Blackhawks protect 11 players for NHL expansion draft, leave Nikita Zadorov exposedBen Popeon July 18, 2021 at 2:39 pm

The Blackhawks’ 11-player protection list for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, released Sunday, surprisingly does not contain defenseman Nikita Zadorov.

Zadorov will thus headline the list of Hawks available for the new Seattle Kraken to choose from during Wednesday’s expansion draft. The Kraken will pick one player from each of the 30 other teams, excluding the Golden Knights.

The Hawks’ protection list is as follows:

Forwards (7): Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Brandon Hagel, Henrik Borgstrom, David Kampf

Defensemen (3): Connor Murphy, Riley Stillman, Caleb Jones

Goaltender (1): Kevin Lankinen

Players with two or fewer professional seasons — a group which includes forwards Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Lukas Reichel, Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev and defensemen Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, Wyatt Kalynuk and Nicolas Beaudin — are automatically exempted from the expansion draft. Forward Alex Nylander was also given a special exemption by the NHL.

That leaves Zadorov and fellow defenseman Calvin de Haan, forwards Adam Gaudette and Ryan Carpenter and goalie Malcolm Subban as the logical Hawks options for Kraken general manager Ron Francis.

Hawks general manager Stan Bowman’s decision to protect both the newly extended Stillman and newly acquired Jones over Zadorov was unexpected. Even as a restricted free agent reportedly asking for a big payday, Zadorov — acquired from the Avalanche last fall for the hefty price of Brandon Saad — still holds significant trade value.

Ryan Graves, a 6-6, defense-first, 26-year-old, second-pairing defenseman just like Zadorov, was traded from the Avs to Devils last week for the sizable reward of a second-round pick and borderline prospect, setting a potential market price for Zadorov. But the Hawks could now lose Zadorov for nothing or be forced to give up additional assets in a side deal to persuade the Kraken to pick someone else.

Among the forwards, the final spot likely came down to a decision between Kampf and Gaudette, with the Hawks ultimately favoring familiarity.

Gaudette, another RFA, could be a clever pick for the Kraken, though. After a deadline trade from the Canucks, he impressed in his late-season Hawks stint by scoring four points in seven games, and he could be poised for a breakout with his long-running digestive disorder finally under control.

Meanwhile, if the Kraken aim higher on their selections from other teams and simply want a steady depth presence from the Hawks, Carpenter could make sense. If the Kraken need a third goalie to meet their minimum draft requirements, Subban could fit.

Around the league, other teams’ protection decisions demonstrated just how much the flat salary cap has altered NHL team-building, making good players on reasonable contracts often more valuable than star players on big contracts.

As a result, an array of big-name veterans with hefty cap hits — including Canadiens goalie Carey Price ($10.5 million cap hit), Predators forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen ($8 million each), Blues forward Vladamir Tarasenko ($7.5 million), Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk ($7 million), Flames defenseman Mark Giordano ($6.75 million), Ducks forward Adam Henrique ($5.825 million) and Islanders forwards Jordan Eberle ($5.5 million) and Josh Bailey ($5 million) — were left exposed.

The Kraken won’t be able to afford all of those players, however, and might flip some of the ones they do select to other teams in exchange for picks and prospects.

More affordable exposed options like Jets forward Mason Appleton ($900k), Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese (an RFA), Red Wings defenseman Troy Stecher ($1.7 million), Bruins defenseman Jeremy Lauzon ($850k) and Wild goalie Kaapo Kahkonen ($725k) are considered very likely Kraken choices.

And one selection is already essentially locked in: UFA goalie Chris Driedger is expected to sign with the Kraken and be their de facto pick from the Panthers, TSN reported Saturday.

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