The Buffalo Sabres announced this morning that they have signed defenseman Justin Falk to a one-year extension. Falk had been set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, after signing a one-year, one-way deal with Buffalo on July 1st last year. The extension is identical to Falk’s current contract, carrying a $650K cap hit for next season and no additional bonuses or clauses.
Falk has had a much greater role in Buffalo this season than many expected. Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Sabres had a solid six-man defensive lineup featuring the newly-acquired Dmitry Kulikov alongside Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Ristolainen, Josh Gorges, Cody Franson, and Jake McCabe. Additionally, highly-touted college free agent Casey Nelson was expected to be the next man up. Arguably one of the deepest defensive units in the NHL did not hold up for very long. Injuries set in early in the season, resulting in Kulikov, Bogosian, and Gorges missing a combined 63 man-games (so far). Ristolainen is the only Sabres defenseman to have played in all 51 of the team’s games to date, while Franson and McCabe have been missed very few contests, but Buffalo has faced difficulties making up for the damage to their blue line. Nelson struggled when called upon, and stepping in to take a somewhat permanent spot on the team’s bottom pair was Falk. The 28-year-old, who has bounced back-and-forth between the NHL and AHL for seven years, was added this off-season for veteran depth in the minors, but has surprised with his pro-caliber confidence. Just 12 games away from matching his career high, Falk has played in 35 contests this season and has saved the Sabres with his ability to fit in well as the stay-at-home defenseman of the group. Although he has just four assists and averages just 13:11 in ice time, Falk has been defensively sound and is playing perhaps the most physical, shut-down style of his career. In appreciation of his efforts, Buffalo has rewarded the blue liner with a new contract.
Like nearly all in-season extensions this year, the deal also carries some Expansion Draft significance. Teams have been very wary of the their player eligibility for the upcoming draft this June, and the Sabres are no different. Buffalo had four players that met the exposure requirement of one defenseman with term remaining on his contract that has played 40 games this season or 70 games over the past two seasons: Bogosian, Ristolainen, McCabe, and Gorges. The Sabres will protect three of those players and leave one available to the Vegas Golden Knights. The youngters Ristolainen and McCabe will surely be protected and, unless he is traded, so will Bogosian. However, the extension for Falk gives the team even more flexibility approaching the Trade Deadline. Assuming Falk plays in five more games this season, his extension now adds him to the list of exposure qualifiers. The Sabres have been playing better of late, but a playoff berth still seems like a long shot. If they decide to make a big move and trade Bogosian, or better yet, can find a take for Gorges final year, they no longer have to hesitate on pulling the trigger. Falk is a harmless selection for exposure; both highly unlikely to be picked and not much of a loss if he is.