THW’s Ultimate Mock Expansion Draft: Coyotes Acquire Ekholm, Lose Capobianco

As the Tampa Bay Lightning and their fans continue to celebrate their Stanley Cup victory down in Florida, the rest of the NHL has turned its attention to what will be a busy July, with the 2021 Entry Draft and the annual free-agent frenzy taking place at the end of the month.

Before that, though, we have the Seattle Kraken joining the league, with the expansion draft coming up on July 21. Protected lists are due from all 30 participating clubs (the Vegas Golden Knights are exempt) on July 17, making this topic the center of the NHL’s collective attention at the moment.

Ron Francis Seattle NHL
Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis has a busy week ahead of him. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

In order to properly forecast this event, we decided to undertake a huge mock expansion draft project here at THW, with a writer playing the role of general manager for all 31 NHL teams. I filled in as Arizona Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong for our Ultimate Mock Expansion Draft, while THW’s Tony Wolak had the responsibilities of Kraken GM Ron Francis.

Before we dive into my protected list for the Coyotes, let’s review the rules of the expansion draft. Teams have the option of protecting a combination of seven forwards and three defensemen, or eight skaters regardless of position, plus one goaltender. They also must expose at least two forwards and a defenseman who are under contract for the 2021-22 season and played in at least 27 games in 2020-21 (or a combination of 54 games across the last two seasons). For the goaltenders, there are no games played requirements, but at least one exposed player must either be under contract or be a pending restricted free agent.

Garland, Keller Headline Protected Forwards

Let’s begin with the forwards. In comparison to the other positions on the ice, deciding on which centers and wingers to protect was a straightforward process for me.

Conor Garland: Real-life trade rumors aside, Garland is the Coyotes’ most valuable forward at the current point in time, and he’s atop my protected list as a result. I did not receive any trade offers for the Scituate, MA native, but it’s doubtful that I’d have moved him unless an offer blew me away. Garland is a centerpiece player for the Coyotes, and the fact that there’s even a question about his future with the team is absolutely ridiculous.

Conor Garland Arizona Coyotes
Conor Garland tops the list of my protected forwards. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Clayton Keller: The soon-to-be 23-year-old Keller has yet to recapture the scoring touch he displayed as a rookie in 2017-18, and is signed to a hefty contract paying him $7.15 million annually until 2028, but I made an easy decision to protect him here. He’s still young, he’s durable (he hasn’t missed a game yet in his NHL career), and he previously reached the 65-point mark in his career. There’s a lot of untapped potential in Keller, and he’ll be staying in Arizona.

Phil Kessel: Like Garland, Kessel has been the subject of trade rumors since former head coach Rick Tocchet and the Coyotes parted ways in May. However, I was unable to move the veteran to another club in the lead-up to our mock expansion draft, so I’m obliged to protect him due to his no-movement clause. Of course, in real life, there’s a chance Kessel would waive his NMC due to Tocchet’s departure, but, in any case, I don’t believe the Coyotes would be inclined to give ‘Phil the Thrill’ away to Seattle for free. With only one year remaining on his contract, he could be a valuable trade deadline piece if Arizona cannot move him this summer.

Christian Dvorak: He doesn’t really get the national attention that he deserves, but Dvorak has become one of the league’s better middle-six centermen over the past few years in Arizona. The former London Knights standout has won at least 51% of his faceoffs in each of the last four seasons, plays well on both special teams units, has steadily increased his scoring output over the course of his career, and has proven to be difficult to stop during shootouts. Had a full 82 games been played in 2020-21, “Dvo” was on pace for 25 goals, 20 assists, and 45 points, all of which would have been career highs. He’s part of the future with Arizona, and there was no hesitation in adding him to my protected list.

Christian Dvorak, Arizona Coyotes
Christian Dvorak has a bright future in the NHL – he’ll be staying in Arizona. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Nick Schmaltz: Schmaltz is a notoriously streaky player, and I could see Armstrong making a deal with Francis so that Seattle takes this player off of Arizona’s hands in real life, but I was unable to swing a deal with my THW colleagues, so we’ll add him to the protected list. When he’s on, the University of North Dakota product is one of the league’s more efficient scorers, but when he’s off, he’s ice cold. Schmaltz opened the 2020-21 season with 14 points in the opening 16 games, and finished it with 14 points over the final 19 games, but he was invisible for a 17-game stretch in the middle of the year, posting four points and a minus-9 rating from Feb. 20 to March 23. The Coyotes are still better off with him in the lineup, though, so we’ll hang onto him here.

