The Buffalo Sabres have interesting summer ahead of them with some decisions to make on the blue line. They have eight defensemen under contract for next season if you include Lawrence Pilut, and Jake McCabe makes nine as a restricted free agent. They need to make some improvements to their blue line in the offseason but need to move out some dead weight prior to adding new players.
Marco Scandella is an obvious candidate to see if you can find a suitor to take the final year of his contract and there have been trade rumors around Rasmus Ristolainen since the trade deadline. Although according to Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts indicated the Sabres may be reconsidering that with the Bogosian injury.
If the Sabres find a way to create some space on defense, they could still use help on the right side. Especially if they do end up trading Ristolainen. Without him, that would leave Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and Will Borgen as the top four right-shot defenders currently in the organization.
If the Sabres decide to explore the trade market to improve their defense, one of the best options may be Vegas Golden Knights defenseman, Colin Miller. The 26-year-old is a good puck-moving defender, that skates well, and makes an impact at both ends of the ice.
The Knights are in a bit of a cap crunch this summer. According to Cap Friendly, they only have about $600 thousand in cap space if the ceiling moves to $83 for next season. They have a few restricted free agents they need to pay or make decisions on this summer such as William Karlsson, Tomas Nosek, Nikita Gusev, and Malcolm Subban.
They also can use $5.25 million in long-term injured reserve cap space from the David Clarkson contract. Therefore, they do have some flexibility with their salary cap, but not a lot.
Miller carries a $3.88 million cap hit for the next three seasons. Cody Eakin and Miller look like the obvious “cap casualties” for Vegas this summer. William Karlsson is another interesting player they could be forced to move, but we’ll save that for another day.
At times Miller has found himself falling out of favor with Vegas head coach Gerrard Gallant. He’s a similar player to what they have in Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, and former Sabre Brayden McNabb. All of which they’ve made long-term commitments to.
While Miller has his flaws, he’s been one of the most positively impactful defenders in the league over the last few years. In Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model he comes in at 11th overall in their rating among defensemen over the last three seasons.
This past season he ranked sixth among all defensemen in on-ice expected goal percentage (57.5%). That was fourth best among all players on the Knights and last season he was the second-best player on Vegas in on-ice xG percentage according to Moneypuck.
His impacts go beyond just his two years with the Golden Knights. He was an important player for the Boston Bruins prior to being selected by Vegas in the expansion draft. Miller was given the opportunity to step into a top-four role with his new club after playing primarily as a bottom pair defender with the Bruins, as the chart below from Micah McCurdy lays out.
The 26-year-old thrived with the increased responsibility and was a key part of the Knights elite ability to drive offense. The Sabres have struggled to create offense and scoring opportunities over the last few years. Miller could fit right in with Rasmus Dahlin and Montour as defensemen that can contribute to puck control, as well as shot generation.
Adding another defenseman that can transition the puck well from defense to offense would fit the apparent goal of Jason Botterill in re-vamping his blue line.
Looking at the playoffs you can see the success teams are having with elite puck movers on their blue line. The Colorado Avalanche have benefited from the addition of Cale Makar and the Carolina Hurricanes are riding their excellent blue line to two victories from the Conference Finals. The Dallas Stars have also had large impacts from Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg.
Miller could step into the role vacated by Ristolainen, on the right side, if he’s moved, and be a more impactful player at 5 on 5 according to the underlying numbers. He also comes in at a cheaper cap hit and his age fits into the timeline for the Sabres. This is the type of savvy move a general manager will make in the offseason that’ll fly under the radar to boost their defense and they’ll reap the benefits of it.