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Photo Credit: © Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Exploiting the Expansion Draft Part One: Eight targets for the right side of the Canucks’ blueline

After a 2021 season unlike any other, it’s time for the Vancouver Canucks to get ready for an offseason that promises to be nearly as unique. The flat cap, managerial uncertainty, and large pending contracts for the team’s most important players will work together to ensure a summer full of drama, but there’s no greater “chaos factor” at play than the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.

As we’ve covered in the past here on CanucksArmy, the Canucks themselves are set up quite well to survive the Expansion Draft without much loss of talent. In fact, we can take it a step further and suggest that the Canucks are actually in a position to come out of the process with more talent on their roster — if they play their cards right.

In this Exploiting the Expansion Draft series, we’ll be looking at all the ways in which the Canucks might pilfer some of the deeper depth charts around the league pre-expansion. The basic idea is that a team in danger of exposing multiple valuable players to Seattle might be willing to sell those assets off ahead of time to someone else — specifically, the Canucks, one of only a handful of clubs out there with protection slots to burn.

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Of course, these players won’t be free. Any team who trades a non-protected asset only guarantees that they’ll be losing an entirely different asset to Seattle, and they always have the option of just paying Seattle not to take a certain someone. But these players should be available for cheaper than they would be under ordinary circumstances, and that’s the caveat that the Canucks should be looking to take advantage.

We start our series, naturally, with the right side of the blueline. It’s perhaps the weakest component in the Canucks’ long-term makeup, so let’s see if we can do something about fixing that via a clever trade or two. We also start with the first half of the NHL alphabet, because this one is going to be a two-parter.

All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick and reflect even-strength play. Italicized names indicate possible/tentative additions to protection lists. Reminder: teams will have the option of selecting seven forwards, three defenders, and one goaltender or eight skaters of any kind and one goaltender.

Anaheim Ducks

Projected Protection List (Defence): Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Haydn Fleury

The Ducks were one of the teams beneath the Canucks in the standings, but they’ve still got a tough choice or two to make at the Expansion Draft. They have too many eligible young forwards to go 8-1, so they’ll have to expose one of Josh Manson or Haydn Fleury on defence.

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Manson would seem to be the more valuable player, but a down season from him and the fact that Fleury is five years younger might tip them toward protecting the latter.

Poachable: Josh Manson, RHD

29, 6’3”, 224lb, One year left @ $4.1 million (UFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 23 1 6 7 17:59 59.6% 42.6% 41.61% 40.32% 40.15%

The 2021 season was a miserable one for Manson, both in terms of injuries and his play when he managed to get into the lineup. Even among the lowly Ducks, Manson ranked worst in a lot of analytical categories — but that’s also at least partially the result of Anaheim’s toughest deployment.

Manson’s offense has been trending downward ever since an anomalous 37-point effort in 2017/18, but he’s usually far less porous than this and he does offer that tantalizing combo of size and the requisite meanness to use it.

If there’s one solid reason not to pursue Manson, it’s his contract status. He’s fairly priced but only has one year remaining until unrestricted free agency, and if the Canucks acquired him prior to the Expansion Draft, they wouldn’t even be able to officially talk about an extension. Manson would have to be viewed as a possible rental, and that’s not an ideal way to utilize this unique opportunity.

That same issue could, of course, drive down the asking price — perhaps to as low as a second and a longshot prospect? With no salary constraints on Anaheim’s end, you won’t get him for cheaper than that.

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Deployment data from HockeyViz.com

Poachable: Haydn Fleury, LHD

24, 6’4”, 216lb, One year left @ $1.3 million (RFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 47 3 1 4 15:24 50.7% 52.2% 47.36% 50% 58.18%

Fleury is definitely the budget option when shopping Downtown Disney, but he might also be the superior choice. Though he struggled against the impossible to earn top-four minutes in Carolina, Fleury’s underlying stats were always encouraging. Early returns were also good in a slightly expanded role in Anaheim after being acquired at the Trade Deadline for Jani Hakanpaa and a sixth. Fleury got the chance to kill penalties for the Ducks and looked fine doing it.

