Expansion Plan: Projecting the Buffalo Sabres’ protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

Buffalo's future looks bright and the team should have no issues coming out of the 2021 expansion draft on good footing. But with over half a roster hitting free agency next summer, the Sabres will need to tread carefully over the next two years.
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Welcome to the Expansion Plan, our summer series projecting the protected lists for the 30 NHL franchises who will participate in the June 2021 Expansion Draft.

Over the next two seasons, every team – save the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be exempt – will be planning for the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise and Seattle GM Ron Francis will begin to consider the options for his inaugural roster. As such, over the course of the next 30 days, we will profile one team, in alphabetical order, and forecast their potential list of protections and exposures, as well as address each team’s expansion strategy, no-brainers, tough decisions and what lessons they learned from the 2017 expansion process.

This exercise requires some important ground rules. The 2021 Expansion Draft will follow the same rules as the 2017 Expansion Draft, but some assumptions are necessary. These are the guidelines followed:

  • No pre-draft trades
  • All no-movement clauses are honored
  • Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams
  • Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (eg. Nicklas Backstrom protected by the Washington Capitals, Tyson Barrie not protected by Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team.)

• • • 

It took a while, but the Buffalo Sabres finally gave fans something to cheer for by leading the league early last season. But in typical Sabres fashion, the team struggled throughout the second half and missed the playoffs an eighth consecutive time – but with a catch. After they flashed their firepower early in the season, and with coach Ralph Krueger now at the helm, there's genuine optimism for the Sabres.

Buffalo has more than $5 million in cap wiggle room today, making next summer – when the team has 10 UFAs and three RFAs (in this case, all big-money signings) – extra important. The Sabres won't have a reason to bring back expensive defenders Zach Bogosian and Marco Scandella with some of the young blueliners they have in the system, especially with both nearing 30. Buffalo has just one player with a full no-movement clause in Jeff Skinner, who would have been protected regardless. That gives Buffalo a clean slate to protect as much young talent as possible, assuming it doesn't start handing out a bunch of terrible deals. The Sabres need to show trust in their young players and believe in a bright future for the franchise. Sabres fans deserve better, and making sure they don't risk any young talent has to be the top priority over the next two years.

PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G):
Forwards:

  • Jack Eichel
  • Jeff Skinner
  • Sam Reinhart
  • Casey Mittelstadt
  • Victor Olofsson
  • Tage Thompson
  • Conor Sheary

Defensemen:

  • Rasmus Dahlin
  • Henri Jokiharju
  • Brandon Montour

Goaltenders:

  • Linus Ullmark

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Kyle Okposo, Lawrence Pilut, Rasmus Asplund

STRATEGY: The Sabres aren't far from reaping the rewards of their rebuild, especially with center Dylan Cozens and goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in the pipeline. Like Arizona, the Sabres need to prioritize youth in lieu of aging skaters on bad contracts, and they have the assets to make that happen. The Sabres will almost certainly expose Kyle Okposo, who has a limited NTC until 2022-23 but is coming off of a 29-point effort for his worst full-season total. Even if pending UFAs Bogosian or Scandella return, there's no way Buffalo would protect them, and it would be almost as unlikely they'd be picked by Seattle. Players such as forwards Rasmus Asplund and Marcus Davidsson and defensemen Mattias Samuelsson can fill those holes if any were moved, however.

Operating with the understanding that Rasmus Ristolainen is likely on his way out sooner rather than later, this keeps most of the core together as the team transitions forward. You have to imagine the Sabres could snag a top-six forward in return for Ristolainen, which could shuffle how Buffalo tackles the draft. Even if Ristolainen somehow remains on the roster, the Sabres have enough talent on defense to move on from Ristolainen and his $5.4-million cap hit.

Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt and Victor Olofsson have yet to prove themselves just yet, but in the latter two, the skill level is off the charts. It won't be long until Mittelstadt is comfortable in the second center spot behind Eichel, and Olofsson was spectacular in his first season in North America, tallying 63 points in 60 AHL games and an additional four in six games alongside Eichel with the big club. In keeping these three, it's a vote of confidence in the young guys and further cement Buffalo's future.

THE NO BRAINER: Winger Sam Reinhart is on the verge of becoming a big star in Buffalo after coming off of a 65-point season and is integral in bringing Buffalo out of the depths of the Eastern Conference standings. Reinhart is entering the final season of his two-year bridge contract and will get a significant raise from his $3.65-million cap hit in 2020. Expect the Sabres to give him a long-term deal and make him a member of their core for years to come.

THE TOUGH DECISION: The Sabres would be rolling the dice by protecting just three defensemen, especially with the acquisition of Colin Miller this summer. The Sabres struggled on the back end for many years and are still trying to put a competent group out for 82 games a year. They've got the talent to make that happen, but the Sabres would almost certainly lose Lawrence Pilut or Brandon Montour to Seattle. That is, of course, if Montour signs next summer, but he impressed in his 20-game stint with the club to close out the year.

LESSON LEARNED: Don't damage your future to add experience. The Sabres will be very active next summer, affecting what the team will decide to do leading in to the expansion draft. With star defenseman Rasmus Dahlin up for a new deal in 2021-22, the team can't offer too many big deals to older players, especially when the goal is to keep the youth movement together.

Up Next: Calgary Flames

Previous:Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins |

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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