NHL buyout window opens: 13 top candidates

Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello talks about the Leafs plan, why P. A. Parenteau and Leo Komarov didn't get moved, plus the news of buying out Jared Cowen in the summer.

Painfully under-performing players, cumbersome contracts and a “relatively flat” 2016-17 salary cap got you down?

Fear not, National Hockey League general managers. The annual buyout window will soon give you an easy out.

All you have to do is convince your team’s owner to shell out millions of dollars over multiple years for a hockey player to not play for his franchise.

Yes, the NHL buyout period opens Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET and runs to the same time on June 30. Those bought out will become unrestricted free agents and will not be able to sign with the team that paid them to go away.

Buyouts are paid over twice the number of years remaining on the player’s contract. The rate is one-third of the total remaining salary for players under age 26. Two-thirds for those 26 and older.

Players still recovering from injuries incurred during the regular season cannot be bought out.

A new wrinkle could be a factor for this summer’s buyout candidates, however. With an expansion draft expected in one year’s time, some teams may hold onto an otherwise undesirable roster player with a plan to expose him in the 2017 expansion draft — effectively shedding his contract or protecting a player they don’t want drafted away. The expansion draft consideration does not apply to buyout candidates with just one year left on their contract, of course.

“You have to be prepared in the event that happens,” Flames general manager Brad Treliving said Monday of expansion. “Those are all things you have to be prepared for and get ahead of.”

Plenty of player movement is expected this month. Here are 13 guys who should be at least considered for buyout.

Jared Cowen, one year, $4.5 million

This one is inevitable. Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello announced back at the February trade deadline that he would be buying out Cowen, 25, who was part of winter’s Dion Phaneuf blockbuster but never seriously considered in the Leafs’ grand plan to take over the world.

Due to Cowen’s interesting contract quirk, explained here, Toronto will actually get a rare salary cap credit of $650,000 in 2016-17 for buying him out and assume a hit of $750,000 in 2017-18.

Bryan Bickell, one year, $4.5 million

Due in part to the significant long-term commitments made to superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the summer of 2014, the Blackhawks are still feeling a cap crunch. Chicago tried unsuccessfully to move Bickell mid-season. The highly paid winger passed through waivers untouched and is now labelled an injury risk. Although the big 30-year-old failed to score a goal in 25 NHL games this season, he did put up 31 points in 47 AHL games with Rockford. That Bickell’s cap hit ($4 million) is lower than his salary, and that he’s now on an expiring contract, could help facilitate a package trade. Either way, we’d be shocked to see him in Chicago this September.

“We have a lot of options with players. Buyout is one of them,” GM Stan Bowman said at the end of the season when asked about Bickell.

Update: Bowman traded Bickell in a package deal to Carolina on June 15. Expect Bickell to not be bought out and instead get a legitimate second chance with the Hurricanes, who needed to take on salary in order to reach the cap floor.

Kari Lehtonen, two years, $11 million

…Or Antti Niemi, who has two years and $9 million left on his deal. Together, the Finnish veterans form the NHL’s most expensive goaltending tandem at a $10.4-million annual salary cap hit, despite putting up mediocre numbers.

As for Lehtonen, the Stars’ playoff goaltender of choice, GM Jim Nill told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman this on June 1: “No, we’re not buying him out. That last game is not a full reflection of the season. Nobody remembers the game before where he stood on his head. He’s disappointed, and the team is disappointed. We finished second overall, and everybody is focused on the playoffs. Something went right, too. You’ve got to be careful.”

Nill has said he won’t buy out Niemi either and that he’s preparing to stick with his duo for 2016-17. Still, we expect Dallas to at least explore the possibility of improving a crease that ranked fourth-worst in even-strength save percentage.

Andrew Ference, one year, $3.25 million

The Oilers may have regrets for not buying out the former captain last summer, and injury could prevent Edmonton from buying him out this time. Ference has a no-move clause and is on the books at $3.25 million for 2016-17. His 2015-16 stat line: six games played, zero points, minus-4.

You cannot buy out an injured player, so if Ference — who underwent season-ending hip surgery in January — is unable to pass a physical, the Oilers could simply let him run out his contract on long-term injured reserve and not worry about his cap hit.

Dave Bolland, three years, $16.5 million

Healthy-scratched, waived, forgotten and injured, Bolland carries a $5.5-million cap hit for three more seasons. Steep price for a forward who scored all of one goal in 27 NHL and AHL games last season.

Florida’s new management appears to be clearing space by dumping Marc Savard’s cap hit. Could Bolland be next?

Well, Bolland hasn’t played since Dec. 12 and is dealing with a lower-body injury. Sportsnet has learned that Bolland did not pass his physical. This would make him ineligible for buyout. The Panthers might slot him into Savard’s vacated spot on LTIR instead.

