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Building the Sabres: 2020 offseason projection

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The Sabres have the opportunity to reshape their roster in the offseason

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

I hope everyone is getting through these tough times. The quarantine can stir up some cabin fever, but hopefully, life will return to normal soon.

The offseason ahead for the Buffalo Sabres gives them the unique opportunity to reshape their roster with the cap space and freedom of only a handful of players being under contract. Whether Jason Botterill is the general manager or someone else, the Sabres need to have a successful summer this time around to get themselves finally headed in the right direction. Another year of failing to address needs could set them back long-term.

I decided to take a crack at putting together an offseason plan on how I would attempt to do things if I were appointed general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. My objective was to keep things as realistic as possible. Having said that, one of these moves may be unlikely, but let’s have some fun anyway.

Before I get into the details let’s knock out a few things to note going through this:

  • I set the salary cap ceiling at $82 million. I know the NHL projected between $84-88 million, but with the season likely lost, I don’t anticipate the cap going up by much.
  • All of my contracts handed out are based on the contract projections from the twins at Evolving Hockey.

Restricted Free Agents

The first thing I’ll break down is the significant contracts that I handed out the Sabres handful of restricted free agents. For this exercise, we can assume low-level RFA’s like Andrew Oglevie signed their qualifying offer. Here is the list of players I re-signed and the contracts that I gave them:

  • Sam Reinhart - five-years, $35 million ($7 million annual average value)
  • Victor Olofsson - four-years, $20 million ($5 million AAV)
  • Dominik Kahun - two-years, $5.8 million ($2.9 million AAV)
  • Brandon Montour - one-year, $4 million (arbitration award)
  • Linus Ullmark - two-years, $4 million ($2 million AAV)
  • Lawrence Pilut - one-year, $850,000

Reinhart and Olofsson are the two big names here. Both get the long-term deals that lock them into place moving forward. In this reality, I allowed Montour to go to salary arbitration and he was awarded the contract listed above. I don’t feel as though the Sabres should buy long-term on the smooth-skating defenseman at this point. This one-year deal kicks the can down the road as he would be a restricted free agent again next summer.

Another move I made that is not listed above because he’s not a restricted free agent this offseason, is to sign Henri Jokiharju to an extension. The contract would be a four-year, $16 million contract, which would carry a cap hit of $4.0 million.

This is similar to the deal that Marcus Pettersson signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s one year shorter and for a little less money. It also ensures that Jokiharju remains a restricted free agent when the contract expires. Getting that deal done this summer, allows the Sabres to lock the 20-year-old into a team-friendly contract moving forward with Rasmus Dahlin due for a big payday in 2021.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Let’s move onto the unrestricted free agents. I didn’t do much in this area, so we’ll move quickly through this. Before we get into the new players, now would be a good time to put in I re-signed Johan Larsson to a three-year, $7.5 million contract ($2.5 million AAV). He was the only pending unrestricted free agent that I re-signed.

This is also probably a good time to share that I bought out the final year of Carter Hutton’s contract. I’m usually not in favor of doing that for a player with only one year left on his deal, but the cost is minimal. It saves the team $1.8 million in 2020 and costs them $916,000 in 2021. Hutton also gets the chance to jump on with another team.

Here are the UFA’s signings that I made:

  • Jesper Fast - three-years, $9 million ($3 million AAV)
  • Eemeli Suomi - one-year, $925,000 (entry-level)
  • Hunter Shepard - one-year, $925,000 (entry-level)

Fast is a player that I’ll be talking about a lot throughout the offseason. The 28-year-old can play up and down the lineup. He won’t break the bank and would be a good depth signing for the Sabres.

Suomi is a player that came into the picture earlier this week. You can check out the breakdown I put together on the Finnish free agent earlier this week right here.

The last player is a new name. Shepard is a college free agent, goaltender, from Minnesota-Duluth. I believe the Sabres are one of the teams interested in signing him and he was part of their prospect camp back in 2018. He would likely play in the AHL next season with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.

