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How Seattle's expansion draft in 2021 could affect the Sabres

Seattle's expansion franchise has yet to receive a nickname or hire a general manager, yet its mere existence looms large over the NHL.

A higher salary cap will arrive when the team becomes officially active in 2021-22. Arizona will shift to the Central Division with Seattle joining Vegas in the Pacific. However, the greatest immediate impact will be through the expansion draft in roughly 25 months.

After its ownership group paid a record $650 million expansion fee, Seattle will benefit from the same rules Vegas General Manager George McPhee leveraged to build a Stanley Cup contending roster.

Though rosters will change before Seattle is on the clock, Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill and the rest of the league must keep expansion in mind when constructing both short- and long-term plans.

Like Vegas in 2017, Seattle must select one player from each team and a minimum of 20 must be under contract for 2021-22. Any pending restricted free agents selected must have already received a qualifying offer prior to protected lists being submitted to the league.

All players with no-movement clauses must be protected – Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville were the only Sabres to fit that criteria this season – and teams may choose from two roster protection plans: either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie.

That flexibility can be beneficial for teams that do not want to part with a surplus of forwards or defensemen. For example, the Sabres could be interested in protecting four of the following defensemen: Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour, Rasmus Ristolainen, Lawrence Pilut and Will Borgen.

General managers will now work to balance their rosters with the expansion draft in mind. That process is not simple given the NHL's rules to ensure expansion teams aren't shortchanged.

Players exposed to the expansion draft must meet a number of requirements, most notably that defensemen and forwards must be under contract through at least Seattle's first season and had played at least 40 games in 2020-21 or at least 70 games over the previous two seasons combined.

Additionally, anyone with career-ending injuries cannot be chosen and only first- and second-year players are exempt, meaning anyone whose entry-level contract begins in 2019-20 or later will not be eligible for selection.

That last point is important when understanding how Botterill and his staff handled late-season additions to Rochester's roster.

Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, defenseman Jacob Bryson, defenseman Casey Fitzgerald and defenseman Kurt Gosselin joined the organization on amateur tryouts with their entry-level contracts not starting until next season, thus guaranteeing they will not need to be protected in the expansion draft.

That was particularly important for Luukkonen because the Sabres could retain him while also protecting another goalie, though Linus Ullmark is a restricted free agent this summer and Carter Hutton's contract will end following the 2020-21 season.

If Luukkonen develops as the Sabres expect, the franchise's goaltending depth should not be adversely affected by the draft. However, Botterill will have difficult decisions to make with the rest of his roster and his thought process will be clearer over the next 12 months.

After all, the Sabres will have to protect Skinner if they are able to re-sign him since he will have a no-movement clause, and the team would be unlikely to part with Sam Reinhart, who will become a restricted free agent next offseason.

Jack Eichel, who signed an eight-year contract extension that runs through 2026. On the other hand, Kyle Okposo would not need to be protected since he has only a 15-team no-trade clause in his contract.

Though other names will be added to the roster over the next 24 months, the Sabres' protection list could also include Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson, Rasmus Asplund, Alexander Nylander or Matej Pekar.

While some organizations have a clear picture of which players are part of their future, the Sabres' roster is in flux. Aside from Mittelstadt, the prospects above have yet to show enough promise to assure they are worthy of being protected.

Olofsson has shown the most by leading the Amerks with 30 goals this season and using his six-game NHL audition to excel playing alongside Eichel. The Sabres will likely give Olofsson an opportunity to earn a top-six role in training camp next fall.

However, Asplund has yet to play a game for the Sabres since being a second-round draft pick in 2016 and an injury prevented Pekar from seeing time with the Amerks.

Nylander, meanwhile, is entering what could be a make-or-break season. The 21-year-old showed promise in 12 games with the Sabres but an injury prevented him from playing in the Calder Cup playoffs with Rochester.

Botterill's direction on defense should become clearer this summer since Ristolainen or Marco Scandella could be traded in the team's quest to acquire more skill up front. Dahlin's entry-level contract runs through 2020-21, though a long-term extension is likely to be completed before he becomes a restricted free agent.

Montour, meanwhile, also will receive a significant raise as a restricted free agent next offseason, barring injury or underperformance.

It is also important to remember the Sabres' organizational depth should be bolstered over the next two seasons once entry-level contracts are signed by defensemen Mattias Samuellson and Oskari Laaksonen, and center Marcus Davidsson, a third-round draft pick in 2017. That could make Botterill more willing to part with certain veterans.

There are other means to protect players from being selected. Prior to the Vegas expansion draft, Florida traded forward Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights for a fourth-round draft pick if McPhee selected winger Jonathan Marchessault.

Though Smith and Marchessault were instrumental in the Knights' run toward a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the Panthers assured they would not lose young players such as Jonathan Huberdeau.

Vegas made a flurry of similar deals, including its decision to acquire William Karlsson from Columbus in exchange for draft picks and the contract of forward David Clarkson, who has not played since 2015-16 and is unofficially retired. Karlsson would score 67 goals over his first two regular seasons in Vegas after totaling 15 over the previous two in Columbus.

The Sabres might have to stockpile draft picks in order to strike similar trades to protect the number of young players on their roster.

Botterill is amid another offseason of change, including his second coaching search in two years. In addition to inevitable roster moves, the team owns the seventh overall selection in June's draft, which should land them a pro-ready prospect who will be exempt from Seattle.

Though projecting two years down the road is difficult, Botterill will have to keep expansion in mind when deciding the future of his roster.

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