Protection lists for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft are out. And for the New Jersey Devils, there weren’t too many surprises. As expected, they protected seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender, with the seventh forward being Michael McLeod over Andreas Johnsson. We’ll dive into that and why they’re taking a risk losing Johnsson despite his poor 2020-21 season. Plus, who could the Kraken end up selecting from the Devils’ exposed list?
Finally, a look at the Devils’ pursuit of Vladimir Tarasenko, their rationale behind it, and what their next move could be.
Devils Expose Johnsson, Protect McLeod
I’ve been pretty vocal about why the Devils should’ve had Johnsson on their protection list. I’m not surprised they left him exposed, but there’s certainly some risk in doing so. Johnsson had the worst season of his career, finishing with 11 points in 50 games. But there are some factors to consider as to why he struggled.
Johnsson was one of multiple Devils players to come down with COVID during their team-wide outbreak. He suffers from asthma and said it took him about a month until after he had COVID to regain his conditioning. Combine that with the fact the Devils played four games every six nights for almost the rest of the season after their two-week COVID hiatus, and you have a recipe for a down season.
Two, a look at Johnsson’s underlying numbers show he still had a positive impact. He finished with a Corsi percentage of 53.4 percent and expected goals percentage of 52.4 percent. But most notably, he had an individual point percentage of 40 percent, a significant drop from the IPP of 64.9 percent he had between his previous two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. IPP is usually a helpful metric to identify when a player will bounce back from a down season or regress from an unusually productive season. In Johnsson’s case, it indicates he’s due for a rebound. Whether that occurs in New Jersey or Seattle remains to be seen.
As for McLeod, I understand protecting him. He was on pace for 14 goals in 82 games as a fourth-line center and became one of the team’s top penalty killers. When comparing his expected goals above replacement (xGAR) to Johnsson’s, it was about even — Johnsson had an xGAR of 1.8 this season to McLeod’s xGAR of 1.6. McLeod is only 23 years old and probably figures to be a valuable depth center for quite some time. The Devils seem to be thinking long-term when protecting McLeod over Johnsson. So while I don’t agree with the decision, I don’t fault them for it either.
As for the rest of the Devils’ protection list, there weren’t any surprises. Nico Hischier is the team’s captain. Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha are two of their top-six forwards at the moment. Miles Wood was on pace to score 25 goals in 82 games, while Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen were two of the Devils’ most valuable rookies. So protecting all of them was pretty straightforward.
On defense, Damon Severson is the team’s best defenseman, so that was an easy decision. The Devils just acquired Ryan Graves earlier this week, so they obviously weren’t going to expose him. The same is true of Jonas Siegenthaler, who the team traded for prior to this season’s trade deadline. And finally, there was goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Given he’s been the team’s 1A for two seasons and is only 23 years old, it shouldn’t come as any shock to see him protected.
Who Will the Kraken Select?
After acquiring Graves, that left defensemen Will Butcher and P.K. Subban exposed for the Kraken. From the Devils’ forwards, the most notable names are Johnsson, Nick Merkley and Nate Bastian. The Devils don’t have a goalie of note available for the Kraken unless they want to select Evan Cormier for AHL depth, which seems unlikely.
We’ll start with the two defensemen: Butcher and Subban. It’s not a surprise Subban is left exposed after the acquisition of Graves, but it would be a surprise if the Kraken select him. Even though he only has a year left on his deal, it comes at a cap hit of $9 million. He’s been a below-replacement-level player for the last two seasons, and the Kraken have enough smart people in their front office to know he probably doesn’t make sense for their roster.
With that said, the Devils could be in some trouble if the Kraken select Subban. Losing his $9 million cap hit would put them almost $20 million BELOW the salary cap floor. That is not an exaggeration, either. So if they lose Subban, they will have to make multiple moves just to get to the cap floor.
As for Butcher, his skating is an issue, which is why he fell out of favor in head coach Lindy Ruff’s up-tempo system. But before the 2020-21 season, Butcher had posted solid underlying numbers. He only has one year left on his deal but at a reasonable cap hit of $3,733,333 million. In the right system, he could be a decent third-pair defenseman who gets power play minutes. So he could be pretty enticing for the Kraken if they’re looking to build a deep blue line.
Up front, Johnsson seems like the most obvious target for the Kraken. He averaged 45 points per 82 games with the Maple Leafs, had good underlying numbers this season despite the lack of production, and has a reasonable cap hit of $3.4 million for two more seasons. Couple that with the fact he’s a good bounce-back candidate, and he’ll likely be high on their list of available Devils.
I also wouldn’t rule out the Kraken taking a look at Bastian. While he’s not a needle-mover, he had good two-way impacts this season and has value as a penalty-killer and fourth-line winger. That could make him a sensible target to round out their forward depth if they so choose.
In the end, my guess is the Kraken end up selecting Johnsson. There’s too good of a profile there for him not to be atop their board from the Devils’ exposure list. If they don’t choose Johnsson, then the next best guess is Butcher. But at the end of the day, the Devils shouldn’t lose someone who creates a significant void in their roster. And that’s a plus considering other team’s situations.
Devils Pursuing Tarasenko
It’s no secret that Tarasenko wants out of the St. Louis Blues organization. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong had tried to trade Tarasenko before yesterday’s 3 PM trade freeze but couldn’t agree to terms with suitors. Among the teams who checked in with the Blues were the Devils, who were willing to eat his entire $7.5 million cap hit for the final two years of his deal (From “Why Vladimir Tarasenko isn’t on the Blues’ protected list for the expansion draft,” The Athletic – 7/17/2021).
If the Kraken do not end up choosing Tarasenko, who the Blues left unprotected, then I expect the Devils to revisit trade talks with the Blues. When The Fourth Period originally linked the Devils to Tarasenko, I initially met it with skepticism. He’s only played in 34 games combined over the last two seasons after multiple shoulder surgeries, so acquiring him seemed like too much of a risk. However, David Pagnotta recently reported some teams received Tarasenko’s medical reports and were comfortable with them.
If that’s the case and teams are comfortable with Tarasenko’s medical reports moving forward, I can see why the Devils and other clubs have interest. Given the Blues have no leverage at this point, it’s probably not going to take a lot to acquire him. He wants out, and every team knows it. So if you’re a team like the Devils with a ridiculous amount of cap space and a need for scoring help, you can understand why it’d make sense to pursue given the circumstances.
The shoulder injuries are an obvious concern with Tarasenko. He’ll be 30 years old in December, so it’s not like he’s at all a safe bet to return to his previous 30-goal, 65-point levels pre-surgery. With that said, if he can still be a top-six option and contribute 20 goals and 50 points, the Devils will gladly take that. He may not be worth $7.5 million a year anymore, but it’s only for two more seasons. The Devils’ long-term cap situation won’t be in a bind as a result, so it makes sense why they’d be willing to absorb his entire contract. If the cost of a trade is as low as expected given everything that’s transpired and his medical reports check out, then it could end up being a worthwhile gamble.
That wraps up this edition of Devils news & rumors. The expansion draft will take place this Wednesday at 8 PM. The NHL Entry Draft will follow it on Friday, July 23 and Saturday, July 24. So make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils and NHL coverage.
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017