Hello Die by the Blade, now that we’re fully into the dog days of summer and there is very little Sabres news to speak of, I thought this would be a good time to throw together my own GM for a Day. Based on how long the Pegula’s keep their front office tenured, I think even a day might be stretching it. I’ve seen a few other GMFD’s recently so I wanted to put my own pen to paper and come up with one that is a little more analytically and process focused to push the Sabres to the next level. Hopefully this is mildly entertaining and at least realistic enough where it can foster some thoughts and discussions.
First and foremost, I do want to try and keep these moves as realistic as possible. As such, I stayed away from big free agent signings because I don’t see any of those taking place this year. As much as I would love to sign a top 6 forward to a reasonable contract, I don’t see them willingly choosing to come to Buffalo without a massive overpay which I’m not willing to do. In this same vein, I don’t expect any players to waive their No Movement Clauses or not include Buffalo on their no-trade lists. And this isn’t just because "lol Buffalo sux"; in a February article in the Athletic, Craig Custance interviewed NHL agents about a variety of topics, one of which was which teams are most likely to be on a player’s no-trade list. Buffalo came in 4th, just behind other cold weather, small market teams like Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Edmonton. If your city is a tough enough sell for free agents & trades you need to be able to at least sell players on a winning culture, willingness to spend, and stability in your organization. The Sabres can offer none of that in their current situation so to expect players to willingly choose to come to Buffalo is just setting yourself up for disappointment.
But the situation is not hopeless and I do think there are plenty of ways to upgrade Buffalo this offseason. I think the best way for the Sabres to accomplish this is through trades, which I am normally against for a rebuilding team. However, we have gotten to a critical point where the Sabres can no longer operate like a rebuilding team, they need to completely flip the switch from Rebuilding to Competing and I think this is the perfect offseason to do that. The main way that I propose to add value to this team: Take advantage of the flat cap and expansion draft. There are teams that are in much worse positions than the Sabres when it comes to both their salary cap situation and their expansion draft situation.
There are going to be a few topics that I will touch on: Drafting (2 Rounds), Free Agents, Trades, Re-Signings, and protections for the expansion draft. Even though this is GM for a Day, this isn’t a fantasy land so there a few changes that, while I would consider making, I don’t think are realistic enough to get into:
- Coaching Change - I think that Krueger is a great coach, I’m just not yet convinced that he’s a great hockey coach. But I am also not a fan of constantly changing directions every other year and I think that can be just as detrimental to a team. Similar to free agents, I don’t see Buffalo being a destination for in-demand coaches. Yes, Gerard Gallant would be nice but that isn’t a dream that I’m even going to entertain.
- Offer Sheets - Offer sheets are specifically designed to favor the team with the player’s rights. If a player is good enough to warrant the draft pick compensation then they’re good enough to have their current team match the offer sheet. It’s not going to happen
- Any other Front Office moves - As much as I would love the Sabres to hire a President or an Assistant GM with front office experience, I just don’t see it happening. The Pegulas specifically downsized their front office with an emphasis on "efficient" and "economical" and adding any more staff to their front office would directly contradict that directive. At the end of the day I have to answer to the hypothetical Pegulas and I have hypothetical food to put on the table for my hypothetical kids, I’m not screwing that up!
First up, the draft. With picks #8 and #38, along with picks in the 4th, 5th, and two in round 7, the Sabres are in a position to add some good depth to their pipeline. Trading out of the 8th overall pick isn’t even something that I considered, adding another young, cheap, talented top 10 pick to the organization is way too valuable.
I also put together a composite rankings of NHL draft prospects using a variety of NHL draft rankings from across the corners of the internet and used these rankings as a best guess for where players are going to get drafted. Obviously this is a pretty inexact science and there will be guys that go higher or lower depending on individual teams but this at least gives us a starting point to work with. Here’s out the top 8 plays woud out in this scenario:
Pick 1: Rangers - Alexis Lafreniere
Pick 2: Los Angeles - Quinton Byfield
Pick 3: Ottawa - Tim Stutzle
Pick 4: Detroit - Lucas Raymond
Pick 5: Ottawa - Marco Rossi
Pick 6: Anaheim - Cole Perfetti
Pick 7: NJ - Jamie Drysdale
Pick 8: Buffalo Sabres - Alexander Holtz RW, Djurgarden - SHL 6’0" 192 lbs.
The Sabres really just need to sit back and let the draft come to them. Don’t try and overthink the pick and don’t try to spend unnecessary resources chasing a prospect that may go a pick or two higher. In an ideal world, one of the teams ahead of Buffalo would take Jake Sanderson and allow Buffalo to have their choice between two forward prospects.
But in this scenario Alex Holtz drops to Buffalo and gives the Sabres another forward prospect that they can add to their pipeline. Scouts rave about Hotlz’s shot and his goal scoring ability, two of the biggest problems that have plagued the Sabres for years. Holtz won’t make an immediate jump to the NHL next year but as an international player the Sabres will be able to have more control over his development path and allow Holtz 2-3 years before coming to the NHL. Obviously Holtz can play his way into the NHL sooner but it would be great to see the Sabres give Holtz a standard development timeline and not force him into action too early: Year 1 - SHL; Year 2 - AHL; Year 3 - NHL.
