A new team joining the NHL means another Expansion Draft. Fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins know all too well the kind of change of fate and heartbreak an Expansion Draft can have on a franchise. This time around, however, the player that gets selected from the Penguins isn’t as obvious.
There has already been much discussion and speculation over who the Penguins should protect or leave available for the Seattle Kraken to take a swing at. Beyond the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, there are only a couple of other obvious names to lock up. Those include Brian Dumoulin and Jake Guentzel. Bryan Rust will probably be safe from the Kraken, as well, but beyond those names, it’s anyone’s guess who will be left unprotected.
While there are uncertainties surrounding what the Penguins protected list will look like, there are three key players that should be on said list.
Yes, the Penguins should seriously consider protecting their fourth-line center. Blueger is too valuable an asset to the team to even have the possibility of losing him. This past season should be enough proof that the 26-year-old’s game is growing to more than just defense. In 43 games, he scored seven goals, 15 assists, and 22 points—with three goals coming on the penalty kill.
Blueger is due for a new contract and since he isn’t a flashy, high-scoring forward, it should be a reasonable deal. The Penguins are likely to gain some cap relief following the Expansion Draft and that should be money in Blueger’s pocket. It may be a hot take, but it’s a must that he gets protected from Seattle.
In his first season with the team that drafted him in 2012, Kapanen was primed for a breakout year, and he had one. Whether on the first or fourth line, Kapanen found success and helped the team collect wins no matter where he played. The amount of production he is capable of makes him an irreplaceable piece of the team. He thinks the future is bright in Pittsburgh and he should be a part of it.
There is more to Kapanen’s game that the Pens haven’t even utilized yet. During his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he played a big role in their penalty kill. Much like Blueger, Kapanen can be used as an offensive threat while a man down. Being able to play all 200 feet and on any line deserves protection.
Possessing one of the most dangerous shots on the team, McCann has earned his spot on the protected list. During the 2020-21 season, he showed everyone that he is a straight up scoring threat. He knows how to find the back of the net at even strength or on the power play. Scoring will be important for the Penguins in the future, especially if Malkin is going to be injured for the start of the season.
An important part about what McCann does with the Penguins is how he can play both center and wing on either the second or third line. That kind of mobility is key for a team that always seems to have injured bodies. Since joining the Penguins, he has been improving his game and is close to reaching his prime years. It is important that if he reaches his full potential, he does it in a Penguins uniform. Just like Kapanen, McCann will play a vital role in extending the success of the Penguins.
All gas, no breaks. Tanev is a fun player to watch and a great teammate, but his contract still has the possibility of turning into an anchor in the future. The $3.5 million cap hit isn’t the issue, it’s the modified no-move clause that expires in four seasons. That’s a lot of term and a head-scratcher of a clause for a fourth-liner.
Tanev has the ability to move up and down the lineup and doesn’t totally deserve the title of “fourth liner,” but that’s where Mike Sullivan plays him. Given the grinding, hard-hitting style of hockey he likes to play, it’s a contract you have to review every year. It could be a sharp decline in effectiveness. It might be dangerous to leave a fan favorite open for the taking, but since his contract is such an anomaly, it’s more than likely Seattle avoids it.
The player to be taken from the Penguins might not be as obvious this expansion, but one thing is certain: they will be losing a good player. That player could be Zucker. He’s already flying around the rumor mill as a trade option, so why not leave him open for Seattle? He played well in his first 15 games with Pittsburgh, but he just hasn’t been good enough since the Toronto bubble. A lower-body injury interrupted his playing time, but he only posted nine goals and nine assists in 38 games during the 2020-21 season.
The numbers are nowhere near as high as fans expected after seeing Zucker put up 12 points in his first 15 games before the 2019-20 season was cut short. Leaving him unprotected would be appealing for Seattle. He’s a talented player who can score plenty of goals and doesn’t have an absurd cap hit. Between him and Zach Aston-Reese, those are the two most likely to be taken by Seattle if left unprotected.
The big fish in discussions of Expansion Draft protection. Many predictions have penciled Carter in as a protection, but that would be a foolish move by the Penguins. Sure, Malkin is expected to miss a portion of the next season and Carter will be filling in as the second-line center, but there is no reason for Seattle to take him with their Pittsburgh selection. Protecting him would be a waste of a protection spot.
Carter is in the final year of his contract and will turn 37 in the midst of the 2021-22 season. He has already shown interest in making that his final season in the NHL before retiring. If you’re Seattle, what good does one year of a player do for you? He may still be able to produce, but as a new team, you have to keep the future in mind. Carter isn’t a guy that will help you in the future, especially if some other names from Pittsburgh turn out to be more appealing.
At the end of the day, the Penguins are most likely losing a talented position player come July 21. Here is what the Penguins protected list should look like.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.