EDITOR’S NOTE :: Check out our North Division Update for the latest on the Oilers.
Up until now there have been very few teams where the choices available to the Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft have been potential game-breakers. Now we turn our attention to the Oilers, and believe you-me; the choice the Kraken are able to make from this Edmonton squad is going to be a major force on our new Seattle team.
No, we’re not getting McDavid.
Or Draisaitl. Settle down, we’ll get there.
The situation in Edmonton is different in two ways. Number one, they are loaded with talent both up front and on the blue line. But more importantly, they will likely choose to employ the 8 skaters at any position plus one goaltender protection scheme. This means that, no matter who they protect on the blue line, there are going to be worthwhile choices available in the forward ranks.
“Hold on, there,” I hear you say, “How do you think you know which protection scheme they’re going to use?” Because of one player: Kris Russell. How the Edmonton Oilers handled this player holds the key to what they’re planning for the expansion draft.
Every team is required to expose a certain number of players who must 1) be under contract for the 2021-22 season (or are restricted free agents who have received a qualifying offer), and 2) have met the requirements for the minimum number of NHL games played. The official published rules don’t accommodate for last year or this year being shortened seasons; the new numbers are either 27 games this season, or 54 games over the past two seasons. Each team must expose two forwards and one defenseman who meet these requirements; the goaltender has looser restrictions, eliminating the number of NHL games played. We have a full review of the rules and vocabulary available if you need to brush up.
The Oilers went into this past off-season with their top two defensive pairings locked up for the 2021-22 season: Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, and Tyson Barrie. All of them would easily meet the number of games requirements, and if Edmonton were to protect 3 of them (using the 7-3-1 protection scheme) they would have left one exposed and met the requirements. So there was no earthly reason to do what they did next.
In early October the Oilers signed defenseman Kris Russell, a hard-working, stay-at-home defenseman with 12+ years in the league, to a one-year extension for the 2021-22 season. He was already under contract for this season, that wasn’t the issue. And if Edmonton just wanted to guarantee that Russell would stick around for another season, they could have signed him at any time before the start of free agency — there was no rush to get this done in October. So why did they?
The trio of Nurse, Klefbom, and Barrie had met the minimum games requirement before this season even started; Larsson was short by just 5 — an easy number to make up in the 2020-21 season, and indeed he has. So if the Oilers intended to use the 7-3-1 protection scheme, they knew they were already in the clear with the personnel they had already signed.
What was the impetus for this decision? Think about the potential risk Edmonton is taking by doing this. Russell could have suffered a career-ending injury, his play could have gone to shit, or he could have decided to renounce all material possessions and become a Buddhist monk. Why would Edmonton sign a bottom-pairing defenseman to a one year extension WAY before they knew what the cap situation was going to be for the upcoming year, and WAY before they needed to?
The only explanation is, they needed to guarantee they had somebody to expose in the expansion draft. And the only circumstances under which they were going to need an additional defenseman to expose was if the Oilers planned on using the 8-and-1 protection scheme, and intended to protect their entire defensive core: Nurse, Klefbom, Larsson, and Barrie. Russell was signed to meet the draft rules requirements, plain and simple.
And that means it’s go-time for the Seattle Kraken. Step up to the buffet, everyone! Hope you brought your appetites.
Before we get into this too deep, let’s address the goaltending situation. Starter Mikko Koskinen will be protected, and backup Mike Smith will be UFA at the end of the year. Both have been so wildly inconsistent in the past two seasons that, even if both were left exposed, Seattle would be foolish to take a chance on either of them. The remaining eligible goaltenders on the Oilers’ roster — Alex Stalock, Stuart Skinner, and Dylan Wells — don’t rise to the level of the other AHL-quality goaltenders who will be available around the league. So selecting a netminder from Edmonton will not likely be under consideration at Kraken HQ.
That aside, knowing the protection scheme up front makes the assembly of the Oilers’ protected list a relatively simple task. We’ve covered who is going to get a protection slot from the defensive ranks; the only question is the forwards. The “Big 3” of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be protected, period. That only leaves one remaining slot, and that slot is really down to just two guys.
RW Jesse Puljujarvi, $1.175 million, signed through 2022. Puljujarvi has been the disappointment for the Oilers in terms of how their first-round picks have panned out. Puljujarvi is a monster, 6’4″, 202 lbs., and appeared to be poised for world domination: impressive and sometimes exceptional numbers with the Finnish Liiga; even a decent debut for the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors to start his North American career. But he couldn’t make it work with the big club. After two years of unimpressive offensive output, faltering defensive performance, and reduced ice time, Puljujarvi returned to Finland where he played all of last season. He’s back with the big club now, and things are going better — not great, but better. There’s potential there, maybe — I am still unsure about his ability to fully play to his strengths and put up quality top-six minutes in the NHL. He is being given every opportunity to succeed, playing on the right side of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the second line. We’ll see where his numbers land this season.
