Oilers Have Difficult Expansion Questions Ahead

It’s the dog days of summer for hockey fans and writers, and when there’s little to no action on the ice, one cannot help but look ahead and imagine what the league may look like in a few years time. In the summer of 2021, the NHL will be welcoming a new Seattle team to the league as its 32nd franchise to compete in the Western Conference. Not only will this expansion team change the competitive landscape in the West, but it may drastically affect NHL rosters around the league, just as the Vegas Golden Knights did in the summer of 2017.

The Edmonton Oilers were quite lucky to have avoided exposing a significant player in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft to the Golden Knights, who selected underwhelming defenseman Griffin Reinhart from the blue and orange. In 2021, the Oilers will face a more difficult decision when it comes to deciding which players to protect and which protection format to use given the logjam of defensive prospects they have pushing their way through the pipeline.

Griffin Reinhart
Former Edmonton Oilers defenseman Griffin Reinhart (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

It is inevitable that the Oil will acquire more players over the course of the next few seasons, but I believe the projected protected players already reside on this team, therefore making it more viable for me to explain who I think the Oilers will shield from the new Seattle franchise.

Protection Format: 8 Skaters, 1 Goalie

For the 2021 Expansion Draft, the same rules used in 2017 will apply to the new Seattle franchise, with the one additional rule being that they cannot select a player from the Vegas Golden Knights given how new they still are to the league. By protecting seven forwards and three defensemen in the previous draft, the Oilers were able to keep Vegas from picking valuable forwards such as Jordan Eberle, Mark Letestu, and Patrick Maroon. Since they were not as deep on the blue line, the team risked losing Kris Russell in the draft while protecting cornerstone defenseman Oscar Klefbom, along with Adam Larsson and Andrej Sekera.

For this upcoming draft, I suggest that the Oilers utilize the eight skaters and one goalie protection format to fend off Seattle general manager Ron Francis, simply because the plethora of defensive talent must be maintained. No one can argue the importance of defensive depth on an NHL roster, and I think it is paramount that the Oilers protect their young studs like Darnell Nurse, Caleb Jones, and Ethan Bear, who will all be eligible for exposure.

Ron Francis
Ron Francis was named the Seattle franchise’s GM on July 18, 2019

Edmonton certainly catches a break by not having to protect young stars like Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg thanks to their limited years playing pro at the time of the expansion draft, but choosing who to protect will be a difficult decision, especially if young forward prospects take tremendous strides in their development over the next few years.

Oilers’ Potential Protection List

Though the jury is still out on forwards Tyler Benson, Kailer Yamamoto, and Cooper Marody, (all who will be exiting their entry-level deals at the time of the expansion), I do not foresee the club being inclined to protect any forwards outside of the above players and Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (assuming he re-signs) if it means exposing a highly skilled defenseman. Keeping a stable defensive core intact should be the Oilers’ main priority going into this draft and if Edmonton’s young forwards develop well and keep GM Ken Holland from adding another significant forward, I think they can afford to expose current players like James Neal (who will be 34 years old), Zack Kassian, and Markus Granlund, if they are still with the club.

No Brainers

The Oilers should protect four forwards, four defensemen, and a goalie in the Seattle Expansion Draft. There are five “no-brainer” protection spots currently on this team; those belong to Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, and Darnell Nurse. These five players are the absolute core of this team, and just the thought of letting a team pick them up for free is inconceivable. Stuart Skinner will likely be protected as the sole goalie provided he continues to improve and show promise as the Oilers most highly touted goaltending prospect, but the last three spots are certainly up for grabs over the next two years. It will be very intriguing to watch which players prove their value and compete for secure jobs in Edmonton.

Oilers McDavid Draisaitl Nurse
Leon Draisatil, Connor McDavid, and Darnell Nurse (Vince Richard/The Hockey Writers)

Caleb Jones

The first of the two defensemen who will be protected is Caleb Jones. The 6-foot-1, mobile, left-shooting defenseman will ultimately replace Kris Russell on the Oilers blue line in a year or two and will likely be playing top-four minutes in the 2020-21 season. Jones has shown great upward trajectory in his first two years playing pro with the Bakersfield Condors and has also become a leader on a young team.

Caleb Jones Oilers
Caleb Jones (Photo Credit: Connor Mah/Flickr)

His leadership intangibles, along with his above-average offensive capabilities and versatility playing on both sides of the blue line will make him hard to over look in this decision-making process. Given the logjam of defensemen in the Oilers pipeline and his $4 million AAV, Russell will likely not be re-signed after the 2020-21 season to pave the way for current prospects, thus leaving him as a decent exposure option for Seattle to pick up from Edmonton.

Adam Larsson

The second protected defenseman will be Adam Larsson, which may surprise many Oiler fans given his inability to live up to the hype that came along with him in the Taylor Hall deal in 2016. Although Larsson has not been able to put up offensive numbers expected of his 2011 fourth pick overall status, the Swedish stay-at-home defenseman is a crucial piece to maintain if the Oilers want to make deep runs in the playoffs. Larsson, who finished this past season ninth overall in hits, will still be in his prime in two years at the age of 28 and will still be able to play effectively against team’s top lines and on the penalty kill.

Adam Larsson (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The only hazard with the 208-pound defenseman is his salary cap hit and UFA status, which he will have the same summer of the expansion draft. Adam Larsson is definitely not worth upwards of $5 million and I think that if the Oilers can re-sign Larsson to a cheaper extension worth around $3-4 million AAV per year, Edmonton will certainly benefit from the sand paper and grit he brings to the blue line, especially in the playoffs.

Tyler Benson

The final protection spot will be the toughest choice for Oilers management, but ultimately Tyler Benson will prevail and be shielded from the Seattle club. Though this is a bold claim to make before he even sets foot in the NHL, Benson will provide the Oilers with some much-needed scoring on the wing in the top-six group alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins over the next two seasons. After a series of injuries that slowed his development, the Edmonton native dominated in the AHL this past season registering 66 points in 68 games and will almost certainly get a shot at the NHL level this year if he comes to training camp prepared to compete.

Tyler Benson Vancouver Giants
Tyler Benson of the Vancouver Giants (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

Though his skating has always been an issue for scouts, Benson has become a more mobile player over the past few years and has been able to combine this improvement with his physicality. Benson was not expected to be a power forward when he was drafted originally, but he has over time evolved into a smaller version of one with soft hands. Make no mistake, Tyler Benson will only continue to improve and become a consistent, skilled NHL winger with top-six potential in the future.

The Possibility of Side Deals

With highly skilled players like Yamamoto and Marody available to Seattle, there is no question Ken Holland will be working the phones to make side deals that protect these players from being plucked off the Oilers roster. Whether it be draft picks or offering players for cash considerations, it is important that the team try to keep their defensive-core intact as much as possible and maintain the presence of fast, skilled forwards in their depth chart. Every move made between now and the summer of 2021 by Holland will not be completed without thinking about expansion draft repercussions as the Oilers will definitely have their hands tied with great young talent when it comes to submitting final protection lists.