As for the rest of the 1st round & early 2nd, here is how it shakes out:
Pick 9 - Jake Sanderson
Pick 10 - Iaroslav Askarov
Pick 11 - Anton Lundell
Pick 12 - Jack Quinn
Pick 13 - Dawson Mercer
Pick 14 - Seth Jarvis
Pick 15 - Connor Zary
Pick 16 - Dylan Holloway
Pick 17 - Rodion Amirov
Pick 18 - Maverick Bourque
Pick 19 - Kaiden Guhle
Pick 20 - Noel Gunler
Pick 21 - Hendrix Lapierre
Pick 22 - Jacob Perreault
Pick 23 - JJ Peterka
Pick 24 - Braden Schneider
Pick 25 - Brendan Brisson
Pick 26 - Jan Mysak
Pick 27 - Jeremie Porier
Pick 28 - Helge Grans
Pick 29 - Lukas Riechel
Pick 30 - Ridley Greig
Pick 31 - Tyson Foerster
Pick 32 - Thomas Bordeleau
Pick 33 - William Wallinder
Pick 34 - Justin Barron
Pick 35 - Ryan O’Rourke
Pick 36 - Ozzy Weisblatt
Pick 37 - Marat Khusnutdinov
Pick 38: Buffalo Sabres - Roni Hirvonen C, Assat-Liiga 5’9" 164 lbs.
Full disclosure, I am not an NHL scout and I don’t even play one on a Sabres blog site. This pick is based solely on the rankings from other sites and once we hit the 2nd round it’s a little harder to anticipate who is going to be available, especially when we have no idea where teams are picking once we pass pick 8. But using the composite rankings as a baseline, Roni Hirvonen would be on the best available players around pick 38 and would be a great addition to the Sabres’ organization. Adding another forward would really help the depth chart up front but, unlike Holtz, Hirvonen is more of a playmaker than a scorer. The biggest knock on Hirvonen is his size but he’s been extremely productive against his peers even though he played a full season in Liiga last year despite not turning 18 until Jan ‘02.
Other Potential Options: Jake Neighbours, Vasiliy Ponomarev, Ty Smilanic
If the draft did turn out this way I would be very interested to see what some of the other better scouts on this site would think of this pick or what they would do differently.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t anticipate the Sabres being able to lure the sort of talented free agents that the Sabres so desperately need; so instead we turn our attention toward the trade market. Now, I’m a big advocate for drafting and developing as the best way to add value to your organization while trades should be used more to fill in the gaps of the organization or add the last piece that pushes the team into contention. For Buffalo, we are stuck in the middle of these two philosophies: The Sabres aren’t one big trade away from being a perennial contender but we have hit a point where Buffalo needs to add value in a hurry so sticking with just drafting and developing doesn’t move the organization forward quickly enough (even if it is more efficient). So we need almos a hybrid strategy of adding talent that can help now but is young enough where the Sabres can still develop and retain, extending their contention window over a longer period of time.
Fortunately for Buffalo, there are two major threats for other teams that can create great value opportunities for Buffalo: The expansion draft and the flat salary cap. For the expansion draft, some teams are facing the realities of potentially losing players for nothing and should be way more motivated to make a trade in order to recoup some sort of value. And with a flat salary cap, there are teams like Arizona, Tampa, New York Islanders, and Chicago that are going to be facing some very difficult decisions in order to get cap compliant. And the Sabres are poised to take advantage of the troubles of some of these teams.
I also want to do something that I’m not sure the Sabres have done since the Pegulas have taken over: Define a strategy and execute based on that criteria. Based on the hybrid model proposed earlier, here are the objectives that the Sabres need to execute on:
Add Scoring Depth - The Sabres have been woefully inept when it comes to depth scoring. The main goal here is to not only add talent, but to add enough talent throughout the lineup so that everyone in the organization can fit into roles that suit them. Depth and flexibility go hand-in-hand so we want to make sure we can have multiple lineup configurations so the players in the organization do not get pigeon-holed into roles that do not suit them.
Prioritize Current Value - The Sabres are not in a position to completely mortgage the future, but they also aren’t in the position to act like a rebuild. Right now, players that are in the NHL or prospects on the cusp of being in the NHL are much more important than picks or prospects who may be a few years away. Again, the pipeline is important but for a team that’s looking to turn the corner we’re at a section where the Sabres need to make winning right now a priority. So while someone like Casey Mittelstadt could be used as a trade chip, he should be a greater priority than, let’s say, the Sabres 2021 1st round pick since he can contribute immediately.
Focus on Youth - While the Sabres do need to add value now, they also can’t close their window before it opens. For as much as has been made about wasting Eichel’s prime years, he is still under contract for another 6 years. This is not the time to completely throw caution to the wind and add an aging veteran who might make the team better now, but whose bloated contract is going to provide a poor return on investment within the next couple of years. The goal should be to make a team that is immediately a playoff contender next year, but one that still has room to grow into a Stanley Cup contender within Eichel’s contract window.
