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Examining Colorado’s options for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft

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What can we expect from the Avalanche? The short answer is who knows…

NHL: NHL Draft Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk expansion draft. That pesky little devil that comes around once in a blue moon, serving as a mechanism to allow new teams entry into the league. While many critics of expansion become sick at even the mention of those two words, it’s a reality of an ever-changing and increasingly global game. And with that, new teams need be somewhat competitive from the start to allow for a new franchise to assemble a roster by taking their pick of a player from each current team’s talent. Through the expansion draft, they can most effectively address this need.

What’s stopping the Seattle Kraken, the league’s 32nd franchise, from simply selecting each team’s best player and going on to dominate the league in its first season? To prevent such an unfair result, the league has adopted rules that allow for current NHL clubs to protect their most valued players, to an extent.

Before we get into how the Avalanche may approach the upcoming expansion draft, let’s get up to speed on the basic rules.

Protection Rules

Each team, except Vegas, who is exempt, has two options for protecting players:

  • 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 1 goaltender

OR

  • 8 skaters total (any combination of F/D) and 1 goaltender

The second option appears to be a better fit for teams with more talent on the back end. That being said, it might seem like a no brainer for the Avalanche to go with this strategy, seeing as the Avs possess a plethora of talented defensemen. However, it’s important to keep in mind that first- and second-year players like Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins, as well as any unsigned draft picks like Justin Barron, are exempt from selection and therefore are not counted toward the Avs’ protection limits. On the other hand, any player with a no-movement clause in their contract at the time of the draft must be protected and will be counted toward their team’s limits (however, a player can waive this clause and thus become eligible for exposure). Also, any player with a potential career-ending injury who missed the previous 60 consecutive games may be exempt pending league approval.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at Dallas Stars Gerry Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Understand? Good. Let’s dig into how the Avs might handle things in 2021. All fans can probably agree that the two untouchable players on the team are Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. Both are generational talents that General Manager Joe Sakic would be crazy to even think about exposing. Similarly, the next two players that are almost certainly safe are the rest of the three-headed, first-line monster: Mikko Rantanen and team captain Gabriel Landeskog.

Then it gets tricky.

The next moves aren’t so clear. Sakic has done wonders helping pull the Avalanche out from the depths of their dumpster fire, 48-point 2016-17 season, but the downside of creating such a solid team and stockpile of talent is that every player is worth protecting. Even though the Avs’ defense is stacked, the likely go-to route for the team is the first option outlined above—protect seven forwards and three defensemen. A possible scenario could play out as follows:

Forwards:

  1. MacKinnon
  2. Rantanen
  3. Landeskog
  4. Burakovsky (?)
  5. Kadri (?)
  6. Saad (?)
  7. Nichushkin (?)

We already know the top three are locks. The bottom four in Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Brandon Saad and Valeri Nichushkin are the ones up for debate. Burakovsky had a career year in 2019-20, posting career highs in goals (20), assists (25) and points (45) all while doing so in the second-fewest games he’s played in a single NHL season (58). Kadri also had a bounce-back season; playing on Colorado’s top two lines interchangeably while rolling on the teams top power play unit helped him produce the third-highest goal total of his career (19) and more than quadruple his prior postseason high in points with 18.

Saad on the other hand is an unrestricted free agent at the upcoming season’s end. While the former Blackhawks winger has yet to log a single minute in an Avs sweater, the change of scenery is likely to do him wonders (much like it did for Burakovsky and Kadri). Be on the lookout for Saad to produce 20-plus goals in 2020-21 all while driving plays and elevating the game of whoever his linemates end up being. If he does break out, Sakic would be hard pressed to expose him. Protecting Saad and then attempting to sign him longer-term might prove to be a challenging feat, though, with the limited cap space the Avs will have after having to resign Landeskog, Makar and Philipp Grubauer.

