A Way Too Early Look at the Stars’ Protection List for the 2021 Expansion Draft

Seattle will officially be the NHL’s 32nd team starting in the 2021-22 season. To celebrate, let’s look at which player the Stars might lose to them.

It’s official: Seattle has been approved to be the NHL’s 32nd team, and will begin playing in the 2021-22 season. They will join the most recent expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, in the Pacific Division, while the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central.

What does this mean for Dallas Stars fans? First of all, one more team means one more team to beat them out for a playoff spot, or conversely one more team to potentially select above them in the NHL Entry Draft. But the most notable impact will be that the Stars will lose a player to Seattle in a 2021 Expansion Draft, much like the Stars lost Cody Eakin to Vegas in 2017.

So to commemorate this announcement, let’s take a way, way too early look at what the Stars’ protection list might look like in 2021. Here is a full list of the rules for the 2017 Expansion Draft, which will be reused for Seattle. The most notable rules are as follows:

  • Teams may protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender, or eight skaters and one goaltender.
  • Players with two or less years playing professional hockey in North America are exempt from selection.
  • Players with No Move Clauses (NMC) are automatically protected./

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll make the following assumptions about the Stars’ roster in 2021:

  • No UFA signings or trades starting now until the expansion Draft.
  • All RFAs are signed to a deal that extends past the 2021-22 season./

The first point is unrealistic, but without it we’d be left making predictions on players the Stars could hypothetically sign or trade for, making this piece even more unrealistic than it already is. It’s also worth noting that this includes players currently on the Stars’ roster that will hit UFA, such as Jason Spezza. It’s fair assumption that some of these players, like Spezza, may choose to re-sign, but we’ll say that they don’t in order to simplify things.

The second point is more realistic, as the Stars tend to hold onto their RFAs as long as possible. We will assume they are signed up until at least 2022 so we don’t have to think about players that are RFAs now but could become UFAs before the expansion draft. For the most part, if the Stars were to not re-sign a RFA or if the player specifically wanted to hit UFA as early as possible in order to play elsewhere, they were likely a fringe roster player and unlikely to be protected to begin with.

Now that we’ve laid down some ground rules, we can break down the players eligible for selection, listing players that are automatically protected, notable exempt prospects, and players that must be either protected or exposed. We won’t break down the case for/against protecting every eligible player, just some notable ones.

One final note: we’re judging these players based on how valuable they are projected to be two and a half years from now, not how valuable they are currently. An older key player might hit a sharp decline in that time span, or a young prospect might have a breakout and become a key contributor. This makes it much harder to project the protection list, but otherwise what’s even the point in this exercise?

The Forwards

NMC: Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin
Exempt: Jason Robertson, Ty Dellandrea,
Eligible: Blake Comeau (UFA), Nicholas Caamano, Tony Calderone, Jason Dickinson, Joel L’Esperance, Radek Faksa, Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, Mattias Janmark, Brett Ritchie, Adam Mascherin, Devin Shore, Gemel Smith, Valeri Nichushkin

Using our rules, the projected forward roster in 2021 is more or less the same as it is today. The only current NHL forwards who will hit UFA before then are Jason Spezza and Tyler Pitlick, while Blake Comeau will technically be eligible for selection as a pending UFA. Everyone else is either signed through 2021-22 (all of which coincidentally have NMCs) or will be RFAs when their current deals expire.

As far as whom to protect, Radek Faksa seems like an obvious candidate. He got some Selke Trophy love last season, and could perhaps morph into a perennial candidate for the defense-minded award if he picks up his offensive production (as backwards as that sounds). While not at the same level as Faksa, Jason Dickinson also has proven to be a solid two-way player for the Stars, with the upside of perhaps a higher offensive ceiling.

The rest are a bit trickier to project. Both Mattias Janmark and Valeri Nichushkin have had two full NHL seasons under their belt, each scoring 29 points in one and 34 in the other. Yet both are struggling to score this year, especially Nichushkin. As much as it might irk readers, Devin Shore has more points in his two full seasons (33 and 32) and is currently scoring at a much higher rate than both of them. Shore has 13 points in 24 games (.542 PPG), while Janmark has eight in 28 (.286), and Nichushkin has four in 22 (.182).

Another interesting name is Denis Gurianov. Before this season, he was already being labeled a “bust” by most of the fanbase. This year he’s been fantastic in the his third AHL season and looked good during a two-game call up. He likely has the highest offensive ceiling out of all eligible players not automatically protected, but the question remains: who is the real Gurianov? Is he the player we’re seeing this year or the one who was a healthy scratch in the Calder Cup playoffs not even a year ago?

