On Friday evening, there are a number of good National Hockey League games to enjoy and Seattle Kraken fans will be watching for bubble or second-tier players who might find themselves unprotected at the upcoming Expansion Draft. Most readers will be familiar with the realignment that occurred due to COVID-19 and the fact that teams in one division do not play those in another during the regular season. We explored two matchups in the MassMutual East Division last month. This time around we are looking at the Discover™ Central Division. Filled with some upward trending contenders, declining dynasties and last season’s Stanley Cup Champions, the division will offer a variety of game types each night.
All season we’ll be focusing on primetime games and choosing a specific division each time. Friday’s matchups have the Florida Panthers playing the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings meeting the aforementioned Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Both games will include intriguing options, but before we dive in, let’s refresh on the Expansion Draft rules:
The 2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft will feature the same rules as the Vegas Golden Knights did in 2017, with one exception: the Golden Knights are exempt from giving up a player. Each team gets two options in protecting its players. Either they can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goaltender or eight skaters and a goaltender. A no-movement clause (NMC) means a team must protect the player. The Kraken must select a minimum of 14 forwards, nine defensemen, and three goaltenders.
Red Wings Have Few Blue Chip Prospects
While this fact may change in a year or two as the team wallows at or near lottery pick status, the players available to the Kraken and general manager Ron Francis are those providing the low finishes rather than the ones procured as a result. The Hockey Writers‘ Detroit team has put a number of articles together dissecting the options and little has changed over the first month of 2021. Former second-round pick Givani Smith is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-winger whose Ontario Hockey League numbers prior to the 2016 Draft suggested more offence than he’s been able to produce thus far; however, he brings a physical element that the Kraken might be looking for in their inaugural season.
On defence, keep an eye on Danny DeKeyser. Injured for most of the 2019-20 season, his back issues should be behind him. While his point production has been up and down in Detroit, he has almost always stayed on the positive side, even as the team around him moved into rebuild mode. DeKeyser is 30 and it will be his play this season that determines his future, either with the Red Wings or somewhere else.
Someone else to watch could be new Red Wing Sam Gagner. The 31-year-old is no longer the player who the Edmonton Oilers took sixth overall back in 2007, but can play a role and would be great in the room. He recently wrote a moving article for The Players’ Tribune after the death of longtime Oiler dressing room assistant Joey Moss and has been written off once before, only to pick up 50 points with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a league-minimum deal. Gagner is an unrestricted free agent so there’s little chance the Kraken would use an expansion pick on him, but he’s the sort of player who can help a club form a positive culture and work ethic.
Lightning Have Enviable Depth
It’s no surprise that the defending champs are a deep team. If anything, the surprise was that it took the Lightning until last season to capture the Cup. Smart choices over the years at the draft table and trade deadline, along with a perceived — if debatable — tax benefit for players signing in Florida, mean that Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois has some tough decisions to make regarding his protected list. Spokane-native Tyler Johnson has a high probability of being selected on June 21. His point production has dropped off since a career-high 72 in 2014-15, but even in this young season he has three points in two games. The undersized centre has been proving people wrong since he went undrafted, and would benefit the Kraken if he’s their choice.
If not Johnson, the Lightning have another good forward option in Ondrej Palat. While Palat has never reached Johnson’s offensive peaks, he is also a year younger, larger, and had less of a drop off last season. Palat was dynamite in the 2020 Playoffs and it may be that Tampa finds a way to protect him, otherwise he would certainly be in consideration for Seattle.
On defence, Ryan McDonagh’s name has popped up several times when discussing expansion. The 31-year-old, left-shooting McDonagh missed time last season and in the playoffs with injury, and has a hefty contract with plenty of term left. All that said, he has been relatively healthy throughout his career and could add a veteran presence on the Kraken’s back end. If one of the two forwards above are available, which seems unavoidable, they could be a better selection from a cap management point of view.
The Not-So-Hapless Florida Panthers
Few teams have had less success throughout their franchise history than the Florida Panthers. Their Cinderella run to the Cup Final in 1996 is 25 years behind them and the team hasn’t won a playoff series since. It’s a credit to the team’s ownership that it has never relocated, with sagging attendance and such a dismal record of success and, while it’s too early to say they’re elite this season, their 5-1 start could be a sign that things have changed. The team that arguably lost the most in the Golden Knights’ Expansion Draft back in 2017 should do better this time around, no matter who gets selected.
