The NHL announced on Dec. 4 what had been expected for months — Seattle will become the league’s 32nd team in 2021-22. This means there will also be another expansion draft. The Edmonton Oilers were fortunate to only lose Griffin Reinhart last summer, despite how bad it looked to give up a player that cost them a first and second-round pick. However, chances are the Oilers will likely lose a more valuable asset in the next expansion draft.
Just like in 2017 when the Vegas Golden Knights joined the NHL, there are two options when it comes to protecting players for the expansion draft. Teams can either protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie.
Related – NHL Approves Seattle Expansion Team
It’s impossible to know what the roster will look like two and half years from now, or who will be the general manager, but here is what I believe the Oilers protection list will look like in the summer of 2021 based on the core of the team.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, Milan Lucic (NMC) and Tyler Benson.
Connor McDavid, who turns 22 next month, is the two-time defending scoring champion and the most exciting talent since Mario Lemieux. Notwithstanding McDavid, Draisaitl is the most important player to Edmonton’s future success. Draisaitl could be the No. 1 centre on close to half the teams in the NHL and has the potential to become an elite two-way threat down the middle. Despite being the longest-serving player on the roster, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still only 25 and very underappreciated outside of Edmonton. Nugent-Hopkins is a highly intelligent player who makes a difference in all three zones and is on pace for a career-high in points this season.
Jesse Puljujarvi’s first few NHL seasons haven’t gone as smoothly as some of the other high picks from the 2016 draft, but he has all the tools to be a real scoring threat from the wing once he gains more experience. New head coach Ken Hitchcock will give him every opportunity to reach his potential. Like Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto is also trying to establish himself as an NHL regular and eventually secure a permanent spot in the top six. Yamamoto has shown glimpses of the player he could be one day, but needs to put the puck in the net more consistently when he gets recalled by the Oilers.
This is where it gets tricky. Milan Lucic has shown that he can no longer succeed in a top-six role, but he might be able to adequately play in the bottom six for a few more years. However, Lucic eating up $6 million of cap space during McDavid’s prime years is hurting the team. Sure, he can protect the star players, but he provides almost nothing offensively any longer. Oilers fans are praying for another compliance buyout in 2020 to save the team from having to protect him from expansion because of his no-movement clause.
Tyler Benson turned pro this season and is averaging close to a point per game down on the farm, meaning he will need to be re-signed and protected from expansion in 2021. Benson has the hockey IQ and passing skills to play alongside any of McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins with his hometown Oilers in the future. His NHL arrival could come as earlier as next season.
Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson.
Andrej Sekera comes off the books in 2021, so the Oilers don’t have to work about his no-movement clause. That said, players can waive those clauses, and I think the Oilers try to move him along in the off-season for cap savings and to open up a spot for one their quality, young defensive prospects to grab. With the NHL shifting to more of an up-tempo skating game, having a defender like Darnell Nurse has never been more important. Not only can Nurse skate like the wind, but he can also play a shutdown role and put up some points. We still don’t know his offensive ceiling, but he’s trending up.
Oscar Klefbom is the only defender on the Oilers signed beyond the 2020-21 season and carries a team-friendly cap-hit. Klefbom is Edmonton’s best offensive threat from the blueline and logs big minutes in all situations. Despite what it cost to get him, Adam Larsson is Edmonton’s best all-around defenceman and is always reliable in his own zone. Larsson can become a UFA that summer, but I believe the Oilers will sign him to an extension long before he reaches free agency.
General manager Peter Chiarelli made the right decision in sending top prospect Evan Bouchard, who started the season with the Oilers, back to the OHL before burning a year off his entry-level deal. If the Oilers had kept Bouchard past the nine-game mark this season, they would have needed to protect him and been forced to expose three additional forwards to the Seattle expansion club. Blessed with exceptional poise and passing skills along with a dangerous shot, Bouchard could become the Oilers’ franchise defenceman within the next three to five years.
This is the hardest position to predict. Although his last season and a half have been underwhelming, Cam Talbot is the Oilers’ most proven goaltender. However, Talbot turns 34 in 2021, and the Oilers will likely be looking for a younger option by then unless he backstops the team to a long playoff in the next three years. Mikko Koskinen has looked fantastic with the Oilers, but he’s only one year younger than Talbot and the sample size is too small to project him as Edmonton’s No. 1 goalie for the next three years or longer.
Meanwhile, Stuart Skinner is Edmonton’s best goalie prospect since Devan Dubnyk. Skinner doesn’t have sparkling rookie numbers at the AHL and ECHL levels to this point, but he just turned 20 and needs more time to work at his craft in the minors. Fellow Oilers goalie prospect Olivier Rodrigue could eventually pass him on the depth chart, but he won’t need to be protected in 2021. Oilers fans should be excited to have two noteworthy young goaltenders in the system.
Who Will Be Lost?
In the summer of 2017, I thought the Oilers were going to lose Jujhar Khaira to Vegas. Thankfully, they took Reinhart instead. However, I don’t think the Oilers will be as lucky next time. Khaira has underrated pucks skills for a big man and is a tough as nails. He will be 27 when Seattle enters the league and could be exactly the type of player an expansion team would want. The other name that comes to mind is Matt Benning, but I’m not sure he will even be with the Oilers three years from now.
Based on the current roster, Khaira likely represents the most attractive selection. As much as Oilers fans would love to see him stay in Edmonton, Khaira might even embrace going to Seattle. He played junior hockey just 30 minutes away from Seattle in Everett, Washington. His hometown of Surrey, British Columbia is less than two hours away as well. But for now, he’s an Oiler and playing the best hockey of his career with eight points in 10 games this month.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.