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Who Will the Columbus Blue Jackets Protect in the 2021 Expansion Draft?

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Yeah, we know it’s really early

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL Board of Governors approved Seattle as the league’s newest expansion team this week, set to begin play in 2021. For those in the Pacific Northwest, a new team brings excitement, hope and new fans perhaps seeing NHL hockey for the first time. For the rest of us, it means that we’re going to watch Seattle pluck a player from our favorite team and hope they don’t immediately score 40 goals and lead their team to the Stanley Cup Final!

As nice as it felt to have the strum und drang (sturm und draft?) of expansion behind us last summer, we get to do it all over again in a few years. With that, let’s take a way-too-early look at who the Blue Jackets may protect for 2021.

First, the rules, which will remain the same as 2017:

Protection list rules

  • Each team can protect up to seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender, or eight skaters and one goaltender.
  • All players with no-movement clauses must be protected unless they agree to waive.
  • Any unsigned draft pick or player with two or fewer years of NHL/AHL experience is exempt.
  • Teams must expose players who meet certain criteria. There must be at least one defenseman and two forwards who are under contract for 2021-22 and played at least 40 NHL games in 2020-21 or 70 NHL games total since the start of 2019-20. Teams must also expose a goaltender who is either under contract for the 2021-22 season or who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2020-21 season.
  • All first- and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, are exempt from selection.

Seattle selection rules

  • Seattle must select one player from each franchise except Vegas.
  • The final roster must include at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen, and three goaltenders.
  • At least 20 of the 30 players selected have to be under contract for the 2021-22 season.

Who stays in Columbus?

Thanks to this CapFriendly tweet, we can see which Blue Jackets will have no-movement clauses in 2021. They are:

Nobody! Not a single person, as of now.

Here’s a fun fact, illustrated in a subsequent CapFriendly tweet: If the expansion draft took place in 2020, the CBJ would be required to protect Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno. Dodged a bullet there.

So, we have the rules and we know that nobody’s automatically protected (as of now). Using that, we’ll adopt the parameters set by this extremely good Defending Big D article about the Stars’ 2021 expansion outlook. Those being:

1. We won’t speculate on any unrestricted free agent signings, because c’mon

2. We’re assuming all RFAs will be resigned through 2021-22. No, that’s obviously not going to happen, and we’ll note specific cases, but it’s easier to assume from this point in 2018. That’s why there are so many minor leaguers in here, too.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Detroit Red Wings Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Forwards

NMC: None

Exempt: Liam Foudy, Alexandre Texier

Eligible: Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky (UFA), Nick Foligno (UFA), Alexander Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Riley Nash (UFA), Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Lukas Sedlak, Markus Hannikainen, Anthony Duclair, Eric Robinson, Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Sonny Milano, Ryan MacInnis, Johnathan Davidsson, Maxime Fortier, Justin Scott, Paul Bittner, Vitaly Abramov, Alex Broadhurst, Calvin Thurkauf, Kole Sherwood

First: If Artemi Panarin is still a Blue Jacket in 2021, obviously he’s being protected. We’re excluding him for this the purpose of this thought exercise, but he’s a no-brainer if he’s still in Columbus.

Cam Atkinson does not have a no-movement clause. He does have a no-trade clause through the contract he signed that makes him a Blue Jacket through 2024-25. He’ll turn 32 shortly before the draft, but he’ll likely still be high on the CBJ depth chart. The Cannon staff agrees that he’ll likely be a “core” guy in 2021, like he is now.

Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Riley Nash will be unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2021, a few days after the expansion draft. Technically they’re still Blue Jackets, though you can envision Dubinsky and Nash heading somewhere else. Foligno has had a productive year and he’ll likely still be the captain if he’s in Columbus. Do you sign and protect your 34-year-old forward or let him possibly go to Seattle and be a veteran presence there? Columbus did protect a 35-year-old Scott Hartnell in 2017, after all.

Pierre-Luc Dubois is not going anywhere. His entry-level contract expires after next season and you can bet the Blue Jackets are going to keep him around, though maybe not with an NMC on his first deal after an ELC. Wennberg? That could be tricky. He’s signed through 2022-23 and has settled into a nice little role now that he doesn’t have to be the No. 1 center. He’s only 24 and will certainly improve on his already considerable vision and passing skills.

