Almost nothing about 2020 NHL free agency feels normal, largely thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic completely changing the league schedule. Free agency kicked off Oct. 9 instead of July 1. Teams worked under a flat salary cap of $81.5 million thanks to all the lost gate revenues. The customary early UFA negotiation window was also removed after an eight-year run. Another storyline that might have flown under the radar: expansion-draft preparation.
It was expected that plenty of players would sign short-term contracts in hopes of catching the wave a year or two from now if the cap begins trending upward again. But many UFAs specifically signed two-year pacts with no restriction clauses on their movement included. That set up those players in particular as potential targets for the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 expansion draft – players who look like useful short-term depth additions but won’t be such crucial members of their new teams’ cores that they’ll be protected from being chosen by Seattle.
A refresher on a few key expansion rules:
(a) Teams can protect a combo of seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender OR eight skaters at any position plus one goaltender.
(b) Players with full no-movement clauses who choose not to waive them must be protected and cannot be selected by Seattle.
(c) Seattle must spend to within 60 to 100 percent of the previous season’s upper limit.
Among the UFAs signed so far during the 2020 off-season, which look like potential expansion-draft bait? Here’s a list of names to consider. None of them have no-movement clauses, and most of them signed two-year contracts, meaning they’ll be on the final seasons of their deals during Seattle’s inaugural campaign.
1. BRADEN HOLTBY, G, VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Thatcher Demko’s incredible play in relief of injured Jacob Markstrom during the playoffs likely changed the franchise’s trajectory. Demko, long the team’s No. 1 netminding prospect, showed he was ready for a larger role, and that meant the Canucks didn’t have to push as hard to keep UFA Markstrom, whose price went through the roof after his career year. Vancouver still needed to bring in an experienced replacement to support Demko. Holtby, 31, is probably looking at a 50/50 timeshare at the absolute most, but he has a chance to revive his career and would be an ideal choice as Seattle’s first starting netminder. He’s an experienced Stanley Cup winner just as Marc-Andre Fleury was when Vegas grabbed him in 2017. Holtby signed a two-year, $8.6-million pact that carries a modified no-trade clause, not a no-movement clause, making him expansion-draft eligible.
2. JUSTIN SCHULTZ, D, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Two contracts that will kick in for 2020-21: Alex Ovechkin’s next one, assuming he signs to stay in Washington, plus RFA Jakub Vrana’s extension, which the Caps would be wise to figure out soon in case he ups his value again this season. Washington will be squeezed up against the cap and will need to shed salary – while also protecting its star core. Sure, the Kraken sound like a perfect landing spot for T.J. Oshie, who grew up in Everett just north of Seattle and could be the face of the franchise. But since Oshie carries a $5.75-million cap hit, maybe Kraken GM Ron Francis can leverage it. He could go the trade route to secure Oshie for draft capital and use the actual claim on Schultz. He would be a nice power-play anchor.
3. VLADISLAV NAMESTNIKOV, LW, DETROIT RED WINGS
Namestnikov has that tweener skill set that makes him perfect expansion-draft fodder. He brings a bit of offense, can kill penalties, can play higher in the lineup on a bad team and can play lower in the lineup on a good team. He’s good enough to help Detroit now but no so good that he’ll be indispensable in a year. He’d also be talented enough to be a respectable member of Seattle’s middle-six forward group.
4. JESPER FAST, RW, CAROLINA HURRICANES
If the Hurricanes’ roster remains as is by the time the expansion draft rolls around, they’ll find themselves in a quagmire. If they go the 8-1 protection route, they’d want to keep blueliners Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, maybe Jake Bean…while they’d still have Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andre Svechnikov on the forward side, not to mention the auto-protect Jordan Staal who has a NMC. Whatever GM Don Waddell decides, it’s tough to see Fast, who signed a three-year deal with a $2-million AAV last week, making the protection cut. His workmanlike two-way game would make him an extremely safe pick for the Kraken.
5. KYLE TURRIS, C, EDMONTON OILERS
The Kraken will likely go after a few “name” forwards, and the experienced Turris, who hails from B.C., could fit the bill on a two-year contract that expires in 2021-22. He never reached the potential to match his status as the 2007 draft’s third-overall pick, and he isn’t the player he even was a couple years ago, but he’d be a serviceable stopgap scoring center for a team that will merely be looking to be competitive in Year 1. From a business perspective, the Kraken will be determined not to be embarrassed, especially after Vegas set the bar so unfairly high in 2017-18.
6. CODY EAKIN, C, BUFFALO SABRES
During the 1990s expansion boom, a handful of players wound up playing for multiple expansion teams. Think Andrew Brunette. So could Eakin go from 2017 Vegas claim to 2020 Seattle claim? He’s a respectable third-line center, and his fairly chunky cap hit of $2.25-million might be attractive to a Seattle team needing to reach the 60-percent salary threshold.
7. JOHAN LARSSON, C, ARIZONA COYOTES
One reason Vegas surprised in Year 1: it scooped up a bunch of underrated castoffs who had potential to bloom if given the chance. Larsson, not qualified by the Sabres, fits that bill as good checker. He’d be a perfect fourth-line center for Seattle.
8. MARK BOROWIECKI, D, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
The Preds will likely use the 8-1 protection strategy so that they can maintain their defensive quartet of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro, meaning their two new bottom-pair signings, Borowiecki and Matt Benning, could be expansion-draft targets. Borowiecki’s blend of nastiness and likability among his teammates and the community would make him an attractive add for Seattle.
9. RADKO GUDAS, D, FLORIDA PANTHERS
Gudas is a classic third-pair blueliner who kills penalties and is not fun to play against. In his 30s now, he won’t be part of the Panthers’ long-term plans, but he’d be a nice pickup for the Kraken because he’d be a flippable asset at the 2022 trade deadline given his playoff-friendly style.
10. KYLE CLIFFORD, LW, ST. LOUIS BLUES
In the short term, Clifford will bring a nice mix of physicality and underrated play-driving ability to the Blues’ bottom six, helping them push for another Stanley Cup. After next season? He’ll have a year left at $1 million. His rugged game also makes him the type of fan favorite that would fit well on an expansion team.