Welcome to 21 Questions, an off-season series in which we look at some interesting Oilers- and NHL-related questions heading into the 2021 season. 

Just a few years ago, the Vegas Golden Knights shocked the sports world by taking a ragtag group of castaway players all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in the NHL.

It’s almost time to do it all again.

The Seattle Kraken will join the league for the 2021-22 season meaning there’s going to be another expansion draft at some point during the summer of 2021.

From an Edmonton Oilers perspective, the team will have a more difficult situation navigating Seattle’s expansion draft than they did with Vegas a few years back. Last time, the Oilers had the benefit of Connor McDavid, Darnell Nurse, and Jesse Puljujarvi being exempt from being selected so it was pretty easy to protect all of the team’s key players.

This time around, it won’t be so simple.

Here’s the list of players that Edmonton will have to protect in order for them to not be exposed to Seattle…

  • Forwards: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (UFA), James Neal, Zack Kassian, Alex Chiasson (UFA), Kyle Turris, Josh Archibald, Jujhar Kahira, Jesse Puljujarvi, Tyler Ennis (UFA), Dominik Kahun, Cooper Marody, Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson.
  • Defencemen: Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson (UFA), Kris Russell (UFA), Tyson Barrie (UFA), Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, William Lagesson.
  • Goaltenders: Mikko Koskinen, Mike Smith (UFA), Stuart Skinner, Dylan Wells, Anton Forsberg (UFA).

So, which Oiler will become a Kraken?

Since the last time I took a look at Edmonton and the Seattle expansion draft back in March, a few things have changed. The team has added a few forwards to the mix (Puljujarvi, Kahun, and Turris) who are under control or signed beyond the 2021 season. Also, in terms of defencemen, Oscar Klefbom’s injury has put his future in question. 

Things can and likely will change between now and the summer but, as I said earlier, it’ll be much more difficult for the Oilers to dance around this expansion draft without losing anyone of consequence like they did last time. No offence, Griffin Reinhart.

If Edmonton rolls with the seven forward, three defencemen, one goalie format, they’d likely be protecting McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, and two others from the group of Kassian, Benson, Turris, and Kahun. But that only leaves three spots on defence for Nurse, Klefbom, Jones, and Bear. 

If Edmonton rolls with the eight skater format, they could protect Klefbom, Nurse, Jones, and Bear, along with four forwards. Even if (and this is a pretty big if) they wait to sign Nugent-Hopkins after the expansion draft and leave him exposed as a UFA, they would still be leaving somebody like Puljujarvi or Benson open for Seattle.

Of course, this could all be moot if the Oilers went and made a deal with the Kraken ahead of expansion draft day.

We saw the Golden Knights make deals with 10 different teams ahead of the 2017 expansion draft. All of these deals had to do with either getting Vegas to use their cap flexibility to take a bad contract off the books or had to do with another team giving Vegas a sweetener to take one player instead of another.

From Edmonton’s perspective, life would become a lot easier if the Kraken went ahead and selected James Neal in the expansion draft. It would free up $5,750,000 in cap room for 2021-22 and 2022-23 and it would ensure the team doesn’t lose a good, young player like Caleb Jones or Jesse Puljujarvi.

What would Seattle need for that to be worthwhile? Here are some similar deals from 2017 in which a team gave up assets in order for Vegas to take a problematic contract off their hands…

  • The Penguins gave the Golden Knights a 2020 second-round pick to take Marc-Andre Fleury.
  • The Blue Jackets gave the Golden Knights a 2017 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick to take William Karlsson and David Clarkson’s contract.
  • The Anaheim Ducks gave the Golden Knights Shea Theodore to take Clayton Stoner.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning gave the Golden Knights a 2017 second-round pick, a 2018 third-round pick, and Nikita Gusev to take Jason Garrison.
  • The New York Islanders gave the Golden Knights a 2017 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick to take J-F Berube and Mikhail Grabovski’s contract.

Vegas obviously did really, really well for themselves capitalizing on other teams who didn’t want to lose certain players. Seattle will be in perhaps an even better situation to fleece other teams given how tight just about everyone’s salary cap situation is around the league.

If you’re the Oilers, how far do you go to get Seattle to take Neal? Do you offer them a first-round pick? Does a second and a third get it done? Would you rather offer a prospect?

It’s obviously a tough pill to swallow but giving up that first-round pick would mean not losing a quality young player and opening $5,750,000 in cap room. That cap room could make it possible to both re-sign Ryan Nugent-Hopkins while also signing Taylor Hall or Tuukka Rask or Dougie Hamilton in free agency. If you view it as giving up a first-round pick to gain the flexibility to sign Hall or Rask or Hamilton, it’s quite a bit easier to stomach.

There’s still a long way to go between now and the expansion draft but we might already have our answer about which Oiler is going to become a Seattle Kraken. I’m not sure there’s a better path than ponying up to get Seattle to take Neal.