Why did the Flyers protect Nicolas Aube-Kubel?

General manager Chuck Fletcher of the Philadelphia Flyers, in somewhat of a surprising move, elected to protect winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel ahead of the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft on Wednesday.

Aube-Kubel was joined by Claude Giroux, Kevin Hayes, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, and Oskar Linblom as protected forwards. Wingers James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek were both notably left exposed to the Kraken.

The departure of former second overall pick Nolan Patrick, who was expected to earn a protection spot, seemingly opened the door for the Flyers to protect van Riemsdyk. After all, JVR tied for the team lead in points last season in arguably his best overall year in Philadelphia. He is unquestionably a superior hockey player to Aube-Kubel.

However, this NHL offseason in particular is just not that simple. The flat salary cap necessitated by the pandemic has enacted a frantic need for GMs to clear salary. Some of the NHL’s elite players have been exposed. Just ask big name exposures like Voracek ($8.25 million cap hit), Carey Price ($10.5 million), and Gabriel Landeskogg (expected to earn top of the market free agent money).

The decision to protect Aube-Kubel over van Riemsdyk and Voracek reflects very little on Aube-Kubel’s strengths as a player. He actually had a very down season in 2020-21, which was just the second NHL season that he played significant minutes. He lessened his role as a pesky agitator, and he took too many careless penalties. His minimal offensive production isn’t reason for a protection spot.

Fletcher’s desire to shed salary drove the decision. If Aube-Kubel was left exposed, the Kraken could have chosen the 25-year-old because of his reasonable cap hit at $1.075 million. The move would have prevented the Flyers from shedding a sizable contract of a player such as van Riemsdyk, Voracek, or defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.

The chaos of the 2021 NHL offseason is sure to force the hand of GMs around the league to make similar moves in attempts to handle their teams’ financial standing in relation to the salary cap and how if affects the overall product they can put on the ice.