Also of note, I tried to overpay on these trades as much as possible. If there is a trade proposal that is an absolute no-brainer in favor of Buffalo, it’s likely a no-brainer for the other team to say no. Of course, I would love to get any of these proposed deals for cheaper but I also want to be realistic, so consider these trades to be Buffalo’s "best and final" offer in the negotiations.
Buffalo Receives: 2021 3rd Round pick; Logan Brown, C (Contract 1 Year, $863,333 ELC)
Ottawa Receives: Brandon Montour
Why Would Buffalo Do This?
Buffalo traded a 1st round pick and Brendan Guhle for Brandon Montour just a few years ago so only being able to get a 3rd round pick in this deal is bad asset management. But you know what else is bad asset management? Considering sunk costs when considering what’s best for the team right now. The Sabres currently have depth on the right side of the defense with Ristolainen, Jokiharju, and Miller and Borgen right on the cusp of making the jump to the NHL; losing Montour may not even cause the D to lose a step
In addition to the right side depth, Montour and his RFA contract may be too pricey for the Sabres moving forward anyways. Montour didn’t seem to mesh well with Krueger’s style last year and seemed to be the odd man out at times, even skating at forward for a few games. He also might be the odd man out when it comes to the Seattle expansion draft, depending on who the Sabres decide to keep. With Jokiharju and Dahlin the only locks, it’s entirely possible that Montour gets exposed and lost to Seattle for nothing. Being able to shed some salary and pick up some good assets would still be an overall win, despite the bad ROI.
In return the Sabres get a 3rd round pick and the 11th pick in the 2016 NHL draft, Logan Brown. Brown is huge, listed at 6’6" 220 lbs, and would be another high potential 1st round prospect that the Sabres could add to the organization to go along with guys like Mittelstadt and Thompson. Brown has yet to really break out at the NHL level, he only has 8 points in 29 career NHL games, but the potential is there. At only 22 he’ll be able to compete with the aforementioned Mittelstadt and Thompson, as well as Asplund and Cozens, for a starting spot in the Sabres’ lineup. With this group of young players, the Sabres forward pipeline looks a little more robust and they can have some real competition for NHL spots up and down the lineup.
Why Would Ottawa Do This?
Outside of an ill-advised Matt Duchene trade that ended up with Ottawa giving up the 4th overall pick in 2019, the Senators’ rebuild has gone very well. Ottawa has a good young group of NHL players, a strong pipeline, and a ridiculous amount of draft picks: 9 in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft including three first rounders and 2 in the top five. The next thing Ottawa needs is some established NHL talent.
Last year the Ottawa Senators had one of the worst defenses in the league with their Goals Against and Expected Goals Against both ranking near the bottom of the league. For the Seattle expansion draft, some teams have the unenviable position of having too many players that need to be protected. For the Ottawa defense, they have the opposite problem. Outside of Thomas Chabot, the Senators don’t seem to have any great options for who they need to protect which makes adding another NHL caliber defender a priority. The Senators are also the only team in the NHL who has more projected cap space than Buffalo so a Montour extension would not be difficult to fit into their cap. And Ottawa does have a strong pipeline of defenders coming through their system (Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker) so having another NHL defenseman like Montour would shelter those prospects from taking on too much responsibility too early.
Overall, Montour has been difficult to gauge, his point totals have been impressive including back to 30+ point seasons in 2017/18 & 2018/19. But his on-ice contributions have been mediocre like this year’s 44.54 xGF% which ranked near the bottom of the league. However, it would be hard to argue that adding a mobile defender with Top 4 upside like Montour wouldn’t make this Ottawa team immediately better, especially considering a 39 year old Ron Hainsey was third on the team in 5 on 5 TOI. If Montour fits with Ottawa the same way he did when he first came to Buffalo under Housley (10 points in 25 games, 52.61 xGF%), Ottawa could take a major step forward while putting their prospects in a better position to succeed.
As for Logan Brown, he seems to have become Ottawa’s version of Mittelstadt. Brown failed to break through in the NHL last season, he split his time between the NHL and AHL and has fallen behind some of the other Ottawa prospects like Josh Norris and Shane Pinto. After last season, the readers of the Ottawa Senators’ SB Nation site actually voted Brown as the Senators’ most disappointing prospect, despite only turning 22 in March and putting up 28 points in 25 AHL games. While Brown’s ceiling is still incredibly high, the sheer amount of prospects and picks that are starting to come through the Ottawa pipeline make Brown more expendable and change of scenery could be exactly what is needed from both sides. And on top of that, Brown does need to be protected in the expansion draft and unlike their defense Ottawa has enough forwards where exposing Brown could be an option. By moving on from Brown, Ottawa has the ability to protect someone else that might have been on the cusp of getting exposed like Chris Tierney.
Buffalo Receives: Jake Bean, LD (Contract 1 Year, $863,333 ELC)
Carolina Receives: Ryan Johnson, 2021 3rd Round Pick
Why Would Buffalo Do This?
