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Lightning Round: Who would you protect in the Expansion Draft, Erik Cernak or Cal Foote?

Or... Ryan McDonagh?

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NHL: FEB 05 Golden Knights at Lightning
TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 05: Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) looks to pass the puck to Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) during the NHL Hockey match between the Tampa Bay Lightening and Vegas Golden Nights on February 5, 2019, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Monday, The Athletic posted their prediction for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft for the Seattle franchise. As the draft is over a year away, the authors made some reasonable assumptions as to what the Tampa Bay Lightning roster would look like and who would have to be exposed by then. I won’t give too much away and link it here for anyone with a subscription to read if they so choose.

In this article, I wanted to get into one of the particular choices the Lightning might have to make as they narrow down their list of protected players down to 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and a goalie, or 8 skaters and a goalie. The beginning of the list is fairly straightforward — you can fill in about the first seven names without hesitating — but after that is when the team will either have to make a trade and give up some futures, or make a choice between some interesting pieces.

Every team is going to lose someone decent, that’s for certain. The Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft proved that there’s enough talent out there for a smart team to reap from. In 2017, the Lightning gave up Nikita Gusev, a second round pick, and a fourth round pick for the Golden Knights to take Jason Garrison. It was definitely one of the more tame and justifiable trades made that summer and definitely one the Lightning would do again, even though Gusev is playing in the NHL with New Jersey after being traded there for a second and a third.

Teams will hopefully have learned their lesson (even though the since-fired GMs are still in the league) and not make as silly risks as they did last time. For the Lightning, they will likely try to sell one of their middle-class forwards to Seattle in order to free up cap space for their young stars that are coming up. That might not work and they could be forced to give up one (only one) of a handful of decent players.

For the forwards, even if the team is willing to trade one of their players for cap relief (that is sorely needed with extensions for Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev beginning next season), they’ll likely have to expose a good player or two. The defense situation, on the other hand, is a little less volatile, but still very risky. Sergachev and Victor Hedman have shown themselves to be young/prime and integral parts to this season — they’re locks to be kept — meaning there’s a three-way fight for the last protection spot on the team.

Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Cal Foote.

These are three very different players in three very different stages of their cycle as hockey players. McDonagh is far-and-away the best player right now, that has value. Cernak is young and in the NHL right now as well, his age gives him value. Foote is younger still and carries a higher potential as a prospect.

Out of these three players, there are two questions we need to ask. Do we want maximum wins now, or wins in the future? And do we want a safe pick that is in the league now, or potentially more wins from a player who hasn’t played yet?

I think there’s a real debate to be had around whether the Lightning should sell everything in the next few years and ride with someone like McDonagh while Stamkos and Hedman are still in their primes, but because young defensemen are so valuable and the fact that McDonagh’s contract could be a problem down the line, we have to assume the choice is between the two young pivots.

The Case for Foote

Cal Foote has been described as a dynamic offensive right-handed defenseman with the size and speed capable of being a good two-way player in this league. Foote’s been a good contributor from the back end on a struggling Syracuse Crunch team in the first half. He has 24 points in 45 games, including 71 shots on goal. By comparison, Timothy Liljegren and Conor Timmins each have similar point and shot totals this year on Toronto and Colorado, and both have played NHL games this year. (Okay, three combined).

From what I know about those two apart from the scoring numbers, both should be in the NHL next season, and as should Foote. From there we’ll learn a lot more. If Foote isn’t in the NHL next year, I think the argument to keep him over Cernak loses a lot of footing (hah). We need to see him play up here and prove at least some of his potential in order to give some clarity as to who he can be. Patience doesn’t work when there’s a deadline.

The Case for Cernak

The argument for keeping Erik Cernak is much more simple and much less risky, which is pretty much mimics how the young Slovak plays on the ice. He has a little over a year of NHL experience under his belt and he’s been a very competent wingman for whichever defenseman he’s paired up with. Positive shot and expected goal numbers as the fourth or fifth guy every night is all you can really ask for in a young righty with size.

There’s not much to argue over with Cernak, which is exactly where his appeal comes from.

I guess it all comes down to this: will Cal Foote’s upside push him past Cernak on the depth chart one day in the near future, or is it safer to pick the defenseman who is young and (probably) reasonably cheap and has set the bar at a pretty good level already?

Usually, I’m one to pick skill over competency (usually when the prospect has both), but there’s not enough information to be sure just yet. We need to see what Foote can do either at the end of this season or next year in order to have a clearer picture.

Or maybe McDonagh provides more value over the next six years of his 30s than either kid will. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. The good side is the Lightning will all but certainly be able to keep two of the three after next summer.


Who would you protect in the 2021 Expansion Draft?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Ryan McDonagh
    (36 votes)
  • 36%
    Erik Cernak
    (77 votes)
  • 44%
    Cal Foote
    (93 votes)
  • 1%
    Ben Thomas
    (3 votes)
209 votes total Vote Now

Lightning Links

  • Matt writes about what there is to learn from the overtime loss at the hands of the Dallas Stars. [Raw Charge]
  • Bad news, but not all bad news as the Syracuse Crunch trundle through their season looking for a spark. [Raw Charge]
  • Former Syracuse Crunch forward Mathieu Darche (whom I remember vividly from my old NHL video games) is trying his hand at a new career in the front office with Tampa Bay. [Syracuse]
  • Hard work pays off, as Clair DeGeorge proves in her story getting to the US Women’s National Team. [The Ice Garden]
  • Former NHL goalie Ed Belfour was arrested early yesterday morning for charges of criminal mischief and public intoxication. On one hand, I hope Eddy is okay and has the support he needs to keep things under control, but on the other what an amazing mugshot.