Expansion Draft Preview: Buffalo Sabres

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Looking up and down the Buffalo Sabres’ roster, you get the impression that the team is currently made up (mostly) of two types of players: guys who are overpaid for what they do; and guys who never lived up to the hype.

There are exceptions, of course: forwards like Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson, and Dylan Cozens are the core group around which a resurgent Sabres club will arise. All of those youngsters are either exempt from the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, or will be undoubtedly be protected.

But the Sabres’ return to playoff contention can only happen when the dead weight of Kyle Okposo, Eric Staal, and Jeff Skinner can be jettisoned. Ridding themselves of Staal will happen at season’s end, when he enters free agency (or retires). The other two, well…

The rest of the lineup is about as inspiring as the appetizer menu at Denny’s, but at prices more closely resembling Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Noteworthy in his absence from both of those lists is superstar winger Taylor Hall. Let’s talk about him for a jiffy.

To Hall And Back

Taylor Hall has bounced around a bit. Starting out as the consensus #1 overall pick, and being picked #1 by Edmonton, the Oilers endured some less-than-franchise-player seasons from Hall but eventually sold high on him with a trade to New Jersey — though the return on that investment is the subject of much debate.

The Devils moved Hall to Arizona for a 1st round pick last season, and Hall made it clear (as mud) that he was not staying with the Coyotes when his contract expired that summer. He eventually did what everyone predicted he would, leaving Arizona — but confused the hell out of everyone by signing a 1-year, $8 million deal with the Buffalo Sabres.

Now, this contract is genuinely bizarre. I would have to do the research to determine for sure, but I’m almost certain this is unprecedented in the NHL. Teams wanting to “test drive” a player don’t usually sign him to an $8 million AAV deal. And players who can command $8 million AAV usually want more than just one year. Why so little term and such big money? I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that phone call.

Hall is, as you would expect, the biggest wild card with the Sabres’ roster. Three things can happen: they can re-sign him, and logically would then protect him in the draft; they could not re-sign him, allowing him to enter free agency at the end of the season; or, they could move him as a rental at the trade deadline. There, his new club would have the same set of choices: either sign him (and protect him), or let him enter free agency.

We walk you through all of these possible scenarios to arrive at the following inevitable conclusion: the Seattle Kraken will not be selecting Taylor Hall from the Buffalo Sabres.

If he re-signs in Buffalo he’ll be protected. If he doesn’t sign, he’ll be looking for a payday with more term on the contract — and the way to get the best deal is to enter free agency. Thus, he won’t be talking to Seattle during their exclusive bargaining period in the expansion draft. And that assumes he is still with the Sabres when the draft opens up in July — he could be with another team by then, and signed to a new contract — or, not.

If Kraken GM Ron Francis is high on him, he’ll have to duke it out with every other team vying for Hall’s services. I like his chances, because Seattle is about the only team with enough cap flexibility to offer a deal that will be competitive. But the market will make that decision, and we’ll just have to wait and see.

For our purposes, we will assume that Buffalo will not re-sign Hall, and thus not protect him; and Hall will decline to discuss a new contract with the Kraken, allowing him to enter free agency. In short, Taylor Hall is off the table.

Protected List

In arriving at our expected list of protected players, we have drawn on a number of sources, and made a few assumptions. First, there’s no point in protecting a player that you don’t own the rights to, or that you don’t have under contract. Thus, our first assumption is that UFA players will be left exposed — with one exception, goaltender Linus Ullmark, who is the only hope for Buffalo between the pipes.

Additionally, anyone under contract for next season who is currently in your top-six forwards or top-two defense pairings will be protected. To do otherwise would be shooting yourself in the foot.

Beyond that, we have leveraged the opinions from Buffalo media sources — print, broadcast, and online — who are intimately familiar with the team and its players, management, coaches, and history with cap management.

So informed, we have assumed that the Sabres will adopt the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Jeff Skinner (NMC), Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson, Sam Reinhart, Casey Middlestadt, Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund

Defense: Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju

Goaltender: Linus Ullmark

Find me another team outside of Scandinavia with 3 guys named Rasmus on it, I dare you.

This protected list makes a few assumptions that will appear more frequently as we continue this series of articles. The Sabres don’t necessarily want to lose forwards Kyle Okposo or Cody Eakin; but they will gamble on the price tag for each being too big for the Kraken to consider selecting them. In Okposo’s case, that’s absolutely right. Eakin, well…

No Thank You

There are players that we expect to be left exposed that are either 1) too expensive, 2) not performing, 3) too old, or 4) fall into two or more of the aforementioned categories. As such, we will be dismissing the possibility of selecting any of the following players:

Forwards: Kyle Okposo, Eric Staal

Defense: (*none*)

Goaltenders: Carter Hutton

Note that Staal and Hutton are UFA at the end of this season; Okposo is signed for another 2 years at $6 million AAV.

We will also mention at this point that 2019 7th overall pick Dylan Cozens is exempt from the draft. Furthermore, center Zemgus Girgensons is projected to miss what will end up being the entire season for Buffalo after hamstring surgery. If that proves to be true and he does not suit up this year, it is highly likely that he will be declared exempt from the draft.

