With the NHL Board of Governors meeting taking place this week in Sea Island, Georgia, among the topics of immediate relevance to fans across the world is the subject of expansion to Seattle. Adding Seattle as the league’s 32nd team will give the NHL two symmetric conferences of 16 teams each. Speculation over personnel will run rampant over the next 18-24 months as the team hires its executives and head coaches and finalizes a team moniker and colors.
Outside of Seattle, however, teams are assuredly looking at their own rosters and formulating plans for the expansion draft, determined not to make the same mistakes that GMs made with Vegas when the Golden Knights opened play just a year ago. The knee-jerk reaction will be to expect fewer trades, but each roster will have its own concerns, competitive cycles and player valuation to consider, and I can’t imagine a team willingly giving up a player it values if it’s in its Cup window just because the Panthers gave away Jonathan Marchessault.
To make it clear, a team as deep as the Nashville Predators will have some significant problems. Will David Poile look to go the trade route? Will he even be the general manager in 2021, the expected first season of play for the Seattle franchise? After plunking down $650M for a new team, the Seattle group has already secured favorable expansion draft rules. Commissioner Bettman has made it clear several times that Seattle will have the same rules as Vegas. You can review them here.
A team can go one of two routes: protect seven forwards, three defenders, and a goalie; or protect eight skaters—usually four forwards and four defenders—and one goalie. All first- and second-year players will be exempt, as will players who have been drafted but not yet signed. No-movement clauses will have to be respected.
Let’s try to project which players will be on the Predators roster in two years. Unless there are significant changes through trade or free agency, much of the roster will stay intact between now and then. The following current players will all need to be protected or exposed in the expansion draft
Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Kyle Turris and Calle Jarnkrok will all still be under their current contracts. Kevin Fiala, Eeli Tolvanen and Ryan Hartman will all be playing under new contracts signed as RFAs. Craig Smith is the only guy who could be considered a core piece that will need to be re-signed as a UFA before 2021.
None of the forwards in the system moves the needle enough to be a significant risk for Seattle. Depth forwards like Colton Sissons, Frederick Gaudreau, or Miikka Salomaki are not keeping the front office people awake at night trying to figure out how to keep them.
P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are all currently under contracts that will last through the expansion draft. The team hopes to lock up Roman Josi this summer. The revolving door of bottom six d-men are just that and wouldn’t be a significant loss for the franchise.
Some of the prospect defenders like Frederic Allard and Alexandre Carrier are already accruing years on their ELC and will be eligible to be chosen, and Dante Fabbro has yet to sign. To be eligible he would have to sign at the conclusion of this current season at Boston University, which would start the clock on his ELC.
Neither Juuse Saros nor Pekka Rinne are currently signed through 2021. Hopefully Saros is the guy who can take the reins and become a legitimate #1 goalie, therefore becoming the team’s protected goalie.
By this point Pekka Rinne will be entering his age-39 season. If he’s still an effective goaltender by then, he could easily wait out the draft and sign with Nashville as a free agent afterwards. The team will surely expose another signed goaltender to Seattle rather than signing Rinne to an extension, thus risking losing him.
Going through the list, the problems are pretty evident.
If the front office goes the 7-3-1 route one of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, or Mattias Ekholm will be exposed. But if the team goes the 4-4-1 route to protect their top four defenders again, there are a glut of quality forwards that will be available to Seattle. If the team protects the JOFA line, the choice for #4 will be Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris or Eeli Tolvanen. Only one of those three can be protected.
Protecting the Forwards
If Nashville goes the 7-3-1 route, all of Forsberg, Arvidsson, Johansen, Turris, Fiala, and Tolvanen will be protected, and either Smith or Hartman can be forward #7. This focuses the problem squarely on the defense.
Entering the 2021-22 season each of Nashville’s Big 4 will be in their 30s. P.K. Subban will be 32 and in the last year of his deal paying him $9M. Mattias Ekholm will be 31 and entering the final year of his deal paying him just under $4M. Ryan Ellis will be 30 and entering the third year of his six-year deal. Roman Josi will be 31 and on the second year of what will likely be an expensive, longer-team deal.
A lot can change in two and a half hockey seasons with a group of defenders entering various stages of their 30’s. If we know anything about aging curves, we know it can be unkind for even the best of players as they progress through their 30s. Maybe one of the four emerges as someone the team wouldn’t exactly mind losing, especially if they are on a big ticket deal.
For my money, the player you can most risk losing in this scenario is a 32 year old P.K. Subban, on the last year of his deal. Sure, there is the marketing angle of getting a guy like Subban, but from a roster-building standpoint do you pick a player on the last year of his deal? I can’t even begin to speculate if Subban would even want to leave Nashville and re-sign in Seattle for a few more years, or even how good of player he will be in three years, but with the information currently on the table, he is the one I would risk losing.
Protecting the Defenders
If Nasvhille goes the 4-4-1 route, they will protect a 29 year old Ryan Johansen, 28 year old Viktor Arvidsson, and 27 year old Filip Forsberg. The interesting debate will be over who the fourth forward will be.
In reality I think the debate centers on two players— Kevin Fiala and Eeli Tolvanen. Although Fiala has drawn the ire of some fans and perhaps Coach Laviolette himself, you aren’t giving up on a winger who by then will be just 25 and will hopefully be coming off several 60+ point seasons. Tolvanen is more of a wild card. One of the top 20 or so prospects in the NHL, Tolvanen is still adjusting to the North American game. The early returns look positive even if he hasn’t torn up the AHL just yet. Let’s remember he doesn’t turn 20 until next spring.
If their development goes according to plan, losing either Fiala or Tolvanen will be unacceptable, so that will be a non-starter for Seattle.
The Trade Route
So then what do they do? There are really two routes here if nothing significant happens in the next year or so. They will have to seriously explore trading one of their top four defenders, or else negotiate a deal with Seattle to stay off of Fiala or Tolvanen. Making a trade of any of the defense core will be easier of they are all wearing Stanley Cup rings by then, won in either of the next two years.
If the team is still desperately close to a Cup, but have yet to parade one down Broadway, it’s hard to see the team turning over a top asset for free—they might opt to pawn off future assets instead. We are still more than two years away from the NHL dropping the puck in Seattle, but expansion will factor into roster decisions across the league until then, and it’s never too early to assess where Nashville stands.