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With window approaching, here are some NHL buyout candidates

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Now that the Stanley Cup Final has wrapped up we are less than two days away from the start of the NHL’s buyout window where teams can attempt to get away from some of their less desirable and otherwise unmovable contracts. For a price.

Which teams might be willing to exercise that option?

Let’s take a look at some candidates.

The Buyout Proof contract

Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers: Okay, this is one that probably will not happen but it is still worth looking at because it is the exact type of situation that usually ends in a buyout — a big-time free agent signing that just does not work out because the team made a poor evaluation and signed an aging player to a contract that was destined to fail. So why won’t this situation end with a buyout? Because along with making a costly investment, the Oilers also gave Lucic what is, for all intents and purposes, a buyout proof contract in how much of the money is tied up in signing bonuses.

According to CapFriendly, if the Oilers were to buyout the remainder of Lucic’s deal they would have to pay out the remainder of his salary over the next 10 years with minimal salary cap savings over the next five years. I suppose they could do that if they really wanted to, but it doesn’t seem likely. Instead, they might sweeten the pot in a trade and give up a potentially useful asset to rid themselves of the contract an option that … does not really seem much better, now does it? Let’s just chalk this move up to another swing and a miss by the Oilers as they continue to waste Connor McDavid.

Costly, but might be worth it

Matt Hunwick, Pittsburgh Penguins. This is another contract that just did not work out. Hunwick signed a three-year, $6.75 million contract before last season and it became pretty obvious in the very beginning that it was going to come with some regret. The Penguins could save more than $1 million against the cap over the next two years if they buyout Hunwick this summer, and for a team that is consistently pressed against the salary cap and is in a clear win-now mode that could be significant.

Troy Brouwer, Calgary Flames. Brouwer is two years into a four-year, $18 million contract with the Calgary Flames and to this point has produced 19 goals in 150 games and still has a modified no-trade clause over the next two years. The odds of him improving at this point are slim. The odds of finding a trade partner willing to take on that contract seem slimmer. A buyout saves the Flames $3 million against the cap over the next two seasons and then they would have to carry $1.5 million in dead cap money in the two years after that. Not cheap, but certainly an option that should be explored because this is a team that should have the talent on its roster to compete right now. An extra $3 million in cap space this upcoming season and the one after that would be a huge asset.

Matt Moulson, Buffalo Sabres. Moulson is entering the final year of a five-year, $25 million contract and it is clear that his days as a top-six scorer in the NHL are finished. He played only 14 games for the Sabres this past season and recorded zero points while averaging less than one shot on goal per game. The rest of the year he was in the American Hockey League. Buying out the final year of his contract would save the Sabres just a little more than $1.5 million this season and cost them around $667,000 in empty cap space next season. Considering how low his trade value has to be at this point it might be worth it.

Definitely worth it

Jori Lehtera, Philadelphia Flyers. The key to the Brayden Schenn-for-Lehtera swap was always going to be the draft picks involved. Good thing, too, because Lehtera did not really offer the Flyers much this past season. He is entering his age 31 season and has scored only 10 goals in his past 126 games. A buyout would save the Flyers more than $3.3 million against the salary cap this season. They would be stuck with a $1.6 million hit the following year, and that might be tough to swallow, but this is a playoff team that could make a significant addition with some extra cap space.

Tyler Ennis, Minnesota Wild. After back-to-back 20-goal campaigns in Buffalo a few years back Ennis’ career has pretty much cratered. He is coming off of a miserable year with the Wild that saw him manage just eight goals and 14 assists in 73 games while once again being a blackhole in terms of possession metrics. The Wild would save $2.4 million against the salary cap this upcoming season by buying out the final year of his contract. The Wild are once again pressed against the salary cap and have to re-sign restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba this summer.

Maybe give him one more year?

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars. Spezza is an interesting one because he is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career offensively and a buyout would save the Stars $5 million(!) against the salary cap this upcoming season. You can do a lot with an extra $5 million.

The problem is they would get hit with $2.5 million in empty space the year after.

What makes it a tough call is that even though Spezza had a terrible year and is going to be 35 years old when the season starts he is just one year removed from being a 50-point player (in only 68 games) and had really strong underlying possession numbers, indicating that he might still have something to offer, especially under a new coach and in a different system.

(Salary and buyout information via CapFriendly)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers await free agency with rare luxury: a ton of cap space

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Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall is rapidly approaching “be careful what you wish for” territory.

For years, Hextall has been cleaning up whatever Flyers cap messes he could (sorry, Andrew MacDonald), breaking the franchise’s pattern of going after splashy, expensive moves that can sometimes blow up in their faces (sorry, Ilya Bryzgalov). Now, with what could be a ton of cap space looming in the off-season, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports that Hextall is expected to receive “free rein” in free agency.

(If the cap ceiling is at $80 million, they’ll have about $22 million in room, while a Jori Lehtera buyout could push that above $25M.)

“Ron has the flexibility to do whatever he wants with his cap space and his roster,” Holmgren said, via Carchidi. “If that’s the decision he wants to make moving forward, he’s got free rein to do that. I think Ron continues to do what’s right for the organization.”

That brings us back to “be careful what you wish for.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Hextall’s shown poise and patience in earning himself a clean slate, and this is his reward. That said, big moves can often be the downfall of a GM. Consider how Chuck Fletcher’s Wild era crumbled under the weight of the Ryan SuterZach Parise contracts, how the Flyers have regretted past moves, and how Ron Francis was undone in part by the ill-fated Scott Darling signing as just a few examples of mistakes that can cost people jobs.

