Last December, when Seattle officially became the NHL’s 32nd franchise, I took a way too early look at what the 2021 Seattle Expansion Draft could look like for the Minnesota Wild. It’s still way too early to know with any certainty what the Wild roster might look like in the summer of 2021 and what players may need protection, but after plenty of trades and some free agent signings, it’s worth looking at where things currently stand with the team with regards to the expansion draft.
New GM Bill Guerin has inherited a team that already looks very different from the team Paul Fenton took over less than a year and a half ago, and Guerin will need to carefully consider the implications that any trades or signings will have on whom the Wild will protect and expose in 2021 as he leads this team for hopefully longer than 14 months. If you need a refresher on the rules for the expansion draft, they will be the same as they were in 2017 and I go over them in the article linked above. The most important rule is this: the Wild can protect seven forwards, three defensemen (or just eight skaters instead), and one goaltender. With that said, let’s break down each position.
(For simplicity purposes, I will limit this analysis to players that have appeared in an NHL game. There are plenty of players in Iowa that will technically be available, but until they play in the NHL, the Wild will probably not be too concerned with protecting them. And any draft picks signed this coming year and going forward will be exempt as first or second-year players.)
Have to protect (players with no-movement clauses): Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello
Free agents after this season: Mikko Koivu, J.T. Brown, Kyle Rau
Free agents after 2021 (but still technically on the team during the expansion draft): Eric Staal, Marcus Foligno
Exempt: no one currently on the Wild will be exempt
Need to be protected: Jason Zucker, Victor Rask, Ryan Hartman, Ryan Donato, Joel Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, Nico Sturm
Assuming Parise and Zuccarello are still on the team, the Wild will have five spots to protect at least nine players. Zucker may seem like a lock to be protected at first glance, but if he is unable to rediscover his scoring touch from the 2017-18 season, Guerin might feel his salary is worth exposing. Rask seems very unlikely to get protected. Even if he turns into a productive player, he will be a year away from free agency at that point, so losing him would not be the worst outcome. Hartman also seems unlikely given that he has been, so far, a bottom-six player. (And for Wild fans unaware or who have forgotten, despite being signed as an unrestricted free agent, Hartman is a restricted free agent when his current contract ends, so he could remain with the team for longer than the two years on his current deal.) Donato and Kunin have both looked very good, but all of these players (save Fiala who has played nearly three full seasons in the league now) have careers too small to judge them on just yet. I think right now Eriksson Ek, Greenway, and Sturm have the most to prove as far as showing they deserve protection, but Greenway has the edge right now.
Today’s Prediction: Parise, Zuccarello, Zucker, Donato, Fiala, Kunin, Greenway
Have to protect: Ryan Suter
Free agents after this season: Jared Spurgeon, Matthew Bartkowski
Free agents after 2021 (but still technically on the team during the expansion draft): Jonas Brodin, Greg Pateryn, Nick Seeler, Brad Hunt
Need to be protected: Matt Dumba, Carson Soucy, Louie Belpedio
The defensive group is in a very different position than the forwards are for the expansion draft. Suter has to be protected. Dumba is a virtual lock to be protected. But every other defensemen that has played meaningful time at the NHL level will be a free agent a few days after the expansion draft. As the roster stands right now, it is anyone’s guess who might be the third defensemen on the protected list. If Spurgeon is extended, it will certainly be him. If he is not, it could be whoever is added to the roster to replace him. It could be Brodin if he is extended instead. If there is not a logical choice for a player to protect, the Wild could even trade for a defensemen from a team with too many blueliners to protect them all (basically a team that was in the Wild’s position in 2017).
Today’s Prediction: Suter, Dumba, Spurgeon or his replacement
Free agents after this season: None
Free agents after 2021 (but still technically on the team during the expansion draft): Devan Dubnyk
Need to be protected: Alex Stalock, Mat Robson, Kaapo Kahkonen
The goaltender position is probably the biggest question mark of the three for the Wild this far out from expansion. As it stands now, it appears the Wild will have to choose between Robson and Kahkonen. Notably, this makes Stalock’s three-year extension even more bizarre. The other netminder between Robson or Kahkonen would likely be more desirable to Seattle than Stalock if they were to choose from the Wild, and either fulfills the Wild’s requirement of exposing a goaltender. But instead, the Wild have a backup goaltender on a three-year contract who looked so shaky at times last season that head coach Bruce Boudreau lost confidence in him. Whoever looks like the better goaltender over the next two years will be the one that gets protected. If I had to guess today, I would go with Kahkonen, but Robson has some good potential as well.
Today’s Prediction: Kahkonen
A lot will change with the Wild roster over the next two seasons. Honestly, the roster is barely recognizable from where it was just nine months ago. But whom Bill Guerin decides to protect in 2021 will be based not only on how the roster changes but also on how the players currently on the roster develop in that timespan. How the young players in the Wild system — especially at forward and goaltender — develop will be important not only for how good as a team the Wild become in upcoming years, but also how the Wild approach expansion.