The Buffalo Sabres organization was/is in an extremely difficult situation heading into the 2020-21 season. In addition to the effects of Covid-19 and the financial hardships this pandemic has placed on salary structure and the salary cap across the entire National Hockey League, a Buffalo team enduring a nine-year playoff drought has had to try wade through that morass while trying to keep superstar center Jack Eichel engaged as they attempt to execute yet another strategy.
Eichel expressed his dissatisfaction with not being a part of the playoffs very early in this very long off-season and it's weighed on everyone a bit in Sabreland. This is not to say that he's asked for a trade, or even insinuated (as far as we know in either case) that he wants out, but after five seasons of missing the playoffs while playing under his third head coach and into an off season featuring his third general manager, it's not too far-fetched to believe that Eichel may be getting a little antsy as he enters the prime playing years of his career.
Credit to the management team in Buffalo for allaying some of those fears with two temporary moves--the trade for veteran center Eric Staal and the signing of free agent winger Taylor Hall, the 2018 league MVP. However, as of now they're only one-year stop-gaps. During this uncertain time being ruled by the pandemic, Sabres general manger Kevyn Adams, like much of the league, has curbed multi-year contracts in favor of short-term ones that give them flexibility heading into a 2021 off-season that will predate a similar, or possibly worse, 2021-22 season for the league because of the virus.
And if all that Covid entails wasn't enough, Buffalo, like every team in the NHL other than the Vegas Golden Knights, will have another situation to deal with--an expansion draft.
The city of Seattle, Washington was awarded the league's 32nd franchise and will fill their team--the Kraken--with players selected in the 2021 expansion draft. Every NHL team, save for Vegas, will give up a player in the draft and will have the opportunity to use one of two formats with which to protect others--7 forwards, 2 defensemen, 1 goalie or 8 skaters, 1 goalie. By the looks of how the Sabres laid their roster out, they'll more than likely be using the 7/2/1 format.
Buffalo is in excellent shape for this expansion draft as they will lose a player that may not be an impact player to Seattle but the question is, which one will it be? For the following exercise as to who Buffalo probably will protect and who they might expose, we'll follow the guidelines of the NHL"
while using CapFriendly's interactive expansion draft"
simulator to try and figure out how they'll play it.
The NHL states that, "All first- and second-year NHL players, and all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward protection limits)." This keeps high-end prospects like center Dylan Cozens and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen out of the mix.
Firstly, the easiest way to get this process going is through this NHL mandate, "All players with no movement clauses at the time of the draft, and who decline to waive those clauses, must be protected and will be counted toward their team's applicable protection limits." It should be noted that if players waive those clauses, they may be left exposed to the expansion draft.
To their credit, despite management signing some players to long-term deals, former GM's Tim Murray and Jason Botterill, signed only one player to a contract with a no movement clause--winger Jeff Skinner--who will automatically hit the protected list first (unless there's a waiving of said clause.)
Then there are three other important NHL exposure requirements that have been met by Sabres management:
--"One defenseman who is a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played in at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons.
--Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2021-22 and b) played at least 40 NHL games the prior season or played in at least 70 NHL games in the prior two seasons
--One goalie who is under contract in 2021-22 or will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current contract immediately prior to 2021-22. If a team elects to make a restricted free agent goalie available to meet this requirement, that goalie must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the team's protected list."
In relation to defensemen, Buffalo has two players who are signed through the 2021-22 season: Rasmus Ristolainen and Colin Miller. All of the remaining players are either signed for the next season only or, in the exclusive case of Lawrence Pilut, a restricted free agent who has been qualified and is yet to be re-signed but whose rights the Sabres still retain.
When looking at the goaltending situation. Adams signed goalie Dustin Tokarski to a two-year contract on Tuesday. The remaining three goalies are all on one-year deals and like the d-group, we'll re-visit this a little further down after beginning with the forward group.
In addition to Skinner, we'll add Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson to the protected forward group. Recent additions Staal and Hall will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season and if they remain so, the belief here is that the Kraken will have a window prior to the beginning of the new league year to sign them if left unprotected (like any other team may sign a UFA.) If they do sign said UFA, it will count as an expansion pick from the team. If they do not they may select another player from the team in the expansion draft.
Sabres fans shouldn't worry about Staal being exposed as he'll dictate where he plays (or whether he retires.) Hall is a different story so we'll wait on him, leaving us to pick two more forwards to protect.
Buffalo re-signed winger Tage Thompson to a three-year deal and it's expected that he'll get every opportunity to further his development at the NHL level. And for as much grief as Casey Mittelstadt has received for his underperforming NHL career to this point, he's still an 8th-overall pick with high-level skills only three years removed from his draft year.
With only one spot remaining, it's the opinion here that either Hall or third year pro Rasmus Asplund, who along with Mittelstadt is waivers-exempt, will fill that seventh spot on the protected list dependent upon what happens with Hall.
The group of regular NHL forwards to be left exposed include Kyle Okposo, Cody Eakin and Zemgus Girgensons, all of whom are signed at least through the 2021-22 season, which fulfills NHL exposure requirements. Center Curtis Lazar, who signed a two-year deal recently, will also be exposed, but the former first-round pick has been yo-yoing between the NHL and American Hockey League with most of his games in the AHL and probably won't be an attractive option by most, if not all, measures.
As we turn our attention to the defensemen, Rasmus Asplund and Henri Jokiharju, both with two years of NHL experience, will be protected by Buffalo leaving only one spot left. There are really only four defensemen left worth noting for the Kraken with two of them, Ristolainen and Miller, having already been mentioned as fulfilling the team exposure requirements.
Right-handed defenseman Brandon Montour is only signed through the end of the 2020-21 season, will be an UFA and may be left unprotected (if he's not traded by then.) He would be free to sign with the Kraken, which isn't really all that far-fetched considering he's still young and has looked like a top-four defenseman in previous seasons.
The other defenseman is rookie Will Borgen who has spent the last two full seasons in Rochester and is waivers-exempt. He may or may not be attractive to Seattle dependent upon how they lay out their draft board.
Buffalo's decision of who to protect on the blue line really seems to comes down to either Ristolainen or Miller and the bet here is that they'll protect Ristolainen.
Because the Sabres signed Tokarski through the 2021-22 season, they met that league requirement but he won't be protected. Neither will Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton, leaving one of two goalies left to protect--projected starter Linus Ullmark, who will be a UFA at the end of the season, or Jonas Johansson, who will be a RFA at season's end.
This is a tough call and will be wholly dependent upon what happens goalie-wise this off season and what kind of years Ullmark and Johansson have in net. Luukkonen has been deemed the goalie of the future but how far into the future that might happen, if it happens at all, is yet to be determined. Having said that, we're going to put a no-call on this one as there are too many determining factors.
Projected Sabres expansion draft protection list
Jeff Skinner (NMC)
Taylor Hall or Rasmus Asplund
Linus Ullmark/Jonas Johansson