As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look towards the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The first batch of Offseason Primers will feature Atlantic Division squads. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the Buffalo Sabres offseason.
Buffalo Sabres Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
The Sabres are for sure a team in limbo. They’ve failed to live up to expectations for multiple seasons in a row, and continually fail to exit the ‘rebuild’ stage of a return to contention. So, depending on how you look at it, it’s either a blessing or a curse that the Sabres have an insanely large amount of expiring contracts on their hands. Highlighting their UFA class are names like Wayne Simmonds and Jimmy Vesey. Their other UFAs are Michael Frolik, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Vladimir Sobotka, Matt Hunwick, Scott Wilson, Dalton Smith, Casey Nelson, John Gilmour, and, incredibly, ‘The Hamburglar’ Andrew Hammond. Taylor Leier is also a Group Six UFA.
Some bigger names pop up when looking at the Sabres’ RFAs. There are some crucial pieces for the future up for new deals, including two-thirds of their first line in Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart, who are both eligible for arbitration. Other arbitration-eligible RFAs include Dominik Kahun, Curtis Lazar, Brandon Montour, Linus Ullmark, Andrew Oglevie, Remi Elie, Brandon Hickey, and Jonas Johansson. RFAs not eligible for arbitration are Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt, and Matthew Spencer.
It certainly looks to be an extremely hectic first summer on the job for general manager Kevyn Adams, as he’s faced with an incredible hurdle of building a playoff team under short notice.
Salary Cap Outlook
Due to all the expiring contracts on their hands, CapFriendly.com gives the Sabres roughly $34.48 million in salary-cap space. That dissipates extremely quickly though when you have the likes of Reinhart and Olofsson to sign. And considering they’re both arbitration-eligible, the team may not have the final say on their salaries.
Once a promising young piece on the Anaheim Ducks‘ blueline, Montour’s stock took a nosedive this year in Buffalo. He averaged the least ice time per game in a full season of his career, only getting 19:30 a night. His offensive numbers were down too, only posting 18 points after seeing two consecutive 30-plus point years. It was clear the fit wasn’t right in Buffalo, so Adams will likely view him as a trade chip in order to refresh the Sabres’ roster or gain draft capital at October’s NHL Entry Draft.
Acquired with the hopes of boosting the Sabres’ penalty kill, Frolik instead continued with the worst season of his career. A wily veteran with 850 NHL games, Frolik’s play took a nosedive this year as well. After being traded to the Sabres from the Calgary Flames, Frolik only scored one goal in 19 games and made a little-to-no impact on the team. Considering reports that he already has KHL contract offers, it’s likely Frolik’s NHL career is over.
Vesey’s first season in Buffalo did not go as planned. After three 15-goal seasons with the New York Rangers, Vesey, like many others, crashed and burned in Buffalo. With only 20 points, he was an okay middle-six piece but is likely a casualty of a major roster refresh coming this summer. If the Sabres truly intend on contending, they need to focus on bringing in a less stagnant breed of player that has a higher ceiling.
Simmonds, like Frolik, was a mid-season acquisition by Buffalo that failed to pay dividends. Simmonds went goalless in a seven-game period with Buffalo, and showed no indication that he meshed with the team in any manner. While Simmonds likely won’t head overseas just yet, the fit just wasn’t there in Buffalo. Simmonds likely is bound to a contender in need of some fourth-line grit.
Reinhart presents himself as a core piece of this Sabres team, and there’s no situation in which the team would let this 24-year-old walk. A long-term deal seems to be in both sides’ best interest, as Reinhart has certainly proven himself with three consecutive 50-plus-point campaigns. Evolving-Hockey’s (EH) contract projection tool (subscription required) pegs a long-term eight-year deal at an AAV of $8.74 million. While that seems like a lot of cash, Reinhart has proven his upward trajectory. He netted 65 points in a full season in 2018–19 and still managed to net 50 points in an abbreviated regular season this year. Buffalo needs him, and they’ll shell out the cash. This still leaves the Sabres with a healthy $25.74 million in space to mess with.
While not as proven as Reinhart, Olofsson showed mounds of potential in a top-line role for the Sabres this year. The Swedish rookie, albeit 24 years old, managed 42 points in 54 games, a stellar performance. That production isn’t going to come cheap, but since the Sabres haven’t seen a long history of NHL production from him, they likely won’t offer a long-term deal. That’s why despite EH’s projection of a four-year term, a two-year bridge deal will be factored in for this calculation. For that contract length, EH projects a cap hit of $3.05 million. It’s fair to Olofsson so he can cash out big in two years, while it’s low-risk for the Sabres in case Olofsson crashes and burns.
Taking Olofsson’s deal into account, the Sabres still have a healthy cap cushion of $22.69 million after taking care of their two big signings.
Formerly a German star overseas, Kahun shined nicely in a short six-game stint with the Sabres. While he spent most of the year with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 24-year-old showed what he could do in a limited time, posting four points in those six games. He’s another young player that could factor in as a middle-six piece for quite some time in Buffalo, and competent depth scoring is a must-have in this league. EH projects a fair bridge deal for two years with a $2.91 million cap hit. Buffalo still has $19.78 million to spend at this point, but they still have a lot of roster holes to fill.
Everybody needs a fourth-line centre, and Larsson was one of the few players on the Sabres this year who excelled in his assigned role. A solid defensive centre, Larsson deserves a future in Buffalo as they try and shift towards a contending attitude. He’s not dead weight and actually looks to benefit and provide the team with stability through the next few years. Solid bottom-six players will make solid bottom-six money, as EH projects a four-year deal at $2.93 million a season. It’s a fair price to pay, and it’s an opportunity Buffalo likely takes advantage of to retain a sound fourth-line centre. Buffalo still has $16.85 million in free money to play around with.
Potential Free Agent Additions
After re-signing goalie Linus Ullmark and re-singing some other depth to fill out the roster, it’s likely Buffalo ends up with around $10 million in cap space entering free agency. If the team wishes to prioritize futures instead of contending next season, it seems as though they’d set aside roster space for either Mittelstadt or Dylan Cozens or both to jump in. Defencemen like Henri Jokiharju will be looking for a bigger role. However, if Buffalo wants to look at a playoff spot here, they need more NHL bodies. With this kind of cap capital (no pun intended), they’ll be able to attract a couple of nice pieces.
In terms of more forward depth, they could look at bringing in either Vladislav Namestnikov or Erik Haula. EH projects both to receive four-year deals for a little over $4 million a season on the open market. Both Namestnikov and Haula can effectively carry themselves playing in a top-six role, and, more importantly, could form chemistry with Jeff Skinner. Namestnikov and Haula can also play both wing and centre, making them an ideal tool for coach Ralph Krueger to play with. If they can bring in a player that will provide some more production but also spark the albatross Skinner, it would be worth the Sabres’ investment.
On the back end, the Sabres could also look at bringing in Justin Schultz. The current Penguins d-man has a nice history of offensive success and could eat up some of Rasmus Ristolainen‘s minutes. Emerging star Rasmus Dahlin could slot in on Schultz’s left side, while Ristolainen may be more effective in a sheltered role.
Whether Buffalo decides to continue their slowly simmering rebuild or gun for a playoff spot is unknown, but no matter what, the Sabres have a crucial and hectic offseason coming their way.
Check out the other Offseason Primers for the Atlantic Division:
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