And finally, in the unlikely event that Jeff Skinner waives his no-movement clause in a bid to come play for his old boss in Seattle, Ron Francis shouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot goalie stick. We included Skinner in our list of albatross contracts, and Skinner’s performance this season has only solidified that position.

Who’s Left?

The list of remaining players is thin and shallow. The question is, who is worth considering? As mentioned earlier, looking up and down the roster you see mostly overpaid veterans and mid-career guys who never lived up to the hype — or, just haven’t yet lived up to it?

That may be the biggest question mark in the Buffalo lineup: who in the subsequent list is genuinely bad at their job, and who only appears to be bad because they play for Buffalo. This is the quandary facing the Kraken scouting department. I do not envy them their task.

C Cody Eakin, $2.25 million AAV, expires 2022. A veteran of the previous expansion draft, he had career highs of 22 goals and 41 points with (not Las) Vegas in 2018-19. Steady and competent in the face-off circle until this year, when he has skyrocketed to a winning percentage of 57.4%. But the price tag…

D Colin Miller, $3.875 million, expires 2022. Modest point production, though his plus-minus numbers suggest that he’s not exactly an effective stay-at-hone defenseman either. Plenty of hits, but plenty of penalty minutes to go along with them. Being a healthy scratch for 16 of 32 games in one stretch of last season isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

D Brandon Montour, $3.85 million, UFA. 32 points and a plus-16 with Anaheim 3 seasons ago. That’s what convinced Buffalo to give up a first round pick to acquire him the following year. He’s the player with potentially the most up-side on this list, being only 26 years old. But if he’s expecting a new contract in the neighborhood of what he has been earning, he’s in for a shock.

The rest of the roster is either too expensive, too inexperienced, or just too ineffective to warrant consideration.

Let’s Make A Deal

Once again the Kraken find themselves with nearly zero leverage to coax a better asset out of the Sabres. Unless Buffalo veers off-course, or acquires an asset mid-season that throws our current protected list projection drastically out of whack, I don’t see a scenario where Sabres GM Kevyn Adams will be willing to deal.

The mid-season acquisition is well within the realm of possibility. Buffalo will undoubtedly be out of playoff contention, and could decide to move Taylor Hall as a rental (with Hall’s consent, as he possesses a full NMC for this season). I expect the return could include some pending RFA’s that their trading partner can’t afford to sign, and who Buffalo would want to protect. That’s the biggest variable in this equation looking at the remaining weeks between now and the expansion draft.

About the only other scenario we can conceive of as being even remotely realistic is a multi-player/pick deal. The Sabres’ goaltending is a serious problem. Seattle will have their pick of a number of solid, dependable veteran netminders — they can choose as many as 7 if they want to go that direction. So the Kraken select, for instance, Anton Khudobin from Dallas; package him with a 3rd round pick; and in exchange the Sabres fork over defenseman Henri Jokiharju or a promising forward prospect; and the Kraken choose somebody innocuous off Buffalo’s list of exposed UFA’s. It’s not a ridiculous idea, but it’s not exactly something you can hold out hope for either.

As an aside, Adams and Francis played together in Carolina for about 3 seasons, but there’s no way to know if the rapport between the two of them will translate into a more amenable arrangement for the Kraken. Something tells me that there’s a pretty big gulf between exchanging war stories over a few beers and arranging trades from the GM’s office, and as such I don’t hold out much hope.

Least-Worst Scenario

So we’ll begin by saying that in the event that Taylor Hall re-signs with Buffalo, there are two possible forwards that might be left exposed: Tage Thompson and Rasmus Asplund. If it’s Thompson, pass; he’s signed for 2 more years at $1.4 million, and he’s played just 7 NHL games the last 2 seasons. But if it’s Asplund, that’s your choice. He is RFA at the end of this year, so there is maximum flexibility for the Kraken. But this remains a long shot at best.

Ultimately, if you’re not going to go with a pending UFA and let that player roll off into free agency, the decision comes down to damage control: which of the available players will give you the least-worst performance for the not-most money. If that’s the direction the Kraken go, then a two-pronged approach might work best.

During the exclusive free agent bargaining period, talk to Brandon Montour. See if he and his agent would be amenable to a 2 year, $2.5 million AAV contract, or somewhere thereabouts. A little security, a modest pay cut, and a change of scenery. If so, great, that’s your guy. Pair him with a seasoned veteran and see what can develop.

If a deal can’t be reached, then the only real choice is Cody Eakin. The price is a little high, but he’s nothing if not consistent. He is also a well-traveled veteran. He has 50 games of playoff experience, where he accumulated 18 points with the Stars, Jets, and Golden Knights. He’s not a highlight-reel player — go look for yourself, there are no highlights — but he shows up every night, does his job, and goes again the next night. He’s the Head & Shoulders of the bottom six: lather, rinse, repeat.

If he’s having a good season, he is a marketable asset at the trade deadline for teams looking for secondary scoring. That’s exactly what (not Las) Vegas did when they moved him to Winnipeg last year. And if it turns out he can’t crack the lineup on a regular basis, the Kraken are only stuck with him for one year.

Not the best set of options, but it could be a lot worse. And as long as Ron Francis steers clear of the pitfalls of overpriced veterans on Buffalo’s roster, the net result could be prove to be not horrible. Given what the Sabres will be offering, “not horrible” would be a desirable outcome.

Author: Tim Currell

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