Inside the Sabres: Doubling down on expansion draft ideas

The Vegas Golden Knights have watched countless hours of video, interpreted thousands of stats and crunched millions of dollars in preparation for the NHL expansion draft. But when it comes to their selection of a Buffalo player, could it be as simple as a family tie?

If so, that’d be a quality result for the Sabres.

Vegas General Manager George McPhee has the hockey world knocking on his door regarding the upcoming expansion draft. The goal in Buffalo is to have McPhee take one of the Sabres’ bloated contracts. Matt Moulson is one of the candidates.

The winger will turn 34 next season and has two years left on a deal that pays $5 million per year. Although he ranked seventh on the Sabres with 14 goals, he was relegated to fourth-line duty. Regardless of the coach, Moulson seems like a power-play specialist and little more in Buffalo, which wants to build its offense around speed.

In Vegas, however, Moulson could return to scoring-line status. The guidelines for the expansion draft will deliver third-line forwards, second-pair defensemen and backup goaltenders to the Golden Knights. McPhee’s preference is to pick young players who can grow into key roles, but he’ll need veterans to mentor those prospects.

“We want to have a really competitive team, and we want veteran players who compete and provide some leadership,” McPhee said in HarborCenter during the NHL Scouting Combine. “We’ve planned as much as a club can plan for this. We know the players really well.”

He knows Moulson better than most.

Matt Moulson and his wife, Alicia, are fond of Buffalo and Vegas GM George McPhee. (Getty Images)

McPhee is godfather to Moulson’s wife, Alicia. While playing for the Rangers, McPhee was teammates and friends with Alicia’s father, Mike Backman. When the Moulsons had a son in 2013, they named him George, reportedly in part because of the family’s admiration for McPhee.

If McPhee is looking for a veteran, he knows what he’d get in Moulson. He’s usually one of the last players off the ice at practice. The three-time 30-goal scorer has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove he can still contribute. He’s a family man who can provide maturity when the glittering lights of Las Vegas tempt young players.

Since Vegas is required to spend at least 60 percent of the salary cap on players selected in the expansion draft, McPhee will need a few big contracts. Moulson would provide that.

The rub is Moulson loves Buffalo. The family has settled nicely in the suburbs. No player has praised owners Terry and Kim Pegula more. When the Sabres first acquired Moulson in October 2013, George Moulson was a newborn and couldn’t travel. Kim Pegula reached out to Alicia and helped with the transition as her husband left for Buffalo. It was something the Moulsons have long appreciated.

So here’s the hypothetical: If Moulson tells McPhee he and the family would rather stay in Buffalo, would the GM grant the wish? McPhee likely wouldn’t want to disappoint family. On the other hand, maybe Moulson would relish the chance to rejuvenate his career with someone he admires.

It won’t be long until questions accompanying the expansion draft are answered.

Teams must submit their protection lists June 17, and they will be made public at 10 a.m. June 18. Vegas will finalize its choices at 10 a.m. June 21, and the results will be announced that night during the NHL Awards show.

“It’s going to be different from our mock drafts because this one’s real,” McPhee said.

Our ideas regarding the Sabres are different, too. We filled out a protection list in March, shortly after the NHL trade deadline. The guess was Buffalo would lose goalie Linus Ullmark to Vegas. The biggest complaint from fans was protecting Tyler Ennis instead of Zemgus Girgensons.

The second roll of the dice addresses both.

GOALIES GARNER ATTENTION

First, a refresher on the rules:

1. Vegas will select one player from each organization. Teams have two options regarding players they wish to protect. The first is seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender. The second option is eight skaters regardless of position and one goaltender. The latter helps teams that have more than three quality defensemen.

2. First- and second-year professionals plus unsigned draft choices are exempt from the draft.

Buffalo doesn’t have to worry about forwards Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Alex Nylander, Justin Bailey, Evan Rodrigues, Hudson Fasching, Nick Baptiste, C.J. Smith, Sean Malone, Eric Cornel, Vaclav Karabacek and Jean Dupuy; defensemen Victor Antipin, Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson, Devante Stephens and Brycen Martin; or goalies Jonas Johansson and Jason Kasdorf.

3. Players with no-movement clauses must be protected.

Kyle Okposo is the only Buffalo player in this category, and he was going to be protected anyway.

4. Teams must expose at least two forwards and one defenseman who are under contract for 2017-18 and have played in 40 games this season or 70 games during the past two years. In addition, teams must expose one goaltender under contract for 2017-18 or who will be a restricted free agent this summer.

