As has been the case for what seems like eons, fans of the Buffalo Sabres are stuck looking toward the future before the end of the regular season. What began as a potentially promising 2018-19 campaign quickly devolved into a bitter free-fall into obscurity.
The fan base has now suffered through eight consecutive seasons without their team making a postseason appearance, and from the coaching staff, to the roster itself, calls for change are louder than ever. Near the top of the growing list of demands is an overhaul of the team’s depth, something that has been blatantly deficient all season. While a brand new set of faces certainly sounds great (outside of the top forward line and defensive pairing), it may prove difficult to accomplish in one offseason, given the what is currently on the Sabres’ ledger for 2019-20.
While Buffalo does have a handful of expiring contracts, a couple of which will provide a great deal of cap relief, several of the more abhorred members of the current roster still have term remaining on their current deals. While veteran AHL outcast, Matt Moulson’s $3.975 million cap hit becomes a thing of the past, players like Marco Scandella, Vladimir Sobotka, and Matt Hunwick won’t be off the books until the following summer. Kyle Okposo’s $6 million albatross doesn’t expire until 2022-23.
On top of that, serviceable, yet overpaid players like Zach Bogosian have another year of term too. So, can Jason Botterill move all of dead-weight off of the Sabres’ roster in one offseason? Probably not, but there are solutions available to at least make progress before massive relief comes in the form of expiring contracts next summer.
Let’s start with the players whose deals are set to end after this season. We already know that Moulson is history, but what about the others? Beginning with the two upcoming UFA’s, the outcomes are pretty straight-forward. The organization basically has to retain Jeff Skinner, who with 10 games remaining, has matched his career high for goals in a season with 37. The city might burn to the ground if the front office fails to hammer out a new deal, effectively letting him walk for nothing. Jason Pominville on the other hand, is a more interesting case.
Obviously, should the organization entertain the idea of bringing the 36-year-old back for another season, it would have to be at a drastically reduced price from the $5.6 million that he’s earning now. Though he hasn’t made much of an impact away from Skinner and Jack Eichel, he can still provide some value as a member of the bottom-six. In fact, he’s had a positive Corsi effect on nearly every Sabres forward with whom he’s spent at least 100 minutes alongside this season (Evan Rodrigues being the lone exception out of seven total examples under this criteria). A cost-effective, one-year extension is certainly within the realm of possibility.
The crop of upcoming restricted free-agents is a little less straight-forward. The only easy decision is Rodrigues, who by nearly every metric has proven himself to be one of the team’s top-five forwards this season.
While his analytics have been pretty outstanding (he, like Pominville, has had a positive Corsi effect on nearly everyone who he’s spent significant time with), his base statistics won’t earn him anything substantial. Either way, he’s the type of player that will look great as a critical piece of the Sabres’ bottom-six once the roster is complete. A deal between two and three years with an AAV of $2.5-3 million is likely what the two sides will end up agreeing to.
An excellent graphic from Evolving Hockey was released today, showing just how positive Rodrigues and Pominville’s respective impacts have been this season, in terms of both Corsi and xG.
Jake McCabe’s situation is somewhat similar. While he certainly hasn’t had the type of rebound performance that many had hoped for following a 2017-18 season where he dealt with a bad shoulder for a good portion of the year, he’s far from what’s wrong with the Sabres’ defense. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the team decided to let him walk, but for a serviceable, young player who has done nothing to justify a massive pay increase, keeping him around on a short-term deal is the most likely outcome.
Goaltender Linus Ullmark is a shoe-in to return as an upcoming RFA as well. He too should cash-in on a three-year deal, in the $2 million AAV range.
Now comes the hard part. Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson are two players whom fans were more than willing to let walk prior to the start of the season. While that situation hasn’t really changed in Girgensons’ case, Larsson has put together a really nice year as a solid role-player on the fourth line. For a guy who was seen as a potential waiver candidate in September, what he’s been able to do is actually quite impressive. Still, the decision could go either way for both of them. That being said, the smart move would be to let Girgensons walk and extend Larsson on another short-term, cost-effective deal to remain in his current role.
Prior to any extensions being worked-out for the upcoming free agents, the Sabres have a projected $27.5 million in cap space to work with if the salary cap increases to $83 million as speculated. Take $8 million away for Skinner, and roughly another $9.5 million for Rodrigues, McCabe, Ullmark and Larsson, that total is reduced significantly.
Now that the free agent picture is relatively clear, the focus turns toward finding a way to rid the franchise of their remaining dead-weight. A task that is easier said than done.
Right off the bat, we can tell you that, unless Botterill is willing to part with draft capital (which he probably isn’t), nobody is taking Okposo’s contract off of his hands. In all likelihood, the Sabres will have to ride out his remaining deal and stow him on the fourth line. It’s ugly, but that’s what happens when you overpay for aging wingers on the open market.