While Buffalo has a log jam on the right side of their defense, the same cannot be necessarily said for their left side. Dahlin is clearly the top pairing, franchise defenseman on the left side but outside of that it’s a little murkier. McCabe is probably not much more than a bottom pairing guy and even though Jacob Bryson had a great first season in the AHL, it’s probably not wise to rush him into the NHL right away. There is clearly a need for another left shot defenseman to add to the mix and the Sabres have the luxury of being able to add someone that they can protect in the expansion draft.
Jake Bean, the 13th overall pick in 2016, has been exceptional at the AHL level, culminating in his AHL Defenseman of the Year Award this past season. The only thing that Jake Bean hasn’t done? Contribute at the NHL level. Carolina’s ridiculous depth on defense has kept Bean in the AHL for far longer than he probably likes. But in Buffalo there’s nothing keeping Bean from immediately jumping into an NHL role and his addition would give the Sabres a fantastic trio of young, mobile, modern defenseman along with Dahlin and Jokharju. Giving up Ryan Johnson in the process probably won’t make Sabres fans too upset, but Johnson could easily develop into that same type of defense in a few years down the line. The problem is the Sabres are at a juncture where they don’t have the luxury to be able to wait a few years for a player to develop, so moving on from Johnson in order to get Bean is a deal this team will take any day of the week.
Why Would Carolina Do This?
Having arguably the best group of defenseman in the NHL is a gift and a curse. During the expansion draft, it’s definitely a curse. For Carolina it is going to be extremely difficult to not lose a valuable asset during the expansion draft, especially on the back end. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Carolina doesn’t protect Dougie Hamilton, Jacob Slavin, and Brett Pesce, which would be all of their defense if they went with the 7 forward, 3 defense model. Unfortunately for Carolina, this means that there are going to be some defenders that are going to be very attractive for Seattle, including Jake Bean who, like Logan Brown in the last trade, is stuck in between being a prospect and still being expansion draft eligible. For Carolina there are really two options:
Protect 3 defenseman (Hamilton Slavin, Pesce) and risk losing Bean for nothing
Go with the 8 skater route, protect Bean as the 4th D, but risk losing one of their forwards.
For Carolina, trading away Jake Bean would be a hard pill to swallow, but it would be better than losing him for nothing to Seattle. And considering that Bean has yet to really play at the NHL level, trading him away would allow the team to recoup some assets and not affect their NHL roster. Even if Carolina does decide to protect four defenseman, they have options to protect like Brady Skeji, Jake Gardiner, or Haydn Fleury. But at least if Gardiner or Skeji are exposed, the Hurricanes would be able to get some cap space in return, as opposed to losing Bean who would just be coming off his ELC. Carolina is also much deeper on defense than they are at forward, so risking losing a good top 6 forward like Niederrieter or Trochek, or anyone else they might add this offseason, could be a lot more detrimental.
While the Sabres don’t have the luxury to be patient with a prospect like Ryan Johnson, Carolina does. Johnson doesn’t need to be protected in the expansion draft, which is extremely valuable, so Carolina is trading one first round defensive prospect for another while just pushing their development timeline back a few years. For an organization like Carolina, they can be patient and allow Johnson to develop, having him move through their pipeline and into the NHL as their defensive core gets older. And unlike Buffalo, Carolina has a much better track record of developing prospects so the likelihood that Johnson actually hits his ceiling is much better with Carolina.
Arizona Receives: 2022 2nd Round pick, Marcus Davidsson, CJ Smith
Why Would Buffalo Do This?
I will start by acknowledging the obvious: This is a massive overpayment. But there’s a reason for this and it’s all financial. The Sabres are taking on nearly $11 million in cap space by acquiring Raanta and Stepan who are essentially cap dumps, albeit ones that are upgrades for Buffalo. But the key here is how the contracts are structured: In this scenario the Sabres are only taking on $4 million in actual salary. Both Raanta and Stepan are due to only make $2 million in base salary each in the upcoming year but Raanta has a $2 million signing bonus while Stepan has a $3 million signing bonus. So call this a ROR (Reverse O’Reilly): The Sabres are paying a premium to acquire these players so that Arizona pays the signing bonus and the Sabres only have to pay the $4 million in base salary. It’s unfortunate that the Sabres need to use premium assets just so that they can control costs, but that’s the world that we currently live in.
As for the players themselves, while neither are necessarily worth their heft price tags they both fill needs on the Sabres roster. Stepan just turned 30 and is a few years removed from the 50 point player that Arizona traded the 7th overall pick for. His point totals have steadily decreased the past couple of years and he only registered 28 points (10G + 18A) in 70 games last year and his xGF% dropped to 47.95%, one of the lowest marks of his career. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, as Stepan was essentially asked to be the 1C for most of his time in Arizona and he recorded the most 5 on 5 TOI of any forward on Arizona last year. But in Buffalo Stepan could slot into the Sabres’ middle 6 and be an immediate upgrade while not playing the heavy minutes that he played last year. Stepan also plays in all situations, he was one of the top penalty killers for Arizona last year and also played on the power play, and comes with years of playoff experience. With his contract only lasting one year, he would essentially be a buffer for another year until the young players are ready to take on bigger roles. And when they are ready to take on bigger roles as the year goes on, Stepan’s versatility can allow him to play wherever he’s needed throughout the lineup, whether that’s on the 2nd line or in the Larsson role on the 4th line.
