We will be entering the sixth season since the Sabres bottomed out with 52 points at the end of the 2013-14 season. Not exactly the five-year plan many envisioned when we kicked off the tank. But now, we have more young talent knocking on the NHL door and a big-time blue line reinforcement on the way from Frolunda in Rasmus Dahlin. Casey Mittelstadt will also see the NHL full-time next year, and Sam Reinhart showed everyone after the new year last season why he was a former number two overall pick. Unfortunately, the day is eventually going to come when we are going to have to pay many of these guys.
Every move made by the Sabres has to be carefully planned. We know that a lot can happen in five years, and while it’s near impossible to predict what roster moves the Sabres will make for trades or free agency, we could get an idea of what it will cost to keep many key players. This in turn could give us an idea of what we might be able to do with the roster going forward.
Over the next couple years, the moves that the Sabres make in free agency will have to take into consideration how much money will be allocated to several key young players who could see substantial raises. But just how much money will be tied up in a few years?
To answer this question, we will take a look at a handful of both younger and more seasoned players in the organization who will be owning larger contracts in five years. Some of these guys are near locks to be here, while others may be more questionable.
The core group contracts
There is not much to say about Jack Eichel here. He’s the franchise cornerstone and locked down tight for the next eight years in Buffalo. Looking at him down the road, we will see a 26-year-old Jack Eichel that will be five years into his eight-year extension. His no-movement clause kicks in around this time. He should be the Sabres captain by this point if not much sooner.
2022-23 Cap Hit: 10 million
There is a lot more to say about Sam Reinhart. What will Sam Reinhart get for an extension? I’m going to guess six to seven years, and somewhere around 36 to 49 million. This gives us a cap hit of around six to seven million per season, and I think it will be closer to six. A six or seven-year deal will allow him to get one more big, lengthy deal worth even more money down the road before he is 29 years old.
Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets was also apart of the 2014 draft class and signed a seven-year, 42 million contract back in October. Ehlers was coming off a 64 point sophomore campaign when he signed. Reinhart is not too far behind Ehlers in terms of career production, although Ehlers has been more consistent in his career.
2022-23 cap hit: 6.0- 6.5 million (estimate)
After his fourth year in the league, I have Dahlin as one of the highest paid defenders in the game right away, if he lives up to the hype of course. I just want to throw some food for thought at the people who are hoping the Sabres go hard after John Tavares. If the Sabres somehow managed to land him, they would likely be the first team in the league to pay three players ten million or more which means even if they could pull it off, there is no way both Kyle Okposo and Ryan O’Reilly see the end of their deals in Buffalo.
A three-year entry-level deal for Dahlin will likely put him in line for a new contract in the summer of 2021, and he will likely be locked up in the same manner that Eichel was. A lot will change in five years, the market will likely rise even more especially with a new Seattle franchise on the horizon. As of right now, P.K. Subban owns the highest cap hit for a defenseman in the league at nine million. Next in line is Brent Burns at eight million. With big name defensemen such as John Carlson and Erik Karlsson poised to hit the free agent market over the next two summers, there is a good chance that one of them will challenge for the highest paid defender in the league. Dahlin will also challenge for that title as soon as his entry-level deal is up.
2022-23 cap hit: 9.0-11.0 million (estimate)
Mittelstadt will be a focal point of the Sabres going forward as one of the organization’s most hyped prospects. If he produces like Kyle Connor has in Winnipeg, he could easily net seven million by the time his first deal is up if he’s as advertised. Mittelstadt will see his first opportunity at a bigger paycheck for the 2020-21 season. Casey Mittelstadt’s entry-level deal will expire just one year before Rasmus Dahlin’s potential expiration, and this two year period is when the cap will need to be carefully planned for.
2022-23 cap hit: 6.0- 7.0 million (estimate)
The contracts that may or may not be here
Ristolainen’s current deal is up in 2022 just one year after Dahlin’s entry-level deal should be up and the question is, will he still be on the Sabres at this point? If so, he could be in line for anywhere between seven to eight million a year in cap hits. I know that sounds like a lot, but the market will likely continue to rise and that is also the going rate for a 40 point, right shot defender. The only reason I am putting Ristolainen in this “maybe” category is that he is mentioned in his fair share of trade rumors. If he is not apart of a trade to shake up the core and stays long term, then he probably gets around seven million plus annually.
2022-23 cap hit: 7.0-8.0 million (estimate)
Many are hoping Ryan O’Reilly is not on the roster by this point, but as of right now he is a player who could factor into the long-term plans, or simply be traded. In five years, he will be in the final year of his contract that he signed when he arrived in Buffalo. A Ryan O’Reilly trade is a strong possibility but the question is, when?