Lawson Crouse: Crouse had a down year in 2020-21 when it comes to the numbers, scoring only four goals and nine assists in 51 games, but these totals don’t tell the whole story. He was snakebitten all year, shooting at just 5.7% as he was denied on essentially every single scoring chance he was able to generate. This comes after he collected 26 goals in 147 games across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. He’ll bounce back – I’m not giving him away to Seattle.

Tyler Pitlick: The final protected spot came down to Johan Larsson, Christian Fischer, or Tyler Pitlick. I went with Pitlick. Of the three players, he had the highest points per game rate and average time on ice, and he spent the most amount of time on the penalty kill of any forwards on the roster. With that said, this is a low-risk area for the Coyotes, as there’s little chance of Larsson, Pitlick, or Fischer being Seattle’s choice due to the other forwards that will be available from other clubs in the expansion draft. They’ll likely retain all three players, regardless of who is protected here.

In the last go-around of the expansion draft in 2017, the Coyotes retained all of their key forwards, and they’ll do the same again this year. All of their intriguing prospects are exempt from selection, while Michael Bunting, who scored 10 goals in 20 games in 2020-21, is an unrestricted free agent and doesn’t need to be protected.

  • Satisfies exposure requirements: Christian Fischer, Johan Larsson
  • Exempt: Barrett Hayton, Matias Maccelli, Jan Jenik, Liam Kirk
  • Notable unrestricted free agents: Derick Brassard, Michael Bunting

Coyotes Bolster Blue Line, Acquire Ekholm

Next, let’s take a look at the blue line.

If you peeped the main expansion mock draft piece on Monday morning when it went live, you likely noticed Mattias Ekholm’s name on my protected list and thought to yourself, “Wait a second, he doesn’t even play for the Coyotes!”

Mattias Ekholm Nashville Predators
Mattias Ekholm will form an outstanding top defense pairing with Jakob Chychrun in Arizona. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Allow me to explain.

With a possible Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade on the horizon, and a protected slot available for another defenseman behind him and Jakob Chychrun, I opted to make a deal with Nashville Predators general manager Alex MacLean. Alex reached out and inquired as to whether I had any interest in acquiring Ekholm or Dante Fabbro from the Predators ahead of the expansion draft. After a few offers went each way, we agreed to the following trade:

Arizona Coyotes receive:

  • D Mattias Ekholm

Nashville Predators receive:

  • C Barrett Hayton
  • 2021 second-round pick (from CBJ, #37 overall)
  • 2021 fourth-round pick (from LA, #104 overall)

This deal was made under the assumption that Ekman-Larsson will be moved this offseason. Trade rumors have started to heat up once again, and the Vancouver Canucks have been mentioned as a possible destination for the captain, who turns 30 on July 17. If Ekman-Larsson is indeed moved, the Coyotes will need another veteran blueliner to play with Chychrun in order to help him reach his potential.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson Arizona Coyotes
Oliver Ekman-Larsson could be on the move this summer. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Enter Ekholm.

The Swede has played his entire career with the Predators, reaching a career-high 44 points during the 2018-19 season. He’s surpassed the 30-point mark four times and likely would have done so a fifth time had the full 82 games been played this season. Ekholm, at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, is known as one of the better two-way defensemen in the league, and he’d be an outstanding partner for Chychrun in Arizona. The Coyotes’ No. 1 defenseman emerged as an elite offensive threat in 2020-21, and he’d be able to continue developing his game with Ekholm by his side.

The price of two draft picks plus Hayton may seem like a lot for a 31-year-old with only one year left on his contact, but keep in mind that Ekman-Larsson will likely net at least a couple of draft picks as well as a prospect or two, depending on whether or not the Coyotes retain salary in a potential trade. Arizona should be able to recoup, at the very least, the two draft picks, essentially turning this trade into a swap of Hayton and Ekman-Larsson for Ekholm.

Barrett Hayton
I sent 2018 first-rounder Barrett Hayton to the Nashville Predators in order to shore up the blue line. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When it comes to Hayton, I opted to move him while he still has some value – a rough 2020-21 season in the AHL which saw him post only 10 points in 26 games has me rethinking his future with the organization, especially as other members of his 2018 draft class, like Quinn Hughes, Brady Tkachuk, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Adam Boqvist, Joel Farabee, and others have already begun making major impacts at the NHL level. Hayton has yet to break through, and I moved on from him here in order to further invest in the development of Chychrun.

Lyubushkin Exposed, Capobianco Selected

For the other defensemen on my protected list, two elementary decisions were made.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: As previously discussed, Ekman-Larsson’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors, so it would make no sense if we let Seattle add him to the roster for free, even if he was willing to waive his NMC. OEL will be protected.

