Let's take a look at the five top buyout candidates heading into the off-season.
5. Zack Kassian - Edmonton Oilers
- Contract: 2 years left, $3.2 million AAV
- 2021-22 Stat Line: 58 GP, 6 goals, 13 assists, 19 points, 11:47 TOI
- Buyout Cap Hit: $666,667 (2022-23), $1.8667 million (2023-24), $966,667 (2024-25), $966,667 (2025-26)
One of the first significant contracts of the Ken Holland era was always destined for disaster.
Nothing in Kassian's career leading up to this extension ever indicated that he was worth such a hefty price or lengthy term. Nothing. And almost immediately after he put pen to paper, Kassian's production fell off a cliff as most assumed it would, with the bruiser having racked up a combined eight goals and 24 points in 85 games over the first two years of this deal while watching his average ice time drop by a whopping four minutes.
Kassian's contract has been nothing short of a disaster for the Oilers, and with the team facing a crucial offseason filled with key expiring contracts and not enough cap space with which to re-sign them, shedding even a fraction of Kassian's remaining money might be a good idea.
With two years left on his deal, though, the question is whether it would be more worthwhile to just reap the cap savings of sending Kassian to the AHL and be done with it as opposed to gaining an extra $2.5 million in wiggle room this summer and $1.3 million next summer while shackling a fraction of Kassian's dead money to the books for another four years.
4. Matt Murray - Ottawa Senators
- Contract: 2 years left, $6.25 million AAV
- 2021-22 Stat Line: 20 GP, 5-12-2, 1 SO, 3.05 GAA, .906 SV%
- Buyout Cap Hit: $666,667 (2022-23), $1,866,667 (2023-24), (2024-25), $966,667 ($966,667)
The Ottawa Senators are not a franchise capable of just throwing money. So, when it comes to a buyout of this magnitude, eating $10 million in dead money is something that may prevent the organization from moving forward with it -- even if both Murray and the Senators could probably use a fresh start.
Murray's 2021-22 was not nearly the disaster that his debut campaign in Ottawa was the year prior. The 28-year-old looked surprisingly decent in the limited playing time he logged, even putting together a stretch or two during which he looked like the two-time Stanley Cup champion that convinced the Senators to pay him like one of the best goalies in the league two offseasons ago.
Injuries, however, have always been Murray's downfall, and this season was no different as the Thunder Bay native appeared in just 20 games and failed to stay on the ice consistently for the second consecutive year.
Those health issues will likely be the biggest factor motivating a potential buyout from the Sens' point of view. Sure, the dead money will hurt, but Murray's constant battles with various ailments already make him unavailable to the team for over half the schedule anyway. What would be the difference? If Murray isn't nursing an active injury, a buyout could at least free Pierre Dorion to use some of the $6.25 million otherwise owed to Murray on a player or two who will actually suit up for the team on a nightly basis. The price, however, will be an extra $2.5 million cap hit for two years after Murray's deal would have expired.
Then again, for a cap floor team like the Senators, that might be something of a benefit.
It's not Murray's fault that his body routinely fails him. Injuries happen. But from a reptilian, asset-focused perspective, using his salary to pay multiple assets who will at least play the majority of the schedule might be the best bet.
3. Petr Mrazek - Toronto Maple Leafs
- Contract: 2 years left, $3.8 million AAV
- 2021-22 Stat Line: 20 GP, 12-6-0, 3.34 GAA, .888 Sv%
- Buyout Cap Hit: $1.033 million (2022-23), $833,33 (2023-24), $1.433 million (2024-25), $1.433 (2025-26)
It's difficult to imagine a way in which Petr Mrazek's first season in Toronto could have possibly gone worse.
The 30-year-old spent his 2021-22 season being either injured or bad, often putting together a combination of the two that produced some disastrous results. In 20 appearances, Mrazek mustered a brutal .888 save percentage and an even worse -9.6 goals-saved-above-average -- each among the bottom of any goalie with at least 15 games played league-wide.
The worst part is that he didn't even end the season healthy, going down with a serious groin injury during the final stretch, never to return.
With a number of crucial roster decisions to make this offseason, shedding even a fraction of the $3.8 million owed to Mrazek in each of the next two years should seem pretty tantalizing to Toronto.
