Most of the Washington Capitals‘ protection list for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is clear as the team is expected to go with the seven forwards-three defenseman-one goaltender option as they did in 2017 when the Vegas Golden Knights had their expansion draft. Forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (who has a no-movement clause in his contract), Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, and Lars Eller will almost certainly be protected as will defensemen John Carlson and Jonas Siegenthaler. Ilya Samsonov is viewed as the franchise goalie of the future and will also almost certainly protected. That leaves the Capitals with one forward and one defenseman to protect. So who will get those two spots? NoVa Caps takes an early look.
One quick note: under the rules of the expansion draft, the following prospects will not have to be protected: forwards Connor McMichael, Brett Leason, Aliaksei Protas, Kody Clark, Joe Snively, Riley Sutter, Phillippe Mailet, and Damien Riat; and defensemen Alexander Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Tobias Geisser, and Bobby Nardella.
If Oshie gets close to 30 goals for a third consecutive season next year, the Capitals may have no choice but to protect him. Though he is 33 years old, his goal production has increased from 18 in the first season of his eight-year contract to 25 last season to 26 this season. While his production is bound to dip eventually, he has shown no signs of doing so yet so, why risk losing him for nothing? His $5.75 million cap hit looks like a bargain, but he will be 34 years old and will have four years left on his contract after next season. Of course, if Oshie’s production does decline next season it could be a different story. However, with the leadership, tenacity, strong two-way play, and solid offensive production, the Capitals may be forced to protect him. This is a player you cannot lose for nothing.
The 31-year-old had a strong first full season in Washington despite a slow start as he recorded eight goals, 18 points, and a +7 rating in 31 games after Christmas. The fact that he missed 11 games in November due to a lower-body injury could explain the slow start. Hagelin averaged 2:55 worth of ice-time on the penalty kill, the most among Capitals’ forwards. Since he arrived in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on February 23, 2019, the Capitals are ninth in the NHL with an 82.1% penalty killing efficiency. Before, they were 22nd with a 78.6% penalty-killing rate. While he has fit in well and his experience speaks for itself with five career appearances in the Eastern Conference Final, he will be turning 33 just after the 2020-21 NHL season and the Capitals could need to get younger at that point. While he might not be protected, the NHL Seattle franchise could very well pass on Hagelin. Hagelin will have two years left on his $2.75 million AAV contract after next season.
The 28-year-old had a productive first season in Washington with nine goals, 16 points, and a +6 rating while giving the Capitals the help they needed defensively as he finished the regular season with a career-high 53.39% Corsi-for percentage and on the penalty kill, where he averaged 1:18 per game. The fact that he is the cheapest, making $1.5 million per season, and the youngest forward of the ones listed could help his case of being protecting from Seattle. Hathaway is also a big reason for the Capitals’ fourth-line turnaround this season with his physicality and strong defense. While many would be surprised if Hathaway is protected, maybe they shouldn’t be. He will have two years left on his Capitals contract after next season.
After a slow start to the season, the 29-year-old found his place in Washington with seven goals, 19 points, and a team-leading +11 rating in 34 games after December 19. Panik especially fit in well with Hathaway and center Nic Dowd after the team acquired forward Ilya Kovalchuk, posting two goals, seven points (second on the team behind Ovechkin: eight), and a +6 rating (tied for first with defenseman Nick Jensen). Panik was also second on the Capitals with a 54.95% Corsi-for percentage. Although his strong finish to the regular season puts him in consideration to be protected, he will turn 30 in February and while $2.75 million isn’t a steep price for him, he has shown that he bests fits on the Capitals’ fourth-line than third. In that case, the price could be a bit pricey for a fourth-liner no matter how well he plays. He will have two years left on his Capitals contract after next season.
After setting a career-high with 10 goals in 2017-18, the 29-year-old’s production has dipped as he has just seven in the last two seasons combined. He bounced back admirably after a disappointing 2018-19 season and a slow start to this year as Orlov posted three goals, 21 points, and a +14 rating (tied with Panik for second on the Capitals) in 55 games after October 31. His Corsi-for percentage also jumped from a career-worst 48.50% last season to 53.37% this season. Even though Orlov has grown nicely since last season, his production is still not where it was from 2018 and he will turn 29 just before this season resumes. In addition, his $5.1 million could be considered a bit as an overpay, particularly since he will have two years left on his contract after next season. While the Capitals could protect Orlov, it would be understandable if they don’t.
The 29-year-old struggled to begin his first full season in Washington as he recorded just four assists and a -7 rating (second-worst on the Capitals) through February 7. After getting scratched for the first time this season, Jensen played some of his best hockey since the Capitals acquired him from the Detroit Red Wings on February 22, 2019. He equaled his point output from before he got scratched and led the Capitals with a +8 rating after February 7. Jensen finished the regular season with a 50.82% Corsi-for percentage and averaged 2:22 worth of penalty-killing ice-time, the fourth-most among Capitals defenseman. While it appeared that Jensen could have been heading out of Washington just before the trade deadline, he did not completely cross himself off the list of candidates to be protected. It will all come down to how Jensen plays for the next year to determine if he will but if the expansion draft was today, he would likely be exposed. Jensen will have two years left on his $2.5 million AAV contract.
After undergoing a hamstring procedure on April 2, 2019, and missing six-and-a-half months, Kempny did not return to his pre-injury form when he led the Capitals with a +24 rating. He led them again in that category this season but struggled towards the end as his 50.35% Corsi-for percentage was down slightly from his mark last year (50.73%). Kempny was scratched for arguably the Capitals’ biggest game of the season against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 4. While he had a disappointing performance this season, Kempny did not have a full summer of training in 2019 and he has during the NHL pause, so perhaps he will play better when the season resumes even if it isn’t up to his pre-surgery form. We will have to wait and see how he plays after being able to train during the pause. For someone who led the team in plus-minus, his $2.5 million cap hit through age 32 when his contract ends in 2022 is not outrageous.
While there are frontrunners to earn those two spots on the Capitals’ protection list, a lot can change between now and the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. As of now, Oshie and Kempny could be projected to be the last forward and defenseman protected, respectively, due to their play and team-friendly cap hits. But who knows? Maybe someone not among those we discussed will be protected. After losing a No. 1 defenseman in Nate Schmidt to the Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, the Capitals have to think twice about who they leave exposed for the NHL Seattle franchise to pick from which could result in a lot of guys being put in different situations between now and the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. It should make for an interesting next 15 or so months.
By Harrison Brown