With the Buffalo Sabres currently sitting 10 points out of a playoff spot as we approach the NHL trade deadline, many fans have already turned their sights toward the summer. Almost everyone is aware of the organization’s unique situation as it pertains to the amount of assets coming off the books on July 1, but discord remains when it comes to the current stable of pending restricted free agents, and what type of extensions the team should be willing to hand them.
While there are certainly a handful of players who are widely presumed to be on their way out, several “core pieces” are expected to receive significant raises, the impact of which remains to be seen. Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ 2020 RFA group and determine whether they should be brought back, and if so, what type of contract extension might be realistic.
We’ll kick things off with this summer’s headliner, Sam Reinhart. Aside from Rasmus Ristolainen, Reinhart is perhaps the most polarizing player among fans in Western New York. Some feel that the 24-year-old’s impressive production is a direct result of consistently playing on Jack Eichel’s wing. Others believe that a good chunk of Eichel’s production is facilitated by what Reinhart does behind the scenes (i.e. work that doesn’t appear on a base stat sheet).
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. While there’s no denying that part of his point totals can be attributed to playing with one of the best centermen in the NHL, his zone-exit and positional ability have, on many occasions, allowed Eichel to flourish even more, offensively.
For the past three seasons, Reinhart has been a positive impact player across the board. As of right now, he leads the team in Corsi differential, and is one of the few players on the roster who has posted positive xGF and xGA metrics at even-strength over the past few seasons.
At the end of the day, the Sabres aren’t in a position to turn their nose up at a top-six forward, especially over decimal points. Even if Reinhart’s base numbers are a bigger result of playing with Eichel than we think (something that could have been easily tested by giving him his own line for a decent stretch of time this season, but I digress), he’s been the captain’s most consistently productive wingman.
For comparison sake, the easy parallel here is the six-year, $6.9 million AAV contract the Toronto Maple Leafs handed to William Nylander last summer. While most fans around the league would argue Nylander is a better player, that perception is largely fueled by the superior supporting cast of forwards on the Maple Leafs’ roster, and the influence of Toronto’s public relations arm.
As many have already projected, a long-term deal in the neighborhood of $7 million AAV is probably a realistic projection.
The 2019-20 campaign was supposed to provide some clarity as to whether or not Brandon Montour’s struggles last season were a result of playing in Randy Carlyle’s flawed system. Most of the Anaheim Ducks’ defensemen saw a reduction in their overall impacts when he took over for Bruce Boudreau in 2016.
With 33 games remaining in the regular season, the jury is still out, to an extent. One aspect of Montour’s game that has certainly stood out is his zone-exit ability. There are times when he absolutely explodes out of the defensive zone, carrying the puck into the neutral zone to aid transition. The only problem is that it often amounts to very little offensively.
Aside from Zach Bogosian, he has the lowest relative xG rate on the team at -4.58-percent, which is actually the worst mark since his rookie season. The same goes for his relative Corsi of -1.62-percent.
There are two possible reasons for this (and in reality, it’s probably a combination of both). Having transition skill is great, but if you’re playing with forwards who can’t establish and maintain offensive pressure, those efforts will often be for naught.
Conversely, Montour’s ability in the offensive zone appears to be somewhat limited as well. He is good for firing a nice shot every now and then, but other than that, he hasn’t provided much else, at least not consistently. He may just be a modernized defensive defenseman, who is a capable puck-mover with limited offensive upside. Those types of players often see their advanced impacts suffer as a result of playing on an inept offensive team, which the Sabres are.
Jason Botterill isn’t likely to try and flip Montour, even though he is one of the more tradable assets he has if he wants to acquire help at forward. We’re a year removed from sending a first-round pick and Brendan Guhle to Anaheim for him, so an extension seems imminent.
In terms of a comparable, Will Butcher’s three-year, $3.733 million AAV contract extension as an RFA last season might be a good place to start. Based on Montour’s current clip, they’ll have produced similar point totals at roughly the same age.
The term will be critical, especially when expansion draft ramifications are taken into consideration. The organization should be pushing for something in the 3-4 year range, but certainly no more than that for a player whose ceiling remains a question mark.
This is perhaps the trickiest of the Sabres’ RFA contracts to project. As a 24-year-old rookie, Victor Olofsson was flourishing alongside Eichel before being injured against the Edmonton Oilers earlier this month. With 16 goals, and 35 points in 42 games this season, even if he’s slow to get back to form once he returns to the lineup, he’ll obviously receive a significant raise from his current salary of $767,500 AAV.
The most impressive aspect of his first full season in the NHL (aside from an unworldly shot), is the improvement he’s made as a well-rounded player at even-strength. Early in the year, nearly all of his points came as a result of his incredible shot on the man-advantage. Since then, his five-on-five scoring has been the driving force behind his impressive base numbers, especially with the team’s power-play being as awful as it’s been.
Analytically, there is certainly room for improvement, but the early returns are somewhat promising. Though he’s made strides defensively, he’s still a negative impact player in that regard. Offensively, he’s out-produced his expected goal totals (again, his elite shooting comes into play as he’s currently converting at a 16.2-percent clip).
The Sabres’ best bet here would be to try and get a long-term deal done. At worst, Olofsson will amount to a Patrik Laine type of player, and that’s if you assume he’s reached his ceiling in terms of defensive impact, which probably isn’t the case. His best attribute is still, and will probably always be, his shooting ability, the lethality of which isn’t likely to fade any time soon. In short, the organization has very little to lose and a lot to gain by gambling on him with a long-term extension. They need to learn from their mistake with Reinhart and lock down a player who isn’t likely to regress.
