As we approach the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft – when one player from each NHL team besides the exempt Vegas Golden Knights will be selected by Kraken general manager Ron Francis – writers at THW representing each NHL team completed a Mock Expansion Draft to project a realistic outcome for each club. As acting armchair GM of the Buffalo Sabres, I had my work cut out for me.
This offseason is a crucial one for the Sabres, and GM Kevyn Adams has a long list of tasks to take care of before next season rolls around, perhaps none more important than protecting his best players from the Kraken. Not to mention, stars Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are still rumored to be traded sooner than later, and fetching a proper return for those two players should shape expectations for next season and beyond.
The list of expiring contracts this offseason is a long one, but if I were Adams, I would only look to bring a small number of those players back for next season. The Sabres set to become unrestricted free agents (UFAs): Tobias Rieder, Riley Sheahan, Matt Irwin, Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark, Michael Houser, Drake Caggiula, Jake McCabe, Steven Fogarty, Jean-Sébastian Dea, and Brandon Davidson.
Since I believe that McCabe and the Sabres are going to part ways, the only UFA on this list that I think Adams will try to re-sign is Ullmark – to have a capable goaltender between the pipes next season who can win games.
The Sabres also have several restricted free agents (RFAs) in need of new contracts, including Reinhart, Rasmus Asplund, Casey Mittelstadt, Will Borgen, Rasmus Dahlin, and Henri Jokiharju. All of them will need to be signed to keep the team’s young core in place, and I believe Adams will get it done. The only question is whether Reinhart will ink a long-term deal, but we should find out in the next few weeks.
Offseason Free Agency Signings
Once Adams has re-signed the players he wishes to keep around for the long haul, there won’t be many open spaces for big-name free agents, such as Taylor Hall, who might test the free-agent market again this summer instead of sticking with the Boston Bruins. We all know how his first stint with the Sabres worked out, so let’s avoid any bold signings like that one this time around, shall we?
It would better serve the Sabres to draft and develop their core players for what they hope will soon be a competitive team, rather than look to free agency to fill the gaps. But that doesn’t mean Adams won’t pick up the phone. In fact, since the team still needs a No. 1 goalie (especially if Ullmark doesn’t re-sign), free agency might be a good place to look, especially since many teams don’t want to lose one of their goalies to the Kraken for nothing, and goalies will be holding out for big contracts. If I were Adams, the only free agents I would be talking to are goalies.
Expansion Draft Trades
Now we come to the “mock” part of THW’s Mock Expansion Draft. Writers playing the role of GM had the liberty of making trades to better prepare their teams for the draft, but the goal was to make them as realistic as possible. All 13 trades, including one by yours truly, were monitored by a third party, our acting league commissioner, to ensure that the salary cap was considered, and so on.
As Sabres GM, I knew which protection scheme I wanted to go with, and longtime Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen just didn’t fit into my plans. After nearly a decade with the team, it was time for a fresh start, and I found my trade partner in the Tampa Bay Lightning, with a third team joining in on the action after the fact. In a three-way trade, the Lightning acquired Ristolainen, the Sabres acquired Tyler Johnson and the Lightning’s 2021 third-round pick, while the New Jersey Devils acquired a 2023 third-round pick. The Sabres retained $2,700,000 of Ristolainen’s salary (50%), while the Devils retained $1,350,000 of Ristolainen’s salary (25%), leaving the Lightning on the hook for just 25% of Ristolainen’s total cap hit next season.
My reasons for this trade are many. First, the Lightning needed to shed salary, and I knew I would be able to acquire a good player from their roster. While Johnson’s offensive production has declined over the past few seasons, he had a strong 2020-21 season and put on a great performance in the 2021 Playoffs. He also brings a veteran leadership presence and Stanley Cup-winning pedigree to the Sabres’ locker room, which will be important for the young core.
Second, I didn’t feel too bad about trading Ristolainen within the division since he has just one year left on his deal and the Lightning will have younger defensemen they might want to keep around instead by the 2022-23 season. And last, I knew that bolstering the number of draft picks in this year’s draft was of the utmost importance in getting the Sabres’ pipeline full of prospects.
With UFA and RFA re-signings, free agency, and expansion draft trades out of the way, it was time to build my protection list for the Sabres. The protection scheme I chose was the 7-3-1 scheme, protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender.