Scandella and Sobotka, two players who have drawn a great deal of pointed ire from the fan base this season, need to become Botterill’s focus. For Scandella, a market for his services may still exist in the form of a team trying to reach the cap floor, but it may still require Botterill to part with assets in order to do so. Analytically savvy general managers aren’t touching him with a 10-foot pole. He ranks at the bottom of nearly every measurable category and is near the top of the list of “groan-inducing decisions per-60”. The data and the eyeball test agree on that at least.
The only hope is for the Sabres to find a buyer who is enthralled enough with his better-than-average penalty-kill ability to believe that he can rebound with a change of scenery.
If McCabe is retained, that makes nine defensemen on NHL contracts for next season if you count Lawrence Pilut (which given his performance this season, you absolutely have to). Somebody has to go. The team could waive a player like Hunwick in order to make room, but that still leaves Scandella and his $4 million salary in the press box (or worse, occupying a top-six spot). Finding a buyer for his services would go a long way in alleviating the issue.
As for Sobotka, he’s not getting traded unless he’s included as a cap-dump in a larger deal (sound familiar?). The best outcome that Botterill can hope for is to waive him and have him decide to take his services to the KHL, effectively removing him from the ledger all together. Either way, there is no acceptable scenario where he dons a Sabres uniform in 2019-20.
So, to recap, the best case scenario includes a trade involving Scandella, Hunwick being waived to Rochester, while Sobotka is also waived and is then inspired to take his “talents” to Europe. All of that is doable, but still probably difficult.
The prospect of a potential buyout for one of these player is also very much on the table. If the team decided to use their buyout option on Scandella for instance, the salary cap impact wouldn’t be too bad. According to CapFriendly, the Sabres would save a little over $3.1 million in the first year and would then be on the hook for just under $1.6 million in 2020-21.
If Buffalo decided to buy out Sobotka instead, they would save $2 million next season and sacrifice exactly $1 million in cap space the following year. Again, that might end up being a very palatable outcome given their respective performances this season.
The worst case scenario would obviously be for all three of them to return to the roster next season and play out the final year of their respective contracts.
For fun, let’s assume that Botterill manages to unload all three players in some way, shape or form, while also retaining Skinner, McCabe, Rodrigues, and Larsson. Girgensons and Pominville walk in order to make room for players in Rochester who appear more-than ready to fill their respective shoes. The roster could look something like this:
(Disclaimer: these lines are somewhat arbitrary as a means to catalog the contracts remaining on the books and have by no means been optimized for the sake of this exercise)
Skinner - Eichel - UFA/Trade Acquisition
Sheary - Mittelstadt - Reinhart
Olofsson - Rodrigues - Nylander
Wilson/Smith - Larsson - Okposo
Dahlin - Montour
Pilut - Ristolainen
McCabe - Nelson
Extras: Thompson, Bogosian
Obviously this looks a bit better on paper, but a lot of factors still come into play. First and foremost, this projection operates under the assumption that Rasmus Ristolainen isn’t traded this summer, which is far from guaranteed (and I’d go so far as to say, a deal involving the 24-year-old is more likely than not, at this point). If he is indeed dealt for reinforcements at forward (filling a gap shown above in the top-six), then a defensive slot opens up as well.
This would push Bogosian (or perhaps Nelson depending on the coach’s preference) into the defensive top-six. If Botterill cannot rid himself of Scandella and/or Hunwick, one of them would then become the extra. If both of them are shipped out, then perhaps another free-agent or trade acquisition is in play on the back-end.
If a trade for offensive reinforcements (that likely involves Ristolainen) does not occur, a free-agent acquisition like Joonas Donskoi or Kevin Hayes (among several other viable options) would perhaps suffice, depending on what they would command on the open market.
Either way, the potential for a true overhaul is somewhat limited this offseason, not so much for cap space reasons, but instead due to how many players remain under contract. While the aforementioned moves would represent an improvement, the remaining roster would still be far from a finished product.
The real fun begins in the summer of 2020. At the end of next season, the franchise only has six players currently under contract. Assuming that (at minimum) Skinner, McCabe, Rodrigues, Reinhart, Mittelstadt, and Montour are all retained, that number becomes 12. At that point, every bad contract (aside from Okposo’s) vanishes from the books.
We are all in a hurry to see the Sabres’ “new core” fully come to fruition, but we may have to wait another year before the master plan fully takes shape. That doesn’t mean that progress cannot be made this summer, but Botterill is working against the deals currently in place, many of which he acquired, a fact that certainly shouldn’t go ignored. Just imagine if Patrik Berglund’s contact were still in the mix. Yikes.
From what we’ve seen to date, we can reasonable deduce that the general manager is a patient man. A scenario where he addresses a few areas this summer in preparation for a big 2020 is not only possible, but likely. As much as fans of the blue-and-gold are eager to see vast improvement next season, the organization may be content to let things ride again in 2019-20, make a few calculated additions/subtractions, and strike with an improved salary cap (and roster space) situation the following offseason.
It’s not what many want to hear, but it could very well end up being the reality of the situation. There are just too many heads, and not enough talent. For now.
Salary Cap Figures courtesy of CapFriendly
GAR Charts courtesy of Charting Hockey and Evolving Hockey