Buying out the remainder of Mrazek's deal will certainly help in the short term, giving the notoriously capped-out Maple Leafs an extra $2.667 million in 2022-23, and $2.967 in 2023-24. Beyond that, though, this could be a tough pill to swallow, with Mrazek's $1.433 million in buyout penalties being shackled to their cap until 2026. And given how the Maple Leafs only just stopped paying Phil Kessel, who hasn't played for the team since 2015, $1.2 million in retained salary, it's fair to wonder just how eager Kyle Dubas will be to staple another chunk of dead cash to his books after barely getting out from under the last one.
Then again, Mrazek's future seems untenable in Toronto. The organization doesn't trust him to stay healthy or perform at an NHL level, and his cap hit is far too big for a team with such tight margins to pay.
If Mrazek is still injured, LTIR might be another way out. But doing so will prevent the Leafs from accruing cap space throughout the regular season, which has been a hole they've fallen into in years past to dicey results.
I don't envy the person who needs to make this decision. But it's one that has to be made nonetheless.
2. Duncan Keith - Edmonton Oilers
-Contract: 1 year left, $5.5 million AAV
-2021-22 Stat Line: 64 GP, 1 goal, 20 assists, 21 points, 19:44 TOI
- Buyout Cap Hit: $4,538,462 (2022-23), $500,000 (2023-24)
Honestly, Keith just might retire this offseason, which would save the Oilers the massive headache of buying him out.
It's clear Keith isn't a top-four NHL defenseman anymore. The 38-year-old looked at least one step behind in his first season in Edmonton, showing the age and toll that his lengthy career has taken on him on a nightly basis. If Keith can't give you top-four minutes, a team like the Oilers, who are so tight against the cap already, can't pay him top-four money.
But the savings they would get from buying the veteran out would, quite frankly, not be worth it. Due to Keith's age at the time of this hypothetical buyout, the Oilers would be on the hook for two-thirds of his cap hit for the 2022-23 season, essentially shackling $4,538,462 in dead money to their books in order to get rid of him.
At that price, why not just keep him?
While Keith isn't the asset he once was -- far from it, in fact -- the Oilers would at least be putting an actual body in their lineup at an admittedly hefty price instead of jettisoning him for just $1 million in cap savings.
It's a tough situation for Ken Holland to wade through, and makes his decision to not force the Blackhawks to retain any salary on Keith when he acquired him look even worse, but at the very least he can still fill a lineup spot. And if that's where the bar is, the Oilers can clear it by keeping him around.
1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic - San Jose Sharks
- Contract: 4 years left, $7 million AAV
- 2021-22 Stat Line: 75 GP, 3 goals, 11 assists, 14 points, 15:13 TOI
- Buyout Cap Hit: $3.678 million (2022-23), $1.437 million (2023-24), $4.187 million (2024-25), $5.187 million (2025-26), $1.687 million (2026-2030)
Arguably the worst contract in the entire league, Marc-Edouard Vlasic's deal is without a doubt the top buyout candidate heading into the offseason.
And it sure is a doozy.
Vlasic was once one of the top defensive blueliners in the NHL, giving the Sharks a tremendous shutdown presence and elite penalty killer to anchor their D corps. Then they signed him to an eight-year contract extension while Vlasic was on the wrong side of 30, with everyone knowing full well he would not play through the end of it.
So, here we are.
Age and injuries have rendered Vlasic below replacement level for at least the past two seasons. And at $7 million against the cap for the next four years, keeping his deal on the books is simply an untenable situation, especially for a Sharks team with a whole host of other hefty contracts weighing them down, as well. Buying Vlasic out won't be painless. His dead money will be strapped to San Jose's cap through the end of the decade, with his buyout penalty reaching a whopping $5.187 million in 2025.
But getting at least some relief in the near future might be crucial to the Sharks' odds of clawing their way back to respectability. The roughly $4 million in relief they'll get next season if they pull the trigger will help quite a bit, while also opening up a spot on their blueline to be occupied by a young player with a stake in the team's future.
It's a shame that it had to end this way for Vlasic. But based on his current status, it's hard to think of another way out.