Jim Benning and Co. made some drastic changes to the blueline of the Vancouver Canucks this past offseason. We’ve already spilled plenty of ink on whether or not the changes constitute an overall improvement (they do!) and who’s going to be partnered with whom (who knows?!).
But, speaking of ink, there’s at least one more angle worth examining, because the 2021 season is the last in which the NHL will consist of only 31 teams.
The Seattle Kraken are coming, and they’re bringing an Expansion Draft with them.
Fortunately, Benning’s recent moves have set the blueline up perfectly for the circumstances of expansion. Before we get to the specifics, let’s have a quick refresher on the rules for the 2021 Expansion Draft:
“Current NHL teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goalie, under the following conditions.
All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the draft, and who decline to waive those clauses, must be protected and will be counted toward their team’s applicable protection limits.
All first- and second-year NHL/AHL players, and all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward protection limits.)”
The best news coming out of all that transactional jargon? Most of the defenders the Canucks would want to protect don’t even need to be protected.
Who doesn’t need to be protected?
Quinn Hughes-The Canucks’ most valuable defender, and possibly their most valuable player period, only played five NHL games at the tail-end of 2018/19 as a 19-year-old, which doesn’t count as a “season.” Thus, he’ll be considered a second-year pro when the Expansion Draft rolls around, and won’t have to be protected.
Alex Edler- The longest-serving Canuck will be pending UFA at the end of the 2021 season. Unless Vancouver extends him before then, there’s no reason to protect him — and, given how long he’s been with the team, any extension would surely be a handshake agreement signed after the Expansion Draft so as to avoid the issue altogether.
Travis Hamonic- Assuming that the rumours of a one-year contract are true, Hamonic would fall into the same camp as Edler. Again, there’s no real reason to sign him prior to the draft, so no need to protect him — if he even sticks around past 2021, that is.
Jordie Benn- Another UFA, albeit one who the Canucks probably wouldn’t be afraid of exposing. Regardless, Benn is probably not going to extended at all unless he enjoys a major rebound in 2021, so he’s a real nonfactor here.
Jack Rathbone- Fresh out of the NCAA, Rathbone is entering his first professional season. He wouldn’t even be eligible for the Expansion Draft if it were held in 2022.
Jett Woo- Woo’s in the same boat as Rathbone, except he’s coming from the WHL instead of the NCAA.
Mitch Eliot- After signing as an undrafted free agent out of the OHL, Eliot barely got in enough games with Utica to have last season count as his rookie pro campaign. He did, but that still only puts him in his second pro season this year, and he’s thus not eligible.
All unsigned draft picks- Any of the Canucks’ defensive draft choices without a contract will be exempt. Of course, all of Toni Utunen, Joni Jurmo, Jacob Truscott, and Viktor Persson wouldn’t have the professional experience necessary for draft eligibility. Nikita Tryamkin, on the other hand, does have two years of NHL experience, but he still doesn’t have to be protected unless the Canucks decide to sign him between now and the draft.
Who’s left to protect?
Nate Schmidt- He arrives from Vegas as #2 on the Canucks’ defensive depth chart, but protecting Schmidt will be the team’s top priority in the Expansion Draft. That’s at least one protection slot set in stone.
Tyler Myers- The UFA contract Myers signed in the summer of 2019, which carried a NMC for only the 2019/20 season, was specifically designed to ensure he could be exposed in the Seattle draft. However, at this point, it looks like he would be protected anyway. He’s probably the Canucks’ second-most valuable defender eligible for selection.
Olli Juolevi- No matter how Juolevi’s 2021 season goes, it’s hard to imagine the Canucks giving up on the former 5th overall draft pick so easily. He may not be the sexiest option for a protection slot, but he’s the Canucks’ third-best option at the current moment.
Jalen Chatfield- With the signing of Hamonic, Chatfield’s uphill climb toward making the Canucks in 2021 just got uphillier. He’s still a nice depth option, but he’d require a major breakout this year to even garner consideration for protection.
Guillaume Brisebois- We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, Brisebois is currently straddling the line between legitimate prospect and AHL lifer, and he’ll continue to do so in 2021. Like Chatfield, an unexpected uptick in performance is the only thing that might make Brisebois worthy of a protection slot.
Ashton Sautner- Sautner has turned into a valuable farm club mentor, but he’s never going to be protection slot material. He’s a UFA at the end of the year, anyway.
