Last season, the Buffalo Sabres spent almost the entire year with a surplus of fringe-level defenders on the ledger. In 2020-21, a similar situation could manifest in the forward ranks. With a handful of youngsters who look ready for NHL action, it will be interesting to see how many veteran incumbents receive extensions in the offseason.
Jason Botterill has proven that he’s content to carry an overstock of experienced depth pieces, but can he afford not to give his younger players a look at this point? The lack of depth-scoring that was yet again put on display in 2019-20 should be a sufficient answer to that question, but the soon-to-be fourth-year general manager might have other plans.
As Good As Gone
Let’s kick things off by taking a look at the pending UFA forwards who, barring something unforeseen, are a pretty good bet to hit the open market this summer. After taking a gamble on Jimmy Vesey this season, it would be a surprise to see the Sabres offer him an extension.
While his overall underlying metrics weren’t necessarily as bad as we’ve seen them in years past, he was brought in to do one thing - score goals. In that area, his career-low nine tallies in 64 games fell well short of even the most modest expectations.
The other soon-to-be UFA forward Botterill acquired via trade this season was Michael Frolik. Once again, the Sabres’ GM parted with a mid-round draft pick for a bottom-six forward. While the Vesey trade was far from good, he at least contributed something. Frolik on the other hand, posted terrible metrics at the start of the year with the Calgary Flames, and continued his downward trajectory in Buffalo.
Registering just one tally in 19 games with the blue-and-gold, it was often easy to forget that the 32-year-old was even playing. The gamble of a fourth-round pick wasn’t a heavy cost, but using it to acquire a player whose cap hit directly led to next season’s likely overage, is egregious to say the least.
Rounding out the section is Scott Wilson. Unlike Vesey and Frolik, he spent a majority of the season in the AHL with the Rochester Amerks. It’s possible that he’d return on an minor league deal, but it would be a waste of a contract slot to extend him as a potential veteran call-up.
50/50 Chance (Give or Take)
The following four players are all essentially toss-ups to return. Arguments can be made both for and against all of them, and their respective futures (or lack thereof) with the club will rely, at least in part, on their expected salary.
Comprising two-thirds of the infamous “LOG” line, the headliners here are Johan Larsson, and Zemgus Girgensons. We’ve covered the merits of bringing Larsson back into the fold, so we won’t spend too much time there.
Only Kyle Okposo had a better xGF-percentage than Larsson’s mark of 5.60 on the year. As one of the best defensive centermen in the NHL over the past two seasons, his projected cap hit from Evolving Hockey of $2.93 million AAV over 3-4 years is extremely reasonable.
Girgensons’ situation is a bit less straight-forward. While he too posted very good metrics, it’s unclear whether or not it’s a result of playing alongside Larsson and Okposo. His TOI sample away from those two is very small. His skill set is similar enough to that of Curtis Lazar (a player whose contractual demands will certainly be smaller), where the potential drop-off would be worth the added cap savings.
Speaking of Lazar, he is set to become a free-agent as well. His status as an RFA gives the Sabres some leverage, and a short-term deal for what should be a very modest raise from his current salary of $700,000 is palatable.
Wayne Simmonds could perhaps be the most likely player in this section to return in 2020-21, especially if Botterill is running the show (which appears very likely). After acquiring him from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline, Botterill insinuated that he targeted the 31-year-old free-agent to-be so that Buffalo could get a jump on negotiating his next deal.
Though he only accounted for a $2.5 million cap hit in 2019-20, Simmonds put together what was likely his worst analytical performance since his rookie season with the Los Angeles Kings. Though there is a disparity between his expected-goal total of nearly 15 at five-on-five, and his actual total of eight, his best years are clearly behind him.
Looking to Make the Jump
To this point, things look pretty manageable in the Sabres’ bottom-six. Things get a bit more complicated when you factor in the group of young forwards in the system who appear ready for full-time NHL action.
The only “lock” in this regard is Dylan Cozens. He certainly doesn’t project as a bottom-six player long-term, but the Sabres would be remiss to force him into a second-line role at 19 years old (sounds familiar, eh?). In 2020-21, it’s either Buffalo, or back to juniors for Cozens, so his presence on the roster is all but certain.
Casey Mittelstadt also has a good chance at another shot with the big club. With 25 points in 39 games after being sent down to Rochester, another year in the AHL might not be what’s best for his development. He’s still young at just 21 years old, but as a former eighth-overall draft choice, he needs to show up big next year.
Another Amerk who could justify a promotion is Rasmus Asplund. After a solid start to his 29-game stint with the Sabres, he struggled mightily before being sent back down. As a 22-year-old with NHL potential, he could be an ideal throw-in piece in a larger transaction, especially if the organization doesn’t feel he’s ready for a full-time gig.
Turning our attention to the European ranks, Arttu Ruotsalainen is another prime candidate to make the opening night roster. The 22-year-old posted a career season in SM Liga with 43 points in 44 games. As a naturally talented creator of offense, he is the exact type of complimentary player the Sabres need right now.
Let’s have a little fun, shall we? Knowing the pending and confirmed offensive assets on the books, it’s time to examine which existing assets should be brought back into the fold.
Beyond the players currently on the books, the Sabres are virtually guaranteed to aggressively pursue at least one other piece for the top-six. Let’s say they finally trade a defenseman (and some other stuff) in exchange for a passable 2nd line center.
If the deserving young guns are actually allowed a legitimate opportunity to make the team, Botterill really can’t afford to bring back more than one or two of his pending free-agents in the bottom-six. Even if you feel that someone like Tage Thompson should spend another year in the minors (especially considering the fact that he’ll be coming back from a long-term injury), a potential logjam still exists.
The following lines are somewhat arbitrary, and presumptuous of the Sabres successfully acquiring another centerman. If Botterill keeps all four of Larsson, Girgensons, Simmonds, and Lazar, the problem is pretty evident.
Victor Olofsson - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Jeff Skinner - New Acquisition - Dominik Kahun
Marcus Johansson - Dylan Cozens - Wayne Simmonds (yikes)
Zemgus Girgensons - Johan Larsson - Kyle Okposo
EX: Curtis Lazar
Minors/Juniors: Mittelstadt, Thompson, Ruotsalainen, Asplund
That offensive lineup looks pretty similar to 2019-20, doesn’t it? That is obviously a problem, considering the fact that the Sabres are likely more than one player away from being a playoff contender. Simply put, it’s time to let the young assets contribute in semi-sheltered roles.
So, let’s now say that Botterill elects to only extend Larsson and Lazar, allowing Girgensons and Simmonds to hit the open market. Things look a bit more promising.
Victor Olofsson - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Jeff Skinner - New Acquisition - Casey Mittelstadt
Arttu Ruotsalainen - Dylan Cozens - Dominik Kahun
Marcus Johansson - Johan Larsson - Kyle Okposo
EX: Curtis Lazar
Not too bad. Even if you go a step further and optimistically assume another top-six forward is acquired in addition to a 2nd line center, pushing Johansson down to the “extra” slot is easy enough to do. Botterill could even look into trading the 29-year-old and his $4.5 million cap hit for futures in order to give himself a little more breathing room with the salary cap in that scenario. Asplund and Thompson then become your first and second injury call-ups.
It will be interesting to see what happens here. Fans are very eager to see the next wave of young players try to make their mark and provide desperately needed scoring depth.
Bringing back the same cast of characters isn’t the answer, and outside of a demonstrably valuable asset like Larsson, and an inexpensive depth piece like Lazar, nobody else on offense necessarily warrants an extension, given who they’d be holding back as a result.
xG Metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
RAPM Chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey
All other charts courtesy of Charting Hockey