With the Vegas Golden Knights in the midst of their third season as a franchise, NoVa Caps looks back at the Washington Capitals‘ protection list for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft to see whether they might change anything if the draft was held today. The Golden Knights ultimately selected defenseman Nate Schmidt from the Capitals, who reportedly tried to make a trade to protect him but the cost to keep him in Washington was forward Tom Wilson and goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who is now with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Capitals’ Protection List
Teams had the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender or eight skaters (any combination of forwards and defensemen) and one goaltender. The Capitals opted to go with the first option.
- Alex Ovechkin
- Nicklas Backstrom
- Evgeny Kuznetsov (pending RFA at the time)
- Tom Wilson
- Lars Eller
- Marcus Johansson
- Andre Burakovsky (pending RFA)
- John Carlson
- Dmitry Orlov (pending RFA)
- Matt Niskanen
- Braden Holtby
Besides Schmidt and Grubauer, the biggest players’ available on the Capitals for the Golden Knights to select included forwards T.J. Oshie (who was not under contract for the next season at the time), Justin Williams (who was not under contract for the next season at the time and who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes as a UFA that summer), Brett Connolly (pending RFA); and defensemen Karl Alzner (who was not under contract for the next season at the time and who signed with the Montreal Canadiens as a UFA that summer), Kevin Shattenkirk (who was not under contract for the next season at the time and who signed with the New York Rangers as a UFA that summer), Brooks Orpik, and Christian Djoos. Had the Golden Knights signed one of the Capitals’ pending unrestricted free agents, that would have counted as their expansion draft pick and they could go out and sign any, in fact, all of them if they wished on July 1.
Johansson (dealt to the New Jersey Devils on July 2, 2017), Burakovsky (traded to Avalanche on June 28, 2019), and Niskanen (traded to Philadelphia Flyers on June 14, 2019) were all protected and are no longer on the Capitals’ roster.
First things first: the Capitals brought home the Stanley Cup the year after the expansion draft, so there’s no arguing with GM Brian MacLellan’s decisions about who to protect and who to expose. But what would an alternative strategy have looked like?
If the Capitals knew that they were going to have to trade Johansson to re-sign Kuznetsov, who signed an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $7.8 million per season within an hour of Johansson being traded, it might have been best to leave him exposed.
While the Capitals were expecting Burakovsky to play a big role in the 2017-18 season with Oshie’s future with the team uncertain at the time and Williams almost certainly set to leave, he would likely be left exposed to the Golden Knights if the expansion draft was last summer as he struggled to live up to the expectations of being a top-six forward in Washington. However, you can’t blame MacLellan for protecting him at the time since he has always had 25-30 goal potential.
Niskanen was dealt less than two years after the expansion draft but the Capitals were still able a squeeze a Stanley Cup out before his play dropped dramatically last season.
Forward Jakub Vrana, who was still on his entry-level contract at the time, did not need to be protected.
So if the Capitals left Johansson and Burakovsky exposed to the Golden Knights, they would likely go with the eight and one format, protecting Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Wilson, Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Schmidt, and Holtby. If you’re wondering about Eller, the Golden Knights would almost certainly find both Johansson and Burakovsky more attractive at the time so he would likely remain in Washington through the expansion draft even if the Capitals did not make a deal to protect him.
The Golden Knights would likely have selected one of the two Swedes but the Capitals could not afford to keep Johansson anyway and Burakovsky struggled to grab a spot in the top-six in Washington despite getting more of a leash under head coach Todd Reirden than Barry Trotz. Besides, Burakovsky’s speed game would likely fit better into the Golden Knights’ system than under the Capitals’ physical style of play.
While you could argue that had the Golden Knights not selected Schmidt the Capitals would have never traded for Michal Kempny at the trade deadline the next season and won the Stanley Cup, the team has acquired at least one defenseman at the deadline in every season under MacLellan and Kempny had a cap hit of only $900,000 at the time, which is affordable. Though, the Capitals might not have enough cap space to re-sign Carlson and Kempny the next summer and kept Schmidt. MacLellan would have had to find a way to get creative to keep all three.
While there are regrets about losing fan-favorite Schmidt, the Capitals could have done worse. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded the Golden Knights a first-round pick to take center William Karlsson and the Pittsburgh Penguins gave them a second-round pick to take goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft and those two players have thrived in Vegas. While Schmidt has developed into the Golden Knights’ top defenseman, Burakovsky, Johansson, and Niskanen were ultimately dealt by the Capitals.
What are the lessons for the 2021 expansion draft for the Seattle franchise? It seems like the biggest lesson-learned is from the move the Capitals didn’t make: they didn’t compound the loss of a player by also giving away draft picks. The Capitals are no doubt already thinking ahead, and planning for the expansion draft will certainly impact some of the team’s off-season decisions.
At the end of the day, the Capitals won the Stanley Cup and remain one of the top teams in the NHL, so everyone in the nation’s capital should be happy.
By Harrison Brown