Trades

Up next, is the meat and potatoes of the offseason. I made three trades to round out the roster. It should come as no surprise, but the first trade involves defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

Trade 1: Rasmus Ristolainen (D) to the New Jersey Devils for Jesper Bratt (F), 2021 second-round pick, and 2022 fifth-round pick

Moving Ristolainen off the roster clears the log jam at right defense and opens up some cap space for other moves. Bratt is a 21-year-old winger that was a sixth-round pick of the Devils back in 2016. He plays with pace and has shown the ability to produce when he’s put in the right situation.

He may have fallen out of favor with the Devils this season and they need help on the blue line after moving out Sami Vatanen at the trade deadline. This looks like a good deal for both sides.

Bratt is a restricted free agent this summer, therefore I signed him to a three-year, $9.6 million deal ($3.2 million AAV)

Trade 2: Casey Mittelstadt (F) to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Joonas Korpisalo (G) and Eric Hjorth (D)

You may have noticed that Mittlestadt wasn’t listed in the RFA section above and this is why. His development hasn’t gone as hoped and another move I make shortly makes the 21-year-old expendable. I don’t love the idea of moving a player with his potential, but the club needs some stability in goal in the worst way.

The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, could use some youth injected into their roster. Elvis Merzlikins is the future in goal for Columbus and they have some more talent in the system behind him. Korpisalo has played well this season taking over for Sergei Bobrovsky and is only 25-years-old. He’s an RFA this summer, so I gave him a two-year, $4 million ($2 million AAV).

Eric Hjorth is a project prospect that was a fourth-round pick for the Jackets in 2019. He’s a big defender that moves very well. He’s only 19-years-old and will spend another year or so in the CHL.

Trade 3: Jake McCabe (D) to New York Rangers for 2021 third-round pick

The Rangers had interest in McCabe in the past and have a need for the position. This may seem like a nothing trade, but it’s important because it sets up my next move. The third-round pick the Sabres would get in this deal is their own that they sent to the Rangers as part of the Jimmy Vesey deal.

The Big Move

Now that I have my third-round pick back, I would have the full portfolio of the offer sheet compensation available to me. This is the move that I referred to earlier which is unlikely because we rarely see an offer sheet in the NHL. The Montreal Canadiens did it last year with Sebastian Aho, but it was a softball. The Carolina Hurricanes easily matched it.

My target is division foe, Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts have to re-sign Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev. According to Cap Friendly, they only have roughly $7 million in cap space with an $84 million cap ceiling. With an $82 million ceiling in this scenario, that would put them around $5 million in cap space.

Therefore, I placed a five-year, $30 million ($6 million AAV) offer sheet on center Anthony Cirelli. In return, the Sabres would send a first-round and a third-round pick in 2021 to the Lightning as compensation according to last year’s compensation requirements.

Cirelli would solidify the Sabres at center behind Jack Eichel with Dylan Cozens entering the mix next season. He can play in a variety of different situations and is only 22-years-old.

Final Roster

Here is a look at how the final roster would breakdown for the Sabres. You can replace CJ Smith with Tage Thompson if you’d like. I took this snapshot with Smith as the extra forward in going into the season.

After all of this, there is still $3.2 million in cap space to give the Sabres some flexibility throughout the season. Also in the case that there is indeed an overage from Botterill, that cap space leaves room to account for that.

I did attempt to keep an eye on the future when putting this together. Next year will be the expansion draft for the new Seattle franchise. Even with these moves, the Sabres still are set up to be in good shape with a 7-3-1 approach to protecting their roster.

Seven forwards: Eichel, Skinner, Cirelli, Reinhart, Olofsson, Bratt, and Fast

Three defensemen: Dahlin, Jokiharju, and Pilut

One goaltender: Korpisalo

That would leave players like Kahun, Miller, Larsson, Ullmark, and Montour available. Seattle can only take one of those four and any of them can be replaced.

They would also be in decent shape with the cap heading going into the 2021 offseason. If the salary cap takes a jump, like it’s expected to do with the addition of Seattle, it would give the Sabres around $11 million in cap space with an $85 million cap ceiling. That’s before them losing anyone off their roster in expansion.

I hope you enjoyed this and it took your mind off of the situation in the world for a few minutes. Hopefully, we can have some fun in the offseason when life is back to normal in a month or so. This is a big summer for the Sabres and they need to hit a home run.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Cap Friendly, and Hockeyviz.com