Sabres News & Rumors: Eichel, Reinhart & Ristolainen

The Buffalo Sabres get a lot of attention around this time of the season. But not because they are perennial playoff performers – we all knew that. They take centre stage during the late spring and summer months, because it’s then that what is effectively known in the hockey world as “rumour season” takes hold alongside the fight for the Stanley Cup. The Sabres and general manager Kevyn Adams are apt to provide a lot of content this time around.

The latest in the long-running Jack Eichel drama (which, it would seem, is nearing its series finale — at least as far as the Sabres are concerned) is only part of it.

Will they hire a coach before the season starts? Will they hire a President of Hockey Operations? What will they do with the No. 1 draft pick? And how about the futures of Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart? What can be done to improve the team’s immediate future during the offseason, and what can be done now that will produce long-term results? What can they do to improve their position between the pipes, especially without a proven NHL starter under contract?

These are just some of the questions that reporters like myself will be seeking out during the next few months as those of us not covering a playoff team (or like my colleagues who cover the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that was bounced early) begin the count down to October.

So with that in mind, let’s dig into the latest edition of The Hockey Writers Sabres News & Rumors.

Owen Power, Michigan Wolverines
Owen Power is projected to go first overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. That selection is owned by the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo credit to Michigan Photography)

Before we get going, I have to step up and apologize for dropping off the map with these in the past few months. I work a day job like you guys do, and I write on the side. Sometimes, life does get hectic. But I’m back now, so let’s jump right into it.

The Young and the Eichel-less

That’s right. It’s not a certainty yet, but it’s getting pretty close to it. To think, he was once untouchable, and now the Sabres could soon be Eichel-less. The days of the drama surrounding this generational talent (who is such a good player when he is on top of his game) will be behind the team. But wait — not so fast. The Sabres could trade Eichel tomorrow and spend 20 years trying to find another player like him. Is it really a smart move, or should they hold onto him?

Winning an Eichel trade at this point seems like it would be hard to do. Not getting fleeced would be a success for Adams, who would be trading from the point of weakness. Eichel is a player seemingly disgruntled with the team. Whether that’s true or not, some have read his public statements as either a hint at a future separation from the Sabres or an outright disconnect over how they have handled some aspects of his recent injury.

With that in mind, the Sabres are taking calls on Eichel, but also are listening to offers on others like Reinhart and Ristolainen. These reports say that these initial conversations will increase as we get closer to the draft.

The Protected List

Speaking of the draft, as all hockey fans should know by now, there’s an expansion draft coming up for the newest team, the Seattle Kraken. I’m wondering how much the Sabres are shifting players on and off the protected list. This kind of maneuvering is happening all over the league before teams submit their lists of protected players to the league and the Seattle team in July.

Part of this is because there will (or could be) trades before then. Every indication is that trade talk includes names like Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. That means they could be on the protected list for the Sabres — or another team — by the time the Kraken make their picks. Players would be coming in as well. As someone who the Columbus Blue Jackets picked up from the Toronto Maple Leafs during the expansion draft in 2000, Adams knows how this game goes down from a player’s perspective.

Of course, because first- and second-year players are exempt from being exposed, the following players are automatically on the Sabres’ protected list: Dylan Cozens, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Jack Quinn, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Brett Murray, Brandon Biro, Dawson DiPietro, Lukas Rousek, Linus Weissbach, Mattias Samuelsson, Jacob Bryson, Oskari Laaksonen, Casey Fitzgerald, Matej Pekar and Stefanos Lekkas.

Buffalo Sabres Don Granato Dylan Cozens
Buffalo Sabres interim head coach Don Granato talks to Dylan Cozens, one of the Sabres who will be automatically protected because the expansion draft rules. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

From there, every player who has played for two years in the league can be exposed and made available to the Kraken. That includes Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Kylo Okposo, Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, Cody Eakin, Anders Bjork, Tage Thompson, Casey Mittlestadt, Rasmus Asplund, Zemgus Girgensons, Andrew Olgivie, Rasmus Dahlin, Ristolainen, Henri Jokiharju, Will Borgen and Dustin Tokarski.

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The Kraken can also exploit an exclusive negotiation window with any of the team’s unrestricted free agents. If they sign one, it counts as their selection from the roster. The Sabres’ unrestricted free agents are Tobias Rieder, Drake Caggiula, Riley Sheahan, Steven Fogarty, J-S Dea, C.J. Smith, Jake McCabe, Matt Irwin, Brandon Davidson, Linus Ullmark, Carter Hutton, and Michael Houser.

Adams must protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. Out of the above list of exposed players, who would you protect? Adams’ personal list will change much from now until July.

John Vogl of The Athletic has the Sabres protecting Skinner, Eichel, Reinhart, Mittlestadt, Olofsson, Thompson, Bjork, Dahlin, Jokiharju, Ristolainen, and Tokarski. His list will change as the day approaches, just like Adams’.

With a bit of further intrigue for the upcoming expansion draft, Vogl writes:

During the last expansion draft in 2017, the Sabres sent Vegas a sixth-round pick to select William Carrier instead of Ullmark. Adams is willing to supply the Kraken with a similar incentive if the GM decides one of his exposed players, such as Asplund or Borgen, needs to be off-limits.

‘Buffalo Sabres protected list: Who’s staying and who could be picked in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft?’ John Vogl for The Athletic. June 7, 2021.

Coaches Callenge

Another thing on the GM’s plate this summer is finding a coach for the team before training camp, or if not by then, at some point during the 2021-22 season. There are many candidates in the mix, including names known around the NHL, NCAA, AHL and Europe. And, as Dreger reported earlier this week, finding a coach before the start of the season might not amount to the be-all and end-all for the Sabres as I once thought it might.

After all, interim head coach Don Granato did prove a little something last year, and that could have sparked some interest in him from other teams. How Adams handles things with Granato moving forward will be another slice of the pie.

This offseason, as with most, the Sabres will prove to be an enticing follow. Many fans of the blue and gold, young and old, wonder how Adams plans to take steps in the right direction and whether he is even the right man for the job. Will the organization continue to surround him with support like with the hiring of Jason Karmanos? Stay tuned.

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