Like so many depth players on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carter Verhaeghe may have been a hidden talent who was unable to get the ice time he needed on such a deep roster. The late bloomer had a decent campaign last season, potting nine goals in 50 appearances, but is on fire out of the gate as a Panther. Sample size can be misleading. The the 25-year-old Verhaeghe, if he doesn’t play himself onto the protected list, will be one to watch. He has five goals in six games for Florida, shoots left and plays at centre.
Patrick Hornqvist is the sort of aging veteran that many teams will expose. The 34-year-old is playing for his third NHL team as a Panther and has been a steady producer of goals over his career. The two-time Stanley Cup winner knows what it takes, in fact scoring the clinching goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2017. He won’t hit the 30-goal mark ever again but should be a 10-20 goal guy until his contract runs out in 2023. The Kraken could do worse than this player but it will depend on who else is available across the league.
Radko Gudas is unpleasant to play against. The bruising defender has shown throughout his career that he can keep the puck out of his own net, contribute a little bit offensively and force opposing players to keep their heads on a swivel. At 30 years of age, the one concern has to be the wear and tear the physical game he plays can have on an athlete’s body. The decline, when it comes, will be a sharp one. Gudas is under contract until 2023, so it wouldn’t be that costly of a bet if Seattle decides he’s worth a shot and misses.
Predators Continue Trend of Mediocrity
The heading above is perhaps a little unfair. Nashville made it to the Cup Final only a couple seasons ago, but their narrative continues to be a team that is competitive but never elite. Just as they were handled fairly easily by the Penguins back in 2017, they haven’t made a statement that 2020-21 is their season either, coming out of the gates with a subpar record of 4-5. The team saw several players exit last offseason and while those decisions might have been the right ones, the team still has a strong core and needs to find its way quickly in this shortened season.
My fellow writer here at THW, Alex MacLean, sees the Predators approaching the expansion in this manner:
“The protection base should be Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Victor Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen at forward, with Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Dante Fabbro on defence. Depending on whether they go with eight skaters or seven forwards/ three D, we would either see Ekholm as the last protected player, or Kunin, Jarnkrok, and Sissons. I could also see them leaving Johansen exposed because of the contract and protecting Kunin.”
THW’s Predators writer Alex MacLean
The Preds will protect goaltender Juuse Saros, leaving no good option available in net after longtime starter Pekka Rinne becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. At 38, he’s unlikely to attract Seattle’s attention, and if they do want him they can pursue him in free agency.
If Alex is onto something with Johansen potentially being available, it’s a win for Seattle. While his career didn’t have a straight line development, he is now a very good player, and cap concerns will not exist in the initial years of the Seattle franchise as most of the supporting cast will be making NHL minimums or close to them. Johansen would be owed $8 million per year until 2024-25, at which point he is an unrestricted free agent. Turning 29 shortly after Draft Day, he’d be on the Kraken payroll until his 33rd birthday. So long as he doesn’t suffer a steep decline, it’s safe to say at least two or three of those years would see good production. While his points dipped last season, his advanced statistics still look good and it’s unlikely there would be a more valuable player available on Nashville’s roster.
With that scenario only a theoretical, Kraken fans should also watch Matt Benning on defence. The 26-year-old, right-shot defenseman has only been with the Predators for a few games thus far, but is signed through the end of 2021-22. On a relatively cheap deal, he will only make $1 million on the final year of his contract but he is an intriguing player. An Oiler prior to this season, he was one of the few (or only) members of the Edmonton defensive corps to post positive plus/minus numbers each of the previous three seasons. With a decent shot and good skating, Benning could fill an important depth role in Seattle and is one of the players most likely to be left available.
There’s plenty of good hockey yet to come this season and each week will bring attention to potential Seattle players. The rivalries are beginning to heat up with the strictly divisional format and each game means more than the last. There is some word that the Kraken are closing on a mascot decision soon, and the coaching hire should follow within a month or two. Add that to the fact that the club will soon make its final payment to the NHL and become formally allowed to make trades and sign players, and it all means actual hockey is getting closer every day.