The Seattle Kraken are preparing their options for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils may have finished seventh in the East Division this past season, but they saw their young forward core progress under head coach Lindy Ruff.
The Devils have many restricted free agents (RFAs) from that group, and they may invest significantly in retooling their defense for goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. The Kraken could select from New Jersey either a promising young forward or choose from a shortlist of veterans. Below I explore three routes the Kraken could take based on the Devils’ situation.
Devils Likely to Be Protected
Before I simply list the Kraken’s options, I will note the players whom I think Devils will protect. Each NHL club may choose to protect either (1) seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender or (2) a combination of eight skaters (forwards & defensemen) plus one goaltender; there are more nuances to the rules, but that is the gist. Looking at New Jersey’s roster and salary cap, one will notice a plethora of RFAs; the team would need to sign them in order for a chance to protect them.
The Devils’ future centers around their young forward core and Blackwood in net. Theoretically, they could choose to protect eight forwards, in addition to second-year players Jack Hughes and Jesper Boqvist being exempt from the draft. I think the following six forwards are locks to be protected: captain Nico Hischier, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and RFAs Yegor Sharangovich & Janne Kuokkanen; I think Andreas Johnsson could be the odd man out here and discuss him later on.
Reserving those six forwards gives the Devils the option of protecting either two more forwards or one more forward & three defensemen — in addition to Blackwood as the goaltender for either scenario.
If the Devils choose to protect three defensemen, they will likely reserve Damon Severson and RFA Jonas Siegenthaler. The third defenseman could be unrestricted free agent (UFA) Ryan Murray — assuming he re-signs — or Will Butcher; that said, THW’s Alex Chauvancy could see the club exposing Butcher to Seattle. This leaves out a key member of the defensive core, whom I mention below.
Biggest Splash: PK Subban
Yes, the $9 million cap hit for one season is somewhat of an albatross. Subban has regressed rapidly since arriving in New Jersey but may benefit from a change of scenery and a different role. In turn, selecting him may yield plenty of value beyond goals and assists.
Offensively, the 32-year-old blueliner rebounded slightly from his 2019-20 campaign, recording five goals and 14 assists for 19 points in 44 games. That production rate prorates to 35 points over an 82-game season — respectable for a then-31-year-old with (1) an inexperienced forward core and (2) a 57.2 defensive zone starting percentage (dZS%). Imagine Subban playing in a weak Pacific Division and being deployed more in the offensive zone. When he won the 2013 Norris Trophy, he had an offensive zone starting percentage (oZS%) of 54.6, the highest of his career — apart from the 72.2 oZS% in the two games he played in 2010.
While his numbers in Seattle would likely not justify the cap hit, Subban’s leadership and marketability would provide value for an expansion franchise. He has served as an alternate captain for several years and could perhaps captain Seattle as one of its most experienced players. Additionally, his showmanship, media relations, and exceptional philanthropy make him an instantly valuable asset for a city that has not hosted professional hockey in nearly 100 years. With that said, the Devils will likely need his $9 million cap hit to reach the cap floor, so they may end up protecting him.
Highest Upside: A RFA Winger
In addition to Sharangovich and Kuokkanen, the Devils will have the option to re-sign forwards Nick Merkley, Michael McLeod, Mikhail Maltsev, and Nathan Bastian. If they opt to protect eight forwards, then they would be able to reserve two of these four players I just mentioned. Otherwise, they would only be able to choose one of them as their seventh forward — should they also protect three defensemen.
When I compare these four players, I instantly favor New Jersey hanging onto McLeod, the lone center of this group. The 12th selection in the 2016 Draft won 326 faceoffs at 51.5 percent for a team that finished 27th in that category. Additionally, despite his minus-12 rating, he embraced the challenge of playing heavily in his own zone, with a dZS% of 72.1 — while producing a Corsi for percentage of 45.8. Further, he killed 1:33 of shorthanded time on ice per game, the most in this group. A third-line center who recorded 15 points in 52 games likely won’t command a steep salary, but he will serve as a good anchor to a checking line.
Among the remaining three forwards, I could see Seattle drafting either Merkley or Bastian. While Merkley has higher offensive upside — two goals, eight assists in 27 games in 2021 — Bastian demonstrates a strong defensive skill set. He blocked 25 shots and laid out 136 hits while averaging just 12:37 of time on ice in 41 games; like McLeod, he can also kill penalties. Maltsev played 33 games this past season and impressed defensively, recording 24 takeaways to his 11 giveaways.
Best Value: Andreas Johnsson
I do not expect the Devils to protect Johnsson, as they could use his $3.4 million cap hit to help sign RFAs and improve the defensive makeup. After recording a respectable 64 points — 28 goals, 36 assists in 116 games — over his past two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Johnsson managed just five goals and six assists in a reduced role with New Jersey; his 13:56 average time on ice was 1:49 less than his previous season in Toronto.
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Johnsson faced a couple of harsh challenges this past season, including a bout with COVID and its heightened symptoms when combined with his asthma. Consequently, his goals and assists numbers dropped off significantly from the past two seasons. That said, he still contributed to strong five-on-five play, recording an expected goals percentage of 52.3 — good for fifth-best on the team.
The Devils already have a handful of players who have produced at the rate that Johnsson did while in Toronto. The team needs to improve defensively, hence the argument I made earlier about protecting McLeod and accumulating cap to sign more blue line talent. I expect Johnsson’s $3.4 million to be freed up in order to build a better all-around club.
The Kraken’s options will narrow significantly once the Devils have made offers to their multitude of RFAs. New Jersey will likely prioritize some of those deals to gauge how much cap they’ll have available for their UFAs as well. Nonetheless, I see a couple of young talents at forward opening up for Seattle; that may include the 26-year-old Johnsson, if general manager Tom Fitzgerald believes his productivity is replaceable. The Kraken selecting a Devils forward will likely be a better use of cap space than gambling on a defenseman like Subban or Butcher.