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Sabres may want to circle back to the Penguins this summer

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After an early playoff loss and a bad cap situation the Penguins could be a prime trade candidate again

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders - Game One

I wrote about how the Buffalo Sabres could take advantage of the Tampa Bay Lightning last week after their early departure and cap situation. The Pittsburgh Penguins is another team in a similar situation they can make a trade with this summer.

Last year the Sabres took advantage of the Penguins cap crunch by acquiring Conor Sheary at the cost of a fourth-round pick and taking on the salary of defenseman Matt Hunwick. Sheary had some bad luck this season, but for the most part, he played well.

The Penguins were dispatched in four games by the New York Islanders. They struggled for parts of this season and after being sent home early there’s been talk of the Penguins breaking up some of the key players that won back to back Stanley Cups.

Going into the offseason they have roughly $3 million in cap space with the projected $83 million cap ceiling for next season according to Cap Friendly. They need to clear some salary if they want to improve their team in any way in the offseason. The Penguins also need to sign restricted free agents Zach Aston-Reese, Marcus Pettersson, and Teddy Blueger this summer.

Josh Yohe from The Athletic wrote an article yesterday reviewing which players he believes will be staying, could be moved, and very likely will be moved by the Penguins this offseason. Looking over the list there are a few interesting names that could be of interest to the Sabres.

Big Names

It’ll be interesting to see what Jim Rutherford does with key roster players like Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. It’s probably unlikely that Malkin is moved at this point. He carries a full no-movement clause and is still an important second line center on that team.

Letang is the first player that could be of interest to the Sabres. Botterill would be familiar with the veteran defender. He’s played in a lot of big games in his career and has been the top defender on the Penguins for a few years now. At 32-years-old he has three years remaining on his deal with a $7.25 million cap hit.

He’s still an impactful player at both ends of the ice, but for how much longer? The other concern is he’s only played in more than 69 games in a season twice in the last five years. The injuries have been something Letang has battled with his entire career. While he would help improve the right side of the Sabres blue line; his age doesn’t seem to fit the timeline for the Sabres. His modified no-trade clause (18 team trade list) could be a problem for the Sabres as well.

Kessel is pretty much the same story as Letang, but at forward. He doesn’t have the injury concerns, but his age (31-years-old) doesn’t seem to fit the Sabres plans. He also has three years remaining on his current deal, but it carries an $6.8 million cap hit. Kessel is an elite scorer, which, is something the Sabres could use. Especially if they don’t end up re-signing Jeff Skinner.

At the defensive end of the ice, however, he’s going to be a liability. His speed is a big part of his game and you have to wonder how much longer that will stay with him. Kessel’s modified no-trade clause (eight-team trade list) probably makes any realistic discussion of a trade with this player moot for the Sabres.

Second Tier

If the Sabres do make a move with the Penguins this summer it would make sense for them to target their second-tier players. The player that jumps off the roster is 24-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta. He’s under contract for three more years at a $4.083 million cap hit and would benefit the Penguins to move his contract of their cap.

The former first-round pick is a very interesting player to evaluate. His underlying numbers are average. He’s not going to give you a lot offensively and isn’t great in his own end either. Realistically he looks like a bottom pair defenseman that can play up in your lineup in an injury pinch. His isolated impact over the last first years literally grades him out as an average player using Micah McCurdy’s model.

In the right situation he could be a fine left shot defender, but is he that much better than Jake McCabe? Why pay more for a player that’ll likely just give the same impact?

The Sabres may look to pluck another forward off the Penguins roster. Bryan Rust is a bottom six forward that could make some sense. He had 18 goals this past season and has some good underlying numbers throughout his career. Although this season was a down year for him with some of those metrics. He has three years remaining on his deal with a $3.5 million cap hit. Could be a nice buy-low option for Botterill.

The aforementioned Zach Aston-Reese is another bottom six forward that could add some depth scoring to the lineup. The 24-year-old hasn’t lived up to the hype when he was signed as a college free agent a few years ago. His defensive isolated impact is impressive, but he hasn’t shown the ability to give you a lot offensively. Although this season he scored at 15 goals per 82 game pace. Perhaps he could benefit playing with Casy Mittelstadt on the third line next season. Depending on the price to acquire him he might be a short-term experiment, similar to what the Anaheim Ducks attempted with Daniel Sprong. He ended up scoring 14 goals in 47 games for the Ducks last season.

Saving the best for last, the player that the Sabres should want to have the most interest in is forward Dominik Simon. The 24-year-old winger has a year remaining on his contract with a $750 thousand cap hit. After that, he becomes a restricted free agent when that deal expires.

Simon may seem like the player the Penguins don’t want to move. He’s a cost-controlled player that plays in the bottom six of their lineup. They do have a few players that can play that role on the team. If the Sabres do acquire him it’ll probably mean they have to take on another contract.

Getting back to Simon, he has impressive underlying numbers defensively and can provide some offensive impact as well as the wonderful RAPM chart from Evolving Wild above showcases. He was first on the Penguins this season in on-ice xG percentage at 5 on 5 at 60 percent. Simon’s seven goals at 5 on 5 were actually three below expected according to Moneypuck. Meaning he should have had three more goals on the season at 5 on 5 according to his xG ratings.

Simon seems like the player to target if the Sabres want to circle back to the Penguins again this offseason. Like I said it may depend on the player that Pittsburgh wants them to take back. They can manage one year of Justin Schultz at a $5.5 million cap hit, but the Penguins may believe they can get something of value for him. If they want the Sabres to take on the final four years of Patric Hornqvist’s deal with a $5.3 million cap hit, it’s not worth it.

Targeting the Lightning still feels like a better plan to acquire an impact player, but the Penguins are a team the Sabres could trade with for a player without having to give up a lot of assets.