Lose You to Seattle? A Way Too Early Primer of the 2021 Expansion Draft
In case you've been living under a rock for the last two years, the NHL is expanding for the second time in five years the season after next. In 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights entered the NHL, and are still looking to find their footing as they deal with the hard reality of being an expansion franchise and the inevitable inaugural half decade or so of failure that comes with it (note to self - look up how Vegas has done so far just in case).
One of the biggest perks for the Golden Knights was the ability to select a player from each of the first 30 NHL franchises, shaping their team for years to come. In about 13 months, the Seattle franchise will have the opportunity to do the same, with every team except Vegas forfeiting a player to the new club.
For some teams, the expansion draft will be a minor inconvenience that costs a fringe depth piece that probably didn't fit into their long term plans. That's the category the Flyers fit into last time, as the Golden Knights took Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, a decent fourth-line center that could skate and kill penalties but wasn't a great possession player and might've been a little overpaid. Better than Jori Lehetra? Yes. A significant loss? Probably not.
However, when Seattle comes knocking next summer, the Flyers will probably be one the harder hit teams. Even though there is still a lot of time and uncertainty between today and day one for Seattle, we already know a lot about what the process will look like, who the Flyers will protect, and who they might lose to Seattle.
Format and Requirements
The 2021 expansion draft works exactly the same as the Vegas expansion draft in 2016. Seattle must meet certain requirements with their picks, and NHL teams must meet certain requirements with who they expose, ensuring Seattle has a shot to at least acquire a useful player.
Let's start with the new guys. Seattle will pick 30 players, one from each team. Their squad must be compliant with the 2021-22 salary cap. Currently, the cap ceiling is $81.5 million, and the floor $60.2 million. Seattle must draft at least 14 forwards, 9 defenseman, and 3 goalies, leaving the club with four picks to use as they see fit. At least 20 of the selected players must be under contract for the 2021-22 season. Seattle can sign UFAs or RFAs from a club during this time period without giving up draft pick compensation (Vegas did this with Erik Haula), but doing so counts as the player chosen from that team.
As for the original 30 NHL teams on the other side of this coin, they have two different protection plans to choose from. Clubs can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie (the Flyers chose this option in 2016) or eight skaters regardless of position and a goalie. Players with No Move clauses must be protected unless the player agrees to waive their clause prior to the expansion draft. First and second year professionals are exempt from selection. And each team must expose at least two forwards and one defenseman who play in at least 40 games in 2020-21 OR 70 games combined in 2019-20 and 2020-21 and are under contract through at least 2021-22. They must also expose at least one goalie under contract through 2021-22 or is an RFA in the 2021 offseason.
What Will the Flyers Do?
I would be shocked if the Flyers do not opt for the seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender option. There was at least a possibility they could go with eight skaters and protect four defenseman if Shayne Gostisbehere had a bounce-back year and the club really didn't want to lose Travis Sanheim or Phil Myers, but he doesn't seem worthy of being protected right now after a disappointing 19-20 campaign.
The Flyers do come out a little lucky with the first two-year pros can't be taken stipulation. That clause automatically protects Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost, as well as almost every prospect in the organization. That's important, because the Flyers have a lot of quality forwards, and *spoiler alert* - not all of them are able to be protected.
Let's start our protection selections with the backend and goaltender. Carter Hart is a lock to be the Flyers goalie protected after an outstanding year and a half as the team's starter, and at just 21 has tremendous upside. On the blue-line, Ivan Provorov is a slam dunk - he's led the Flyers in time-on-ice four years running, hasn't missed a game, and is a dynamic two-way stud. With Gostisbehere's struggles each of the last two years and his somewhat expensive $4.5 million cap hit, he's unlikely to be protected.
That means the last two spots belong to mobile, young puck-movers Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers. No need to worry about using a slot on Matt Niskanen here - he'll be 34 and a pending UFA in the summer of 2021. If the Flyers chose to bring him back, they can do so without needing to protect him unless the extension is signed before the expansion draft, and there's no need to do that.
