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Who will Maple Leafs lose in Seattle Kraken expansion draft?

Of all of the NHL teams Vegas Golden Knights architect George McPhee fleeced through the 2017 expansion draft en route to the 2018 Stanley Cup final and a GM of the Year trophy, the Toronto Maple Leafs were not one.

The Leafs refused to play any of McPhee’s reindeer games and simply surrendered Brendan Leipsic through Vegas’s leaguewide shopping spree.

Sure, Leipsic was an intriguing prospect at the time. The left winger was hot off scoring 51 points in 49 games for the AHL Marlies when McPhee took him for free. But who knew Leipsic’s most prolific pro season was already over?

Leipsic’s 44-game stint with the Knights ended with a trade to Vancouver. He bounced to Los Angeles to Washington to Moscow, where, waived from the NHL at age 26, today he is a contributor to a powerhouse CSKA squad in the KHL.

The odds of the 2020 Seattle expansion draft turning out so pain-free for the Maple Leafs fall somewhere between slim and none.

Toronto’s roster is deeper and more proven now. The Maple Leafs should lose an NHL-level asset they like.

Yet the Leafs’ front office holds an intriguing asset who will do his best to mitigate the damage.

Prior to joining Toronto in 2018, assistant general manager Laurence Gilman helped design the NHL expansion draft rules for Vegas and Seattle, a “fascinating” project he feels fortunate to have had a hand in.

“What I can bring to the Toronto Maple Leafs is that I’ve figuratively sat in the chair of the expansion draft team,” said Gilman. “I know how they’re thinking and how they’re trying to harvest assets.

“At the same time, I’ve also sat in the chair of 30 NHL teams: How are they thinking? Where are they vulnerable? How are they going to use the expansion draft? Different teams have different motivations to make player transactions. A lot of teams look at the expansion draft as an opportunity for them to divest themselves of some players or — if they’re sharp — acquire players in advance of the expansion draft from other teams that are vulnerable.”

Gilman isn’t so certain the term “expansion draft” accurately describes what Kraken GM Ron Francis and his staff will be working towards for 2021.

“An expansion draft is what took place when Columbus and Minnesota’s draft took place in 2000. This is a harvest,” Gilman said.

“I have a unique perspective that will help my GM [Kyle Dubas], who I think is smarter than I am, and [fellow Leafs AGM and capologist] Brandon Pridham, whom I work with and is an incredibly smart guy.”

Here are some key expansion draft rules Gilman helped establish (and how they apply to Toronto in 2021):

All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the draft, and who decline to waive those clauses, must be protected and will be counted toward their team’s applicable protection limits.

Captain John Tavares is the only Leaf holding a full no-move clause. Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie’s no-move clauses expire and become no-trade clauses after the 2020-21 season.

All first- and second-year NHLers and all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection and will not be counted toward protection limits.

Therefore, Toronto needn’t worry about protecting prized prospects like Nicholas Robertson, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Mac Hollowell and Joseph Woll. Sophomore Ilya Mikheyev is also exempt.

Any player heading toward unrestricted free agency does not need to be protected.

Toronto has a whopping 16 impending UFAs: Frederik Andersen, Zach Hyman, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Travis Boyd, Alexander Barabanov, Zach Bogosian, Calle Rosen, Martin Marincin, Mikko Lehtonen, Aaron Dell, Kenny Agostino, David Warsofsky and Kalle Kossila.

What’s interesting here is that Dubas may re-sign some of these players prior to the draft, requiring protection. Further, an impending UFA could be re-signed with the purpose of meeting exposure requirements — which is our explanation for, say, Jake Allen’s extension in Montreal and the structure of Braden Holtby’s contract in Vancouver.

To minimize their loss in the Kraken’s culling, the first choice the Leafs’ brain trust will have to make is whether to protect seven forwards, three defenceman and one goaltender (7-3-1) or eight skaters and one goalie (8-1).

The majority of clubs opted for the first option in 2017 and should do so again because it protects 11 players in total. The second option, which only protects nine total, is a sensible route for rosters holding four or more valuable defencemen and few desirable forwards.