The Panthers, through a spokesperson, had “no comment at this time” on Bolland’s situation when reached Tuesday.

Dustin Brown, six years, $32.5 million

Lots of dollars and term committed here — the side effect of modern championship teams. Captain Dustin Brown ($5.875-million cap hit) is on the books through 2022, and he’s now five years removed from his most recent 20-goal season. He only scored 11 in each of the past two campaigns.

GM Dean Lombardi regretted not buying out Mike Richards one year before he parted ways with that player, so you have to wonder if he’ll be eager to clear Brown off the books now (even though that will be expensive) or hope he is selected in the expansion draft.

Brown’s contract makes him nearly untradeable, and he was stripped of his captaincy after the Kings’ first-round playoff exit.

Thomas Vanek, one year, $7.5 million

Upon Minnesota’s elimination from the playoffs, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said it was “way premature” to talk about a buyout of Vanek, who was sidelined the entire postseason due to injury.

“I thought Thomas in October and November was arguably our best forward – or certainly played as well as anybody on our team. He seemed to lose confidence. But I thought he really shot the puck well and did a lot of great things early.

“He’s a goal scorer and we need to find a way to score more goals,” Fletcher added. “Our cap situation is much better this year…. I’m much more comfortable with our flexibility this year than last year. It’s going to give us more options.”

Vanek, who holds a no-move clause, scored 18 goals in 74 games this season, the lowest total of his NHL career. He went goal-free in his final 14 games.

Smart bet: Fletcher looks to Bruce Boudreau and the Wild’s overhauled coaching staff to reinvigorate the declining sniper.

“If Chuck knew he was going to buy him out by now, I think I would know by now,” agent Steve Bartlett told the Star Tribune Wednesday. “I do think I have a good enough relationship that he’d give me the heads up. Now that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t decide something different between now and two weeks from now.”

R.J. Umberger, one year, $4.5 million

The 34-year-old Umberger is a 20-goal winger five times over, but his production fell off a cliff after he left Columbus and returned to Philadelphia in 2014. Last season he scored just two goals in playing only 39 games. Yikes.

Umberger holds a no-move clause and the Flyers will be tight against the cap in 2016-17. Defenceman Andrew MacDonald, a $5-million player who spent the bulk of last season in the AHL, could be a buyout candidate here, too.

Alexandre Burrows, one year, $3 million

A disappointing season for the Canucks included Burrows’ failure to reach the 10-goal mark — not good enough for a winger making top-six dollars. The veteran admitted that it’s “just a matter of time” before he’s no longer needed in Vancouver.

Eric Nystrom, one year, $3 million

Predators GM David Poile let it be known in May that Nystrom will not be back in Nashville next season, despite having one season left on his deal. A trade is always preferable, of course, but if Poile can’t arrange one, expect a buyout. A Nystrom buyout would hit up Nashville’s cap to the tune of $500,000 in 2016-17 and $1 million in 2017-18.

Fedor Tyutin, two years, $8.75 million

The Blue Jackets’ off-season should be a busy one. Defenceman Tyutin (three points in 61 games) was a big disappointment and sometime healthy scratch. He carries a $4.5-million cap hit for two more years.

The underwhelming David Clarkson, whose production has fallen off a cliff since leaving New Jersey in the summer of 2013, is a candidate here, too. His cap hit is $5.25 million and runs through 2019-20.

There should be a market for Scott Hartnell ($4.75-million cap hit), who reportedly would be open to a trade. All three players carry a no-move clause and Columbus is fairly tight to the cap.

The Blue Jackets’ top priority is locking up RFA Seth Jones, their No. 1 defenceman for the future, and will need to free up space somewhere.

Dennis Wideman, one year, $6 million

Calgary has more cap space than most, but the Flames’ list of players in need of a raise is a long one: Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Joe Colborne, and Joni Ortio. Oh, yeah, and they still need to hire a goalie.

If GM Brad Treliving has difficulty squeezing everyone in, a buyout of Wideman — whom he reportedly tried to trade mid-season — remains an option. Wideman, 33, has a no-move clause and makes more money than the excellent T.J. Brodie.

Chris Higgins, one year, $2.5 million

In one of 2015-16’s most bizarre press releases, Canucks GM Jim Benning made it public that he was searching for a trade partner for Higgins. The fact Higgins wasn’t traded tells you a little something about the market for a winger who registered just four points in 33 games last season and got demoted to the AHL.

Vancouver is expected to take a run at a big-ticket free agent winger such as Loui Eriksson or Milan Lucic, and may wish to free up some cap space.

Some technical rules around the NHL buyout, via the excellent General Fanager:

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