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Seattle NHL Expansion Draft: Who should be the Penguins’ final protected forward?

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The 7th protected forward is quite the decision in the Seattle expansion draft for the Penguins. Made tougher by the emergence of Jeff Carter..

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game Three Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Expansion drafts are always a hot topic among debate and discussion for hockey fans. They’re fun, exotic and pretty rare in the big scheme of things.

They’re also important, as with the current rules the Vegas Golden Knights leveraged their selections and trades to become instant and serious Stanley Cup contenders from the beginning.

So how will and should the Penguins navigate another expansion draft this summer? We’ve already talked about it in October and March, but now at the end of the season it’s time to circle back yet again, because...Why not.

As a reminder, by rule teams can either protect 7 forwards + 3 defensemen + 1 goalie, or 8 skaters of any F/D classification and one goalie. All players in the first or second years of their professional careers (notably: John Marino and Pierre-Olivier Joseph) are exempt and can’t be selected and don’t have to be protected. Non-professional prospects like Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare also can’t be taken by Seattle.

The splits have broken bad for Pittsburgh. The Pens would have been better off if they could protect 8F/2D rather than 7F/3D if possible...But that isn’t an option.

At a later date before the July expansion draft, we have more time to dig into other areas like defense and the Marcus Petterson - Mike Matheson situation. But the forwards are the most interesting area for the Penguins, so let’s focus on that today.

At this point there are six clear forwards for the Pens to protect: Sidney Crosby (NMC - auto protect), Evgeni Malkin (NMC - auto protect), Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, Jared McCann.

The first two in Crosby and Malkin are unimpeachable. Both have automatic protections via rule based on their contractual no movement clauses. No issue there, they wouldn’t be exposed anyways.

Guentzel and Rust play on the first power play and are elite first line players. They are going to be protected without any hint of a second thought.

Coming into the season both Kapanen and McCann were something more of unknowns as far as value for expansion protection for 2021. Both have a lot of parallels and were similarly impressive this season that move them into an easy decision to keep.

  • Both are 24 year old forwards signed for reasonable amounts next season
  • Kapanen finished second on the team in P/60 at 2.82 (min. 100 minutes) McCann was fourth at 2.41 P/60. With seven spots available, this becomes elementary to protect two young, extremely productive players
  • Beyond rates the production extended to the boxcars: McCann finished fourth among Pittsburgh forwards with 32 points in 2020-21, Kapanen was fifth with 30 points
  • Both are excellent skaters with a mix of impressive abilities with hands and legs alike which make their attributes as desirable to keep as their age, contract status and point totals
  • McCann can play center or wing on the second or third line, Kapanen played on the right wing on first and second lines this season. Protecting key players that can shift up or down the lineup when needed a simple decision

The focus shifts to the seventh forward that the team can protect. There are several reasonable options to consider.

Jason Zucker ($5.5 million cap hit for two more seasons): Zucker tends to get a bad rap and had a tough year in 2020-21, but still has considerable forward-looking value. Zucker has five career 20+ goal seasons and is only 29 years old. It’s probably not great to expose a semi-prime age second line scoring forward to expansion when a team can protect seven forwards. Zucker only had 9G+9A in 38 games this season, his most recent history says don’t protect him. Projecting to the future says it might not be such a bad idea. But potentially shedding $5.5m in salary for the Pens is intriguing enough an option to open up other avenues is should be a factor that puts exposing Zucker into play for Pittsburgh.

Teddy Blueger (RFA): Blueger is a solid two-way player. He can function as a third line center, or a very good fourth line center. He scored only four 5v5 goals in 43 games this season. Blueger’s a good all-around player, but also a replaceable one. It’s worth pointing out he arbitration eligible RFA this summer that is one year out from being a UFA. That lowers his value to the Pens for this exercise; the chances Pittsburgh can fit Blueger next year, and have a long-term future with him is fairly low, even independent of expansion considerations.

Brandon Tanev ($3.5m hit for four more seasons): Tanev has to be considered the “buzz” in the buzzsaw line. He’s a fearless player with a ton of energy and is a fun and effective player. Tanev had a great 2020-21 with 16 points (7G+9A) in 32 games. Beyond that he forechecks like a demon, and led the Pens in hits and led forwards in blocked shots. Tanev shot a career-high 16.3% and turns 30 later this year. For what you can’t ignore for his positives, the back-end of his contract is still setting up to be not favorable. In a flat cap world, he wouldn’t get a $3.5 x 4 year deal right now. That term might be enough of expansion protection in itself. If he were to be lost, it opens up more room for the Pens to find a chippy lower line player off the free agent pile and probably save money and term.

Jeff Carter ($2.6m hit for one season): After getting traded at the deadline, Carter scored a 13 goals in 20 total games in a Pens’ sweater (reg season + playoffs). He was a difference maker and one of the team’s best players down the stretch. Carter is 36 years old and won’t carry quite that production forward, but it was Carter —not Blueger — who was PK 1C in the playoffs. Carter has size, a shot, veteran presence. Is he one of the Pens’ top 7 forwards right now? I...think you could easily see how management would see so. Carter also scored 17 goals in the 56 regular season games between LA and Pittsburgh. That’s a lot more than Blueger, Tanev and Zucker and probably most players who could be exposed. And he’s got only one year left on his contract. Seattle could pick him up and trade him at the deadline if need be. There would certainly be a market given how great he was as a deadline pickup for the Pens.

Zach Aston-Reese (RFA): ZAR is a quality defensive forward, but also one year out from UFA with arbitration rights this summer. There’s not much of a real case that he should be protected as one of the top seven forwards on the team as a fourth line winger. It’s not impossible Seattle may consider him, but that’s a price the Pens would have to pay if they want to look that direction. His age and contractual/impending FA status doesn’t make him an appealing option for really either Pittsburgh or Seattle.

Who should the Pens protect? It’s a fun topic to stew over. The unfortunate aspect is that for a deep team, Pittsburgh will be sending a player to Seattle that they otherwise would like to keep. But they don’t have that option. And this doesn’t even consider that the Kraken could select Casey DeSmith as a worthwhile choice, despite what happens up front with the forwards.

Earlier in the season, it would seem a no-brainer to protect Zucker given his skill and history. But he hasn’t quite fit in with the Pens. I would think if Seattle wants to take that salary cap hit, that might be a fair trade off. It’s a shame that Pittsburgh will ship their 2021 first round pick to Minnesota to complete the trade for Zucker, but at this point that is the definition a sunk cost. Zucker gave the Pens two playoff years. It didn’t amount to much, but such is life, and can’t be changed now. A new management team won’t have any loyalty or feel any guilt to leave him exposed, and nor should they.

Brandon Tanev is a classic good player vs. bad contract debate. Do you want to lose him in 2021 if you’re the Pens? Absolutely not. Could you bet an expansion team doesn’t want to absorb a $3.5x4 year contract for a soon-to-be 30 year bottom-lineup player and try to get away with it? that sounds like a reasonable gamble to make.

In some ways, having the possibility of re-signing Frederick Gaudreau helps settle the debate between Blueger and Carter. If the Pens protect Carter they have Crosby-Malkin-Carter as a 1-2-3 punch, and could look to re-up Gaudreau for the 4C.

A potential Crosby-Malkin-Blueger 1-2-3 trio doesn’t carry nearly as much offensive might. And while Blueger certainly is a valuable and quality center, Carter is going to score more in 2021-22 and already took Blueger’s spot on the top PK. And 2021-22 the only season that matters right now in Pittsburgh.

It’s a wild shift, but right now, I think Carter is the most useful seventh forward and one the Pens should least want to lose, especially with their status as wanting to load up for next year.

It’s not going to be fun or preferable to lose anyone, but guaranteeing a Crosby-Malkin-Carter top three center depth chart for next season would be the best play. Pittsburgh has that option. They ouch not to allow Carter be a veteran captain-type choice for Seattle to take. Since LA retained salary, Carter has a reasonable $2.6x1 contract that could easily be flipped if Seattle needs or wants to. Carter has shown he still has the legs and hands to be a valuable starting point for a top-line center for them, and few productive centers will be on the table, which would only make Carter stand out all the more after his terrific April and May in Pittsburgh,

Such a course of action would allow Seattle the option to splurge on a contract like Zucker or Tanev, or get Blueger’s RFA rights. Ant of these scenarios ensures Pittsburgh clears some cap space and keeps their most important three centers, which sounds about as good a strategy as possible given the confines of the system in play.

But what say you? Feel free to chime in with the best expansion scenario now that the season is over.

Poll

Who should be the seventh forward the Penguins protect in the expansion draft?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Jason Zucker
    (225 votes)
  • 10%
    Teddy Blueger
    (312 votes)
  • 19%
    Brandon Tanev
    (560 votes)
  • 61%
    Jeff Carter
    (1790 votes)
  • 1%
    Zach Aston-Reese
    (42 votes)
2929 votes total Vote Now