Nichushkin stands out over J.T. Compher or Joonas Donskoi for a number of reasons. He’s a one-of-a-kind, Selke trophy-type player who the Avs picked up off the scrap heap in Dallas. He resurrected his career and is a player who is undervalued in many respects. Losing either Compher or Donskoi might sting on the surface, but both are inconsistent in comparison. It also helps that Nichushkin comes at a discount when compared to his counterparts.

Defensemen:

  1. Makar
  2. Toews (?)
  3. Girard (?)
  4. Graves (?)

Aside from Makar, the remaining three defensemen are essentially a toss-up. All three players in Toews, Girard and Graves begin new contracts this coming season. Each of the three were also coincidentally cast-offs or trade bait from other teams that have since proven doubters wrong and become solid NHL blueliners. Sakic will monitor the trio as the season progresses, and the lowest-performing of the three becomes the exposed, odd man out. However, if all three have stellar seasons—particularly Graves who many harped on for his postseason play—Sakic could call an audible and opt to use the second strategy outlined at the start and protect all four D-men plus only four forwards instead of seven.

NHL: Western Conference Qualifications-Vegas at Colorado Avalanche Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Goaltender:

  1. Grubauer

Grubauer does have a history of injury, but when he’s on his game, he’s truly on his game. With goaltending prospect Justus Annunen ineligible for exposure, the decision is fairly easy. If he remains healthy, Grubauer has proven to be a solid No. 1 at the NHL level and Sakic has expressed confidence in his starting goaltender (probably because his VR game is on point). Unlike backup Pavel Francouz, Grubauer is a UFA at season’s end, so salary cap considerations also play a factor here.

No disrespect to players like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Matt Calvert and Ian Cole, but all are depth pieces who could be easily replaced.

What About EJ?

But what about the Avs’ alternate captain, defenseman and current longest-tenured player on the roster, Erik Johnson? Johnson’s upside seems to be lost on many. He’s easily a fan favorite player and a no-nonsense kind of guy who LOVES the organization and the city of Denver—and he would run through a wall for any of his teammates. While he’s not the flashy, new-age defensemen the Avs have in Makar or Girard, he more than makes up for it with solid defensive awareness paired with the right amount of physicality and veteran leadership. In fact, a healthy Johnson in the most recent postseason likely puts the Avs squarely in the Western Conference Finals and possibly even the Stanley Cup Finals as well.

While Johnson would be tough to replace, there are factors we have to be honest about: Johnson is injury prone, and at age 32 his prime years are mostly in the rear-view. With that said, the Avs have to at least consider exposing him.

That’s easier said than done.

Johnson’s contract includes a modified no-trade clause, as well as a no-movement clause. Players with no-movement clauses must be protected from exposure unless they waive those rights. Because of this, the Avs have three options: talk Johnson into waiving his M-NTC/NMC, buy him out, or just protect EJ as the NMC is a right he negotiated into his contract. This final option may not be very popular among Avalanche faithful, but it is an option Sakic has at his disposal and one he could very well use depending on how the upcoming season pans out. It’s highly unlikely that the Avs buy out the remainder of Johnson’s contract only to expose him and carry $2M of dead cap space on the roster until 2025. It would be horrible cap management from a front office that has shown it excels at getting the most out of its space. Plus, it would be a particularly clumsy decision with the big extensions due for Makar and Landeskog (not to mention Grubauer) at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Capturing a cup while Johnson’s on the roster could be a nice consolation prize should the eventual outcome mean having to say goodbye to his iconic toothless smile.

In summary, the Avs are clearly a force to be reckoned with and only good teams facing the loss of significant talent are the ones with tough decisions to make. So while this may seem like a tough spot to be in, all it really means at the end of the day is that the Avs are good, darn good. That cap space they have had to their advantage over the past few seasons is beginning to dwindle, though, and Sakic has some maneuvering and impending tough decisions ahead. However, if the past three seasons are any indication, Sakic has some magic up his sleeve that will surely wow us all.