Finally, the most intriguing forward to me is one that’s not even eligible to be selected: Alexander Radulov. The Russian winger has been one of the Stars’ best players since they signed him in the 2017 offseason, and seems to energize and motivate the rest of the team just by being present. He’ll also be about to turn 35 with one year left on his deal in 2021. If he’s as good as Spezza is this year (currently 35 years old), no one will bat an eye about his automatic protection. But if (and that’s a big if) he were to hit a sharp decline in, say, the 2020-21 season, he could be viewed as a player unnecessarily taking up a protection slot.

The Defense

Exempt: N/A
Eligible: Gavin Bayreuther, Connor Carrick, Ben Gleason, Niklas Hansson, Dillon Heatherington, Miro Heiskanen, Julius Honka, Stephen Johns (UFA), John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, John Nyberg, Chris Martenet, Reece Scarlett, Ondrej Vala

Unlike the forwards, the Stars don’t have any notably exempt players or those under NMCs. It’s also much, much easier to put together a protection list: John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen. End of discussion.

Editor: Umm, Tyler? We’re going to need a little more than that...

Oh alright then. Klingberg is a Norris contender who will be on the last year of a very team-friendly deal, so he’s a no-brainer. Esa Lindell has also morphed into one of the better, more underrated defensemen in the NHL, and will likely be locked up for the long term when he’s up for an extension this summer. And of course, Miro Heiskanen is the future face of the franchise, who at that point might be even better than Klingberg. The worst part about the expansion happening in 2021 instead of 2020 is that Heiskanen is no longer exempt, but he’s by far the easiest pick to protect.

The fallout from having to protect Heiskanen, however, means the Stars won’t have another spot for a different defenseman (unless they went with the eight-skater option). Stephen Johns — who more likely than not won’t have his career ended by his current headaches — will be a pending UFA, so he’s a doubtful pick unless he was signed to an extension earlier in the year. Given his recent usage, it’s worth wondering whether Julius Honka will even be in Dallas next year, let alone in 2021. If Honka is, he’ll more likely than not be a defenseman the Stars can afford to lose, as a breakout season for the young defenseman doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, or at least not in Dallas.

More likely than not, the biggest fish on the blue line that will be exposed is someone that isn’t even in the organization yet. The Stars will likely find some veteran replacement for Marc Methot and/or Roman Polak by then, and they’re not going to bump Esa Lindell out of his protection slot unless their name happens to be Erik Karlsson. But thankfully we don’t have to worry about that in the context of this exercise, which means the Stars have just three defenders truly worth protecting, i.e. the perfect number.

The Goalies

NMC: Ben Bishop
Exempt: Jake Oettinger
Eligible: Landon Bow, Philippe Desrosiers, Colton Point

Not much to talk about here, as Bishop is the automatic protection with still two years left on his deal. That doesn’t completely handcuff them, however; they could still elect to trade Bishop (he’ll have a 10-team No Trade Clause) or convince him to waive his NMC and be exposed. But unless Bishop declines heavily in the next couple years, or Colton Point and/or Jake Oettinger have a Matt Murray-like breakthrough, I don’t foresee either of those two things happening.

That’s a shame, since the other major downside of expansion in 2021 instead of 2020 is that Point is exposed. It’s quite possible that by then, Point looks more like your typical NHL fifth round pick than your typical Dallas fifth round pick, but more likely than not he’ll be a young, very tempting pick for Seattle. The best hope for the Stars would be that Oettinger looks like the better goaltender by then, who will be exempt due to waiting another year to before going pro. As for Landon Bow and Phillippe Desrosiers, they will be exposed yet almost assuredly not selected, assuming they’re still on the roster by that point.

Alright, time for what you’ve all been waiting for — the projected protection list.

Forwards (7): Jamie Benn (NMC), Jason Dickinson, Radek Faksa, Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, Alexander Radulov (NMC), Tyler Seguin (NMC)
Defensemen (3): Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell
Goalie: Ben Bishop (NMC)

With the defense a no-brainer and the goalie already selected, the only real debate was for the four remaining forward spots. I think Faksa and Dickinson will be protected for the reasons stated above, and while I’m not sure Gurianov will be a true top-six option by 2021, I think his offensive talent and upside would warrant protection over other players.

The final forward spot ultimately came down to Devin Shore, Mattias Janmark, Valeri Nichushkin, and Roope Hintz. I think Janmark and Nichushkin are better players than their production indicates this year, but I think – despite being unmentioned previously — Hintz will end up being the best of the four. If not, we’re probably looking at Shore as the pick, due to currently having better offensive production than Janmark and Nichushkin and his flexibility to play up and down the lineup.

So in the end, who would Seattle select from Dallas? They’re unlikely to pick a defenseman given who’s available, so they’ll likely pick one of the above mentioned forwards or goaltender Colton Point. This begs the question: is Dallas prepared to lose one of those players, or will they dangle one of their draft picks or prospects to try to get Seattle to pick someone else?