As for Raanta, he would be a huge upgrade in net for the Sabres, allowing Buffalo to use him and Ullmark as a 1-2 punch. Last year Raanta was technically the backup to Kuemper but his numbers read like a bonafide starter: 2.63 GAA and a .921 save percentage. His fancy stats were just as kind: For goalies that played at least 15 games Raanta was top 10 in both Goals Saved Above Average and Goals Saved Above Expected. The only problem? Kuemper was top 3 in both categories. For the Sabres, Ullmark was fairly middle of the pack in both categories and still can be relied on in a starter role but Carter Hutton was bottom 10 in both categories. There are still a few questions to be answered for the Sabres in goal, like how long will UPL’s development take and whether or not Ullmark is a long term solution. But adding Raanta would immediately boost the Sabres and could be the difference between a playoff team and another bottom 10 finish.
Why Would Arizona Do This?
For Arizona, this trade would be an absolute godsend. The Coyotes have almost no cap space for next year, like, literally, and that’s before attempting to re-sign Taylor Hall. The Coyotes need to shed cap space in the worst way and this trade is a perfect opportunity for them to do this.
The Coyotes are set at the goalie position with Kuemper establishing himself as one of the better goalies in the entire league and the Coyotes extended his contract for the next two years at $4.5 mil. The Coyotes also have Adin Hill in the organization, who put up solid numbers in 13 games at the NHL level last year and could easily replace Raanta as a cheaper backup option to Kuemper. The Coyotes even have a good goalie prospect in Ivan Prosvetov who they selected in the 4th round in 2018. Simply put, there’s really no place for Raanta in the organization so being able to get a return without really losing anything would be a massive win for Arizona.
Losing Stepan would be a slightly bigger blow for Arizona, while his numbers were not worth the $6.5 mil price tag, he was an important player in their organization. But like in goal, the Coyotes have enough depth so that losing Stepan might not even matter. Currently, the Coyotes have Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz that also play down the middle and top prospect Barret Hayton will likely be ready to take on an increased role next year. With Stepan’s $6.5 mil coming off the books, the Coyotes have the ability to lock up former MVP Taylor Hall while keeping their young group together.
As for the return, the real return for Arizona is the cap space, so being able to also acquire some picks and prospects would be an incredible windfall for Arizona. But of course, this comes with the caveat that Arizona will be paying $5 million in signing bonuses to players that aren’t on their roster anymore. The $10.75 mil in cap space is wonderful but that $5 million in real dollars is difficult to justify in most normal years, let alone one that may be affected with declining revenues because of COVID. Arizona is also not exactly known to be flush with cash; from owner changes to stadium issues to relocation worries, Arizona isn’t known as the most stable organization and may not be the first choice of an organization that is going to throw away $5 million. But if the new owners truly want this team to be competitive, it’s going to be nearly impossible to turn down this deal. Arizona gets the cap space they need, a 2nd round pick, a young prospect in Marcus Davidsson that doesn’t need to be protected in the expansion draft, and a potential cheap bottom 6 contributor in CJ Smith. Smith has developed into a good offensive threat in the AHL but it seems as if he’s hit his ceiling with Buffalo. He gets a fresh start in Arizona and, given the opportunity, could compete for an NHL roster spot.
Buffalo Receives: Dylan Strome, C (RFA);
Chicago Receives: Conditional 2021 2nd Round pick*; 2022 3rd Round pick; Carter Hutton
*If the Sabres make the playoffs, the pick will be upgraded to a 1st round pick
Why Would Buffalo Do This?
Oh, you thought that Derek Stepan was the only Center that the Sabres were going to add? Well, guess again. The Big Move, the Sabres once again upgrade down the middle by adding Dylan Strome, the 2015 3rd overall pick who was picked right after Jack Eichel.
Strome, who has now bounced from Arizona to Chicago to Buffalo, seems like he’s been around for years but still just turned 23 in March and is an RFA without arbitration rights. Strome found immediate success with Chicago, putting up 51 points (17G, 34A) in his first 58 games but didn’t maintain that pace this season with "only" 38 points (12G, 26A) in 58 games. It’s difficult to peg exactly what kind of player Strome is, even with his lofty point totals his underlying numbers haven’t been stellar, he has a 45% xGF% in his two years in Chicago, but his ceiling is still incredibly high. He may wind up getting the Reinhart treatment, a good top 6 forward who is considered a mild disappointment due to his draft status. But in Buffalo, the Sabres would be able to put Strome in a great position with Eichel and the newly acquired Stepan giving Strome favorable matchups.
