Early Look at Sabres Expansion Draft Strategy

It’s never too early to begin looking into the future. Most are aware of the new Las Vegas franchise that’ll be entering the NHL in the 2017-18 season. Along with a new expansion franchise comes the hard decisions of an expansion draft. The NHL released the rules for the 2017 Expansion Draft back in June. Clubs have begun to position themselves already this offseason. Some trades and signings throughout the summer were done with an eye on next June.

The Buffalo Sabres appear to be in good shape at this point regarding the expansion draft. They only have one player under a no-movement clause in defenseman Zach Bogosian. Under the rules of the draft, Bogosian, will need to be protected. However, a player with a no-trade clause like, Matt Moulson, will not. The biggest question the Sabres may have to answer looking at the roster today is what format they want to utilize in protecting their players? They can choose to go with seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. Buffalo can also elect to go with eight skaters and one goaltender instead. Which option makes the most sense?

The Exempt

Jack Eichel will be one of the main faces of Team North America (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In order to decide which protection strategy makes the most sense, it’s wise to understand which players will be exempt from the expansion draft and will not require protection. According to the NHL rules, all first and second-year professionals will be exempt from being selected. Meaning players like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Justin Bailey, Hudson Fasching and Linus Ullmark will not be eligible for the draft.

The Sabres have the benefit of being such a young team and not having to use up their protection slots on young, impact players. Also, just so all the bases are covered, unsigned draft choices and signed draft choices with no professional experience are also exempt.

Finding the Correct Strategy

Now comes the tricky part for the Sabres in figuring out what protection strategy to use. The obvious choice seems to be the 7-3-1 format, as you would keep ten skaters as opposed to only eight in the other option. For Buffalo, the obvious decision, may not be the correct one.

Looking at the forwards on the roster as currently constructed, four players are very likely locked in protection options. Those players are Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane. The one who could be questionable at this point is Kane, but the Sabres would likely not risk losing him for nothing. Beyond those four forwards, the roster doesn’t have many other players who the organization would be torn up about losing. Forwards like Zemgus Girgensons, Marcus Foligno, Matt Moulson and John Larrson would be available. Outside of Girgensons perhaps, none of those players would be a devastating loss. In Moulson’s case, the club could be hoping he’s chosen by the expansion team to get out of his contract.

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Buffalo could, of course, use the seven forward format and protect essentially all of their forwards. That decision may be costly to their blue line. The defense is already the weak point of the team and protecting unnecessary forwards could bring down the defense group further.

As I mentioned, Bogosian is required to be protected and Rasmus Ristolainen is undoubtedly protected as well. That means two of the clubs’ three defense spots are spoken for in the 7-3-1 format. The Sabres will then have to choose between exposing either Jake McCabe or Dmitry Kulikov. The organization is very high on McCabe and he would likely be kept over the newly acquired Kulikov who is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If the Sabres plan to extend Kulikov, they’ll want to have him protected as well. General Manager Tim Murray indicated after the deal was made that he didn’t see the Russian blueliner as a one-year rental player. He believes he could be part of the organization for the next few years.

Thus bringing us back to the eight skaters and one goaltender protection format as possibly the best course of action for the Sabres at this point. It’ll allow the club to keep their impact forwards and top four defensemen intact. Of course, they run the risk of losing a young, bottom-six forward like Foligno or Girgensons. Looking at the glass half full, you’d only lose one of them or possibly neither of them.

The Expansion Draft will add another element of player evaluation and roster strategy heading into next season. It could also make for an interesting trade deadline as teams could look to move players in order set themselves up for next June. I’m sure we’ll discuss this topic again as we get closer to the draft.