As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Buffalo Sabres offseason.
Buffalo Sabres Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
As somewhat of a surprise, the Sabres were the worst team in the league this season, and their record shows that it wasn’t particularly close. Their 15-34-7 record was equivalent to a ghastly .330 points percentage. Capped by a historic 18-game losing streak, the team will likely be looking at a lot of turnover this offseason. Most of the Sabres’ unrestricted free agents were veterans brought along on one-year deals, but there are some more important names, too. Their list includes Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark, Jake McCabe, Tobias Rieder, Drake Caggiula, Riley Sheahan, Matt Irwin, Steven Fogarty, Jean-Sebastien Dea, and Michael Houser. C.J. Smith is a Group VI UFA.
General manager Kevyn Adams‘ attention will likely fall more on Buffalo’s younger restricted free agents, though. That slate of names is highlighted by Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin and is also made up of Henri Jokiharju, Casey Mittelstadt, Will Borgen, Rasmus Asplund, Stefanos Lekkas, Casey Fitzgerald, and Dawson DiPietro.
Salary Cap Outlook
Like you’d expect for a team of their lowly stature, Buffalo enters the 2021 offseason with a sweet pile of salary cap space. CapFriendly pegs the team at a current $48.9 million hit for next season, giving the team $32.6 million in open space. It gives Buffalo more than enough flexibility to make adjustments and retain their younger talent.
Major Likely Departures
While this series really won’t focus on trades, this departure just seems so obvious that we can’t leave it out. Eichel, Buffalo’s captain, missed the majority of this season with a neck injury. The franchise centre had 18 points in 21 games this season but scored just two goals as he and the entire team struggled offensively. Since that point, the relationship between Eichel and the front office has deteriorated considerably. With controversy over the treatment of injury, coupled with the Sabres firing a head coach with whom he got along, Buffalo will likely be trading away their captain in a huge deal this summer.
We’ll speculate on a how possible return could impact the team later, but for now, an Eichel deal would give Buffalo an additional $10 million to work with in cap space. It would bring Buffalo’s total working cap space this offseason to $42.6 million.
McCabe was another player for Buffalo whose season was marred by injury. He started the season on a pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen and was arguably the Sabres’ best defensive player. Per MoneyPuck.com, the McCabe-Ristolainen pairing posted a 56.8 percent expected goals for, the best on the team this season among qualified defence pairings. With McCabe in the lineup, Buffalo most certainly wins more hockey games this season. It’s that simple.
However, McCabe’s hot start this year didn’t go unnoticed, and even with his injury, teams will be very interested in his services this offseason. Buffalo is beginning to develop other young left-shot defencemen to serve behind Rasmus Dahlin, and McCabe would be taking a lineup spot away from one of them. Mattias Samuelsson will likely be an everyday NHLer next season, as would presumptive first-overall pick Owen Power. McCabe isn’t good enough to demand a spot in the lineup over younger development, but he’s too good to be healthy scratched. He’ll move elsewhere in free agency.
Signed to be a stopgap solution until Linus Ullmark was ready, Hutton did just that. The problem is that once Ullmark showed promise, Hutton’s performance struggled mightily. He did okay his first season in Buffalo, posting 18 wins and a .908 save percentage. However, a pair of sub-.900 seasons coupled with multiple injury issues tanked Hutton’s reliability, creating issues for Buffalo in the net. Now 35 years old, it’s likely that Hutton could be done in the NHL after a pair of subpar performances. He likely won’t be back with the team and they’ll look externally for goalie help once again.
Major Likely Re-Signings
While there have also been rumours surrounding a Reinhart trade, it’s not nearly as sure of a deal as Eichel. Considering Reinhart’s RFA status, even a sign-and-trade could be in the cards, but for now, considering he has very few other options, we’ll assume Reinhart stays.
He was a bright spot this year, moving to centre after Eichel’s injury. He proceeded to have the best goal-scoring season of his career, tying his career-high of 25 in just 54 contests. His season total of 40 points means that Reinhart’s never had worse than a 40-point year in a full season. Evolving-Hockey.com predicts a Reinhart extension at around $7 million for five seasons. Considering his 60-plus point upside and improving talent, it seems like a reasonable bet for a Buffalo team with little else to build around. It should be a good deal if they retain him. It would leave them with around $35.5 million in cap space.