The Seven Forwards Protected Were:
- Jack Eichel
- Sam Reinhart
- Jeff Skinner – his no-movement clause (NMC) made it mandatory
- Victor Olofsson
- Casey Mittelstadt
- Anders Bjork
- Tyler Johnson (acquired from Tampa Bay Lightning)
Now, I have to address the elephant in the room. Earlier this week, Skinner agreed to waive his NMC to be exposed in the Expansion Draft at Adams’ request, which neither I nor others saw coming. But, it allows him to protect another forward he might otherwise lose to the Kraken, and the likelihood that Skinner is chosen is low, considering his $9 million price tag. For this mock draft, which occurred before this all came out, Skinner will stay protected on my list.
Keep in mind there are some forwards on the roster not included on this list, and that is because they are exempt: Brandon Biro, Dylan Cozens, Dawson DiPietro, Brett Murray, Matej Pakar, Lukas Rousek, Arttu Ruotsaleinen, and Linus Weissbach. Cozens and Ruotsaleinen are likely to play a full 82-game season for the Sabres next season.
The Three Defensemen Protected Were:
- Rasmus Dahlin
- Henri Jokiharju
- Will Borgen
With Ristolainen gone, the choice of three defensemen to protect was an easy one. Dahlin, Jokiharju, and Borgen are going to make up the core of the Sabres’ blue line for years to come, and committing to them is one way to show that. Some defensemen were also exempt from the draft: Jacob Bryson, Casey Fitzgerald, Oskari Laaksonen, and Mattias Samuelsson.
In goal, there’s one obvious choice: Linus Ullmark. Ullmark will have to be re-signed in order to be protected, and I bet Adams will get that done before the Expansion Draft. For this exercise, I assumed he was going to be re-signed, and chose to protect him over the other choices, leaving Dustin Tokarski exposed to the Kraken, although it’s doubtful they snatch him up based on the talented pool of goalies they have to choose from.
Sabres goalie prospects Stefanos Lekkas and Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen are exempt.
After I was done with my protection list, I sent it to our acting Kraken GM, along with the list of players who were exposed. They were: Tokarski, Tage Thompson, Asplund, Zemgus Girgensons, Cody Eakin, Kyle Okposo, Colin Miller, and Andrew Oglevie. I was okay with parting with most of the names, but when it came to Thompson and Asplund, I was willing to sweeten the deal a little to ensure they remained Sabres.
To keep the Kraken from selecting either Thompson or Asplund, I made an offer, to which the acting Kraken GM countered with taking Eakin off my hands in exchange for goaltending prospect Erik Portillo and Boston’s 2021 second-round pick (previously acquired in the Taylor Hall deal). We shook hands virtually, and the deal was done.
The Kraken selected Eakin from the Sabres, and got a draft pick and goalie prospect along with him, while I managed to retain all of the core players for next season.
Roster After the Expansion Draft:
The Sabres’ opening night lineup, prior to free agency and without any players slated to play for their American Hockey League affiliate Rochester Americans, will look like this after the expansion draft, barring any potential earth-shaking trades before then:
Line 1: Skinner – Eichel – Reinhart
Line 2: Bjork – Mittelstadt – Olofsson
Line 3: Asplund – Cozens – Thompson
Line 4: Girgensons – Johnson – Okposo
Pair 1: Dahlin – Borgen
Pair 2: Miller – Jokiharju
Pair 3: Bryson – ?
If you think this roster looks familiar, that’s because it is. Besides Johnson, who was acquired from the Lightning, every player in the lineup was on the team last year, save Girgensons, who missed the season due to injury but has been with the team since 2012. And while some might think that the same roster will lead to the same disappointing results, I’d say don’t jump to conclusions.
Several Sabres took a big step last year and are ready for breakout seasons: Mittelstadt, Asplund, Cozens, and Thompson, to name a few. With head coach Don Granato’s coaching style, players like Dahlin and Jokiharju could thrive on the back end, while speedy players like Bjork and Olofsson could begin to contribute more offense at even strength. Call me crazy, but I believe there’s a version of this roster that can be successful and should be reason enough to be excited about the future.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres & San Jose Sharks Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15