With contracts to sign, roster adjustments to be made and considerations that need to be given to their individual cap situations, NHL GMs have at least 10 more days before they can begin to make decisions about potential buyouts. But come June 15, the first buyout window will officially open, and there are several players whose contracts could get the axe.
Last season, it took several days before the first buyouts came down in what was, comparatively, a somewhat slow window. It wasn’t until June 21, nearly a full week after the window opened, that the Edmonton Oilers bought out defenseman Eric Gryba, who was one of seven players who were essentially paid to go away during the first window. Others included veteran defensemen Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, and netminder Steve Mason and winger Tyler Ennis were bought in the hours just before the window closed. (Note that Troy Brouwer isn’t included in that group. His buyout came during the second window.)
In past years, though, we’ve seen the buyouts come early and often during the first window. Take 2017, for instance. From June 15 through June 30, when the first buyout period officially closes each season, 13 players were given walking papers. That was one fewer than the 14 players who were bought out in June 2016, but up two from the 11 buyouts that came during the first window in June 2015.
So, could we see similar action this June? There are certainly enough players whose contracts will be considered for buyouts. Here are several prime candidates:
Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers
It’s been talked about often enough that you have to imagine the Oilers are giving serious consideration to pulling the trigger on buying out Lucic’s deal. After a decent debut campaign in Edmonton, during which he scored 23 goals and 50 points, the 30-year-old has scored 16 goals and 54 points across the past two seasons combined and he’s done so while collecting $15-million in total salary. Yikes and double-yikes. Making matters worse, the Oilers are somewhat handcuffed given Lucic possesses a no-movement clause for the next two seasons. So, if they want to trade him, Lucic has to agree.
The issue in buying out Lucic is that the savings, especially in 2020-21 and 2022-23, are a mere $375,000. That said, the Oilers would save $2.375-million against the cap and free up another $1.875-million in cap space in 2019-20 and 2021-22, respectively. After that, it’s four years at a $625,000 cap hit, but that’s the equivalent of one league-minimum player. Edmonton should be able to live with that.
Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks
There exists the possibility that once restricted free agent Brock Boeser puts pen to paper on a new pact, he will be the Canucks’ highest-paid player. For the time being, though, that distinction belongs to Eriksson, and given his lack of production, it makes his $6-million cap hit stick out like a sore thumb. Truly, Eriksson’s time in Vancouver has been an unmitigated disaster. In not one season since joining the team has the two-time 30-goal scorer registered even a dozen goals, and his best output came this season when he scored 11 goals and 29 points while playing in a bottom-six role.
That said, the 33-year-old is probably only a buyout consideration if the Canucks have designs on spending big this summer. With Boeser not yet locked up, Vancouver has $30.5-million in cap space, and it’s not as though buying out Eriksson is going to do the Canucks many favors. It will only save Vancouver $444,444 this season and next before a savings of $2.4 million in 2021-22. A buyout this season does represent the biggest savings in that third year, however, which is when Calder Trophy favorite Elias Pettersson will be up for an extension.
Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s no secret the Lightning are facing a considerable cap crunch. With Brayden Point due a substantial raise after a star-making campaign, need for an upgrade on the blueline and the desire to make a few other minor tweaks, Tampa Bay’s projected $8.6-million in cap space simply doesn’t leave them with the available balance to check off everything on their summer to-do list. Clearing the final year of Callahan’s contract might help significantly, though, especially in the short term. Buying him out in this window would offer the Lightning $3.13-million in spending room, though it does come with a $1.57-million cap hit next season.
Ideally, of course, the Lighting would love to move Callahan, 34, out by himself or as part of a package to clear cap space. However, with a 16-team no-trade list, Callahan has some control over his future and it could limit Tampa Bay’s options. A buyout might be the best option.
Karl Alzner, Montreal Canadiens
It didn’t take long for the Canadiens to regret the big-money deal they handed Alzner. After a sub-par campaign as a second-pairing rearguard in Montreal in 2017-18, Alzner spent all but nine games as a scratch or in the minors this season. Not exactly how the Habs saw that five-year, $23.125-million deal shaking out. Alas, the Canadiens now need to find a way out from under the contract. The $4.625-million cap hit, not to mention the 30-year-old's seven-team no-trade list, complicates matters, and it might mean a buyout is the best course of action.
There is some benefit in taking such a tack, too. Montreal would save $3.56 million next season, $430,556 in 2020-21 and $2.43 million in 2021-22. After that comes three consecutive seasons of a $1.07-million cap hit, but that shouldn’t be impossible for the Canadiens to work around. Biting the bullet now and freeing up some space for when Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi become free agents in two seasons’ time could prove worthwhile.
Brendan Smith, New York Rangers
It’s only fitting to list Smith, 30, after Alzner because the defenders find themselves in similar situations. A deadline acquisition by the Rangers during the 2016-17 season, Smith inked a four-year, $17.4-million extension in New York and then everything went south. After impressing in a middle-pairing role down the stretch in 2017, Smith was in and out of the lineup with the Rangers before an eventual demotion to the AHL in 2017-18, where he spent the final two months of the campaign. He recovered somewhat this season, but not enough to remove his name from buyout consideration.
In the midst of a rebuild, New York has ample cap space, but there’s a logjam of high-priced and underperforming defensemen on the roster. Axing Smith’s deal is likely the easiest move to make. Doing so would free up $3.4 million for the Rangers next season, $1.2 million in 2020-21 and then cost them little more than $1.1 million the two seasons after that. Careful planning would ensure those aren't difficult waters to navigate.
Dion Phaneuf, Los Angeles Kings
The Kings’ acquisition of Phaneuf was a head-scratcher when it happened and an outright disaster in the aftermath. The former Norris Trophy finalist quickly fell out of favor with Los Angeles’ coaching staff this season, resulting in the lowest average ice time of his career, a mere 15 minutes per game across 67 contests. Not only did he see less ice, he was made a healthy scratch eight times this season. With the Kings’ need to get younger and faster, Phaneuf is no longer a fit and a prime buyout candidate.
If Los Angeles were to rid themselves of Phaneuf’s contract by way of a buyout, the Kings would add another $4.08 million to their coffers this summer, though the defenseman’s deal would then count against the cap for $5.42 million the following season and $1.42 million in 2021-22 and 2022-23. So, if the Kings want to buy Phaneuf, 34, out, they’re going to need to weigh the savings now against the cost later.
Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes
It wasn’t long ago Darling was one of the best stories in the NHL, a backup who battled his way to prominence from deep in the minor leagues and earned himself a starting goaltender’s wage and the top spot in the Hurricanes’ crease. Unfortunately, there was no fairytale ending in Carolina. His first campaign was disastrous and his second season, which lasted all of nine starts, was even worse. Darling was ultimately demoted to the AHL before taking a leave of absence late in the season.
Given how disappointing his time in Carolina has been, it’s time for Darling, 30, to get a fresh start. It’s unlikely, too, that any team is going to be willing to take on the final two years of his contract, which comes with a $4.15-million cap hit for a goaltender who has an .887 SP over his past 51 appearances. A buyout seems likely, and it would free up $2.92-million in spending room for the Hurricanes this summer, as well as $1.82 million next off-season. There would be a cap hit of $1.18 million in 2021-22 and 2022-23, but that should be fairly easy for a budget team such as Carolina to maneuver.
Other Candidates: Andy MacDonald (PHI), Zach Bogosian (BUF), Marc Staal (NYR)
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.