Finding a similar contract extension in this case is a bit tougher. Olofsson’s situation is very unique given his age, experience at the NHL level, and immediate goal-scoring production. Maybe a player like Andreas Johnsson and his four-year, $3.4 million extension would be a decent starting point for the Sabres brass, but Olofsson will likely command more than that. This one will be very interesting to monitor, but if Botterill wants to lock him down long-term, a five-year deal that approaches $25 million isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
The Sabres’ situation in net has certainly benefited Linus Ullmark as he approaches RFA status. With Carter Hutton playing the worst hockey of his career, the front office has its hands tied to an extent. They can either pay Ullmark to stick around on a short-term deal, or pursue two new goalies in one offseason, because in all likelihood, Hutton is going to be dealt or waived.
As of right now, the 26-year-old ranks near the middle of the pack in most statistical categories among starting netminders league-wide. His save-percentage of .914 ranks 10th among goaltenders who have appeared in at least 25 games (33 goalies fall under that criteria), and from a GSAx standpoint, he’s firmly average when lumped in with his contemporaries.
Depending on how he closes out the 2019-20 season, Ullmark should see a nice bump from his current yearly salary of $1.33 million. This was a “prove it” year of sorts after he was awarded that deal in arbitration last summer. He has certainly shown some growth, but at least a small part of his success is a result of a vastly improved defensive system under Ralph Krueger.
All of that being said, the price tag won’t be anything outrageous. Now that he has a firm grasp of the starting job, a deal similar to Petr Mrazek’s extension with the Carolina Hurricanes (two-years, $3.125 million) might be a solid comparable. The two netminders are only a year apart in age and if Ullmark finishes the year at his current clip, they will have posted nearly identical save-percentages prior to their respective signings.
With Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in the pipeline, don’t expect Botterill to ink Ullmark to anything more than a three-year deal, especially since goalie growth (and consistency for that matter) is relatively unpredictable and there is no way of knowing whether or not he’s reached his ceiling yet. A three-year, $2.8-3.1 million AAV contract should be more than fair.
Outside of the previously outlined players who are set to receive substantial raises, the second tier of RFA’s are certainly all worth keeping, they’re just not candidates for big pay days.
Lawrence Pilut is the only one in this section who it might make sense to offer a longer term deal in order to control his cost for a little longer, but given Botterill’s track record, that seems unlikely. Even if the Sabres GM wants to pursue a long-term deal, Pilut’s camp would probably rather bet on themselves at this point, considering he spent half the season buried at the AHL level.
Projecting his contract might be a difficult task. He’s obviously a top-six defender at the NHL-level, but there isn’t enough of a track record to site a legitimate comparable. While it won’t be anything expensive, Pilut’s next contract will be one of the more interesting to project as the season comes to a close. How he finishes the year in blue-and-gold will be key.
Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson are sort of in the same boat. Both of them are almost certain to be retained on bridge-deals. Thompson might have had a chance to make a case for something more lucrative, but a season-ending shoulder injury derailed what was a critical year in his development.
For the second straight season, Mittelstadt showed that he could not stick at the NHL level, and finally received a much-needed demotion to Rochester. He’s fared nicely with the Amerks in limited action so far, posting nine points in 15 games, but nothing he’s shown so far has indicated that he’s worthy of a long-term deal. Both he and Thompson will likely receive something in the two-year, $1.2-1.6 million range.
Curtis Lazar could get an extension, but as a fourth line type player who has likely hit, or is quickly approaching his ceiling, he’s another candidate for a short-term extension. His skill set is replaceable, and the Sabres have young forwards in Arttu Ruotsalainen and Rasmus Asplud who could surpass him next season. Something similar to the one-year, $1.6 million contract Zemgus Girgensons signed last offseason might be fitting, especially if the Sabres decide not to retain the 26-year-old Latvian.
Rounding out the list is goaltender, Jonas Johansson. Right as he was approaching “afterthought” territory, the 24-year-old has made waves with Rochester this season, earning himself a spot in the AHL All-Star Game. Given Hutton’s uncertain future in Buffalo, Johansson a candidate to serve as Ullmark’s backup as Luukkonen takes the reigns for the Amerks in 2020-21. He still has to prove that he has what it takes to be an NHL regular. A one-year deal would be the wisest course of action.
Out the Door
Despite the quality at the top of the Sabres’ RFA class, there is a player who will likely hit the open market. It would be somewhat of a surprise for the Sabres to qualify Evan Rodrigues, assuming he isn’t traded before the 2020-21 league year commences. While his both his base statistical, and underlying numbers are down from his time playing under Phil Housley, the 26-year-old is still a serviceable player in the right situation.
From the moment he arrived as the team’s new bench boss, Krueger has never appeared to be a fan of what Rodrigues brings to the table. It’s tough to play your best when you don’t dress on a consistent basis, but since taking the Sabres to arbitration last summer, it almost seems intentional. Why else would a team dress a broken down Zach Bogosian as a fourth line forward in lieu of a high-energy player like Rodrigues?
Either way, an analytics-savvy general manager will probably take a flyer on him as a positive impact, bottom-six role player. There’s simply no scenario where an extension in Buffalo seems likely, especially given the rumors of Botterill making him available on the trade market since the beginning of the year.
On the AHL side, players like Remi Elie and Andrew Oglevie will probably come back on minor league deals, but it would be somewhat surprising to see the team spend an NHL contract on either of them.
Extending Elie as an RFA last season was a head-scratcher, and nothing he’s done in Rochester warrants another two-way deal. Oglevie might have a decent chance, given his 20 points in 33 games, but neither one of them is a lock for an NHL contract extension.