Expansion Draft Poses Serious Concerns for Maple Leafs

Alex Kerfoot, justin holl, Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs will be losing a player to the Seattle Kraken on July 21. Toronto escaped the last expansion draft relatively unscathed when the Vegas Golden Knights selected Brendan Leipsic. It’s going to take some crafty adjustments in the coming weeks to prevent Seattle from grabbing a significant player from the Maple Leafs’ roster.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Alexander Kerfoot Morgan Rielly Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs may have to trade centre Alexander Kerfoot or risk losing him in the draft (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

As it stands on June 17th, just one month away from when teams have to submit their protected list, Toronto could lose a top-nine forward or a top-four defenseman.

The Exposure Rules

Let’s start with the coles notes version of how the 32 NHL franchise will be formed. First- and second-year players and unsigned draft choices are exempt from selection and do not need to be protected.  Each team must make available two forwards, one defenseman, and one goalie who meets these requirements:

  • Each skater (forwards and defensemen) must be under contract for 2021-22.
  • Each skater must have appeared in either 27 games during the 2020-21 season or 54 games total during last season and the season prior.
  • The goalie must either be under contract for 2021-22 or a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of this season.

Teams have two options in developing their protected list. Option 1, protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. Option 2 means shielding eight skaters (forwards or defensemen) and a goalie from the draft.  

Maple Leafs Who Meet the Exposure Requirements

Per CapFriendly.com, here are the current Maple Leafs who meet the requirements to be selected by the Kraken:

Forwards: Pierre Engvall, Alexander Kerfoot, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Jason Spezza, John Tavares
Defensemen: T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly
Goalies: Jack Campbell, Michael Hutchinson
Free Agents: Frederik Andersen, Zach Bogosian, Travis Dermott, Nick Foligno, Alex Galchenyuk, Ben Hutton, Zach Hyman, Riley Nash, David Rittich, Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton
Notable Exemptions: Rodion Amirov, Timothy Lilegren, Ilya Mikheyev, Nic Robertson, Rasmus Sandin
Note: Tavares has a no-movement clause, unless it is waived, he must be on the protected list.

Protected and Unprotected Forwards

Obviously, the core four, Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander, are on the protected list. The other forwards are not as prominent, and perhaps there won’t be additional forwards protected – I’ll explain later.

Jason Spezza

The ink was almost dry on this article when the Leafs announced signing Jason Spezza to another one-year deal for the league minimum. This makes him eligible to be exposed in the draft. However, last season when he was put on the waiver wire, he said he would retire before playing somewhere else. Does Seattle call his bluff? Or did Toronto just get a draft eligible player they don’t have to protect?

Alexander Kerfoot

He was ninth on the team as far as points go, with eight goals and 15 assists in 56 games. Kerfoot jumped into the top six for the playoffs when Tavares was injured in Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens. He finished second in Leafs’ scoring with six points in seven games. Kerfoot comes with a $3.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons.

Pierre Engvall

The big centre has been improving for the last two seasons under Sheldon Keefe. When Keefe was named head coach, he brought Engvall with him from the Marlies. The 6-foot-5 and 214-pound centre registered 27 points in his 90 NHL games while playing mainly fourth-line minutes. He has one year left on his $1.25 million contract.

Protected and Unprotected Defensemen

There are some obvious names here too. Brodie, Muzzin and Rielly are no-brainers to keep. But then things get complicated. Remember, Toronto has to expose at least one defenceman. Still, the team currently has only four eligible blueliners for the expansion draft.

Justin Holl

He is the odd man out in this scenario. Holl took his time to flourish in the NHL. At 29 years old, he has played in 136 NHL games, most of which occurred in the last two seasons. He has become a solid shutdown pairing with Muzzin. Despite matching up against the opposition’s top players, Holl was a plus 16 with 20 points in 55 games. He is a bargain at $2 million and has two years left on his deal.