It may not be this summer, and the team could decide it’s best to keep O’Reilly for one more year and then trade him next year. He still does help the team in the short term and gives the Sabres three solid centerman next year. It’s hard to imagine the Sabres not being better next year with O’Reilly, Eichel, and Mittelstadt down the middle.
There is some risk to keeping him. Right now O’Reilly has a lot of value and the Sabres have opportunities to get out from under the final five years of his deal. If the Sabres keep O’Reilly next year and he has a bad year, there’s a possibility that he becomes untradeable with four years left, It’s unlikely that O’Reilly would be that bad next year and I expect another strong 50-60 point season, but that need scenario also needs to be considered as well.
2022-23 cap hit: 7.5 million (final year)
A concern for Okposo is his deal becoming a bad contract. If this ends up being the case, it’s important to be aware of ways to get out from under it. The Seattle franchise could serve as a potential out for the Okposo deal if they do enter the league by 2020. Vegas received a first round pick (24th overall) for the next three years of Clarkson’s deal. That could be the price to dump off Okposo if he becomes a bad contract.
If the Sabres choose to hold onto him and buy him out in the last year of his deal, his buyout cap hit would cost them 3.3 million, and 1.3 million respectively over two years. A buyout for Okposo is an option if the cap space is needed, but that is not a reasonable option until he is in the final year of his deal. They also could simply just try to trade the last year of his deal when the time comes for something around a second round pick.
I’ll be surprised if Okposo is still on the roster at this point, as well as producing at a high level. He will be 34 years old, and if he is still a top-six player at this point, it will be very impressive on his part. It’s nothing against Okposo, but father time is never generous to many players, and neither is a history of concussions.
2022-23 cap hit: 6 million (final year)
Jake McCabe has one year left on his deal which is an RFA expiry status, and it’s a bargain with a 1.6 million cap hit. On most teams, I think McCabe is a borderline second pair, or a solid third pair similar to a player like Ian Cole. I could see him getting another short-term deal at that point and he could easily get into the three million range for a cap hit.
McCabe could also breakout next year becoming a very good top four defenseman which would earn him a long-term extension. He’s still relatively young and talented, and he will be only 25 when next season starts. Five years down the road, McCabe could likely be on a contract worth double what he’s making now, and the question is could that deal be in Buffalo?
2022-23 cap hit: 3.5-4.5 million (estimated)
Goaltending: Ullmark, Lehner, Ukko?
This is one of the toughest positions to project, mainly because there are a lot of different scenarios in play here. Going into next season in regards to Linus Ullmark and Robin Lehner, the riskiest thing the Sabres could do going forward is to have Ullmark be the unquestioned starter. If Robin Lehner is not here next season, they should at least bring in a veteran like Cam Ward, Carter Hutton, or Kari Lehtonen to compete for the job.
If Ullmark reaches his potential over the next five years and really takes hold of the starting job, he will be paid like a starting goaltender. By then, I also expect to see Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen work his way into the Sabres system and he hopefully should be on the Sabres roster by then as a backup. But if Ullmark, Lehner, and Luukkonen all fail, it could be another future unknown goaltender who is occupying that cap space.
Maybe it’s someone like Phillipp Grubauer or Charlie Lindgren. Maybe it’s an established veteran like Marc Andre-Fleury in 2019 when he’s a UFA, or Braden Holtby via trade. Either way, I am planning for worse case scenario in terms of goaltender money.
2022-23 cap hit:: 5-7 million allocated in goal.
Rodrigues was a half-point-per-game player last year. At a pace of 0.52 ppg, that’s good enough for a 42 point pace. Add that with the fact that he is versatile, can play anywhere in your lineup, can also play with Eichel, and is a good possession player (+3.7 CF% rel, 51% dZS%), he certainly has a future on the Sabres, but for how long?
A guy who I think Rodrigues compares quite well too in terms of his role on the Sabres is Kris Versteeg. Versteeg was a key member of the Blackhawks during their cup run, but when money got tight, he was expendable. His first deal RFA deal was a three-year contract for around nine million. His second deal which he signed with Florida got him four years, 17 million, with a 4.4 million cap hit. E-Rod could get a similar three-year extension that will take him into the summer of 2022 when he would become a UFA. Rodrigues could still be here for the next three years, but it’s tough to say if he will be a player who is here for his entire career.
2022-23 cap hit: 3.0-4.0 million (estimated)
Marco Scandella’s deal expires the same year as Zach Bogosian’s, and while Bogosian is a sure-fire bet to be gone by then, Scandella is not. It is very possible he may be one of the first UFA casualties needing to prepare to allocate some cash for players such as Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt.