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Fleury is unproven under heavier minutes in the long-term, and he is a left-hander, though the nature of his opportunities in Carolina ensured that he has plenty of experience on the right.

Like Manson, he’s not an ideal target for the Canucks, but he should come even cheaper — probably for a third or less if the Ducks decide to expose him.

From HockeyViz.com

Boston Bruins

Projected Protection List (Defence): Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk

A team like the Bruins (a jerk team) are destined to lose someone talented to Seattle, and despite some intriguing forward exposees, it’s probably going to be someone from their blueline.

Boston has too many quality forwards under contract to do anything but 7-3-1, and that will leave all of Connor Clifton, Jeremy Lauzon, John Moore, and Jakub Zboril exposed — the first two of whom should attract the Canucks’ interest.

Poachable: Connor Clifton, RHD

26, 5’11”, 175lb, Two years left @ $1 million (UFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 44 1 6 7 18:13 51.4% 49.6% 50.99% 47.26% 46.03%

Just for being a right-handed and affordable defender with proven capability of playing a reasonably-sized role on a playoff team and on either side, Clifton deserves consideration. But there are probably more strikes against him than for him when it comes to the Canucks and their specific needs.

Clifton isn’t a top penalty killer, nor is he trusted with ice-time against opponents’ top lines — though both of these things could be largely attributed to having Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s perhaps best described as a true two-way defender, with neither his offence or defence being all that exceptional. Clifton is a little undersized, but his postseason résumé says it hasn’t been an impediment.

The addition of Clifton would undoubtedly improve the Vancouver blueline, but he might not be the rock-solid top-four they’re looking for.  The playoff statline — significantly better than Clifton’s regular season numbers — will keep the asking price high; somewhere in the neighbourhood or north of a second round pick.

From HockeyViz.com

Poachable: Jeremy Lauzon, LHD

24, 6’1”, 204lb, One year left @ $850K (RFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 41 1 7 8 18:43 53.7% 51.4% 55.21% 49.5% 52.43%

If only Lauzon was a natural right-hander, he’d be the clear and obvious choice over Clifton — and he might just be that regardless. Lauzon is two years younger, plays a more dedicated defensive game, and appears to have more offensive potential, to boot. Lauzon has become one of the Bruins’ go-to penalty killers on either side of the ice, and he sees plenty of time against opposing top lines, though more often on the left than the right.

The first two games of the playoffs demonstrated what a battler Lauzon is, with him going ferociously head-to-head with Alex Ovechkin before suffering a shot-blocking injury — and finishing Game Two anyway before exiting the lineup.

If the Canucks’ brass trust in Lauzon’s ability to play the right-side semi-permanently, he’s worth more than a tire-kick — and at least a second rounder and change.

From HockeyViz.com

Buffalo Sabres

Projected Protection List (Defence): Rasmus Dahlin, Henrik Jokiharju, Rasmus Ristolainen

Yes, even the Canucks’ star-crossed expansion cousins have more to lose to the Kraken. Unless they deal off Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart pre-draft, they’ll have to expose at least one quality defender.

Poachable: Colin Miller, RHD

28, 6’1”, 196lb, One year left @ $3.875 million (UFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 48 4 8 12 18:00 49.9% 48.4% 43.23% 45.06% 44.67%

It’s probably best not to judge Miller by what has been a miserable two seasons in Buffalo and an especially miserable 2021. He performed consistently in Boston and Vegas before coming to Buffalo, and within the context of the Sabres, his current numbers don’t even look that bad.

Miller has never been, however, a defensive stalwart, nor a penalty killer. He’s more of a two-way puck-mover who does best with sheltered matchups, and while those types of defenders are plenty valuable, they’re something the Canucks’ blueline is already built around. Add in the fact that he’s a pending UFA, and Miller probably isn’t the ticket for Vancouver.

It’s worth mentioning that, like all players coming out of Buffalo these days, Miller could likely be acquired at a discount — possibly as low as a third-round pick.