Travis Dermott

The restricted free agent holds the cards. If he signs with Toronto, he will be exposed in the expansion draft. At just 24 years old, he has shown plenty of upside to his game that a new franchise might welcome. He signed a one-year hometown deal last offseason for below $900,000. He could be worth more on the open market.

Zach Bogosian & Ben Hutton

Bogosian and Hutton: They meet the requirements to be exposed in the draft, but both are free agents. Like Dermott, if they sign now, they do so knowing they could be playing in Seattle next season. Both may welcome the opportunity, but they would have to sign a contract appealing to the Kraken.

Maple Leafs’ Goalie Situation

This one is easy. Campbell is protected, and Hutchinson is left out for the Kraken to pick up. Long-time Maple Leafs’ netminder Andersen is a free agent. David Rittich is also a UFA; he was picked up at the trade deadline.

A Little-Known Twist

Zach Hyman was high on the list of unrestricted free agents to get signed. My colleague, Pete Bauer, pointed out an interesting tidbit that could cause trouble for teams, including Toronto. The Kraken can sign a team’s unprotected free agents during an exclusive negotiating period July 18-21. That player counts as the player selected from that team.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby Toronto Maple Leafs Travis Dermott
Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby is knocked down by Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Usually, only a team that already holds a player’s rights can offer an eight-year contract (others can offer up to seven years). The Kraken can offer eight-year agreements. This could be used to pick up Dermott from Toronto. Still, it’s a bigger deal for the team Bauer covers, the Columbus Blue Jackets, as Patrik Laine is a restricted free agent.

Major Decisions: Option 1 or 2

The Maple Leafs’ front office has its work cut out for it this offseason, even if there wasn’t an expansion draft. After another disappointing playoff exit, there has to be some retooling ahead for the roster. However, by signing several one-year deals and trading away many picks at the deadline, Kyle Dubas is against a wall.

Option 1

Option 1, the more standard seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie protected, provides too many complications for Toronto. They just acquired a seventh eligible forward when they signed Spezza, but they wouldn’t used a protected spot for him and risk a top-end defenseman.If they did, Holl would likely go to Seattle. That would hurt the defensive core, which drastically improved, and Holl has a cap-friendly $2 million contract.

Option 2

The current situation would dictate that the Maple Leafs would likely take Option 2, protecting eight skaters and a goalie. This would allow the team to maintain the core four, the top four defencemen and Campbell. It would expose Kerfoot, Engvall, Spezza and Hutchinson. Remember, one defenceman has to be available in the draft. If Toronto goes with Option 2, they will have to sign Dermott, Bogosian or Hutton or acquire an eligible defenseman before July 17.

Possible Moves

Assuming Dubas elects to go with Option 2, he will likely try to trade Kerfoot. The centre was listed on several trade bait radars leading up to the April 12 deadline. The $3.5 million off the books would help Toronto, which is struggling to stay cap compliant.

Prediction: Kerfoot gets moved for a second-round pick and a fringe defenceman who qualifies for the expansion draft. Engvall likely gets picked in this scenario, as the Kraken wouldn’t take Spezza.

Outside the Box Prediction: Rielly is traded with a higher draft pick for a top-six forward and three fringe NHL draft-eligible players. In this scenario, Toronto would go with Option 1. They would protect the core four, the new player, Kerfoot, Engvall, Muzzin, Brodie, Holl Campbell. This plan would see the fringe players acquired for Rielly exposed along with Hutchinson. Rielly is entering the final year of his contract. At times this season, it appeared Sandin was ready to step into Rielly’s role.   

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly could get traded to allow Toronto to follow the rules for the expansion draft. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

All trades must be finalized by 3 p.m. on July 17. Two hours later, all teams, except the Vegas Golden Knights, who are exempt from the draft, must submit their final protected list. Since the day after being ousted from the playoffs, Toronto has gone silent, but expect some noise before the deadline. The Kraken unveil their selections on July 21.

Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.