The expansion draft is upon us. The NHL's newest team, the Seattle Kraken, will fill out its roster with the expansion draft on Wednesday. But the Kraken's picks will be limited to just the players left off each team's protected list.
Each team in the NHL will have the option of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie or eight skaters and a goalie. Each protected list is due Saturday and will be revealed on Sunday. That means it is officially decision time for each NHL team including the Capitals.
With that, here is our mock protected list for Washington and a guess as to who the Kraken will ultimately take.
Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Anthony Mantha, Daniel Sprong
The first six on this list, barring a major surprise, appear set in stone. And with the Alex Ovechkin contract not yet signed, this allows them to protect Daniel Sprong as the seventh forward.
I made this choice for two reasons: First, that Sprong put the puck in the net as well as anyone did last year for the Capitals. He posted a 17.6% shooting percentage, a career-high, and was said to have turned the corner in his game at all ends of the ice. The Capitals, as their key group ages, need as many pure scorers in the lineup as they can get.
Secondly, the choice came down to Conor Sheary, Nic Dowd or Sprong. With Dowd, the team can replace a fourth-line center relatively easily and Seattle is not likely to select Dowd anyway. With Sheary, he can play up and down the lineup from first to fourth line, but the two major factors against him are that he's five years older than Sprong and he costs $775,000 more. That, for context, is almost the entirety of defenseman Martin Fehervary's contract.
I think Sprong was a heavily underrated player in Washington last year, and the Capitals need to do their best to hang onto him.
Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Nick Jensen
The first two defensemen on this list shouldn't be a surprise. The last one, Nick Jensen, might be.
Jensen had his best year in Washington paired with Zdeno Chara on the team's third pair and scored two goals and had 12 assists. With a puck-moving defenseman (like Michal Kempny), I believe he can have similar success in the 2021-22 season.
The decision to leave Schultz (and Brenden Dillon) unprotected was nearly strictly financial. Schultz, a popular pick to be protected, will be a free agent next July and the team will have to lock him in once again, or lose him altogether. Jensen has two more years on his deal at $2.5 million. He makes $1.5 million less than Schultz and $1.4 million less than Dillon, and the team would have another year of cost control (a key phrase in Washington right now with the flat cap).
For context, $1.5 million is the cap hit for Conor Sheary. That's an easy piece to dangle when you know the drop-off might not be so significant.
Should Dillon or Schultz go, that clears $4 million (or just shy of it) in cap space and allows the Capitals to make their blue line look a bit more clear. A sneakily underrated selection, if the Kraken decide to go big in other spots on their roster, could be Trevor van Riemsdyk (who makes $950,000). If he is the selection, the Capitals will have a busy week after the expansion draft is through.
Goalies: Ilya Samsonov
This decision was relatively easy to make.
Samsonov's ceiling is high enough for the Capitals to make the decision without a ton of thought. This is not the time to make a play for Vitek Vanecek, who has a lower ceiling, though he may be a more known entity.
Samsonov is just 24 years old and has a .908 save percentage in 45 career NHL games. From March 1 to the end of the regular season, though, once he put the first COVID-19 bout behind him, Samsonov was a .918 goalie. That's a worthwhile bet for the Capitals to make.
Right now, with where this team is at, it's a decision they've got to make. It won't be easy if the Kraken take Vitek Vanecek, but that's what they've got to do.
Who the Kraken take: If I were the Kraken in this scenario, I would be mighty tempted to take van Riemsdyk (who, ironically, was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion. He was traded to Carolina the next day). He carries a cap hit of less than $1 million and was a positive possession player (52.49% Corsi-For, 60.61 High-Danger percentage for). He would be an extremely reliable and cheap player that has proven his ability to play in the lineup each night. If the Kraken made this choice, I certainly wouldn't hate it as a Seattle fan.
But, that's why they don't pay me the big bucks in Seattle. I think they go with Justin Schultz instead and take a top-four defenseman that can move the puck well and has Stanley Cup pedigree on a pretty loaded resume already. This type of player would play well with any left-handed shot the Kraken select, and, although he hasn't been a big-time scorer of late, is someone that can rack up points on the offensive end of the ice.
Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Daniel Sprong
There are no major surprises here considering the Caps seem committed to protecting Oshie. With Ovechkin not under contract but wanting to stay in Washington, there is no reason to protect him. I thought briefly about the possibility of leaving Kuznetsov exposed, but I'm not sure Seattle would even take him and, at that point, you've played your hand and really torpedoed his trade value.
The only big question for me was whether to protect Sprong or Conor Sheary. Andrew does a nice breakdown of this above so I won't rehash it, but, Sprong's age (24) and production last season (13 goals in 42 games) were the biggest factors.
Defensemen: John Carlson, Justin Schultz, Dmitry Orlov
When the Caps re-signed Brenden Dillon in 2020, I thought that immediately made Orlov expendable considering the prospects in the pipeline at left defense. In the 2021 postseason, however, Orlove was Washington's best defenseman, even better than Carlson. That made Orlov and Carlson the two obvious picks.
The third pick was less obvious, but, if the goal is indeed to compete for the Stanely Cup next season, then you have to protect Schultz. Does he leave a hole in the lineup after this year when his contract runs out? Sure, but the Caps should be operating on a year-by-year basis at this point with the championship window poised to slam shut at any time.
Goalie: Ilya Samsonov
This would have been a little tougher before the playoffs, but Samsonov's performance there should silence the doubters.
The bottom line is that I see Samsonov as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL and I do not see the same for Vanecek.
Who the Kraken take: If I am the GM of Seattle and I look at the players available, my first thought is that Dillon is the best player on the board. Knowing the Caps' cap situation, however, I also know that selecting him would most likely benefit the Caps more than any other selection I could make. I am not going to make a habit out of doing an opposing team a favor for free so I am not taking Dillon unless general manager Brian MacLellan sweetens the pot and sends me a draft pick or a prospect.
There is a lot of speculation about Seattle general manager Ron Francis and how he may approach this, but the consensus seems to be that he is not keen on taking on bad contracts and that he emphasizes building from the blue line out. Seattle's coaching staff seems to be geared heavily towards player development which makes me wonder about Vanecek, but, considering the goalies who will be available, he will not be close to being one of the top available goalies. I just cannot bring myself to believe Francis would pass over so many other netminders to take Vanecek because he had a decent 37 NHL games and has a low cap hit.
It then comes down to Nick Jensen or Trevor van Riemsdyk and, of the two, I think van Riemsdyk has the more moveable contract down the line with a $950,000 cap hit.
Yes, it seems crazy to think that Francis could go after the Caps' seventh defenseman from last season, but I see him taking the long view. If there are no foundational players Seattle could consider a part of its future core, and I do not see any players like that available, then it makes sense to select the most tradeable asset which is van Riemsdyk.
That is a total guess based on what I believe Francis' thought process will be. While I am not extremely confident in that pick, I do feel very confident that it will come down to van Riemsdyk, Jensen, Dillon or Vanecek. It's going to be one of those four and, for now, I'm leaning van Riemsdyk.