Going the other way is a conditional second round pick that can turn into 1st if the Sabres make the playoffs, along with a 3rd round pick and Carter Hutton. While trading away a 1st round pick would be less than ideal, I think many Sabres fans would gladly bite the bullet if that means the Sabres make the playoffs, ending the longest drought in the NHL. The Sabres also get to move on from Hutton, who became expendable with the addition of Raanta.
Why Would Chicago Do This?
One reason: Cap Space. Right now the Blackhawks are projected to have only around $7 million in cap space during the upcoming offseason and that’s before signing Strome or Kubalik, their 30 goal scoring Calder finalist, to new contracts. Oh, and they have no goalies on the roster. The Blackhawks have some big contracts that may be near impossible to move, like Brent Seabrook, so they are going to have to get creative in order to stay under the cap.
Moving on from Strome likely wouldn’t be Chicago’s first choice, but with a new contract for Kubalik and a decent depth down the middle with Toews and Kirby Dach, Strome might be the easiest piece to move in order for Chicago to stay under the cap. Chicago also may have some difficult decisions to make for the expansion draft, Seabrook and Duncan Keith both have no movement clauses so Chicago may need to seriously consider keeping 4 defenseman or risk losing some of their better young defenseman. And if they do keep 4 defensemen and 4 forwards, they also run the risk of losing a good young forward, like Strome or our old friend Alex Nylander.
With all these unanswered questions, potentially getting a 1st round pick is pretty appealing especially for a team that is still in the middle of a "retool". Chicago would likely be banking on the fact that Strome is good enough to help get the Sabres into the playoffs, but not past the 1st round, which would give them a pretty solid spot in the draft. The Blackhawks also get Carter Hutton in the deal, which would give them at least an NHL goaltender on their roster. We’ve gone over Hutton’s struggles last year, but he has had a good track record and at $2.75 mil was only the 35th highest paid goalie in the league last year. Corey Crawford is an unrestricted free agent and it’s unclear if he’ll be back next year. Chicago also has Malcolm Subban on their roster but it’s unclear if he’s even an NHL level goaltender. At least with Hutton, the Blackhawks have the start of an inexpensive goalie tandem that allows them to sign Kubalik and keep the majority of their roster together.
With the salary cap not increasing, the free agent market is shaping up to be very interesting and I think teams could get deals this year that normally would not be available. I think the contracts in free agency will be shorter and cheaper than they have been in years past, partially due to the potential loss of revenue and partially due to the uncertainty surrounding the salary cap. Teams are going to be a lot more hesitant to sign big, long term contracts with such an uncertain future regarding revenues and players may not want to sign their big deals in a year where their cap hit percentage is going to be lower than in a year with a rising cap.
But like I mentioned at the beginning, I really don’t see any big name free agents coming to Buffalo unless the Sabres are willing to dramatically overpay. However, I do think that there are good options that are worth exploring even if it’s unlikely that they will sign with Buffalo. Obviously the Sabres need help down the middle and there aren’t any great pure Centers on the free agent market. But there are two versatile forwards who can play Center in the Sabres middle 6 and move out the wings as the Sabres Center prospects, like Mittelstad, Cozens, and Asplund, continue to develop: Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula. Either of these options would be great additions and would make some of the trades from earlier obsolete, allowing the Sabres to keep a few more assets. But both of these options are more wishful thinking than anything, even though I am the GM for a Day, I don’t see a reasonable scenario where either of these players come to Buffalo. Both players fit a similar mold to the Johansson signing last year, versatile forwards coming off down years that can slot into the Center position but the difference is Granlund and Haula have played Center a lot more recently than Johansson. But with another year without the playoffs, front office turmoil, and an "internal cap", I’m not confident that either player could be lured to Buffalo without big contracts that could handicap Buffalo’s chance a couple years down the road, which is why we immediately turned to the trade market to grab Strome and Stepan instead.
For the Sabres, their heavy lifting was done through trades so I think there may only be a few spots to add anyone. I also think with the new "internal cap" there is going to be a priority about having as many one way contracts in Rochester as possible to help keep costs down. Why pay someone $700,000 when you can pay someone else $70,000? I think for this reason there isn’t going to be a big rush to sign AHL/NHL tweeners like Dea, Gilmour, or Lazar like there was last year. However, I do think there is one position that the Sabres still need to round out their roster and that’s a 7th defenseman. Borgen and Bryson are both knocking on the door for the NHL but since neither need waivers (and only cost $70,000 in the AHL) the Sabres could use a veteran to act as a locker room influence while only playing sparingly if there’s an immediate need. There’s no reason to waste Borgen and Bryson on the bench in Buffalo, have both of them play as the top pairing in Rochester and allow a veteran defenseman to sit in the press box.
