With the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final, fans across the league have turned their sights toward the offseason. For the Buffalo Sabres, more “roster surgery” appears likely to take place in the coming months. Amid all of the trade and free agent speculation surrounding the blue-and-gold, very few have discussed the fact that the team has several key contributors whose current deals are set to expire in 2020.
For some of these players, it would behoove the organization to pursue extensions this summer. For others, perhaps it would be wise to wait and see how the 2019-20 season plays out. The logical course of action varies depending on which 2020 free agent is being examined. For that reason, you’ll find them categorized below, based on priority level.
First and Foremost
We’ll start with the most obvious (and most essential) player in Sam Reinhart. Last year, the debate raged on as to whether or not the Sabres should sign the then 22-year-old to a long-term contract, or a bridge-deal. As we all know, both sides agreed to a two-year contract.
One year later, it certainly seems that Reinhart’s camp was wise to gamble on a short-term agreement. As one of the most consistent positive impact players on the roster, he broke-out to an extent, with a career-high 65 points in 82 games.
Beyond his base statistical contributions, analytically, the right-winger proved to be one of the most well-rounded players on the roster. In fact, from a Corsi standpoint, he had a positive impact on nearly every single Sabres forward with whom he spent significant time.
Leading up to last season, there were questions as to whether his success was a result of being attached to Jack Eichel’s hip, or if he truly was a player capable of catalyzing his own line. Though he spent a majority of his time flanking Eichel again in 2018-19, his contributions were critical in helping make his line as effective as it was.
Now for a dose of reality. Regardless of how much sense it makes (from the Sabres standpoint), to extend him this summer, he probably won’t entertain a long-term offer worth anything short of $7.5 million AAV.
Last year, he bet on himself and it paid off. At just 23 years old, it’s reasonable to expect him to improve even further next season, which is why his camp would probably advise him against signing before next year unless the offer is extremely lucrative.
For comparison's sake, the six-year, $6.9 million AAV deal that William Nylander signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an RFA this season would be a good place to start, but again, that likely wouldn’t be enough to entice Reinhart to sign his extension a year in advance. Still, Botterill should open negotiations now and get a gauge of what his camp is expecting. He is only going to improve, and the sooner the organizations acts on extending him, the better.
Offseason Plan Pending
The next two players on the list represent uniquely interesting cases. Starting up front, left-winger, Conor Sheary could be a candidate for an extension, depending on his demands. Despite his relatively pedestrian statistical output, he did spend the year with rookie Casey Mittelstadt as his most consistent centerman.
Buffalo will conceivably look to add a bonafide second-line pivot this summer. They might also add another left winger (Jason Zucker perhaps). That’s the key to this situation.
If the Sabres do add a someone down the middle, but do not pursue another left winger, then Sheary’s base numbers could jump alongside a more competent center (something he experieced to a degree with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh). In that case, Botterill might be wise to extend him to a short-term deal now, before his price tag increases as a result of playing with linemates capable of driving possession.
One of the more interesting things to note when diving into Sheary’s numbers is how stark the contrast was between his xG and actual scoring production. If he has linemates that are actually positive offensive impact players next season, that gap could diminish significantly, making now an excellent time to “buy low”.
On the other hand, should Buffalo add another top-six presence on the left side, Sheary might get phased out of the short-term plan (at least as far as the top-six is concerned). In that case, perhaps it would be better to wait and see how the 2019-20 campaign plays out. It is worth noting that he is the only player on this list who will hold UFA status when his deal expires.
On the defensive side, the Sabres could look to make a deal with 2019 trade deadline acquisition, Brandon Montour. Obviously, Botterill acquired him to be part of the long-term plan on the blue line, knowing full well that his contract would be expiring shortly after.
There are a lot of moving parts to factor-in when considering a whether or not a potential contract extension will take place this summer. Like it or not, there is a chance that Rasmus Ristolainen could be part of a trade in the coming months. If the Sabres do not add another power-play presence on the back end, Montour could end up seeing more time on the man-advantage, subsequently resulting in a bump to his base statistics. If that’s the course of action that the front office plans to take on defense, signing him to an extension this offseason could make sense.
A good comparable here might be someone like Esa Lindell (Dallas Stars) or Nate Schmidt (Vegas Golden Knights). Despite their perceived over-payment for Lindell, the Stars set the market to an extent when they signed the 25-year-old to a six-yer, $5.8 million AAV extension.
Last season, he produced 32 points in 82 games, similar to Montour’s 35 point total in as many contests. At age 27, Schmidt signed a similar deal with Vegas, also totaling six years for $5.95 million per season. His production rate was a bit higher at 30 points in just 62 games, but it’s still a comparable situation (it is worth noting however, that Schmidt has a significantly higher positive impact analytically, something that the Golden Knights certainly value as an organization).
With the cap set to increase, it isn't out of the realm of possibility for Montour to command a deal worth upwards of $6 million per season. If the organization expects him to see more power-play or offensive deployment time (just under 50-percent last season between Anaheim and Buffalo) next year, they might consider acting soon, before his expectations increase.
Best to Wait
It’s tough to imagine a rookie being placed into a tougher situation than Casey Mittelstadt was last season. As a first-year center, he had the esteemed privilege of skating alongside offensive voids in Tage Thompson and Kyle Okposo as two of his three most consistent wingers (the other being Sheary, as mentioned above).
This situation is also partially reliant on what the Sabres do from a new acquisition standpoint. If they are successful in finding a second line center, then Mittelstadt will hopefully play in a more sheltered role next season. Conversely, should the Sabres opt to focus on adding more talent on the wing and play him on the second line again, his statistical output could spike (to an extent) as a result.
Regardless, the Sabres should wait until next year. Mittelstadt will still be an RFA and in all likelihood, he isn’t going to explode offensively in 2019-20. Gauging his development for another year will help the front office make a more educated decision in 2020 on whether to sign him to a bride-contract, or a longer term agreement.
The remaining players on the Sabres’ 2020 free agent list range anywhere from non-essential to much needed cap relief. Casey Nelson could make a case for another contract, especially if he wins the third-pairing RHD job for next season. Either way, there’s no reason to think about an extension before that.
Marco Scandella, Vladimir Sobotka, Matt Hunwick, and the perpetually sidelined Zach Bogosian are all as good as gone (maybe even before next offseason). The same is likely the case for extra forward, Scott Wilson. Combined, these five players take up roughly $14.9 million in cap space. With the aforementioned key contributors due for new contracts, and what is sure to be a massive extension for Rasmus Dahlin in 2021, Buffalo will need all the space they can get.