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Carrier seems to be Sabres' chip that Vegas wants to play

There are the protected lists, the unprotected lists and the deals that are to come. Figuring out what chips the Vegas Golden Knights will have on their table for the expansion draft this week is a complicated puzzle and Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee is holding all the cards.

The Buffalo Sabres would love to get rid of a bloated contract, but it doesn't appear that a big-money veteran like Zach Bogosian, Matt Moulson or Josh Gorges is heading to Sin City.

Sure, all three are available in the wake of Sunday's announcement of the players each team has protected. But the one surprise on Buffalo's list gives a good indication what McPhee has in mind.

In 22-year-old winger William Carrier, the Sabres are hoping to see promise blossom. The 6-foot-2 Carrier has speed and isn't afraid to play a physical game. But he hasn't shown much finish yet.

Carrier had 23 goals in 127 games over three seasons with the Rochester Americans before making his NHL debut last season. Over several stints with the Sabres, he played 41 games and had only five goals.

Still, Carrier certainly rates as one of the more intriguing prospects in the Buffalo organization. And it appears he's the one Sabre most likely headed to Vegas.

Carrier was a surprise inclusion on the team's unprotected list and his name likely means new Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill has a deal in place with McPhee to protect another asset. Most observers think that would be backup goaltender Linus Ullmark.

Bogosian, Moulson, Carrier left unprotected by Sabres

As the theory goes, McPhee made it clear he wants to pluck Ullmark, the 23-year-old slated to be Robin Lehner's backup next season. Botterill, knowing the organization is thin in goal even before it learns if it will be shunned by Notre Dame star Cal Petersen, told McPhee he didn't want to lose Ullmark. McPhee, as he is doing with every team, simply said it will cost Botterill something.

That something is likely Carrier. There's really no other explanation for the Sabres to leave him unprotected while putting protection on veteran Tyler Ennis. There is no real reason to believe Vegas would take Ennis, holder of a $4.6 million contract and two years worth of concussions.

This is the dance all NHL teams will be doing with McPhee the next couple days. The only team you can trade with until 8 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday is the Golden Knights. Vegas is the only team that can sign free agents right now; everyone else must abide by the standard July 1 signing date.

Vegas must take one player from each NHL team, and a free agent signing would count as its expansion pick from that club. All players procured by Vegas will be announced Wednesday night as part of the NHL Awards Show.

The Golden Knights figure to be very busy the next few days, and will undoubtedly make side deals with several clubs to stockpile picks for the Entry Draft Friday and Saturday in Chicago in exchange for an agreement to not take certain players in expansion.

Botterill, like many NHL GMs, did not speak to the media Sunday and is likely staying silent until after the expansion picks are released and he arrives in Chicago.

As expected, Botterill went with the 7-3-1 format for protected players. The seven forwards he protected were Ennis, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons.

The Sabres protected Rasmus Ristolainen on defense along with Jake McCabe and newly acquired Nathan Beaulieu. That means left unprotected are Gorges and the duo of Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun that was signed last summer and played plenty of strong minutes when injuries struck the blueline. You can only protect one goaltender and the Sabres kept starter Robin Lehner.

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Exempt as first- or second-year pros were: Forwards Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Alex Nylander, Justin Bailey, Evan Rodrigues, Hudson Fasching, Nick Baptiste, C.J. Smith, Sean Malone, Eric Cornel, Vaclav Karabacek and Jean Dupuy; defensemen Victor Antipin, Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson, Erik Burgdoerfer, Devante Stephens and Brycen Martin; and goalies Jonas Johansson and Jason Kasdorf.

The Sabres are on the hook for $5.14 a year for the next three seasons with Bogosian and $5 million for the next two with Moulson. Gorges is owed $3.9 million next season. It appears only a buyout of one of the latter two will relieve them of those cap obligations. The Sabres will get some relief, however,  as the league and NHLPA announced Sunday the 2017-18 salary cap will go up by $2 million to $75 million.

Also available to be chosen are Ullmark, Nicolas Deslauriers, Brian Gionta, Derek Grant, Justin Kea, Cal O'Reilly, Cole Schneider, Brady Austin, Matt Bodie, Cody Franson, Dmitry Kulikov and Anders Nilsson.

Big-name former Sabres left unprotected were goalie Ryan Miller (Vancouver), defenseman Brian Campbell (Chicago) and forwards Thomas Vanek (Florida) and Drew Stafford (Boston).

Other ex-Sabres unprotected include Jhonas Enroth and Corey Tropp (Anaheim), Jamie McGinn and Jamie McBain (Arizona), Dominic Moore and Tim Schaller (Boston), Mikhail Grigorenko (Colorado), Zac Dalpe (Columbus), Brayden McNabb (Los Angeles), Chris Stewart and Mike Weber (Minnesota), Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell (Montreal), Clarke MacArthur (Ottawa), T.J. Brennan and Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia), Chad Ruhwedel (Pittsburgh), Chris Butler (St. Louis), and Cory Conacher (Tampa Bay).

West Seneca natives Lee Stempniak and Chris Mueller were left unprotected by Carolina and Arizona, respectively. Stempniak could be an intriguing choice, as the 34-year-old had 16 goals last year for the Hurricanes in playing all 82 games. Carolina was Stempniak's 10th team -- his seventh over the last four years.

East Amherst's Brooks Orpik was left unprotected by Washington, as was Wheatfield's Adam Clendening by the New York Rangers.

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