The player who would fit this role would be an older, veteran player who has a good amount of playoff experience and is good enough to fill in in emergency but also bad enough to only sign for the veteran minimum. For as much as I would love a player like Jay Bouwmeester or Andy Greene in this role, they probably have enough left in the tank where they can make more than the veteran minimum. There are also quite a few veterans that have had long careers but not the playoff experience like Michael Del Zotto. Or there’s someone like Trevor Daley, who fits the veteran defenseman with playoff experience mold, he did win two Cups with Pittsburgh, but his numbers were so atrocious last year and he’ll be 37 by this upcoming year that I’m not confident that he wouldn’t be a complete liability. Which leads us to:
Luca Sbisa - 1 year, $700,000
Is he good? No not really, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and hasn’t played a full season since 2016/17. But he’s a 10 year veteran that comes with a decent amount of playoff experience (32 games). This isn’t the sexiest signing in the world, but as someone whose job is to be depth this is the type of veteran that can step in if need be but should be in the press box more often than not. There’s also a ton of familiarity between Sbisa and Krueger: Krueger coached Sbisa at both the Olympics in 2010 and the World Cup as part of Team Europe in 2016. Sbisa won’t keep Borgen out of the NHL if there are injuries but he can also step in and play if needed and allow Bryson to have as much time as he needs in Rochester.
After adding new pieces to the roster, we need to re-sign the players that are already here, and a new RFA in Dylan Strome. Like I did with the trade section, I want to develop a strategy and set forth guidelines for how the Sabres handle re-signing their own players.
Let All UFA’s Walk - The Sabres have quite a few pending unrestricted free agents and at this point I don’t really see a need to keep any of them around. I think a few of these players like Larsson, Girgensons, and Vesey could still be contributors in the bottom 6 but I don’t see a need to try and pay market value for any of these players. For the Sabres, it’s time to get some fresh faces into the lineup and for guys like Larsson and Girgs, it’s probably best for a fresh start somewhere else.
Keep All RFA’s - Restricted free agency is designed to help organizations keep their players, so I think it should be used to its fullest extent. Even though players like Remi Elie and Brandon Hickey likely won’t amount to anything in the NHL, I think it’s important to have depth all through the lineup so keeping those types of players is still beneficial down the line. Letting players like these walk means you will still have to back fill their positions, which usually means going to the market and bidding against other teams for a player’s services. This year may be different since AHL contracts have different compensation than NHL contracts, which is a big factor this year, so I could see some of the players not getting qualified but still signing AHL deals, like Eric Cornel did last year. But for the sake of this exercise, everyone is getting qualified.
Prioritize Bridge Deals - This one definitely deviates from a lot of fans who like to sign long term contracts in hopes of getting a "deal". Personally, I want control over a contract as long as possible and want to break those big deals into more manageable chunks. Unlike other leagues, it’s hard to get out from under an awful contract in the NHL and with the types of overpayments that usually occur when a player hits unrestricted free agency, I think keeping control over a player using restricted free agency and smaller bridge deals is a smarter play.
With all that being said, here is a look at how the Sabres re-signings shake out -
Long Term Deals
Sam Reinhart - 6 years, $6.75 mil
Linus Ullmark - 3 years, $3 mil
Reinhart gets his long term deal to keep the trio of him, Eichel, and Skinner together for a 6 year window. Initially I had thought about trying to buy up an extra UFA year but instead stuck with the 6 year deal in order to keep the cost slightly lower with so much uncertainty about revenue.
For Ullmark this deal is right in line with what some of his recent contemporaries signed for, including David Rittich and Joonas Korpisalo. Unlike with Reinhart, I did decide to give Ullmark slightly more term because of the uncertainty with UPL’s development timeline. Ullmark gives the Sabres some baseline competency in goal for another 3 years at a cap hit that isn’t even "starter" level.
Victor Olofsson - 2 years, $3.5 mil
Dylan Strome - 2 years, $3.1 mil
Dominik Kahun - 2 years, $2.5 mil
This is going to be the controversial part of the re-signings as I chose not to give Olofsson a long term deal. Again, I’m a big believer in bridge deals and keeping control over Olofsson’s contract gives the Sabre the most flexibility moving forward. And while it would be nice to get a deal on Olofsson’s contract, I’m also not in a hurry to sign him to a long term deal after one very good season on Eichel’s wing like the Sabres did with Jeff Skinner. Could this bite the Sabres in the ass? You betcha. But I’m still waiting for the day where a Sabres’ prospect blows up during a bridge deal and "makes them pay". I hope Olofsson does just that, blows up for two years and requires a massive pay increase but until that happens, I want Buffalo to keep control of the contract and force Olofsson to earn that payday with more than one good year.
Similar to Olofsson, Strome gets a bridge deal. Strome doesn’t have arbitration rights but it also wouldn’t be wise to low ball a player that was recently acquired. Also like Olofsson, this would give Strome a chance to establish himself and earn his massive payday down the line. Again, there’s always a worry that Strome could play his way into a huge contract after this bridge deal and force the Sabres to make tough decisions, but with how many problems the Sabres have had over the years, having their players play too well and earn their deals would definitely be a welcome problem.