Brogan Rafferty- The first draft of this article had Rafferty under the “exempt” category, but that proved to be an error. As it turns out, CanucksArmy alum Ryan Biech had already solved this conundrum years ago, and it’s a bit counterintuitive, so pay close attention. Normally, a player 20 or older accrues a “professional year” when they play 10 or more pro games in a year, but when it comes to expansion, the criteria is closer to that of waiver eligibility. Though the public isn’t privy to the exact language, it seems that a player 20 or older only has to play a single pro game to accrue a professional year, and thus Rafferty’s two games at the end of 2018/19 count. He’ll need to be protected.
Josh Teves- Everything we just said about Rafferty also applies to Teves, except he only played one game at the end of 2018/19. We’re not typing all that out again!
Who would’ve needed to be protected?
It’s worth noting that, had the Canucks extended either Chris Tanev or Troy Stecher for anything longer than a year, they would also have required a protection slot. As of now, it seems like Calgary will expose Tanev, electing to protect Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, and Noah Hanifin instead. Stecher stands a much better chance of being protected by Detroit, despite his lower profile.
How could this help the Canucks improve their blueline even further?
To recap, as of right now the Canucks are set to protect the trio of Schmidt, Myers, and Juolevi in the 2021 Expansion Draft. If that ends up being the case, that’s entirely fine. But most would agree that there’s most than a little flexibility in that arrangement. In fact, it’s downright Gumby-esque.
Schmidt gets protected no matter what.
The same goes for Juolevi if he proves himself a capable NHL defender with top-four potential this year. If he doesn’t, the Canucks might still be reluctant to expose him, but it won’t be the end of the world.
With Myers, on the other hand, there’s a not-insignificant portion of the fanbase that wants him to be exposed to Seattle, and there’s certainly some logic in their thinking. Myers’ $6 million cap hit stands for three more seasons after the Expansion Draft, and that might scare Seattle away. Even if it doesn’t, Benning and Co. could rest easy knowing that, in all likelihood, they got the best two years out of Myers’ contract before he moved on to the Kraken. There’s a debate to be had about whether or not Myers is worth $6 million right now, but there are few who believe he will be by the end of his deal, and having that be Seattle’s problem is not an undesirable outcome.
Rafferty, the only other defender currently worthy of consideration at this juncture, is already 25 and will have to seriously impress this season to earn a protection slot. With Hamonic’s signing, the odds are decidedly stacked against that. Even if he surprises and sees significant NHL ice-time in 2021, he’s probably still a player most would be comfortable exposing.
Suffice it to say, then, that the Canucks have at least one defensive protection slot up for grabs, and that puts them in a position to take advantage of those teams who find themselves one short.
As of this writing, all of Anaheim, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Edmonton, Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Washington are in possession of more talented defenders than available protection slots. Obviously, a lot can happen between now and the Expansion Draft, and those teams will likely make moves to improve their situation, but one of those moves might be sending one of those talented defenders to the Canucks for a bargain, Schmidt-style price.
You heard that right. The Canucks don’t just get to walk into the Seattle era without the risk of losing a valuable piece of their blueline, they could easily end up walking out of it with a significant upgrade.
If that comes to pass, and if at least one of the team’s young defenders turns into a veritable top-four talent, Vancouver’s D corps instantly switches from a question mark to a strength.
One is almost tempted to think that Benning and Co. planned it this way.
Who gets exposed?
Keep in mind, it’s not all about the protection slots. Expansion rules also state that the Canucks will have to expose at least one defender who meets the following conditions:
“One defenseman who is a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in at least 27 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 54 NHL games in the prior two seasons.”
(The totals used to be 40/70, but that was changed due to the shortened schedule.)
Currently, that’s a bit of a problem for the Canucks, but only slightly so.
If Vancouver were to protect all three of Schmidt, Myers, and Juolevi, they would not have a defender available to expose that met the above criteria.
One way to get around it is by having any one of Rafferty, Chatfield, Brisebois, Sautner, or Teves play in at least 27 games in 2021, though that seems unlikely in a truncated season. Alternatively, they could extend and then expose any of Edler, Hamonic, or Benn (provided Benn plays three more games in 2021), though that’s a less-than-elegant solution. Same goes for picking up a new player for the express purpose of meeting exposure requirements.
Of course, acquiring another defender, protecting them, and exposing Myers fixes the issue right up.
All the more reason to suspect that such an outcome may be Benning’s grand plan, and that it may have been from the moment he signed Myers to such a specifically-constructed contract.
Even if it’s just a coincidence, at least it’s a happy one.