From HockeyViz.com

Carolina Hurricanes

Projected Protection List (Defence): Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Jake Bean, Brady Skjei

Even if they don’t extend Dougie Hamilton prior to the Expansion Draft, the Hurricanes are in for a tough choice when it comes to protecting blueliners. Rumour has it that they’ll choose to protect the potential of Jake Bean over the proven of Brady Skjei, but both have a chance of being exposed — and either is guaranteed to be snagged by the Kraken.

Poachable: Jake Bean, LHD

22, 6’1”, 189lb, Pending RFA

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 42 1 11 12 14:32 42.5% 53.2% 49.5% 53.4% 52.27%

Bean is an all-around talent with a history of offensive production, but he’s also a largely unknown quantity at this juncture. Still a rookie in 2021 after spending all of 2019/20 in Charlotte, Bean was heavily sheltered on a stacked Carolina blueline, and he is yet to be trusted with any sort of matchup play or penalty killing — in the regular season, at least.

In Jaccob Slavin’s absence, Bean is playing a top-four role in the playoffs for the Hurricanes and excelling. Sure, he’s doing it on his natural left-side, but he did get ample minutes on the right earlier in the year and has long been able to play either side. Bean’s strong possession stats and now his pending postseason run suggest he’s ready for more for good — but they also mean that Carolina will either ask a lot for him or simply protect him over Skjei. Start with a second and then add from there.

From HockeyViz.com

Florida Panthers

Projected Protection List (Defence): Aaron Ekblad, Mackenzie Weegar, Keith Yandle

The Panthers are actually set up fairly well for the Seattle Draft, and they’d be in even better shape if Keith Yandle were willing to waive his NMC. Right now, that seems unlikely, and that will probably cost them the services of Radko Gudas.

Poachable: Radko Gudas, RHD

30, 6’0”, 205lb, Two years left @ $2.5 million (UFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 54 2 9 11 17:34 52% 53.1% 54.76% 52.96% 56.34%

People keep expecting the Gudas bubble to burst, but it hasn’t happened yet. Always a surprise analytic darling, Gudas’ strong advanced statline followed him to Florida — and his raw production has remained consistent for essentially his entire career. Now,  in Aaron Ekblad’s absence, Gudas is playing a top-four role in the playoffs for a team that is giving the defending champs a run for their money.

In other words, Gudas is still for real.

Gudas’ physicality isn’t quite what it used to be, but that’s probably a good thing, and he’s still not all that fun to play against. He’s signed for an appropriate length and at a reasonable salary. If there’s a knock against Gudas, it’s that he seems to be at his very best when playing a bottom-pairing role. He’s more of a Travis Hamonic replacement than someone you’d want to pair with Quinn Hughes or Jack Rathbone in the long-term, and thus the Canucks should be cautious of what the Panthers are asking for — likely to be some combination of mid-round picks.

From HockeyViz.com

Los Angeles Kings

Projected Protection List (Defence): Drew Doughty, Matt Roy, Kale Clague, Olli Maatta, Sean Walker

The Kings aren’t exactly loaded in assets, but they will have some coin-flips to make when it comes to selecting which three defenders to protect. There’s still enough upside in Kale Clague that he’ll probably get the nod over Sean Walker and Olli Maatta, neither of whom are super-enticing. But just in case…

Poachable: Sean Walker, RHD

26, 5’11”, 195lb, Three years left @ $2.65 million (UFA)

  Games Goals Assists Points Avg. TOI Def. Zone Starts Corsi% xG% Scoring Chances High-Danger Chances
2021 47 5 13 18 18:10 49.5% 47.8% 46.32% 43.51% 45.45%

Walker has a quality offensive bent and mildly impressive possession stats within the context of Los Angeles. He’s also locked up for another three years at an okay rate. But he’s been known to struggle in his own end — especially under tough matchups — he’s not much of a penalty killer, and he’s a tad undersized.

That nearly-40-point pace is eye-catching, but just isn’t what the Canucks need to complement their current pieces, and the fact that the Kings might give him away to protect a non-NHLer speaks volumes. Walker would be cheap to acquire and still probably not worth it.

From HockeyViz.com

To Be Continued

That’s enough words for today, but we’re only halfway through our list of right-side pre-expansion trade targets. Tune in tomorrow for the latter half of this list, which we think you’ll like even more.