The New York Rangers are in the midst of a three-year-old rebuilding project that’s yet to yield a consistent playoff contender. However, there was a clear silver lining for our organization in the form of a roster that was well-situated to avoid a major loss in THW’s mock Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
While numerous contending teams were resigned to the poaching of a significant player from their rosters, due to the same favorable protection rules that were in place for the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft in 2017, the Rangers had no such issues. Most of our promising young players made their NHL debuts within the past two seasons, rendering them exempt from the draft and thus leaving plenty of slots for the organization to protect valuable assets that were eligible to be taken by the Kraken.
So it was relatively easy to construct the Blueshirts’ list of protected players, with little controversy over who would be left exposed. In the end, however, the loss was at least somewhat painful – Seattle selected winger Colin Blackwell, a player we had to expose at the time due to expansion draft requirements.
Rangers’ Group of Exempt Players Filled With Future Cornerstones
We really lucked out with 2021 being the year for the expansion draft, with so many rising young players on our roster not needing to be protected. The most significant was Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, who captured the hardware in his second season but was exempt from being chosen, having played fewer than three NHL seasons.
Also free from selection by Seattle were forwards Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov, defenseman K’Andre Miller and goaltender Igor Shesterkin – all of whom played for the Rangers last season and whom the front office hopes will form a good part of the exciting young core that’s been built up since February 2018.
Like most teams, we chose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender. Here’s our list of protected forwards:
Artemi Panarin (NMC) – The star left wing inked a seven-year, $81.5 million contract that included a full no-move clause before the 2019-20 season. Even if Panarin, the club’s most important forward, were eligible to be exposed, the Rangers would have protected him.
Mika Zibanejad (NMC) – Same as Panarin, Zibanejad would have been on our protection list even if he didn’t possess a no-move clause – which he does. Zibanejad has been one of the biggest bargains in the NHL since signing a five-year, $26.75 million extension before the 2017-18 season, and the organization plans to open talks on another extension with the player that has developed into a No. 1 center since being stolen in a lopsided trade with the Ottawa Senators in July 2016.
Chris Kreider (NMC) – This would have been a tougher call on whether to protect the enigmatic left wing had he been without a no-move clause. Still, the 30-year-old Kreider possesses one for the first four seasons of the seven-year, $45.5 million extension he inked in February 2020. He’s not going anywhere, despite a contract the club might have liked to see disappear out west.
Ryan Strome – The 28-year-old’s future in a Blueshirt is uncertain beyond 2021-22, after which his two-year, $9 million contract expires. The Rangers, though, weren’t about to expose him after he recorded 108 points in 126 games over the past two seasons and found easy chemistry with Panarin, who enjoyed a career season with Strome as his center in 2019-20.
Filip Chytil – It’s easy to forget that Chytil is only 21, as it seems he’s been around forever. In reality, his entry-level contract just expired, and he was an easy choice to be on the list given his still-untapped potential to become a top-six forward. Chytil could end up being trade fodder for a more experienced center after the expansion draft, but he remains a valuable asset that couldn’t have been lost for nothing.
Pavel Buchnevich – The right wing’s development into an outstanding two-way forward in 2020-21 falls into the timely category for him, as he’s a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. The organization will have to decide whether a significant raise from Buchnevich’s $3.25 million salary-cap hit last season, along with significant term, is affordable.
However, we were always going to protect the player who recorded 20 goals, 28 assists, and a plus-12 rating in 54 games and played on the Rangers’ top penalty-killing unit.
Julien Gauthier – This inclusion is the only one on our list that’s realistically debatable, but in the end, it was a no-brainer. We went with Gauthier, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound right wing with uncommon speed, power and a raw game over young center Brett Howden due to Gauthier’s higher potential ceiling. Howden has failed to live up to his first-round draft pick pedigree since arriving in the blockbuster trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning in February 2018, producing 49 points and a minus-29 rating in 178 games.
