The first couple of months of the 2021 offseason have flown by. Now, the Washington Capitals are face-to-face with tough decisions they’ve been pondering for a while when it comes to the Seattle Kraken.
Washington must submit its final protected list for the expansion draft on Saturday by 5 p.m. The Capitals will have to figure out which players to protect from the grasp of the Kraken, while also coming to terms with potentially losing a big name. They’ll likely go with the 7-3-1 option, as that gives Washington the most flexibility and more names to protect.
That being said, what will the final protected list look like?
2021 Mock Expansion Draft: Washington Capitals Protected List
Earlier in the offseason, I was leaning in a different direction when it came to protected forwards. However, given the continued Kuznetsov trade talks, these are the players I’d protect.
First off, let’s address Alex Ovechkin. He’s absent from this list because he’s a pending UFA who’s still waiting to re-sign If Seattle does pick him, it’d be a wasted pick. Ovechkin said multiple times he wants to sign an extension and finish his career in D.C., so even if the Kraken do select him, he’d just hit free agency and return.
So, leaving him unprotected allows Washington to protect another name, and not signing him to a new deal yet, in a way, keeps him safe from Seattle too.
Kuznetsov is too valuable to lose for nothing, and he’ll likely be a major trade chip with Washington potentially eyeing Vladimir Tarasenko or other big names. The Capitals would then need to be able to have another experienced top-6 center to fill the void, and that’s where Lars Eller comes into play.
Speaking of losing big names, Brian MacLellan just pulled off a major blockbuster deal for Mantha and gave up Jakub Vrana for him. Additionally, MacLellan shared how the team had been keeping an eye on Mantha and like how he fits into the team’s identity. Taking that, and the fact that Mantha played well in his small sample size, into account, he’ll get the seal of protection.
READ MORE ON WHN: What Do Vladimir Tarasenko Trade Talks Mean For Washington Capitals’ Offseason Plans?
As for Oshie, he told NBC Sports Washington he hasn’t discussed the expansion draft further with the team. That, and the fact that he’s the heart of the roster, makes it easy to assume he’ll be safe. Wilson’s a key part of the culture, the resident tough guy and top-6 RW, so he’s not going anywhere either.
Then, it came down to Sheary or Sprong, and in the end, I chose the latter. The 24-year-old has an outstanding shot and led the team with a 17.6 shooting percentage this season. His 13 even-strength goals ranked second on the team in 2020-21. He also put on a show while filling in for an injured Ovechkin on the first line LW. Overall, Sprong shows a lot of potential to be a major difference-maker and a top-6 scorer for the team moving forward.
John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov make up the Capitals’ top pairing, and they both lead all Capitals d-men in goals. So protecting them isn’t much of a question. However, the situation is much more complex when it comes to the third blueliner.
Brenden Dillon‘s a strong physical presence and led Washington’s blueliners with a whopping 124 hits. And, behind Carlson, he blocked the most shots (47). Rounding out the top-4, there’s Justin Schultz, a strong puck-mover who led Washington defenders in primary assists (12) and goals for percentage (60).
Beyond them, Nick Jensen‘s also a strong choice who shined under Peter Laviolette’s systems. He moved the puck much more efficiently and took a major step forward on offense, leading all Caps defensemen with at least 21GP in HDCF% (54.76). Jensen also knows how to take a hit and battle for the puck.
Zdeno Chara‘s set to become an unrestricted free agent, so he likely won’t be considered for the expansion draft. Not only that, but Michal Kempny should also be safe, as a long-term injury held him out last season.
That leaves Trevor van Riemsdyk as the last to consider. He played just 20 games for Washington last season but did a fine job on the backcheck. He led the team in CF% (52.49) and xGF (56.47).
Ultimately, Schultz makes my list. He’s a top-4 right-handed offensive defenseman who can log a lot of minutes and play a vital role at even strength and on special teams. Having that presence on the backcheck will be important moving forward, especially when it comes to having another strong offensive presence that can also play a responsible game in his own end. Plus, Washington has a surplus of LHD and needs to ensure they have depth on the right side.
Ideally, Washington would likely benefit most from Seattle taking Dillon, who will have a cap hit of $3.9 million over the last four years. It’ll clear space for the Capitals and give them more flexibility when it comes to their d-corps. It’s players like Jensen or TvR, though, that would be a tougher loss. They’re right-hand shots and both have a superb skill set that can go under the radar. If Washington loses depth on the right side, it’ll be a tougher void to fill.
Vitek Vanecek had a standout freshman campaign as he was thrown into a starting role in a year where he was supposed to be a No. 3 netminder. However, Samsonov wins this spot. The 24-year-old RFA is one of Washington’s top prospects, and despite off-ice issues with COVID and inconsistency this season, MacLellan expressed faith in Samsonov’s future. He has the skill set and upside to become a No. 1 goalie — and a top one in this league; he just has to maintain the right mentality.
Samsonov, like Kuznetsov, is also a potential top player who shouldn’t be lost for nothing in return. While Vanecek would be a tough loss and could eventually become a No. 1, the Capitals need to go with their gut. And by all indications, their gut is going with Samsonov.
Who will Seattle take?
In regards to the Kraken, I believe they will either go for Vanecek or a defenseman. If they’re good on goalies by the time they come around to Washington, it’ll come down to the blue line. Dillon’s a strong physical presence and can move the puck efficiently, but I do think that Seattle may show more interest in a cheaper option like Jensen. The puck-moving, RHD is a vital piece to any NHL roster, and Jensen can provide that. It’ll be hard for the Kraken to pass up on a major asset there.
In the end, the Washington Capitals face a difficult road ahead, and we’ll have to see who they choose to expose.