Happy July. And boy, should it be a busy month. The NHL Entry Draft will take place on July 23-24, while free agency will begin on July 28. But before then, the New Jersey Devils will have to plan for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft that falls on July 21.
The rules for the expansion draft are the same as they were for the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie, or eight skaters total and a goalie. For the Devils, the plan should be pretty clear-cut: go with the 7-3-1 format.
Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald won’t have the issues some other teams’ GMs will when it comes to protecting players. Ty Smith, Jack Hughes and all of the Devils’ top prospects are exempt from the draft, meaning the Kraken can’t select them. Fitzgerald may have one or two tough decisions to make up front, but there shouldn’t be much deliberation otherwise. With a 7-3-1 format, let’s look at who the Devils should protect and why they should.
This one shouldn’t need much explanation. Sure, the 2020-21 season was a lost one for Hischier. He suffered a broken fibula while training in Switzerland during the offseason, then came down with COVID in New Jersey, which delayed his return from his broken fibula. When he did return from COVID, he took a redirected puck to the face in his fifth game back that required surgery and caused him to miss another month of the season. In all, he played in only 21 games and had 11 points, but that’s not going to matter much.
The Devils named Hischier their captain earlier in the season. He’s entering the second year of a contract that pays him an average of $7.25 million annually. Oh, and he’s only 22 years old. Hischier is not going anywhere, so this should be the easiest decision Fitzgerald has to make.
This is probably the second easiest decision Fitzgerald has on his plate when deciding on protection slots up front. Bratt finished this past season with 30 points in 46 games — a 53-point pace over 82 games. Ironically, he has 52 points over his last 82 games since the Devils fired coach John Hynes in Dec. 2019.
For a former sixth-round pick, Bratt has quickly emerged as a top-six scoring threat for the Devils. He’s a high-end skater and has great playmaking instincts. He’s probably never going to be an elite goal-scorer, but he’s shown he has 20-goal potential in him. He’s a perfect fit for current head coach Lindy Ruff’s system, and he’s also only 22 years old. So he’ll join Hischier in taking up a protection slot.
Before this season, you probably wouldn’t have guessed Zacha as a lock for a protection slot in the expansion draft. In his four previous seasons, he had 106 points in 265 games — an average of 32 points per 82 games. A breakout effort didn’t seem likely, especially given some of his underlying numbers, but that’s what happened.
Zacha finished the season as the Devils’ leading scorer with 35 points in 50 games — a 57-point pace over 82 games. He set a career-high in goals with 17, a 26-goal pace over 82 games. Time will tell if it was a fluke or if he can continue on this upward trajectory. But no matter what the case is, the Devils have to protect him. You can’t leave your leading scorer exposed to the Kraken because they will select him without a doubt.
Kuokkanen was one of a handful of Devils rookies who made a meaningful impact in 2020-21. Acquired in the trade that sent Sami Vatanen to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2020 Trade Deadline, Kuokkanen finished the season with 25 points in 50 games, with 19 of those points coming across his final 34 contests.
Kuokkanen was one of the Devils’ most efficient five-on-five scorers this season. And he found himself playing on the top line with Jack Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich over the final five weeks of the season. He needs to become a more aggressive shooter moving forward, but there’s a budding middle-six winger in him. So he should rightfully earn a protection slot.
I wouldn’t call 2020-21 a breakout campaign for Wood, but he did get back to the basics that made him a 19 goal-scorer in 2017-18. He finished with 17 goals in 55 games — a 25-goal pace over 82 games, which would’ve been a career-high. He also showed noticeable improvement in his two-way game compared to years past.
At 26 years old, Wood is one of the veteran voices on the Devils; that’s how young they are now. He’s on a reasonable contract that pays him $2.75 million through next season before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. Given his career-best season, it shouldn’t be a hard decision to use a protection slot on him.
Talk about a breakout season. Sharangovich seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the Devils’ best players. Since the NHL delayed its season to January due to the COVID pandemic, the Devils sent Sharangovich on loan to Dinamo Minsk in the KHL. While there, he totaled 17 goals and 25 points in 34 games before returning to New Jersey for the NHL season.
It took a little bit of time for Sharangovich to adjust to playing in the NHL, but he got on a roll once he did. He finished the season with 16 goals and 30 points in 54 games — a 24-goal, 45-point pace over 82 games — and had some of the best underlying metrics among Devils rookies. He wouldn’t even have been a thought for a protection slot before this season, but it’s clear he deserves it after his breakout campaign.
