they were not in the best shape as an organization back then. This time around, general manager Joe Sakic is bound to lose one of his key players. 

Of course, an expansion draft only benefits the new organization entering the league, but some teams are hurt more than others. In 2017, the Florida Panthers were the team who infamously gave up a lot, the Avalanche may be in the same shoes come July 21st. 

Colorado was not hurt in 2017 because they did not have the greatest players to choose from. They were able to protect their core of Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, while a player such as Mikko Rantanen was not eligible to be selected. Other than MacKinnon and Landeskog, only Erik Johnson is still on the team among the players protected in 2017. 

Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic
Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Sakic has many decisions come July, and all of it depends on the performance of the Avalanche this year. Many tout them as potential contenders for the Stanley Cup, however, if they falter it may cause the former captain to reconsider his team, and the expansion draft comes at the perfect time to do so. 

Protection Strategies

The format for this expansion draft is the same as in 2017. This means the Avalanche have to decide which route to take and which players to leave available to the Seattle Kraken.  

The two protection strategies available to Sakic are protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or he can protect eight skaters and one goalie.  

This leaves Sakic with plenty of options on who he will protect. The Avalanche have a tough decision to make because they have four great defensemen, and have more than four forwards they would like to protect. If Sakic decides he wants to protect five forwards, it renders the other option useless because he would lose on protecting two other forwards for free, however, this would mean they will leave one of their coveted defensemen available. A true dilemma. 

Most teams would see this as a bright sign for their organization because they have so many talented players to choose from, but for Sakic, this means he will lose a piece to his puzzle. 

Who Will They Protect? 

In 2021, the Avalanche do not have the same luxury as they had in 2017. They have significantly improved as a team since then. In the 2017 Expansion Draft, the Golden Knights selected from the Avalanche’s available roster first because they finished last in the league with an abysmal 48 points. Now they are one of the best in the NHL and have many great players to show for it, which will, unfortunately, hinder them. 

Their 2021 protection list will look somewhat similar to this: 

Seven Forwards: MacKinnon, Landeskog, Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, J.T Compher, and Valeri Nichuskin 

Three Defensemen: Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and Ryan Graves

Goaltender: Philipp Grubauer 


Eight Skaters: MacKinnon, Landeskog, Rantanen, Kadri, Makar, Girard, Graves and Devon Toews. 

Goaltender: Grubauer  

The four main forwards should not come as shock to anyone. With the first three being the star forwards for the Avalanche for years to come, and because of what they gave up two offseasons ago to acquire Kadri.  It should also be a no-brainer to protect Makar and Girard, but after that, the defense is not quite as easy.

In the first option, Sakic will have to decide whether he wants to make Graves or Toews available. With the chemistry shown between Graves and Makar this past season, it would shock me to see Graves not protected, which is why I listed him over Toews. In the second option, they will have the luxury of protecting all four defensemen. 

Ryan Graves Colorado Avalanche
Ryan Graves, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If the Avalanche elects to go with the first option, the last three forwards to protect are not easy to choose either. With the likes of Burakovsky, Compher, Nichuskin, Tyson Jost, and Joonas Donskoi, and only three spots being available makes it tough. Jost’s days in Colorado seem numbered. He began the playoffs as a healthy scratch and might want to look elsewhere for more ice time. While Donskoi is replaceable. He has had a resurgence in Denver, but there are other players within the organization that can provide what he accomplishes on the ice.  

Toews or Burakovsky?

It seems like the decision to which strategy to select depends on the idea of two players: Burakovsky and Toews 

Joe Sakic seems committed to both Toews and Burakovksy, seen by the resigning of both players during the offseason, however, barring an unexpected trade he will have to leave one of them available to the Kraken. 

The question remains whether he wants Toews or Burakovsky more, and this would decide their entire strategy for the expansion draft. 

Toews was recently acquired this past offseason from the New York Islanders and has yet to suit up in an Avalanche uniform. He is one of the more underrated two-way defensemen in the league, and his play this season might determine if he is made available to Seattle.

On the other hand, Burakovsky is proven in Denver. He has been a fixture in the top-six and spent most of his time last season with Kadri on the second-line, and occasionally filled the void on the top-line when Rantanen went down with an injury. He, like many others, has had a career resurgence in the mile-high city, and I do not think Sakic will be happy with losing him. 

Andre Burakovsky Colorado Avalanche
Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The answer to this question all truly depends on the play of Toews in this upcoming season.  It remains to be seen if his play was of the result of him or of the Islanders’ system. This, alongside the play of Burakovsky this season, will have a lasting impact on the future in Denver.

What Other Faces Might Seattle Choose? 

With the Avalanche being as deep as they are, they are bound to leave other great players available that may interest Seattle.  

One player out of Jost, Donskoi, Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, Ian Cole, or Pavel Francouz may be gone instead of Toews or Burakovsky. It all depends on what Ron Francis, the general manager of the Kraken, decides is the best fit.  

Bellemare is in a position he was back in 2017. He was left available by the Philadelphia Flyers and was selected by the Golden Knights. This time around, it is unlikely he is selected by the Kraken, however, anything can happen.

A Sneaky Way to Solve Their Problems 

A certain rule most fans forget is that NHL teams do not have to protect pending unrestricted free agents. This is why I have not mentioned Brandon Saad as of yet. Saad was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks this past offseason in a trade that sent Nikita Zadorov the other way.  The thing is with Saad is that he is an upcoming UFA, which means Colorado does not need to protect him in the expansion draft. This opens a spot for Sakic to protect a different forward on his team. The Avalanche and Saad can negotiate a contract, if both parties want, after the expansion draft.

Another upcoming UFA is Landeskog. It is widely believed it is in the intention of the Avalanche to re-sign him; however, they can do so after the expansion draft, so that they can have an available protection position for another forward/skater. This will allow them to protect Burakovsky and Toews if they elect to go the eight skater route. It’s more likely Landeskog re-signs with the Avalanche before the expansion draft, which is why I included him in the protection list above, however, it is a possibility he does not. 

I doubt Joe Sakic is not informed of this potential situation and signed both Toews and Burakovsky without having some sort of plan. If he could turn the disastrous Avalanche around, he will figure his way out of this one. In this scenario where both Saad and Landeskog both go unsigned before the expansion draft, I see the Avalanche most likely losing out on Tyson Jost

Erik Johnson

These possibilities all leave extremely talented players available, but it is also dependent on Johnson. The former first overall pick has a no-movement clause in his contract, and the rules of the expansion draft are that a team must protect a player who has an NMC. The only way a team can wiggle their way out of it is if the player elects to waive his NMC, and then he can be left available.  

Erik Johnson Colorado Avalanche
Erik Johnson, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This leaves Sakic with three scenarios, protect Johnson because he is required to do so and expose Graves and Toews, Johnson agrees to waive his NMC, or buy him out. The former olympian is the longest standing player in the Avalanche organization and is popular among the fans. His decision will decide a large part of the future of this team.

In essence, the Avalanche are in a tough spot, the total opposite of 2017. As acclaimed a Sakic is as a general manager, there is no easy way out of the upcoming expansion draft. It is unknown which player the Avalanche will lose, but they sure will lose a good one.