The first-overall pick hasn’t dazzled out of the gate like some expected but is still moving forward on his track to stardom. He flourished at the end of this season under interim coach Don Granato, who the Sabres will hopefully retain. He should see elevated responsibility next season in a system better suited to his style of play, and a breakout season could come. For this reason, the Sabres will likely offer a long-term (but not max) deal to Dahlin which could pay off in spades at the end of the deal. Evolving-Hockey projects a six-year, $36 million contract for Dahlin, carrying an average annual value of $6 million. It still leaves Buffalo with $29.5 million in space and allows them to retain a potentially elite defender at value.
Now 27, Ullmark, a former sixth-round selection, has improved with every season in the NHL. Now being on the Sabres’ full-time roster for three consecutive seasons, Ullmark was still able to post a .917 save percentage on a pretty porous Buffalo team this year. Ullmark saved -3.6 goals above expected per MoneyPuck this season, about middle-of-the-pack among goalies to play in at least 20 games. Struggling through injuries as well, it was a step forward for the goalie overall. The Sabres will want to invest money in his services, and they’ll likely give Ullmark an offer for around three years in the $4 million range. It still puts Buffalo in an acceptable money position with roughly $25 million in cap room.
The former Portland Winterhawk took defensive strides this season and projects to slot into Buffalo’s lineup yet again next season. He’s been a positive possession influence on the team, especially when paired with fellow Euro Rasmus Dahlin. A potential long-term top-four option, Evolving-Hockey projects a two-year pact for ‘Joki’ to the tune of $2.5 million, leaving Buffalo with roughly $22.5 million in space.
Another young high draft pick, Mittelstadt showed his first real promise in the NHL this season with 22 points in 41 games. Averaging nearly 16 minutes a night, it appears as though Mittelstadt will be full-time in the NHL from here on out, likely as a middle-six piece next season. Evolving-Hockey projects a bridge deal of around $2 million for two more seasons, still leaving the Sabres with around $21 million in space.
A 23-year-old former second-round selection, Asplund’s second go of it in the league this season turned out much better than his 2019-20 campaign. He netted seven goals and 11 points in 28 games, on pace for 32 over a full season. He’ll continue to develop into a solid third- or even second-line winger for the Sabres, and another bridge deal around a million dollars or less is likely for the Swede. It’ll leave Buffalo with over $20 million in cap space heading into free agency.
Potential Free Agent Additions
The Jack Eichel Return
Let’s start with what could be the return in the Eichel deal. Per OddsShark.com, the New York Rangers currently hold the best odds to acquire the centre. Outside of the monstrous amounts of picks and prospects it’ll take to acquire him, Ryan Strome would likely be a roster player headed the other way. It would give Buffalo a Reinhart/Strome punch down the middle, something that’s not too shabby. It would also add $4.5 million in salary, giving Buffalo roughly $16 million left to work with.
The Free Agents
Buffalo will also likely be looking to add one defenceman on the right side to help bolster their depth. Options are limited, but they could look at a name like Jamie Oleksiak. His playoff performance from 2020 still impresses in the eyes of GMs, and it would likely cost another $4 million (per Evolving-Hockey) to land him. With around $20 million left, Buffalo likely turns their eyes to netminders. They’ll be looking to give Ullmark the starting role, so a backup with strong numbers makes the most sense. Laurent Brossoit seems like a good option here. He’s been a reliable relief goalie for Connor Hellebuyck for multiple seasons in Winnipeg, and his consistent high .910 and low .920 numbers suggest he deserves a chance elsewhere. He’ll probably command around $2 million on a short term deal, leaving the Sabres with $18 million.
From here, Buffalo looks to get some depth on the wings. It’s not a necessity, but they’ll need to create a much more competitive atmosphere in order to propel this team’s young stars forward. Some solid middle-six names would be available in the $2-4 million range, including Mattias Janmark, Ryan Dzingel, and Brock McGinn.
How Kevyn Adams reshapes this team remains to be seen. It’ll be a busy and scrutinized Buffalo Sabres offseason in northern New York.
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