On the night of July 21st, the newly-established Seattle Kraken will snag an unprotected player from each team – besides Vegas – leaving fans of their teams anxious as to how their roster will look come the 2021 NHL Entry Draft and the start of the 2021-22 season.
The Rangers, full of youth and entry-level contracts, are lucky. They don’t have to worry about protecting many of their young players – like Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, or Alexis Lafreniére – due to their exemption from the draft.
There are a couple of players, however, who have emerged as the odd men out: bottom-six forwards Brett Howden and Colin Blackwell are both candidates to be exposed in the expansion draft.
One will have the relief of occupying that final spot on the protected list: the question is, who will that player be?
Here’s the case for both to be protected/exposed and who I would most rather enter next season with.
Howden was signed to a one-year contract extension on July 8th, with an AAV of $850,000. The move raised eyebrows – many fans contemplated if the move was genuine – that the Rangers wanted to give Howden another chance to prove himself – or if the contract was to expose him and make him a more attractive candidate for the Kraken.
Howden had himself a tough third season. His mission to prove himself in the final year of his entry-level contract was not a very successful one – Howden finished dead last amongst Rangers forwards in scoring with seven points (1G, 6A) and was even outscored by six of the nine defensemen that drew into the Blueshrits’ lineup this year. Howden failed to prove himself as a goalscorer nor a playmaker. Howden’s case is one where both the eye-test and analytics back up his lack of production and underwhelming play – in being a staple on a relatively weak fourth-line, Howden finished the season with a negative relative CF%, SF%, GF%, and xGF%.
Despite this, under new management, Howden could very well be protected after signing his contract extension. The Rangers’ lack of center depth is a point of concern, and Howden has been very well-liked by the previous head coach, David Quinn, and Chris Drury. In my opinion, Howden has not shown anything that has proven him to be a regular NHLer, and a cheap 2-way center could easily fill a vacant 4C spot with either a tougher persona or a more well-rounded play-making ability.
If we are making the judgment to protect one of these three forwards based solely on their performance this past season, Blackwell would easily be my choice. 12 goals and 22 points bouncing between the 2nd and 3rd line, Blackwell exceeded his expectations in the abbreviated season. It would be disrespectful to Blackwell to say this season was a fluke. After the conclusion of the regular season, Blackwell was selected to represent Team USA as an alternate captain at IIHF World Championships, when he scored 4 goals in 10 games en route to a bronze medal.
However, it’s important to note that Blackwell – at 28 – had never had a season quite like this one. Between the 2019-20 and 2021 season, his shooting percentage jumped a whopping 9.1% – from 9.7% in 2019-20 to 18.8% in 2021. Scoring on nearly 1/5 of your shots is incredibly impressive – but is it sustainable? That’s the question that could hold the Rangers back in their decision to protect or expose Blackwell. The good news is that Blackwell is signed for another year at a low price, and if his play cools down slightly, Blackwell could be a good depth piece for the future (one that has proven he can score and make plays, unlike Howden).
If Blackwell keeps this up, though, his asking price could be just too high, when the Rangers also have to worry about signing their young stars – including Fox – to extensions.
Blackwell has a great case to be protected.
The only thing I see in the way of him landing on the protected list is if management has any trade endeavors while his value is high or doubts about his ability to maintain this high level of play.
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