Jakob Chychrun: Another easy one. Chychrun has four years remaining on a contract paying him $4.6 million annually and just finished in the top-10 in Norris Trophy voting. He might be the best value at the position in the league – there’s no way Arizona will let him out of their grasp anytime soon.

Arizona Coyotes Jakob Chychrun
The Coyotes need to do everything they can to ensure Jakob Chychrun continues to develop his game. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mattias Ekholm: We just surrendered two draft picks and a prospect to acquire this player. He’ll be on our protected list.

I exposed Ilya Lyubushkin here, as he’s the only player on the roster other than Chychrun and Ekman-Larsson that meets the NHL’s exposure requirements. As expected, though, he wasn’t the player chosen by Seattle, as Wolak went with Kyle Capobianco. A three-time AHL All-Star, Capobianco has nothing left to prove with the Tucson Roadrunners and deserves a long look at the NHL level in 2021-22. With multiple veterans not returning to Arizona’s blue line next year, the soon-to-be 24-year-old probably would have received his NHL shot with the Coyotes, but he’ll have to earn his chance in Seattle instead.

  • Satisfies exposure requirements: Ilya Lyubushkin
  • Exempt: Victor Soderstrom
  • Notable unrestricted free agents: Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Jordan Oesterle
  • Selected by Seattle Kraken: Kyle Capobianco

Kuemper Protected, Hill Retained via Trade

At the goaltender position, we only have two possible choices when it comes to players to protect – Adin Hill and Darcy Kuemper.

An argument could be made to protect Hill over Kuemper, as he’s the younger of the two players and had better numbers in 2020-21, but there’s no comparison when it comes to each player’s value on the open market. Kuemper has proven to be an effective starter for a number of years now, while Hill has yet to play more than 19 NHL games in a season. The smartest and most prudent option here is to protect Kuemper and expose Hill.

Darcy Kuemper Arizona Coyotes
Putting Darcy Kuemper on my protected list was an easy choice. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Taking into account the quality of players that are exposed at the forward and defenseman groups for Arizona, Hill seems like an obvious choice to be selected by Seattle, should no pre-draft trades be made. He played his junior hockey in the Pacific Northwest area with the Portland Winterhawks, is just 25 years old, is under team control as a restricted free agent, and posted solid numbers for the Coyotes this season.

However, I made a deal with Wolak, and he agreed to not select Hill in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick.

Arizona Coyotes receive:

  • Assurance that Adin Hill will not be chosen in expansion draft

Seattle Kraken receive:

  • Arizona’s 2022 third-round pick

The rationale for this deal? I believe Hill has the potential to be a starting goaltender for the Coyotes in the not-so-distant future, and losing him via the expansion draft is an unpalatable prospect. In my mind, keeping Hill under team control provides more value than a potential third-round pick in next year’s draft.

  • Satisfies exposure requirements: Adin Hill (retained via trade)
  • Exempt: Ivan Prosvetov
  • Notable unrestricted free agent: Antti Raanta

The Bottom Line

As fun as this mock expansion draft was, I’ll admit that it’s unlikely the Coyotes will trade for Ekholm (or any defenseman) in the lead-up to the real expansion draft. They’re clearly looking to rebuild, shed salary, and bottom out in the coming seasons, so any deals they make will likely involve prospects or future draft picks coming to Arizona.

By not acquiring a defenseman, they’ll also be able to protect Capobianco, ensuring that he receives his NHL shot in 2021-22 with his draft club. In that case, the Coyotes likely will lose Hill, or, if a trade is executed which will allow him to remain in Arizona, they’ll end up losing a non-NHL player as they did in 2017, when the Golden Knights selected Teemu Pulkkinen, who hasn’t played in the league since.

St. Louis Blues left wing Pat Maroon Arizona Coyotes goaltender Adin Hill
Adin Hill (right) is a player to keep an eye on when it comes to the Coyotes and the expansion draft. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

With protected lists due on Saturday, we’ll soon find out what GM Bill Armstrong has decided to do for the expansion draft. I, for one, am hoping he figures out a way to keep Hill, but there’s a chance the Kraken could have their goaltending situation already figured out by the time they choose a player from Arizona, as proven NHL guys like Cam Talbot, Jake Allen, Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, Jonathan Quick, and others figure to be available.

At any rate, the coming days promise to be full of activity around the league. We’ve already seen trades, retirements, and buyouts, and it’s only Tuesday of Expansion Draft Week. Strap in and enjoy the ride!