With the Stanley Cup Final in full swing and with the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and July 1st free agency on the horizon, hockey fans have a lot to chew on these days. One thing that’s seemed to have flown under the radar so far is that the NHL’s contract buyout window opens June 15th. From the 15th until the end of the month general managers can officially clear contracts off the books by buying out unprotected contracts.
As is always the case there are plenty of awful contracts around the NHL, so it’s expected that we’ll see some buyouts. According to The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis, here are the 10 most likely buyout candidates:
10. Karl Alzner - Montreal Canadiens
2019-20 Cap Savings: $3.5 million
In their lengthy and excellent road map piece posted in April, my colleagues Arpon Basu and Marc Antoine Godin argued that it makes more sense to buy Alzner out next summer than it does this one.
“An Alzner buyout would be more punitive this summer than next, both in terms of cap space and the two extra years his buyout would be on the cap,” they wrote. “If there’s someone who would be able to look past his own situation for another year to help mentor the kids arriving in Laval, it is Alzner.”
It’s a reasonable argument, especially because Montreal has money to play with this year. Their approach may well be both the correct one and the one the Canadiens end up taking.
The counterargument runs something like this: he’s overpaid right now, cap space today can be weaponized – as the Canadiens did last year with Steve Mason – and the season Montreal would knock off a buyout by waiting is 2024-25, which is so far in the future that it doesn’t even show up on a manager’s five-year plan.
It isn’t a no-brainer, but depending on what else is available to the Habs it might make sense to just make the decision now.
9. Michael Stone - Calgary Flames
2019-20 Cap Savings: $2.3 million
Ordinarily, the argument with a player like Stone is that he has one year left and provides a useful veteran depth option so it’s better to leave him alone than look to a buyout. While that’s all true, the fact is that Calgary knows it can replace him for less than the replacement cost on a buyout, because the Flames broke in three rookie defencemen last year and all are on six-figure entry-level deals.
Moreover, Calgary’s defense is its position of greatest strength, to the point where Stone likely sits fourth on the team’s internal right-side depth chart.
A 107-point season, the Pacific title and the humiliation of a first-round playoff exit all argue against patience. If the Flames want money to upgrade somewhere they could use the help, Stone is the easiest sacrifice.
8. Valeri Nichushkin - Dallas Stars
2019-20 Cap Savings: $2.25 million
The thing most working against Nichushkin is the NHL rule allowing teams to buy players younger than 26 out at just one-third of their remaining salary, as opposed to the usual two-thirds. If the Stars were to save $900,000 with a buyout, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. $1.8-million, on the other hand, for a 24-year-old who barely played in the playoffs – that’s tempting.
Nichushkin certainly has enough going for him to be worth another look somewhere, despite a goalless season, but probably at closer to $900,000 than $1.8-million.
7. Brandon Dubinsky - Columbus Blue Jackets
2019-20 Cap Savings: $3.9 million
Dubinsky is still a useful player defensively. He wins draws, his penalty kill numbers are first-rate and he was buried on a defensive zone line last season that under the circumstances did a pretty good job of keeping shots against to a minimum.
He’s also 33, suffered through a series of injuries last season and is coming off his second consecutive six-goal year.
Columbus has some money to play with this offseason – potentially a lot, if their high-profile UFAs all jump ship – and won’t be forced to make a move, but it’s certainly possible the team can find a competent depth center for less than the replacement cost attached to this buyout.
6. Vladimir Sobotka - Buffalo Sabres
2019-20 Cap Savings: $2 million
Sobotka hasn’t been the same since his sojourn to the KHL. The Blues appear to have realized that after a single year, and managed to lump him in as an “asset” in Buffalo’s ill-fated Ryan O’Reilly trade. The Sabres ended up with an expensive player who didn’t add much offensively, wasn’t able to stem the tide defensively and dragged down the performance of virtually every regular linemate he had all year.
The Sabres could roll the dice, hoping that a new coach and a year to adapt to a new team will make all the difference for the soon-to-be-32-year-old. Or they could get out now and spend the savings on someone coming off a better season.
