Senators and the Expansion Draft: Who Should They Protect?

There is still a great deal of time before the 2021 Seattle Expansion Draft rolls around, and many things could change for the Ottawa Senators between now and then. Nevertheless, with the NHL season currently at a standstill, it is a perfect time to take a look at what the Senators’ protection list could like for the draft.

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The last time the Senators went through this ordeal back in 2017, they lost a significant contributor in Marc Methot. (from ‘Senators forced to roll dice with Methot in expansion draft,’ Ottawa Sun, 06/28/2017) Likewise, a look at their protected players from that draft is a dismal trip down memory lane, with names like Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau adorning the list.

The Ottawa Senators exposed Marc Methot at the 2017 Vegas Expansion Draft. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The rules for the 2021 Expansion Draft are the same as they were in 2017. Teams are required to keep seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or they can keep eight skaters and one goalie. Similarly, the requirements for the mandatory players a team has to leave exposed remain the same.

Finally, for this article, we are assuming that any upcoming restricted free agents are going to be re-signed by the team. Without further ado, let us try to predict the future.

Senators Exempt from Expansion Draft

The logical place to start is by outlining the young players who are ineligible for the expansion draft, which means the team does not have to waste a protection slot to keep them. Exemptions are “all players who have accrued two or less professional seasons at the end of the 2020-21 season, as well as all unsigned draft choices appearing on the team’s reserve list”.

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For the Senators, this means several top prospects are safe, like Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Erik Brannstrom, Jacob-Bernard Docker, and Lassi Thomson.

Projecting Senators’ Protected Forwards

Based on the current roster and the expansion draft rules, these are the seven forwards that the Senators will protect.

Forwards: Brady Tkachuk, Anthony Duclair, Colin White, Logan Brown, Drake Batherson, Connor Brown, Vitaly Abramov

When looking at the forwards, Tkachuk is an obvious choice for protection. He is already one of the unquestioned leaders of the team despite being only 20 years old. By the time the 2021-22 season rolls around, the hope is that he has developed into one of the league’s premier power forwards.

Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators
Brady Tkachuk is a massive piece of the future for the Ottawa Senators. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Duclair has also earned himself protection status during his revitalized, albeit inconsistent, 2019-20 season. Perhaps he may not be a vital part of the team’s core moving forward, but there is no doubt that he is one of the better players on the current roster.

Logan Brown and Batherson have barely scratched the surface at the NHL level. They are two of the team’s top prospects and understandably deserve protection. Both players have enjoyed productive seasons in the AHL, most notably Batherson, who has potted 54 points in 44 games.

From there, it is not as clear. White has had a dismal season, with just 23 points in 61 games, but his sizable contract extension from the past offseason shows that the team believes in him long-term. On the other hand, Connor Brown has had a surprisingly effective year, sitting second on the team in scoring with 43 points.

Colin White Ottawa Senators
Colin White desperately needs to prove himself for the Ottawa Senators. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As for Abramov, he is a younger player that is still trying to prove himself professionally. While the Senators have several forwards of a similar age in the same boat, Abramov seems to have the highest ceiling out of the bunch and has enjoyed a strong season in the AHL.

Protected Defensemen and Goalie

The three defensemen and the goaltender projected to be protected are as follows.

Defensemen: Thomas Chabot, Maxime Lajoie, Christian Wolanin

Goalie: Filip Gustavsson

Much like Tkachuk, Chabot is an obvious answer. He is an All-Star caliber defenseman that continues to get better with age. Chabot is by far the best rearguard on the roster and will continue to spearhead the attack for years to come. After that, it becomes a bit tricky to predict.

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The Senators’ options are quite limited on the blueline. Lajoie has almost fallen into obscurity after a shining start to his 2018-19 season. The 22-year-old is still a work in progress, and it seems as though his hernia surgery from last year has stunted his development a bit. Nevertheless, he proved that he has legitimate potential at the NHL level, and is worthy of protection on a defensively starved team.

Maxime Lajoie Senators
Maxime Lajoie of the Ottawa Senators is trying to get his career back on track. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Next comes Wolanin, who fell victim to the injury bug in the 2019-20 season. During training camp, with a strong chance of making the final roster, he tore his labrum and was out until March 7. The 25-year-old has middle-pairing upside and will likely be a regular on the Senators blueline in the 2020-21 season.

Goaltending is a question mark for the franchise, and it will likely cause the most debate for management. Craig Anderson will be retired by 2021-22, while Anders Nilsson and Marcus Hogberg are not exactly stalwart netminding options.

That leaves us with Gustavsson, who the team acquired in the Derrick Brassard trade of 2018. Gustavsson has prospect pedigree, but he has failed to wow in the AHL this season. He was named the AHL Goaltender of the Month in January, but that comes after months mired with inconsistency.

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Goalies take a notoriously long time to develop fully, so there is still a ton of room to grow for the 21-year-old. Gustavsson is by far the youngest goalie in the organization and has the highest ceiling out of his remaining competitors, which makes him the logical choice to protect.

Notable Senators Exposed to Seattle

Forwards: Bobby Ryan, Rudolfs Balcers, Chris Tierney, Filip Chlapik, Jonathan Davidsson

Defensemen: Nikita Zaitsev, Christian Jaros

Goalies: Hogberg, Nilsson

In all honesty, losing any of these players will not be a backbreaker for the Senators, but seeing Balcers move on would likely sting the most. The Latvian forward has produced respectable numbers across three separate AHL seasons and will be ready for full-time NHL duty in 2020-21.

Rudolfs Balcers Ottawa Senators
Rudolfs Balcers, Ottawa Senators 2019 development camp (Courtesy Ottawa Senators)

On the other hand, Ryan and Zaitsev have bloated contracts, so it seems unlikely that either will be selected. Tierney is a viable third-line center who could instantly slot in on Seattle’s roster, but his upside is limited.

Chlapik, Davidsson, and Jaros may eventually become contributors in the NHL, but that is far from guaranteed. Granted, it is not ideal for the Senators to lose any potential assets, but that is the reality of expansion drafts.

Both goaltenders have had flashes of success in the NHL, most notably Hogberg this season, but neither seem like the answer in net. Additionally, with goaltenders like Jonathan Quick or Matt Murray possibly available, it is doubtful that Seattle takes a look at either Senators’ goalie.

Final Word

In all reality, the 2021 Expansion Draft will be far worse for other teams. The Senators may lose a viable player to Seattle, but they can keep their young core intact. It is also worth noting that it is hard to project how a player may perform two years from now, as Balcers could blossom into a top-six option by then.

The future is starting to take shape for the Senators, and with 13 picks in the upcoming 2020 NHL Entry Draft, that only becomes more clear. Perhaps free-agent signings muddle this projected list or blockbuster trades continue to fly, but for now, the Senators seem to be in a shielded position.