Let’s examine the Leafs’ potential expansion vulnerabilities and strategies by position.

FORWARDS

Few things in life are guaranteed, but banking on Dubas to protect the Core Four — Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander — is about as safe a bet one could make.

Take away the veteran UFAs uncertain to re-sign (Thornton, Simmonds, Vesey, etc.) and the younger exempt players (Robertson, Mikheyev, Barabanov, Egor Korshkov, Filip Hallander), and the list of exposed forwards isn’t a long one.

If the Leafs re-sign impending UFA Zach Hyman, which is believed to be their desire, he’d have to be protected as well.

That would allow protection for just two of Alexander Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Nic Petan, Joey Anderson, Denis Malgin and Adam Brooks. Merit will matter. The performance of these players in 2021 could make Dubas’s decision easy or difficult.

For example: What if a wildcard like Vesey thrives in the Leafs’ top nine and Dubas wants to turn him into something more than just a one-year rental?

Kerfoot, in particular — because he carries the largest cap hit of this bunch ($3.5 million) — could solidify himself as a must-keep or a must-expose player. Engvall (RFA 2022) faces a make-or-break campaign in this regard as well.

By signing a team-friendly, three-year deal this off-season, we believe Anderson improved his chances of being protected.

Our best guess today: Dubas protects seven forwards — Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Hyman, Anderson and Kerfoot — and Seattle must decide to scoop a skilled prospect like Brooks, a utility forward like Engvall, or one of the Leafs’ top five…

DEFENCEMEN

Were the expansion draft today, Morgan Rielly (UFA 2022) would join Muzzin and Brodie (both UFA 2024) as the easy D-men to protect.

Dangling Justin Holl (UFA 2023) and Travis Dermott (RFA 2021) in front of Francis would provide the GM with two serious options to consider.

Dermott, 23, is cheap ($874,125), still a year away from arbitration, and believed to have a higher ceiling.

The 28-year-old Holl brings contract certainty and more of the coaches’ trust. If Seattle can get two seasons out of Holl at a $2 million cap hit, that’s not shabby.

Our bet: Francis finds his forwards elsewhere and steals whomever of Dermott and Holl performs best in 2021.

Depending on how the players perform, however, there could be some moving pieces here. Dubas made a point to not give $5-million defencemen Muzzin or Brodie expansion protection in their 2020 negotiations, leaving the door open to expose one of them should their performance fall off a cliff.

What if Brodie and Rielly can’t conjure chemistry? What if a wildcard like Sandin or Lehtonen or Dermott leapfrogs into the top four? What if pending UFA Bogosian looks indispensable and Toronto feels a need to re-sign and protect him?

We’re not saying these situations are likely, but this flexibility is something to keep in mind as 2020-21 plays out.

“[Protecting] 8-1 is possible,” says CapFriendly.com‘s Jamie Davis. “They need to leave one defenceman unprotected who meets the exposure requirements, and at the end of the season both Dermott and Holl are expected to meet those requirements.

“The team needs to decide if Holl is more valuable to them than both of Kerfoot and Hyman. At the present time, that seems highly unlikely, but it’s possible.

“If Hyman isn’t extended, the question may come down to: Protect Holl or Kerfoot?”

GOALTENDERS

Only one goalie can be protected. Each team must make available one goalie who is already under contract for 2021-22 or who will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22.

Toronto’s netminding prospects, Woll and Ian Scott, are exempt. Frederik Andersen and Aaron Dell are pending UFAs.

That leaves Jack Campbell and Michael Hutchinson (both UFA 2022) at risk. If nothing changes, the latter will be exposed. But if the Leafs re-sign Andersen, or trade for a new starter, Campbell will suddenly be at risk.

The bet here is that it’ll be a moot point.

Seattle will find two or three better goalie options elsewhere, with the likes of Dallas’ Anton Khudobin, Ottawa’s Matt Murray, St. Louis’s Ville Husso, Montreal’s Allen, and Vancouver’s Holtby among the potentially exposed.

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