RW Kailer Yamamoto, $894,000, RFA. Another first-round pick for Edmonton, but his game is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Puljujarvi. At just 5’8″ and 153 lbs., he has to use speed and smart play to get the job done. Is he delivering? He’s playing on the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl, if that tells you anything. This kid is quick, smart, makes good decisions with the puck, executes quickly, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s even fast on the back-check, chasing down opponents’ breakaways and mucking up scoring opportunities. Yamamoto would be my choice from the Oilers if he’s left exposed; but his terrific play so far this year — 7 goals, 15 points, plus-7 in 30 games — is a strong indication he’ll get the last protected slot among the forward corps.
Blowing It Up
This all seems pretty cut and dried, right? Clear protected list, short list of young, successful players to choose from, what could go wrong? Well, a couple of things. First, it would not surprise me in the slightest if the Oilers decided to protect Yamamoto and move Puljujarvi either at the deadline or following their exit from the playoffs (but before the draft). If Puljujarvi’s play takes a nose-dive, or he gets so good that Edmonton is getting calls on him — or management just decides that they’re tired of waiting for the kid to come around — that might just happen.
Less likely, but not impossible, is that the protection scheme gets blown up. Say the Oilers go into a tail-spin — both goalies get injured, the “Big 3” can’t find the twine, whatever — and Edmonton drops out of playoff contention. Under those circumstances, it’s not a crazy idea to think that Edmonton looks to move somebody from that four-man defensive corps at the deadline if the right offer comes along. This would allow them to sell high on one of those guys — my guess would be Barrie, who is having a great year — and it also means they could switch to the 7-3-1 protection scheme. This would change the landscape in Edmonton considerably.
So, covering our bases and assuming that whatever can happen will happen, we have a number of other potential options that the Kraken might want to consider. Unlike many other teams, you’re not going to be disappointed with this list.
RW Zack Kassian, $3.2 million, signed through 2024. If Kassian ends up in Seattle, watching this team is going to be a riot. This guy is 6’3″ and 211 lbs. of whoop-ass. Get used to the phrase, “Kassian just FLATTENS (insert victim’s name here)!” Grit, sandpaper, toughness, whatever name you call it, he brings it by the metric ton. The only down-side is the price tag.
C Kyle Turris, $1.65 million, signed through 2022. A work-a-day third-line center with decent face-off numbers, solid plus-minus, though he’s in a slump this season. 420 points in 747 games played, so he brings some depth scoring and 10 seasons of experience.
LW Jujhar Khaira, $1.2 million, RFA. Some people are hot on this kid; me, not so much — he lacks consistency. He’s having a resurgent year however, so he may turn out to be a sleeper pick. The Oilers’ bottom-six is riddled with injuries at present, so Khaira is centering the third line, which is a mistake. He’s not who you want taking defensive-zone face-offs.
C/LW Dominik Kahun, $975,000, RFA. Kahun is a defensive forward with above-average speed and modest point production, but he is *never* in the minus column. Young, cheap, reliable. That’s about it.
RD Ethan Bear, $2 million, signed through 2022. A product of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, Bear put up point-per-game numbers (remember, he’s a defenseman) and served his last season as Assistant Captain. His role with the Oilers isn’t letting his play-making abilities shine, but there is certainly some up-side potential as this 23-year-old matures.
LD Caleb Jones, $850,000, signed through 2022. Coming up through the US National Team Development Program and the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, this two-way defenseman’s biggest assets are his stamina and work ethic. Only 76 NHL games to his credit so far, but two solid seasons in the AHL earned him a role in the bottom pairing.
Who goes on the protected list isn’t necessarily the biggest question mark from a given team with respect to the expansion draft. How management chooses to handle the draft is potentially the bigger mystery. That’s very much the case with the Oilers. And in such cases, all you have to deal with is probabilities.
Edmonton appears (?!?) to have gone into this season with a clear plan as to how to handle the expansion draft: opt for the 8-and-1 protection scheme, protect the top 4 defensemen, and accept whatever loss they incur with the forwards. And that very well may be what ends up happening.
But there are other potential scenarios, as we’ve discussed. I think the possibility of the Oilers unloading a defenseman at the deadline is remote; but I can definitely see them moving Puljujarvi, protecting Yamamoto and the other 7 players we know will get protection, leaving the Kraken with the menu of also-rans.
There is one more option that we can explore, which is a side transaction that helps Edmonton ensure it keeps all 9 of the players it would like to, and gives the Kraken its choice of the remaining exposed players — plus a draft pick for their trouble. If I were Kraken GM Ron Francis, I would be setting that price tag pretty high. Edmonton would be asking for Seattle to avert its eyes from one of their first-round picks; to my way of thinking, the price for that should be a first-round pick. I hope Francis is prepared to play hardball.
This is another one that’s going to go down to the wire, but the results will likely be very favorable for the Kraken when the dust settles. If you want to check out Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, plus one or two of the other players we mentioned (as was stated earlier, Edmonton has major injury issues at present) you can tune in when the Oilers and Flames renew hostilities in the Battle of Alberta: this Wednesday, March 17th at 4:00pm Pacific on NBCSN.