One alternative would be burying Sobotka in the minors, which would save the Sabres $75,000 more in total cap than a buyout would. The difference is so marginal, however, that it’s not worth giving up the $1-million in real money savings.
5. Andrew McDonald - Philadelphia Flyers
2019-20 Cap Savings: $3.8 million
As late as January, MacDonald was averaging 18 minutes per game for the Flyers. In February that fell to 14:23, and by March he was a frequent healthy scratch and even when he did play it was even money that he’d get 10 minutes of ice time.
Philadelphia has enough money to play with this summer that it could theoretically just let the last year tick off MacDonald’s deal, but why bother? Not only do the Flyers have plenty of defencemen to take his minutes, but his actual value is far lower than the replacement cost associated with a buyout.
4. Dmitry Kulikov - Winnipeg Jets
2019-20 Cap Savings: $2.8 million
It’s going to be a difficult summer in Winnipeg, where a good chunk of the Jets’ critical young core is bound for restricted free agency. There will be sacrifices along the way and Kulikov seems destined to be one of them.
Ideally, the Jets would get out from under his entire cap hit, including some kind of sweetener a la last summer’s Steve Mason trade. The trouble with that scenario is that Winnipeg is already down to just three picks in the 2019 draft and would ideally keep its NHL-ready talent in the system to replace some of its many free agents.
Failing a trade, buying out Kulikov and replacing him with a $700,000 No. 7 defenceman would clear $2.19-million off the books for next year, and the team needs that money.
3. Ryan Callahan - Tampa Bay Lightning
2019-20 Cap Savings: $3.1 million
The Lightning aren’t in a terrible cap position: Brayden Point is the one major contract they have to get done and they have the money to do it. Nevertheless, an aggressive summer should be in the cards for the NHL’s best regular season team after a humiliating first-round sweep.
That means clearing money, and Callahan is at the top of the list. The 34-year-old is a shadow of the gritty scorer he was in New York and isn’t likely to play a top-nine role elsewhere in the league after putting up a combined 39 points over his last three seasons.
A trade would certainly be preferable from the Bolts’ perspective, but if not, a buyout is a logical consideration. It would clear a total of $1.57-million in cap hit over two years, and Tampa is one of those teams that should prioritize spreading the money out over multiple seasons. Assuming a league-minimum replacement, a Callahan buyout would give the Lightning $2.43-million to spend somewhere else.
2. Mike Condon - Ottawa Senators
2019-20 Cap Savings: $2 million
Condon played just three games due to injury in 2018-19. Prior to that, he was a .902 save percentage stopper for the Sens over 31 appearances in 2017-18, posting a 5-17-5 record. Ottawa cares less about cap hit and more about real dollars, and that’s where Condon’s $3-million salary hurts them.
It may also offer a trade opportunity, though. No team is better positioned than the Sens to take on someone else’s contract with a big cap hit and lower salary, and Condon (whose $2.4-million cap hit is $600,000 lower than his actual compensation) is a logical trade chip.
Remember that chart of signing bonus-laden players in the preamble to this list? Ottawa is exactly the kind of team that might be receptive to a trade involving careful timing, which would leave them with lots of cap hit and little real financial obligation. Getting someone to waive a no-trade clause to play for the Sens is the hard part in this scenario, but if Ottawa could do it, Condon is a great candidate to go the other way.
If not, a buyout just makes sense.
1. Scott Darling - Carolina Hurricanes
2019-20 Cap Savings: $2.9 million
Darling made 57 saves on 60 shots against in the preseason, good for a .950 save percentage. He started the regular season 2-2-1 with a .913 save percentage. Early on, he looked a lot like the player that Carolina had gambled on as its starting goalie.
Then it all went away. Injury, poor play, a demotion to the minors followed by more poor play, and then a leave of absence all worked to derail Darling’s second consecutive season with the Canes. He has two years left on his contract, but at this point, Carolina would be hard-pressed to rely on him as anything more than a No. 3 goalie.
He’s replaceable for less money than the $1.18-million annually the Hurricanes would free up with a buyout.