Sabres’ Potential Expansion Draft Scenarios Are Wide & Varied

The 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is just over one month away (July 21), and every team in the NHL, including the expansion Seattle Kraken, will be preparing tirelessly to make sure they are in the best position possible heading into it, the Buffalo Sabres being no exception.

But for the last-place team from the 2020-21 season, the Sabres have more to do than other organizations when it comes to strategizing for expansion. Issues that laid dormant during the season are seemingly coming back to bite the Sabres now, and it looks as though some tough decisions need to be made in the coming weeks. All of this equates to a number of different expansion draft scenarios, and general manager Kevyn Adams has his work cut out for him in preparing for each and every one.

Seattle Expansion Draft Rules

The Kraken will have the opportunity to select one player to take from each team in the NHL, except the Vegas Golden Knights, who are exempt from this expansion draft. Each team is allowed a protection list of players they would like to keep, resulting in other players being exposed for the taking. Two options are offered for teams in how they would like to protect their players: first, they could protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie; second, they could protect eight skaters (forwards and defensemen), and one goalie. In the Vegas expansion draft in 2017, 25 of 30 teams elected to go with the first option, and I think Adams and the Sabres should choose to, as well.

The Kraken will also have a chance to negotiate with unrestricted free agents (UFAs) when their own exclusive negotiating window opens. If they end up signing one of a team’s UFAs to a contract, that will count as their expansion selection from that team. For the Sabres, who have 12 UFAs, that might be a good thing to happen to them, but I wouldn’t count on it. Their UFAs this offseason are forwards Drake Caggiula, J-S Dea, Steven Fogarty, Tobias Rieder, Riley Sheahan, and C.J. Smith; defensemen Brandon Davidson, Matt Irwin, and Jake McCabe; and goalies Michael Houser, Carter Hutton, and Linus Ullmark. Out of those 12 players, I could see the Sabres re-signing just one of them: Ullmark.

Linus Ullmark Buffalo Sabres
Linus Ullmark, Buffalo Sabres (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Adams, who was taken in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft himself when he was a player in the NHL, knows a little better than some on what might need to go into preparing an organization for something like this.

In a recent interview discussing the upcoming expansion draft and how the Sabres are preparing for it, Adams said “We don’t want to lose a player, but it’s part of it . . . I was part of the expansion draft when Columbus came in. I remember getting the phone call from the general manager in Toronto, telling me I was exposed. I was disappointed, yet all of a sudden I was drafted and I was part of a really cool experience . . . There’s a lot of excitement around that, and there should be. It’s great for the league.” (From ‘Buffalo Sabres protected list: Who’s staying and who could be picked in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft?,’ The Athletic, 6/7/2021)

Sabres Have Long List of Exempt Players

One of the rules that will help the Sabres the most and help to make Adams’ life a little easier is that first and second-year players are exempt from selection. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t played in any NHL games, or if they have played in every game for their NHL team over the past two seasons – they are exempt, and this helps the Sabres a great deal.

The Sabres’ list of exempt players features forwards Brandon Biro, Dylan Cozens, Dawson DiPietro, Brett Murray, Matej Pakar, Lukas Rousek, Arttu Ruotsaleinen, and Linus Weissbach; defensemen Jacob Bryson, Casey Fitzgerald, Oskari Laaksonen, and Mattias Samuelsson; and goalies Stefanos Lekkas and Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen.

Dylan Cozens Buffalo Sabres
Dylan Cozens, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images)

To make a long story short, the majority of the Sabres’ top prospects are exempt from being taken, and that is a good thing. It still doesn’t eliminate every difficulty in crafting their final protection list, but at least some of the burden is removed from Adams’ shoulders. He still has to worry about every player past the second year of their career, though, and he has a wide range of paths to choose from in doing so.

Likely Sabres Protection List

As I mentioned earlier, the Sabres are likely to choose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie heading into the expansion draft. Based on the rules for exempt and eligible players, here are the players left to either be protected by the Sabres or exposed to the Kraken: forwards Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, Cody Eakin, Anders Bjork, Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, Zemgus Girgensons, and Andrew Oglevie; defensemen Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, and Will Borgen; and goalie Dustin Tokarski.

One more rule to note is that all players with no-movement clauses (NMCs) at the time of the draft, and who refuse to waive their clauses, must be protected and will count for one slot of the team’s protected list. I mention this because of one player in particular: Skinner, who has a full NMC, and who the Sabres will likely be forced to protect – all $9 million of him. With that being said, I believe Adams will choose to protect Skinner, Eichel, Reinhart, Mittelstadt, Olofsson, Thompson, and Bjork.

