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Building the Sabres: 2020 offseason projection 3.0

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Each staff writer will be putting together their own offseason projection, so I’ll kick it off with my third version on the site

NHL: FEB 20 Jets at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re about halfway through round one of the playoffs, so it feels like a good time to put together another exercise projecting the Sabres roster for next season. Each staff writer on the site will be putting out their roster-building exercise over the next few weeks.

I figured I’d kick things off with my third version of building a roster for next season on this site. As we go along here we’re starting to get a better idea of some players that could realistically be available. We also are starting to get some idea on the trade value of some of the Buffalo Sabres key trade assets.

Enjoy the fun.

Restricted Free Agents

We’ll keep this section short and sweet because nothing is that different from the first few versions I put together. As we all know, the Sabres have a handful of restricted free agents to deal with. Again, most of these contracts are based on projections from Evolving Hockey. Here are the contracts that I gave them:

  • Sam Reinhart - 5 years, $7 million AAV
  • Dominik Kahun - 2 years, $2.75 million AAV
  • Linus Ullmark - 2 years, $2.5 million AAV
  • Victor Olofsson - 4 years, $4.5 million AAV
  • Casey Mittelstadt - 1 year, $958k AAV
  • Tage Thompson - 1 year, $800k AAV
  • Curtis Lazar - 1 year, $813k AAV

Trades

We’ll skip right over the draft this time because regardless of the pick, it won’t impact the roster next season. I’ll jump right into the trades and get into breaking down my thought process on all of the moves.

Trade 1: Sabres acquire Andrew Copp (C) and a 2020 third-round pick from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Rasmus Ristolainen (D)

I’ve been talking about the idea of acquiring Copp from the Jets for over a year now. I’ve felt that he always could play up in the lineup. Fortunately, we got a look at that in the play-in round. When Mark Scheifele went down in Game 1, Copp was elevated to the top line with Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler.

He’s not the long-term answer to second-line center. The long-term solution is hopefully Dylan Cozens, but Copp can fill in for the immediate future. He’s the type of center that fits with Jeff Skinner and can play in all situations for the Sabres.

Some fans would probably like a better return for Ristolainen, but at this point, I feel as though he no longer has the trade value to acquire big-name top-six forward on his own. This feels like an even trade for both sides that fills needs.

Trade 2: Sabres acquire Nick Bjugstad (C/W) and a 2020 fourth-round pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Brandon Montour (D)

Bjugstad is a player that has fought injuries the last few years with the Penguins, but he has the potential to be an impact player. He only has one more year remaining on his contract that carries a cap hit of $4.1 million. You’d hope that you’re getting a motivated player heading into unrestricted free agency that wants to prove his worth.

I like the idea of Bjugstad because I’d put him on a line with Dylan Cozens. I can start Bjugstad at center and it allows Cozens to get his feet wet in the NHL playing on the wing. It’s less responsibility out of the gate and he can focus on creating offense. Then as the season moves along he can transition to center and Bjugstad can move to the wing. This is the same path that the Chicago Blackhawks used with Kirby Dach this season.

Montour’s name was in the news this week with the rumor that the Sabres may not extend him a qualifying offer. That leads me to believe his value is low on the market as an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent that is only one year from unrestricted free agency.

Getting a third line forward and mid-round pick should be seen as a success at this point even though it’s a far cry from the price the Sabres paid to acquire him.

Trade 3: Sabres acquire Michael Grabner (F), Antti Raanta (G), and Matias Maccelli from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Rasmus Asplund (F) and 2020 fourth-round pick

Alright, a lot is going on here. The benefit of only taking a little over $6 million in cap space back after trading Ristolainen and Montour is that they can take on money in another deal. Let’s break it down one piece at a time.

The big-name here is getting another goalie to along with Ullmark in Raanta. In this exercise I waived Carter Hutton to the AHL, saving $1.025 million in salary.

When healthy, Raanta has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL over the last few years. In two of the last three years, he has ranked in the top 11 in goals saved above expected in all situations, according to Evolving Hockey.

The Finnish goaltender has one more year left on his deal with a $4.25 million cap hit. The Coyotes need to dump salary to get under the cap with it remaining flat. The free-agent goaltending market is going to be flooded, so the Sabres may get a discount here in taking salary. The Coyotes cannot afford to pay two goalies over $4 million next season.

Michael Grabner is the cap dump in this situation. He has one year remaining on his deal at $3.35 million. At 32-years-old he’s not the player he used to be with the New York Rangers a few years ago. Having said that, he can still play a role as a fourth-line winger to replace Zemgus Girgensons for one season.

He’s also one of the best penalty killers in the league as you’ll see below in Micah McCurdy’s isolated impact chart. The penalty kill is an area of the game the Sabres can’t ignore in the offseason.