5. Vegas can sign a pending free agent from a team, and it counts as the expansion selection.

Buffalo’s key free agents are captain Brian Gionta and defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson. It would be a surprise if the Golden Knights pushed for one.

Vegas’ McPhee has Sabres’ attention, along with every other team

With the rules outlined, our goal is twofold: lose a contract and protect Ullmark.

The league’s GMs can work out trades with McPhee to encourage him to leave someone alone or take a certain player. It’s believed McPhee already has deals finalized but is waiting for the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals to announce them.

It is possible, if not probable, one is with Buffalo. Jason Botterill has talked with McPhee, who had worked out the guidelines of a deal with former Sabres GM Tim Murray. Whatever the deal is, don’t expect Vegas to receive minor compensation.

“The thought that a team is just going to give a player away for a seventh-round pick in 2024, that’s not reality,” Flames GM Brad Treliving said on Sportsnet 960 AM in Calgary.

For this year’s draft, the Sabres have eight picks: one in the first round, two in the second and third, and one in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. The other second-round selection came from Minnesota when it acquired Chris Stewart, and the third-round pick came from Washington in the deal for Mike Weber.

If takes early round picks to entice McPhee, the Sabres have them. They should use one to save Ullmark. He has the most potential of anyone Buffalo will expose.

The goalie took major steps in Rochester, leading the American Hockey League in games played and shots faced. Vegas has to draft at least three goalies, so the 23-year-old Ullmark is an option based on his growth potential and award-winning experience in Sweden.

Teams can protect only one goalie, so well-known names will flood the market. Most, however, won’t be the best expansion option. The Rangers’ Antti Raanta, for example, is talented and experienced. But because of New York’s depth at forward and defense, better options will be available to Vegas.

After examining every team and potential protection lists, not many goalies are clear-cut expansion candidates. Those who are include Florida’s James Reimer or Roberto Luongo, Colorado’s Calvin Pickard, Carolina’s Cam Ward, Arizona’s Louis Domingue and the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak.

Net results from Lehner, Ullmark have Sabres solid in goal

Given the slim pickings, the Sabres shouldn’t risk losing Ullmark as Robin Lehner’s backup. They should meet the Golden Knights’ asking price to leave the goalie alone and take someone else.

BIG CONTRACTS ABOUND

There are two expansion options we’ll explore for the Sabres, with Lehner protected in both. The first we’ll call the “money bomb.” It essentially requires Vegas to take a big contract.

In this option, the seven protected forwards are Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, William Carrier and Girgensons. The three defensemen are Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Justin Falk.

That leaves Vegas with the opportunity to select from the forward group of Moulson, Ennis, Nicolas Deslauriers and Justin Kea, or defensemen Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges or Brady Austin.

Deslauriers is a team-first guy, but he’s not a building block. Austin has five games of NHL experience. Kea will likely never have any.

With those three off the table, the Golden Knights can pick Moulson ($5 million), Ennis ($4.6 million), Bogosian ($5.14 million) or Gorges ($3.9 million). The Sabres’ salary cap looks better no matter what.

Matt Moulson (26) and Tyler Ennis are overpaid compared to their roles and production. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The change since March in protecting Girgensons over Ennis comes down to the final weeks of the season. During the initial analysis, Ennis had been hampered by groin surgery and lack of opportunity. There was a belief he offered more value to the organization than Girgensons.

During the final 11 games, Ennis got his chance. He played 15:26 per night and skated with O’Reilly, Eichel, Okposo, Kane and Reinhart. Ennis had just one goal, three assists and 23 shots while outwardly wondering if it was time to move on. Here’s his opportunity.

The second expansion option has just one difference: protect Bogosian and expose Falk. Although the Sabres added Antipin and are working to further improve the blue line, Bogosian has the potential to make Buffalo better.

The 26-year-old was a No. 3 overall pick. Maybe the new coach can coax obvious talent out of a blue-liner who has lost his way. If not, buy out Bogosian next June when the cap results are more beneficial.

The risk in the second option is Falk has developed into a reliable defenseman. Maybe Vegas opts for him instead of money-making Moulson, Ennis and Gorges. Buffalo’s cap situation hasn’t improved.

Again, that’s where the talks with McPhee come into play. The Vegas GM holds all the cards. He’ll shuffle them during the next two weeks, and teams will count their money when the dealing’s done.

If things go in the Sabres’ favor, they’ll have less money on their payroll and more to spend.

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