I’m sure I’ll take some heat for this one, but the Devils should use their seventh and final protection slot for forwards on Johnsson. He had the worst season of his career (11 points in 50 games); there’s no doubt about that. But there’s good reason to believe he’s due for a bounce-back in 2021-22.
Related: Devils Should Bet on Johnsson Returning to Form
A useful tool to identify whether a player might be heading for a rebound is individual point percentage (IPP). This past season, Johnsson’s IPP dropped to 40 percent after it was 64.9 percent combined over his previous two seasons. The league average IPP for forwards is about 68 percent, so it’s probably a good bet he returns to that. If that’s the case, he’ll look more like the player he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he averaged 45 points per 82 games. And if you’re the Devils, you’d want him doing that in New Jersey and not with the Kraken.
Severson is the only defenseman who the Devils absolutely have to protect from the Kraken. Say what you want about him, but he’s a solid top-four defender who can play in different situations and excels two ways. He finished this season with 21 points in 56 games, though that total should’ve been higher if the Devils knew how to score goals when he was on the ice.
Like Wood, Severson is one of the Devils’ veteran voices in the locker room, even though he’s only 26 years old. He also played well with Ty Smith as his defense partner for a significant portion of the season, so there’s something to build on moving forward.
Subban struggled mightily in 2019-20, his first with the Devils after they acquired him at the 2019 Draft. He rebounded this season and seemed to fit better in Ruff’s rush-based system than Hynes’ slow-paced, low-event system. Still, he clearly isn’t the defenseman he used to be. But the Devils need to fill three protection slots in this format, and he seems like a decent bet to be one of them.
Related: Devils’ 2021 Free Agent Targets: Defensemen
For starters, the Devils have $37,627,501 in cap space and need to add money to hit the cap floor. If the Kraken select Subban, that opens up $9 million in cap space, so Fitzgerald would have to go on some spending frenzy this summer. Perhaps that’s his plan, but they have enough cap space with Subban’s contract on the books to execute that plan. So my guess is he’s one of three defensemen they protect.
The Devils acquired Siegenthaler from the Washington Capitals right before the trade deadline in exchange for a 2021 3rd-round pick. He only played in eight games for the Devils after a COVID diagnosis, but he did show some encouraging signs in a small sample size. His expected goals percentage was just above 54 percent, and he was one of the team’s best shot suppressing defensemen.
Siegenthaler isn’t going to move the needle significantly, but the Devils just used a pick to acquire him. Because of that, it seems like a wise decision to protect him. He recently turned 24 years old and could top out as a third-pair defenseman who can eat minutes on the penalty kill.
This isn’t going to be a tough decision either. Blackwood struggled this season, finishing with a .902 save percentage in 35 games played. But he had a very rough bout with COVID and said his breathing didn’t return to normal until about three months after his diagnosis. He now has a whole offseason to recover and should be good to go once training camp begins in September. He’s the Devils’ goaltender of the future, so there’s no question about protecting him.
Who Ends Up With the Kraken?
With these players protected, here are some notables who’d be available for the Kraken:
- Michael McLeod (Center)
- Nathan Bastian (Right Wing)
- Nick Merkley (Right Wing)
- Will Butcher (Defense)
- Evan Cormier (Goaltender)
So who do the Kraken end up selecting? In this scenario, I would guess they choose Butcher. He struggled this season with the Devils due to the change in pace in Ruff’s system, but he could thrive in Seattle under Dave Hakstol if they slow things down. Butcher has a track record of putting up solid underlying numbers in his three NHL seasons before 2020-21 and could be a valuable third-pair defender for the Kraken who plays on the power play. Plus, he only has a year left on his contract, meaning if the Kraken are not in a playoff position at next season’s trade deadline, he’d be a nice trade chip for them.
Leaving Butcher exposed for the Kraken could also help the Devils avoid having one of their young forwards, namely McLeod and Bastian, ending up in Seattle. That seems like a scenario they want to avoid. And if worse comes to worst, the Devils could entice the Kraken into selecting a certain player by giving them a late-round draft choice to avoid losing a forward they want to keep.
At the end of the day, the Devils shouldn’t lose a player that creates a significant hole on their roster. If Butcher ends up being the odd-man-out, they’ll likely be able to find a replacement for him since improving their defense should be a priority this month. And even if they lose a forward, they have plenty coming up through their system that should be able to fill the void.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick