The 2021 NHL expansion draft is slated for July 21, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are all but assured of losing one talented member of their current roster to the Seattle Kraken. The league’s 31 non-expansion teams can choose to protect a combination of either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters and one goalie, and there’s a case to be made for the Leafs to go either route – or to make a deal with Kraken GM Ron Francis to pass by Toronto’s key components, and accept a combination of draft picks and/or prospects instead.
This may be the more dicey choice, given Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has already dealt away his team’s first-round, third-round and fourth-round picks in this coming NHL entry draft, and their third-round and fourth-round picks in the 2022 entry draft. With Toronto’s dependence on their “Big Four” of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander taking up a large portion of their $81.5-million salary cap limit, they’ll need to continue to augment their lineup with cheap, cap-controllable talent – talent that, by and large, has to come from their draft system. So Dubas really needs to start replenishing that system with fresh, new skilled players. For now, then, we’ll put the trade option as the least likely of the three expansion draft outcomes.
That said, which of the two expansion protection options is most likely to be the best for the Buds? It says here that, all things considered, the combination of eight protected skaters and one netminder (Jack Campbell) will put Toronto in the best position, both to deal with their cap crunch, and to give head coach Sheldon Keefe the ideal roster given the circumstances they face.
Why eight skaters and one goalie, you ask? Well, it’s rather simple: When you take into account the Leafs’ lineup realities, it’s more difficult to replace NHL-ready D-men than it is to replace forwards, and Toronto’s present-day stockpile of forwards is more able to absorb the body blow of an expansion pick than their defense corps is.
— Full Press Hockey (@FullPressNHL) July 5, 2021
Let’s break that down a little bit more: if Dubas decided to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, the likelihood is that either Justin Holl or Travis Dermott, who would be two unprotected defensemen, would be Seattle’s pick. The Leafs would only be able to protect veterans Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, and Jake Muzzin in such a scenario, but they would probably be able to retain current unrestricted free agent winger Zach Hyman, and most of their forwards, including Pierre Engvall and center, Alex Kerfoot.
Now, let’s look at who would be likely to be taken by Seattle if Dubas chooses to protect eight skaters and one goalie. The goalie would be the same in either case – Campbell has staked out the starter’s spot with stellar play last season – but, rather than protecting Engvall, Kerfoot, and Hyman, the Leafs would be able to protect four D-men, and add Holl to the mix of protected blueliners.
There’s little chance Seattle would take Engvall, but Kerfoot would be an attractive element for the Kraken to consider employing. Kerfoot is signed for the next two seasons at a $3.5-million-per-season cap hit, and he’s still only 26 and is a versatile talent who can play up and down a team’s top 12 forwards. If he was selected by Seattle, Toronto would at first glance have nothing to show for the 2019 trade of Nazem Kadri to Colorado for Kerfoot and blueliner Tyson Barrie. But look closer, and you’ll see that they will have something to show for it – namely, the $3.5-million of cap space that would open up for Dubas to use, either to keep Hyman in the fold, or to utilize on another free agent or player in a trade. At the same time, they’d avoid losing any defensemen off their roster, as the Kraken can only select one player off each team.
Certainly, protecting Holl over Kerfoot makes sense; Holl made a superb adaptation to the NHL game last season, after being a consistent healthy scratch under former Leafs coach Mike Babcock. At age 29, Holl is also signed for the next two years at a very solid $2.0-million-per-year cap hit. The Leafs have defensive prospects in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liligren, and while they expect those two Swedes to step up their games and become key members of the ‘D’ corps, it seems like a worse decision to give up on Holl, especially when he’s come so far. Retaining Holl also makes sense if, as some have speculated, Dubas decides to deal Rielly before he becomes a UFA next summer and prices himself out of the Leafs’ range.
Dubas already has begun preparing for the expansion hit he’ll take, signing veteran forwards Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza to new contracts at a very low cost. He’s also got American League forwards Nick Robertson and Joey Anderson to call up to challenge for a roster spot, and if Hyman doesn’t take a hometown haircut and signs with another team, Dubas will have an additional $2.25-million to play with in either the free agent or trade market. Maybe he uses that money to bring back veteran Nick Foligno, who had a first-rounder spent on acquiring him this past year, and they have a third-line center to replace Kerfoot. Or maybe he keeps some of that cap space to have flexibility during the season. But any way you cut it, it makes more sense to leave Kerfoot out there than it does to leave Holl unprotected.
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Expansion drafts are, by their nature, unpredictable. You never quite know who’ll be made available until the lists are made official. You also never know whether an expansion team will want to be competitively aggressive right off the hop, the way the Vegas Golden Knights were a few years back, or whether they decide to take a slower, more methodical approach. But all those 31 teams can, if they want to, be equally aggressive in who they choose to protect. Basically, a GM can dare an expansion squad to take a useful player such as Kerfoot, and either keep him or flip him for more long-term gains. Or, under the same setup, they can take a chance on a less-proven talent like Dermott, and choose to develop him as their own asset. In that case, Toronto would retain Kerfoot and possibly trade him for younger, cheaper help at the bottom end of their top 12 forwards, or for more draft picks and prospects.
In any case, it probably comes down to losing either Kerfoot or Holl, and at this stage, Holl is the more cost-conscious talent of the two players. Dangle Kerfoot, and you keep Holl around, at least for the next two seasons. That’s the best option for the Leafs – and if Dubas can figure out a way to have Hyman re-sign well after the July 21 expansion draft, he’ll potentially have that much more cap space with which to sign him. Right now, Kerfoot is a luxury Toronto can afford to part ways with. Holl is not, which is why going the eight-skaters route is the Leafs’ best option.