I think Scandella’s next deal could pay him around five million, and while that may not be a problem for the Sabres, the term may be an issue for a player who will hit unrestricted free agency at age 30. Do we want to extend someone for five to six years until they are 35-36 years old, or do we give the nod to a younger player? We also could trade Ryan O’Reilly and end up acquiring a young defender in return who could fit into the long-term plan.
2022-23 cap hit: 5.0-5.5 million (estimated)
I think next year we should finally be able to see Brendan Guhle full time for 82 games. I see the Sabres top three next year as Dahlin, Ristolainen, and Scandella. If he’s healthy, I think Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe will compete for that final spot in the top four. Bogosian is often injured and it won’t surprise people if he is injured yet again. If he is healthy and able to play, I have no reason to just write him off on one of the worst defenses in the league.
My prediction for Guhle is that he will slowly work his way up the depth chart into a bigger role, and he will be a key asset if Zach Bogosian sees the injury bug again. I ultimately have Brendan Guhle as the man replacing Marco Scandella’s minutes' long term. I will also estimate that he also gets the majority of Scandella’s salary as well.
2022-23 cap hit: 4-4.75 million (estimated cap hit)
What is the most the Sabres can do this offseason?
Anywhere between 65-80 million could potentially be allocated between a dozen or so key players in five years and I am trying to plan for the worst possible financial scenario with some of the estimated ranges. It’s possible some of the listed players above earn substantially less money, but if I am going into free agency or the trade market over the next couple years, this needs to be considered.
Obviously, as you may have figured out, we are definitely not going to simply pay a dozen players over 70 million dollars, even if the cap will be higher by then. Quite a few of those guys listed above will not be here. Many players in the maybe group may not be here, and in turn, we see the importance of young players and having a good farm system. Young players are cheap, plain and simple.
That 2019 or 2020 first rounder from San Jose could serve as a significant future piece to replace some of the veterans who may not be here in a few years.
One additional factor that the Sabres will need to consider is the some of the young guns that could make the roster over the next couple years such as Victor Olofsson, C.J Smith, Justin Bailey, Rasmus Asplund, and Danny O’Regan. Alexander Nylander is also another consideration as he will likely be the highest drafted and most skilled player that still needs to make the NHL.
Nylander’s entry-level deal will take him through the 2021-22 season when he will be 23 years old. Anyone of those guys working out and being productive players will lead to a substantial increase in pay. It’s very tough to project which ones will pan out and how big they end up being. I’d be planning for Nylander to be the one to make the biggest money as the highest drafted of the bunch.
If he does earn a bigger deal, I think his floor in terms of both on ice production and pay could be somewhere around what Gustav Nyquist is making which is 4.75 million. You also don’t know if there’s a hidden breakout star on the roster which would really throw a curveball onto things. Maybe Nylander is a bust, and it’s an unknown player who comes out of nowhere like William Karlsson did last season.
Of course, you are going to try to talk to John Tavares and maybe John Carlson if they reach free agency. It’s rare that players of this level hit free agency. If they agree to talk to the Sabres and they were even able to sign one of them, they could absolutely afford it now and long-term. However, the consequence would be O’Reilly, Okposo or both would need to go out the door by the summer of 2021 or sooner when you start to hit the extensions for both Mittelstadt and Dahlin.
This would be the absolute maximum that you could do this offseason, but that does not mean that it’s best for the team. You could probably sign two mid-tier free agents for the same price of one big fish UFA, and both of the mid-tier guys might have almost half of the term.
Realistically I would much prefer the Sabres pursue a mid-tier free agent to a more modest three or four-year deal. Players such as Derek Ryan, Tyler Bozak, Michael Grabner, Brian Gibbons, Thomas Vanek, or Patrick Maroon. Maybe if the term is right, I would have no issue with James Neal if they could get it done, but I wouldn’t want more than four years for him due to his age.
If I did pursue a big name in free agency, I much prefer John Carlson over Tavares. I believe in building from within, but it’s also not too often that a player of that level hits the open market. I like Carlson mostly because if you’re adding him along with Dahlin, your defense is essentially transformed overnight. You’d also be able to deploy both Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella on your second pair. But, I don’t think the Sabres will be interested, and it’s very possible Carlson won’t be interested in coming here.
If Ryan O’Reilly is indeed traded, I would like to see the Sabres add a player or two that can play the center position in the middle six such as Tyler Bozak or Derek Ryan. While it’s always beneficial to build from within, that also doesn’t mean that some outside help wouldn’t be necessary via trade or free agency.
Jason Botterill has a reputation of being a great manager of the salary cap, so it will be interesting to see his plan unfold more over the next couple years and which guys are still here. There is no question that many of these guys will likely see some big raises in a few years and multiple scenarios will be considered.