Shortly after the Edmonton Oilers' hopeful season was abruptly destroyed at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets, the team's focus quickly shifted to the looming NHL expansion draft and trying not to screw that up too.
The first step in making that happen is not to galaxy brain the whole thing and make it more complicated than it has to be. According to reporting from The Athletic's Daniel Nugent-Bowman, things aren't necessarily going well in that particular department at the moment.
As the Oilers beat reporter noted, a few weeks ago Edmonton was thought to be leaning toward protecting eight skaters and a goalie (8-1). The team will, however, "almost certainly" go the 7-3-1 route now (seven forwards, three d-men, and one goalie) unless pending UFA blueliners Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie re-sign before the expansion draft — something that Nugent-Bowman said "seems unlikely" at this point.
The guys who are reportedly "locks" for the Oilers to protect are fairly obvious, with perennial MVP candidates Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, young, thriving wingers Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, and blueliners Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear securing those nods.
According to Nugent-Bowman, the "smart money is on Larsson re-signing at some point. Everything is settled if pen hits paper before the expansion draft."
He expects a similar fate for star UFA forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If the 28-year-old inks a new deal before expansion draft lists are due on July 17, five of the seven forward sports and all three defenceman protected slots would be spoken for.
If all that goes down as the report suggests it might, it means the Oilers are leaning toward protecting two or three of Josh Archibald, Tyler Benson, Zack Kassian and/or Jujhar Khaira — all fairly serviceable but very replaceable bottom-six/depth forwards —while exposing and facing the very real possibility of losing blueline assets like Oscar Klefbom and Caleb Jones to Seattle or another franchise during the expansion draft process.
There are certainly question marks about both blueliners, but what you could lose here both in terms of potential talent and roster-building assets certainly outweigh what you'll likely gain by keeping any of those replacement-level forwards listed above.
With Klefbom, his injury concerns are obviously a big factor. The 2011 first-rounder couldn't provide a timeline for his return during a media update near the end of April after his most recent shoulder surgery, but did say he hopes to continue his NHL career at some point. Last December, Klefbom was ruled out of the 2020-21 season with a shoulder injury after he also missed games at the end of the previous campaign with a shoulder issue.
If Klefbom is ever able to return to form (which is a MASSIVE "if"), he's a very high-upside player who would fit admirably into essentially any team's top four. If his deteriorating shoulder results in him never playing another game, then his $4.17 million in long-term cap relief (LTIR) could be extremely valuable to Edmonton's salary cap outlook or as a trade asset down the road.
It's taken him a few seasons but 2015 fourth-rounder Caleb Jones is starting to blossom, and losing him as you enter a flat-cap era where cheap, serviceable, middle-pairing blueliners will be at a premium would make absolutely no sense, especially to protect someone of Benson's ilk.
One thing you absolutely do not want to do is present the Kraken with even the slightest chance of turning an on-the-cusp, undervalued late-bloomer into a key regular piece. By all accounts, Jones is a lot closer to fitting that mold than going the other way at this point. So why do it? It's an absolutely unnecessary risk for the Oilers in order to protect a surplus of easily replaceable bottom-six players that Seattle is highly unlikely to select anyways.
Of course there's a plethora of factors — which of their own UFAs they end up signing before the deadline and potential acquisitions via trades or signings, to name a couple — that will influence how Ken Holland and the Oilers front office attacks the expansion draft.
You can excuse Oilers fans for perhaps prematurely freaking out a little bit, though. They've seen enough roster-building incompetence for a lifetime.
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