The last piece here is a forward prospect that plays in Liiga. He’s the reward for the Sabres taking nearly $8 million in salary off the books for the Coyotes. Maccelli plays for Ilves along with Arttu Ruotsalainen and Oskari Laaksonen. The 19-year-old was a fourth-round pick of the Coyotes just last year and had a strong rookie season in Liiga. He scored 13 goals and 30 points in 43 games.

Asplund becomes expendable for the Sabres and is why I included him in this deal. He’s replaced with a player in my next move.

Trade 4: Sabres acquire Carter Verhaeghe (C/W) and Braydon Coburn (D) in exchange for a 2020 third-round pick (Jets pick) and Marcus Davidsson (F)

Verhaeghe is another one of those hidden gems buried in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. He’ll be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent in the offseason. The Lightning will have enough issues paying big-name players on the roster. They have other players like Mathieu Joseph, Taylor Raddysh, Alex Barre-Boulet, and Mitchell Stephens that can play the same role as Verhaeghe.

The 25-year-old is not waiver-exempt next season and they may not have room for him on the roster. He’s an underrated player that flashes when you watch the Lightning. He can fill in the role vacated by Johan Larsson but provide more offense.

As I mentioned, Verhaeghe is an RFA, therefore I signed him to a two-year deal with a $1.25 million cap hit.

To make it worthwhile for the Lightning, the Sabres would take on the final season of Braydon Coburn’s contract that carries a $1.7 million cap hit. The only hurdle here could be Coburn waiving his no-trade clause for the Sabres, but in this scenario, we’ll say it happens.

Going the other way is Davidsson. He hasn’t lived up to expectations to this point and I think he would be passed in the prospect pool by the addition of Maccelli in the Coyotes deal. The third-round pick going the other way is the one acquired from the Ristolainen trade with the Jets.

Free Agency

I finished the team by making just one signing in unrestricted free agent defenseman Jon Merrill. I signed him to a one-year, $1.8 million contract. Bringing in Merrill allows a player like Jacob Bryson to play one more season in the AHL and join the Sabres in 2021-22.

I targeted Merrill because he’s a cheap defender that has underrated defensive impacts. I also liked the idea as an attempt to reunite an old pairing that had a lot of success at one point.

Colin Miller and Merrill dominated third-pair minutes with the Golden Knights in over 600 minutes together at 5 on 5. According to Natural Stat Trick, the pair had a 57% shot share (CF%), 59% shot quality share (xGF%), and 65% goal differential (GF%) in two years playing together in Vegas.

Here’s how the final roster breaks down:

Forwards

Olofsson - Eichel - Reinhart

Skinner - Copp - Johansson

Kahun - Bjugstad - Cozens

Grabner/Thompson - Verhaeghe - Okposo

Defense

Dahlin - Borgen

McCabe - Jokiharju

Merrill - Miller

Coburn

Goalies

Ullmark - Raanta

Final Thoughts

If I’m being honest, there are a few things that worry me with this roster. The main one is the defense group. There is a lot of youth I’m relying on. I’m counting on Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju to take big steps next season.

Will Borgen seems like a good fit with Dahlin, but he may not be ready to play big minutes. If that’s the case Miller or even Jokiharju can move into that spot. At the end of this season, Jake McCabe and Jokiharju played well together, thus I’m hoping that pair is serviceable again next season.

This roster would likely need one or two more depth signings on the blue line to play in the AHL in case of a run of injuries in the NHL.

After the overage, there would be roughly $1.5 million in cap space remaining. However, the Sabres do have the option to push their overage cap hit into the 2021-22 season under the new CBA extension.

I wanted to keep in mind that the Sabres need to sign Dahlin and Jokiharju next offseason and the salary cap will be remaining flat at $81.5 million. This roster construction leaves the Sabres with $22.1 million in cap space heading into the 2021 offseason with McCabe, Johansson, Grabner, Raanta, Hutton, and Bjugstad coming off the books. That’s also before any player is selected in the expansion draft.

Speaking of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, this roster puts the Sabres in a good position for that as well. Using the 7-3-1 protection format I’d fill out my protection list as such:

  • Forwards - Eichel, Reinhart, Skinner (NMC), Olofsson, Kahun, Verhaeghe, and Copp
  • Defense - Dahlin, Jokiharju, and Borgen
  • Goaltender - Ullmark

The big names that would be available to the Kraken in this scenario are Mittelstadt, Thompson, Pilut, Okposo, and Miller. This forces the club to make decisions on Mittelstadt and Thompson. If they don’t take strides next season and they don’t want to lose them for nothing they’ll need to move them before the expansion draft.

If they’re worth protecting then things could get a little sketchy at forward. It would be nice if they make it a difficult decision, but I’m not banking on both making big strides that I’d need to protect both.

Well, I hope you enjoyed version 3.0 and look for the other staff members to release their roster construction over the next few weeks.

Data via: Evolving Hockey, Hockeyviz, Natural Star Trick, Byron Bader, and Cap Friendly