Who else would you think about protecting two and a half seasons from now? Josh Anderson ranks third on the team in goals, has improved in every season and is only 24 years old. Out of this list, he’s a safe bet. Boone Jenner is signed through 2021-22…do you protect him for a final year? He’s a glue guy in a leadership role and the organization loves him, so maybe. Oliver Bjorkstrand hasn’t had the breakout season many hoped, but still shows the flash that could make him a big-time player. Anthony Duclair may make like Sam Gagner after this season and head for a big paycheck elsewhere by rehabbing his reputation in Columbus, but right now he can’t even crack the lineup consistently. Eric Robinson has made hay in Cleveland and could be an important piece in a couple of years, and who knows where Sonny Milano will land next week, let alone in three years.

We’ve reached depth-forward territory with Markus Hannikainen and it’s hard to envision Lukas Sedlak being a Columbus Blue Jacket in 2021-22 at the current rate. The Traverse City stars (Stenlund, Vigneault, Thurkauf) will hopefully be with the big club in 2021, though it’s nigh-impossible to predict their trajectories from here.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Defensemen

NMC: None

Exempt: None

Eligible: Seth Jones, David Savard (UFA), Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara, Zach Werenski, Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington, Gabriel Carlsson, Ryan Collins, Doyle Somerby, Michael Prapavessis, Adam Clendening, Blake Siebenaler

You can protect three defensemen, so this one’s extremely easy: Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Scott Harrington.

We kid, we kid. But Jones and Werenski are locks. So who gets the third slot? David Savard is another player who will be an unrestricted free agent a few days after the expansion draft, though he’ll be 31 when it’s time to negotiate the new deal. Ryan Murray, perpetual trade bait and perfect second pairing d-man, can request an arbitration hearing after this season. Savard and Murray were protected in 2017, along with Jones. Murray’s enjoying one of the better years of his career this season and he’s still only 25, so assuming he signs a long-term deal with Columbus (which is not a given), he could be a contender for protection.

Markus Nutivaara has blossomed into a key defenseman for Columbus and signed a new deal in March that keeps him a Blue Jacket through 2021-22. His growing role and improved skills project him to be an important part of the defensive corps for years to come, and at 27, he’ll be a prime candidate for Columbus to keep him away from Seattle.

Goaltenders

NMC: None!

Exempt: None

Eligible: Joonas Korpisalo, Matiss Kivlenieks

Like Panarin, we’re assuming Sergei Bobrovsky is no longer a Blue Jacket by 2021-22, as sad as that may be. If he is? He’s protected. In this thought experiment, he’s conquered his playoff demons and signed a long-term deal that the Jackets are forced to protect. Joonas Korpisalo is currently playing in the final year of his contract and the rest of this season looms large for him as his save percentage currently sits at .883. Matiss Kivlenieks has struggled in Cleveland, but is only 22.

Elvis Merzlikins? He hasn’t even signed with Columbus, which is why he wasn’t included in this list. He should be eligible by playing more than 10 games in a professional league as a 20-plus-year-old, so let’s say he sets the world on fire and is the goalie of the future.

Final List

Forwards (7): Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, Nick Foligno, Eric Robinson, Anthony Duclair

This was tough. The more I think about it, if the Blue Jackets let Foligno go in the draft, it’s a Marc-Andre Fleury situation, where a heart/soul/face of the franchise-type guy has been supplanted by a younger star and it’s time to amicably part ways. Actually, you know what? Take Foligno off and put in Kevin Stenlund (or Sonny Milano). Their skills have a lot of room to grow and they could be worth protecting. If Panarin stays, one of those guys are off.

Defensemen (3): Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Markus Nutivaara

Keep the all-world pairing together and protect a 27-year-old Nuti, a second-line guy entering the final year of his contract.

Goaltender (1): Whoever the starter is

Honestly, reviewing the roster, it’s plain to see how Jarmo Kekäläinen has (for the most part) avoided long, bad contracts. The Blue Jackets could find themselves in pretty good shape for 2021...although two and a half years can be quite a long time in hockey.