NHL Expansion Draft: Forwards Who Sharks Protect Depend on Approach

Editor's note: This week, NBC Sports California will look ahead to the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, at which time the Seattle franchise officially will join the league as its 32nd team. Every team in the league will be affected, as players from (nearly) every roster will be made available to Seattle for its inaugural roster. We continue with an examination of which forwards the Sharks likely are to protect and expose.

The Sharks are well-positioned to hang on to their key forwards when the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft rolls around. As long as they take a similar approach to the previous expansion draft, that is. 

San Jose can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender or eight skaters (regardless of position) and a goaltender. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson opted for the latter option ahead of the 2017 draft, protecting then-pending unrestricted free-agent forward Ryan Carpenter and six others from being exposed to the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Carpenter joined the Golden Knights the following season after the Sharks waived him, but there were few other forwards they could protect while also satisfying the NHL's mandate that two under-contract forwards who played at least 70 games in the two seasons before the expansion draft or 40 games in the season immediately preceding it. Those rules remain in place for 2021 when Seattle joins the league, and the Sharks would have quite a few forwards with expansion eligibility who are under contract and/or team control beyond then.

Tomas Hertl (contract expiring in 2022), Timo Meier (2023), Evander Kane (2025) and Logan Couture (2027) all signed multi-year deals over the last two summers. Kevin Labanc, Dylan Gambrell and Antti Suomela each are at least two years away from unrestricted free agency. Hertl, Meier, Kane, Couture and Labanc figure to be established parts of the Sharks' forward corps by the time the expansion draft rolls around, even as Kane approaches his 30s and Couture moves deeper into his. San Jose has hopes Gambrell and Suomela can join those five as well. 

Thus, much of that group should form the backbone of the Sharks' protected forwards list in 2021. Some, however, could be exposed depending upon what other forwards are on the roster. 

Prospects like Joachim Blichfeld, Sasha Chmelevski and Ivan Chekhovich automatically will be protected because they've not yet accrued any professional seasons. Depth forwards Melker Karlsson (2020), Barclay Goodrow, Lukas Radil and Marcus Sorensen (2021) conceivably could hit the games requirement, but each player would have to be re-signed in order to be eligible for exposure in the draft. 

If the Sharks opt to once again protect seven forwards in 2021, they shouldn't have to worry about exposing Hertl, Meier and the like. The risk drops if any of the previously mentioned role players re-signs, or if Gambrell and/or Suomela plateau as regular bottom-six regulars. Growth from any of those aforementioned players beyond a spot on the third or fourth line could present Wilson some difficult decisions, but he likely wouldn't sweat additional development from anyone in that group too much. 

[RELATED: Could Sharks lose big-name D-man to Seattle in expansion?]

Protecting eight skaters increases the risk of losing a talented forward, however slightly. Defensemen Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic must be protected because of their no-movement clauses, and protecting an additional blue liner leaves room for just five forwards. Still, it's difficult to envision the Sharks protecting any more than three defensemen as things stand right now, considering top prospects Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley won't be eligible for exposure. 

At that point, it wouldn't make sense for the Sharks to intentionally protect fewer forwards than the maximum allowed under the rules. As long as they acquire or re-sign depth forwards who are eligible to be exposed, Wilson and the Sharks likely won't have to stress losing a key piece up front to the NHL's newest team. 

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