That leaves five forwards from the list exposed for the Kraken to select: Asplund, Okposo, Eakin, Girgensons, and Oglevie. If the Sabres could protect Asplund I believe they would, but there are just no other forwards I could see being exposed in his stead. Despite a strong showing when he joined the Sabres lineup late in the season, he is the odd-man out here. As for the other four forwards, I don’t think Adams will lose any sleep over them, and it’s slim pickings for Kraken GM Ron Francis and company.

Ron Francis Seattle NHL
Ron Francis, Seattle Kraken general manager (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Let’s move on to the defense. I believe Adams will choose to protect Dahlin, Jokiharju, and Borgen. That leaves two defensemen from the list exposed for the Kraken: Miller and Ristolainen. The reason I left Ristolainen off the protection list is quite simply that I believe he is going to be traded before the expansion draft rolls around, and so the Sabres won’t be forced to protect him. Even with a relatively poor season in 2020-21, Ristolainen’s trade value as a physical, skilled, right-shooting defenseman is still worth a fair amount in my opinion, and that’s why he’s been in trade rumors since mid-March. We’ll get to some potential trade scenarios later, but let’s wrap up the protection list first.

When it comes to the goalies, the choice is easy: re-sign Ullmark to a contract and protect him, and expose Tokarski to the Kraken.

Sabres’ Protection List if Eichel & Reinhart Are Gone

I forgot to mention one thing in the protection list above: it could look a heck of a lot different if Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are no longer members of the Sabres. If either one of Eichel or Reinhart (or both) are gone from the team by the day of the expansion draft, the Sabres’ protection list could be drastically impacted.

For starters, I think it might be worth exploring switching to the other protection option in this scenario, and opting to protect eight skaters and one goalie. With your two best forwards gone, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to stick with the same protection strategy and protect players like Asplund and Girgensons, the next best forwards, instead of attempting to protect another defenseman, like Ristolainen or Miller.

Sam Reinhart Buffalo Sabres
Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another option if Eichel and Reinhart are moved would be to stick with the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, if of course Adams received marquee NHL forwards in return. Since the Calgary Flames have been rumored as frontrunners in both the Eichel and Reinhart sweepstakes, I think forwards like Sean Monahan or Johnny Gaudreau would qualify as worth protecting. This is a bridge I hope the Sabres don’t have to cross, but it’s becoming more and more likely as we approach the month of July.

Ristolainen & Ullmark Could Affect the Sabres

I believe that finding a trade partner for Ristolainen in the next few weeks is one of the most important priorities for Adams, behind retaining Eichel and Reinhart, of course. If Ristolainen is traded, then the defensemen on my proposed protection list could stay the same, which I think is in the best interest of the future of the Sabres’ blue line. If he isn’t traded, I could realistically see him being protected over Borgen, who I could see the Kraken selecting from the Sabres. To prevent that scenario, Adams must make a deal to ship Ristolainen out of Buffalo and somewhere else.

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Another one of Adams’ top priorities must be to re-sign Ullmark to a contract, otherwise the Sabres have no hope when it comes to the goal crease. I cannot see Adams re-signing Hutton unless he absolutely had to, nor can I see him re-signing Houser or rushing Luukkonen into the NHL too soon. Ullmark is the only goalie capable of winning games for the Sabres, and losing him to the Kraken in their exclusive UFA negotiating window would be a disaster.

If the Sabres weren’t able to bring Ullmark back for another season, that’s where things could get tricky, and that’s also where Ristolainen comes back into the conversation. I believe that the Sabres could package Ristolainen and Asplund, plus one of their many 2021 draft picks, for a true starting goaltender. The trade partner in this scenario will receive a top-four defenseman, a middle-six winger, and a draft pick in exchange for a goaltender, and I think there are teams out there willing to consider this. Some of the teams I would target if I were Adams are the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals, and the New York Islanders, just to name a few.

Sabres Could Make Deals Before the Expansion Draft

The Sabres are no stranger to making deals at the expansion draft to convince the general manager to select one player over another. During the Vegas expansion draft in 2017, the Sabres gave a sixth-round pick to the Golden Knights to select forward William Carrier instead of Ullmark, a move that has paid off in a big way. Adams, who was not the GM during the last expansion, has stated that he would be willing to supply the Kraken with similar incentives if he decides that one of his exposed players are too valuable to lose.

“It’s absolutely something you have to be open to,” Adams said. “Will we do that? I don’t know. You certainly want to use your draft picks, but if it was the right thing for our organization, then we would potentially be interested in that.”

In a perfect world, the Sabres’ protection list would look exactly like I predicted it could look like earlier in this article. But this isn’t a perfect world, especially not for the Sabres, and the protection list hinges upon the ultimate fate of Eichel, Reinhart, Ristolainen, Ullmark, and so much more. Adams certainly has his hands full in the coming weeks, and he is one man I do not envy in the slightest.