However, things get more complicated up front. The Flyers outstanding forward depth in the present is amazing, but the salary cap and Seattle are poised to break it up, or at least modify it going forward. Claude Giroux and Kevin Hayes both have no-move clauses and therefore will be protected - there's no reason the organization would ask them to waive right now. Travis Konecny is just 23 and has scored 24 goals each of the last three seasons - he's not going anywhere. Neither is Sean Couturier, who is probably winning the Selke this year and scored at a 70-point pace three consecutive years.
Now comes the hard part. The Flyers have at least four forwards competing for the final three spots. Two of these players have serious health conditions, and therefore it's hard to project exactly where they'll be health-wise this time next year. I'm going to assume the best for them and say that Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom will both be healthy, and if they are, they're getting protected. Yes, Patrick hasn't exactly lived up to the hype yet, but he's still a capable 3C right now and is just 21. Lindblom is even better than him and only 23. While it's possible that the Flyers could get a medical exemption for one or both, or their condition could lead to retirement, I have them healthy and protected until I have reason not to.
That leaves us with one spot left, and three contenders for it: Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Scott Laughton is the only other current player I'd consider protecting, but he's a pending UFA in 2021, so see what I said about Niskanen for him.
Voracek is tied with Couturier for longest-tenured Flyer not named Claude Giroux, coming over in the Jeff Carter trade in 2011. Voracek has been an elite play-maker over his Flyers tenure, posting forty-plus assists in six straight seasons, topping out at 65 helpers (T-3 in the entire NHL) in 2017-18. He's also scored 20 or more goals six times in nine seasons as a Flyer, and his underlying numbers took a leap this year after falling off a little the last couple seasons. However, Voracek isn't great defensively and makes a hefty $8.25 million against the cap, which is probably the biggest argument for why he should be exposed.
James van Riemsdyk is no cheapskate either, coming in at a $7 million contract that ends after 2022-23, one year earlier than Voracek's deal. Like Voracek, JVR isn't a great defensive player, and didn't have amazing underlying numbers last year before bouncing back this season. van Riemsdyk is a goal scorer, but he seemed snakebitten for most of the seasons, scoring eight fewer goals than last season in the same amount of games. His 24-goal pace would be his lowest total since 2011-12, his last year as a Flyer before heading to Toronto for six seasons. The Flyers regret losing him last time, but would a separation make sense this time around?
Finally, there's Aube-Kubel, who wasn't even a serious candidate for protection at this time last year. However, the 2014 second-round pick became an NHL regular this season at a 34-point pace while putting up stellar underlying numbers, just like he'd done the last three seasons for the Phantoms. Aube-Kubel is cheap right now ($700K), and though he'll get a raise in the off-season, he'll still be much cheaper than JVR and Voracek when the Flyers make their protection list.
What Will Seattle Do?
While what each of those three forwards do next season will be the biggest reason for their protection (or exposure) in 2021, if I had to bet today on who gets the last spot, my money goes to Voracek. He's a core part of the leadership group and is still an elite player. The Flyers cap situation will be tight, but they're probably going to lose an expensive player to Seattle, making it that much easier to fit Jake.
That leaves van Riemsdyk, Aube-Kubel, and Shayne Gostisbehere as the Flyers current main candidates to be taken by Seattle. van Riemsdyk is the high-profile pick - an outstanding goal-scorer that every team needs. He could be to Seattle what James Neal was to Vegas. However, his high cap hit by scare Seattle off, and it's not as hard as you think to find 20 goals in today's NHL (122 players hit that mark last year, about 33% of regular forwards). Nicolas Aube-Kubel is a cheap, gritty, and talented bottom-sixer that will come in cheap, but there will probably be a lot of players available that match that description.
My bet for Seattle's pick from the Flyers, barring another nightmare season like this one, is Shayne Gostisbehere. Ghost seems to be losing support and ice-time fast with the Flyers, but he's still an extremely talented player that is a game-breaker, top-four defenseman at his best. At his worst, he's a solid five and a great power-play quarterback - that alone is almost worth his high but not that high $4.5 million cap hit. There aren't many defenseman with the talent of Ghost, and I think it would be shrewd for Seattle to bet on bringing that talent out once again.