Filling out the Sabres’ expansion list is harder than you’d think. Not because of the players Buffalo should keep, but because of who they should try to lose.
Contracts, age, production and depth are major considerations when it gets to the final protection choices. Keep Zach Bogosian or Josh Gorges? Let go of Tyler Ennis or Zemgus Girgensons?
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
Each NHL team will lose one player in June as the league stocks its newest organization, the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas will select a minimum of 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goaltenders. Money matters to the Golden Knights since they must draft players who account for 60 percent to 100 percent of the salary cap.
That could be good for Buffalo, which has a few big contracts that aren’t commensurate with production.
First, the rules:
1. Teams have two options regarding players they wish to protect. The first option is seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender. The second option is eight skaters regardless of position and one goaltender.
Option Two might be viable for clubs like Chicago. The Blackhawks have to protect defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson because they have no-movement clauses (more on that below). Trevor van Riemsdyk is developing well on the blue line, so maybe they want to protect him, too. The eight-skater option gives them a chance.
For the Sabres, we’re going with seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie.
2. First- and second-year professionals plus unsigned draft choices are exempt from the expansion draft.
This is a nice break for Buffalo, which is loaded with young players. They don’t have to expose or protect forwards Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Alex Nylander, Justin Bailey, Evan Rodrigues, Hudson Fasching, Nick Baptiste, Eric Cornel, Vaclav Karabacek and Jean Dupuy; defensemen Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson and Brycen Martin; or goalie Jason Kasdorf.
3. Players with no-movement clauses must be protected.
Kyle Okposo is the only Buffalo player in this category, so he just made the list. The right winger was going to be protected anyway.
The contract Bogosian signed with Winnipeg in 2013 featured a no-move clause from 2015-16 to 2019-20. A source says the Sabres chose not to accept it when they acquired the defenseman, so protection isn’t mandatory.
4. Teams must expose at least two forwards and one defenseman who are under contract for 2017-18 and have played in 40 games this season or 70 games during the past two years. In addition, teams must expose one goaltender under contract for 2017-18 or who will be a restricted free agent this summer.
This could affect some teams, but it’s not big for the Sabres.
With the rules out of the way, here we go.
The seven we’ll protect are Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, Ennis and William Carrier. That leaves Vegas with the opportunity to select Girgensons, Matt Moulson, Nicholas Deslauriers and Justin Kea.
The first five on the protection list were easy. The final two choices were not.
Ennis is a spare part nowadays, and he has two more seasons on his contract with a cap hit of $4.6 million. That’s not a good combination. Still, he’s a three-time 20-goal scorer who is only 27. Buffalo should be able to trade him, so just giving him to the Knights is off the table.
Carrier gets the last spot over Girgensons based on potential. He’s shown speed and physicality. The 22-year-old definitely needs to increase his production, but the tools seem there.
Girgensons is a former first-round pick who has scored 15 goals, and he’s only 23. His numbers have plummeted, however, and he’s behind Eichel, O’Reilly and Larsson on the list of centers.
Moulson was a simple choice to expose. Signed when Buffalo needed to reach the salary cap floor, he got a five-year, $25 million deal. He’s under contract for two more seasons, and that $5 million cap hit will hurt when Eichel, Reinhart and others need new deals in 2018-19.
The three we’ll protect are Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Bogosian. That leaves Vegas with the opportunity to select Gorges, Justin Falk and Brady Austin.
I hear you. Trust me, I hear you.
There are so many reasons to expose Bogosian to the Golden Knights. He’s injury prone and unproductive. He has three more seasons on a contract that pays a whopping $5.14 million a year. He’s 41st on the salary chart for NHL blue-liners, and he’s 158th in goals, 161st in points and 271st (out of 283) in plus/minus.
There’s only one reason to keep him, and it overrides the motivation to expose him: Buffalo has absolutely no defensive depth.
While Bogosian obviously hasn’t been what the Sabres expected, he’s only 26. He can still carve out a career on the fringes of the top four. Simply put, he’s better than what else is out there.
Guhle is the only prospect knocking on the Sabres’ door. This summer’s crop of free agents is underwhelming, to say the least. It’s scheduled to get a little better in July 2018, but any signees won’t bust the budget.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the Sabres can’t afford to give up Bogosian. (How's that for a bold statement?)
Gorges has one season left on a deal that pays $3.9 million. He’ll be 34 years old entering the 2018-19 season, an unlikely age for an extension. For the long-term plans, Bogosian is a better protection option.
This couldn’t get any simpler. The Sabres will protect Robin Lehner and expose Linus Ullmark.
Buffalo is not going to lose Lehner for nothing after giving up a first-round pick to get him. The draft rules for goalies allow teams to expose a restricted free agent provided he has been given a qualifying offer. That’s what the Sabres will do with Ullmark, who is finishing his entry-level deal.
Based on our list, the Golden Knights’ pick in the expansion draft can be Girgensons, Moulson, Deslauriers, Kea, Gorges, Falk, Austin or Ullmark.
The best-case scenario for Buffalo is Vegas selects Moulson. There’s too much money and term tied up in a 33-year-old who skates less than 12 minutes per game. Vegas General Manager George McPhee has said he plans to build around young players, but maybe he’ll need Moulson’s $5 million cap hit to reach the required threshold.
More likely, the Golden Knights will choose between Girgensons and Ullmark. Girgensons can be marketed as a former All-Star, and he has the versatility to play center or wing. He has experience killing penalties.
The available goalie crop will include veteran NHLers Jaroslav Halak, Jimmy Howard, Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, James Reimer and maybe Marc-Andre Fleury. Still, fledgling teams need to start building from the net out. Vegas will need two goalies for its team and two more for a minor-league club.
We’ll guess the Golden Knights pluck Ullmark from the Sabres and hope he blooms in the desert.