Jacob Trouba (NMC) – The big right defender was acquired during the 2019 offseason to anchor the Rangers’ blue line, and the four years of a full no-move clause that came with his seven-year, $56 million deal kicked in last offseason. Trouba hasn’t been the dominant player the Rangers hoped he would be to this point, but he’s developed into a leader for the young team and, at 27, should be entering his prime.
Ryan Lindgren – A possible future captain, Lindgren’s fiery, physical style and better-than-expected puck skills and skating give him the look of a franchise cornerstone on the blue line. Teaming with Fox to form the club’s top defensive pairing, Lindgren’s jagged, edgy game is the kind that remains desperately needed on the Rangers’ roster.
Libor Hajek – This, to be blunt, was something of a throwaway selection. The Rangers needed two defense protection spots for Trouba and Lindgren, but didn’t really require a third. We left Tony DeAngelo and Anthony Bitetto exposed, and with Fox and Miller exempt, Hajek was chosen simply to fill the slot. The 23-year-old was unlikely to have been Seattle’s selection, but protecting him at least guaranteed the Blueshirts wouldn’t lose the supposed centerpiece of the February 2018 trade with the Lightning for nothing. (From “Rangers Mishandling Ryan McDonagh Trade Has Been Lightning Boon,” New York Post, 7/10/2021)
Alexandar Georgiev – With No. 1 goalie Shesterkin exempt, it was an easy choice to protect Georgiev, who put together an inconsistent season in 2020-21 but still has value. The 25-year-old provides insurance for Shesterkin, who’s exhibited a propensity for injury in his two abbreviated seasons, and could be used in a trade for a center. With six shutouts in 96 career games for Georgiev, the Kraken might have been willing to bet that more consistent work would have allowed a No. 1 netminder to emerge, and we wouldn’t have taken that chance – even with a cap hit of $2.425 million for 2021-22, that’s higher than preferred for an expected backup.
Players Left Unprotected to Fulfill Expansion Draft Requirements
All teams had to expose two forwards, one defenseman and one goaltender under contract for 2021-22. As such, we were forced to expose Blackwell along with Kevin Rooney – both of whom were signed to two-year contracts last offseason largely with the expansion draft in mind, before Blackwell emerged as a lineup spark plug and scored 12 goals in 47 games.
Unfortunately, the timing for our deadline to submit our protected lists wasn’t good. The Rangers signed Howden to a one-year contract just days after our draft took place, which would have enabled us to use him to fulfill the exposure requirements and protect Blackwell. Unlucky.
On defense, it was Bitetto who was given a two-year contract last summer to meet draft exposure rules, but DeAngelo’s late January banishment from the team meant we exposed two defenders in the draft that met the requirement (the Rangers are expected to buy out DeAngelo’s contract).
Veteran goalie Keith Kinkaid, who also scored a two-year deal last offseason and played in nine games for the Rangers in 2020-21, fulfilled our goalie exposure requirement and will provide organizational depth going forward.
Pre-Draft Maneuvering With Other Teams
Though we didn’t make any major changes to the roster prior to the expansion draft, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Washington Capitals engaged us in talks for Evgeni Kuznetsov, a player we had little interest in. We made a serious offer for Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel that included Buchnevich and two first-round picks, but were rebuffed. Given our open defense protection slot and need for a veteran blueliner, we nearly had a trade with the Nashville Predators for Mattias Ekholm, but we couldn’t find the right fit in the end. We also spoke with the Kraken about a potential deal to avoid taking Gauthier or Blackwell but found the price for making one prohibitive.
Final Analysis of Rangers’ Protection Strategy
The Kraken’s pick of Blackwell meant losing a player who enjoyed an unexpectedly strong season with the Rangers in 2020-21 and provided a jolt of energy. However, the diminutive forward’s surprising offensive breakout might prove to be a fluke, given his shooting percentage of 18.8 last season – a number that seems unsustainable.
A difficult loss would have been Gauthier, who it’s fair to assume would have been seriously considered by Seattle had he been left exposed. Seattle staying away from Howden justifies our choice for Gauthier as the seventh protected forward, as the Rangers now get to keep Howden as a useful depth option. However, we would have preferred to have seen Howden signed before the draft to retain Blackwell.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.