With that in mind, here are some tips for Hextall.

One rule for them all

Let’s begin with an idea that seems far-fetched, but must be considered: any team that can land John Tavares should do whatever it can to make it happen. There’s a strong chance that he’ll just re-sign with the New York Islanders, but if not, the Flyers have plenty of cash to work with.

Goalie considerations

Rather than making Bryzgalov-style huge moves in net, Philly’s instead targeted value in goalies. That worked out very well in their Steve Mason sign-and-trade, while it’s been bumpier with Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott.

While the position is once again a headache for Philly, Hextall should be pleased that they’re at least not stuck with problem contracts. Elliott and Neuvirth are both cheap, and their contracts expire after 2018-19.

This gives the Flyers the flexibility to do whatever they want with the goalie free agent market. As of this moment, notable UFA goalies include Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, and Chad Johnson. The RFA list boasts higher ceilings yet would likely require some maneuvering via a trade; the Sabres might decide to part ways with Robin Lehner while the Capitals may decide that it would be better to gain assets for Philipp Grubauer rather than giving him a raise to back up Braden Holtby.

With Carter Hart waiting in the wings as the top goalie prospect in any NHL system (or, at worst, one of the top goalie prospects), the Flyers would likely look for a short-term upgrade if they decided to make a move. Maybe Carter Hutton would be the right fit?

Risk/reward

As usual, there are “buyer beware” situations for 2018 free agency.

On one hand, you have players who’ve inflated their values with career years they’re unlikely to match. The Flyers probably weren’t in the market for John Carlson considering their young defensemen, but even if they were, they’d be better off exploring a cheaper avenue.

With expensive, long-term contracts for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in mind, the Flyers need to be careful when it comes to pondering some of the more intriguing UFA forwards. James Neal seems like a prototypical Flyers forward, yet he’s also already 30, as just one example. Scorers like Evander Kane and former Flyer James van Riemsdyk are enticing, but most if not all of them will ask for the kind of term that could really sting.

Hextall might be better off avoiding the splashier moves, instead either a) seeing which players end up inexplicably being PTO fodder, which seems to happen every summer and/or b) going for guys lower on the radar. Could Patrick Maroon, Michael Grabner, Ian Cole, or Michael Hutchinson help out, and do so at cheaper rates? The Flyers might be better off going in that direction, as they’ll want to continue to give their own drafted players opportunities to seize prominent roles.

The Flyers also need to set aside some money for future extensions. Ivan Provorov figures to be expensive when his rookie deal expires after 2018-19. A decision regarding Wayne Simmonds‘ future is looming, as he only has one year left on his deal.

With Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere locked up on bargain contracts, some of the big conundrums have been settled by Hextall’s deft work, but there are still some key decisions to be made, especially if management wants to hedge their bets in net alongside Carter Hart.

***

All things considered, the Flyers might actually be better off trying to improve by making trades.

If I were in Hextall’s shoes, I’d try to pry Max Pacioretty or Mike Hoffman away in swaps. The Flyers would get at least one season to see how such additions fit into their system, maybe opening the door for a team-friendly extension.

Either way, this summer stands as a fascinating fork in the road. This team showed signs of delivering on the potential prospect hounds have been hyping up. On the other hand, you never know how quickly your window of opportunity can close, particularly if Giroux, Voracek, and others slide.

Hextall has a great opportunity ahead of him, but that opportunity brings with it increased expectations. The honeymoon is about to end, and now he must guide the Flyers through those next, painful steps toward true contention.

Be careful what you wish for.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin in Game 6; Patric Hornqvist returns

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have another opportunity to try and win their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon. If they do it they are going to have to do so without one of their top players, Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin did not take the pre-game warmups and will not be in the lineup after suffering an injury in their Game 5 loss on Friday night.

Here is a a look at the play where he became tangled up with Flyers forward Jori Lehtera in the first period.

Malkin left the game for the remainder of the period only to return for the second. He played the remainder of the game but did not get his regular workload and seemed to be struggling. After the game Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would only say that Malkin was fine.

Obviously he is not fine or he would be in the lineup on Sunday.

Malkin has three goals and two assists in five games this postseason.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Riley Sheahan took pre-game line rushes between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin in place of Malkin, allowing the Penguins to keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together as it has played very well in this series.

While the Malkin injury is bad news for the Penguins they will be getting winger Patric Hornqvist back in the lineup after he missed the past two games due to an upper body injury.

Hornqvist is a difference-maker on the Penguins’ power play, a unit that struggled mightily in their Game 5 loss on Friday night, going 0-for-5 while also giving up a shorthanded goal. He will skate on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers

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[WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers]

Projected Lines

Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierMichael Raffl

Oskar LindblomNolan Patrick – Jake Voracek

Travis KonecnyValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Scott LaughtonJori LehteraMatt Read

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis SanheimAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

[NHL On NBCSN: Flyers look to clinch playoff spot against Rangers]

New York Rangers

Forwards

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadRyan Spooner

Jimmy VeseyFilip ChytilMats Zuccarello

Vladislav NamestnikovKevin HayesPavel Buchnevich

Paul Carey –  Lias AnderssonPeter Holland

Defense

Marc StaalNeal Pionk

BradySkjei – Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour – Rob O’Gara

Starting Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.