After the trades and re-signings the Sabres still have enough cap space to be comfortable but likely no more room to sign any players. With the new CBA the Sabres can split their bonus overages between this year and next year, which is what I did. Taking into account the newly signed contracts, along with the players that were acquired, the Sabres should have a little less than $2 mil in cap space for the upcoming year, which is enough to be able to call up prospects if there are injuries without relying on the LTIR. And with the less money coming off the books thanks to the Stepan/Raanta trade, the Sabres should actually be in a very good position from their "internal cap" perspective.
Opening Night Lineup
This is the fun part. With all the new acquisitions, the Sabres should have some real, actual competition for roster spots. Unlike past years, there are multiple ways that the lineup can be configured and prospects that may not be ready for the NHL don’t have to be forced into positions. If the Sabres don’t think Cozens is ready and would rather have his contract slide another year in Juniors, they have other players that can take his place. If Mittelstadt looks to be an NHL winger, they have the center depth to move him to the outside. If Asplund surprises everyone and forces his way to the NHL, guys like Mittelstadt and Logan Brown can be moved to the AHL.
Below is one option for how the opening night lineup could look based on the new acquisitions. I’d be interested to see how others would configure these lines with the roster assembled
Johansson - Eichel - Cozens
Skinner - Strome - Reinhart
Olofsson - Stepan - Kahun
Thompson - Brown - Okposo
Callups: Mittelstadt, Asplund
On the top line, Eichel gets running mates that may not be able to drive line by themselves or require some sheltering but can keep the top line producing like a true top line. Johansson is back to playing his natural position and Cozens gets put in a great position to succeed without having too much responsibility. Eichel is still the catalyst and with Johansson acting as the veteran presence, Cozens gets to ride shotgun and acclimate to the NHL.
The second line might be the best the Sabres have had in many, many years. Reinhart finally gets to drive his own line, Skinner gets two great distributors to feed him, and Strome is put in a great position to succeed with scoring and defensive help on the wings.
On the third line, Stepan is put in a position that suits him for where he is in his career and allows him to play his two way game while having talent on the wings. Both Olofsson and Kahun get to take advantage of the favorable matchups thanks to the new strength of the top 6 and provide depth scoring while still having Stepan provide some defensive stability. It also gives Olofsson a chance to prove that he can produce at 5 on 5 away from Eichel.
Finally, the fourth line is massive, but also has some good skill and scoring ability. Thompson (6’6" 215 lbs) and Brown (6’6" 220 lbs) make Okposo (6’0" 216 lbs) look small by comparison. This line could be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams with their size and length but each player is a legitimate scoring threat.
Lazar makes for a nice scratch player that can slide into the bottom 6 when necessary, not to mention being a high character locker room influence. Mittestadt and Asplund start in the AHL but probably won’t be there long depending on injuries, they also put a lot of pressure on the starters and could jump into action if anyone disappoints, including Cozens’ first 9 games. Thompson and Brown also provide nice options to move up the lineup as the season progresses, giving this entire roster the flexibility that it hasn’t had in a long time.
Dahlin - Ristolainen
McCabe - Jokiharju
Bean - Miller
Callups: Borgen, Bryson
Obviously this is Dahlin’s defense now and he actually formed a pretty solid pair with Ristolainen last year (52.8 xGF% in over 90 minutes last year). Hopefully another year will turn Dahlin into a true #1, Norris-level defenseman and allow Risto to eat minutes but play a more complimentary role. The other two lines are pretty interchangeable between the 2nd/3rd pair, but the young puck movers in Bean and Jokiharju get their veteran counterparts to form a really solid bottom 4.
The free agent signing Sbisa will be scratched most of the time but can fill in if needed. Any long term holes would be filled by Borgen or Bryson, whichever one earns in the spot while playing on the top line the AHL.
Raanta likely slides in as the starting goaltender but really this duo could split time 50/50 without any issues. Both have proved to be capable NHL goalies and would allow the Sabres to play the hot hand.
AHL Starting Lineup
Murray - Mittelstadt - Dea
Pekar - Asplund - Oglevie
Elie - Ruotsalainen - Olofsson
Biro - Dipietro - Franco
Bryson - Borgen
Samuelsson - Fitzgerald
Hickey - Laaksonen
It may seem like a long way off, but it’s important to look at the potential protection lists for the Seattle Expansion Draft. With the new additions and some important returning players to keep, the Sabres are in a position to lose a decent player but will hopefully have acquired enough depth to come out relatively unscathed. For the forwards there are a few no-brainers with quite a few players on the bubble that may not get decided until the end of next season. On defense, the Sabres now have three top young defenseman that are easy selections to keep.
Last Two In: Dominik Kahun, Casey Mittelstadt
Bubble (3): Tage Thompson, Logan Brown, Rasmus Asplund
The bad news for Buffalo is there’s a decent chance that someone good gets selected by Seattle during the expansion draft. The good news is that Seattle can only select one player. With the depth that the Sabres have acquired, they can leave Thompson, Brown, and Asplund exposed and still keep at least two of them. With the seven forwards that they have already protected, at least two out of Thompson, Brown and Asplund, and Cozens, who doesn’t need to be protected, the Sabres already have a top 9 carved out for 2021 and then some. Ideally, the Sabres wouldn’t lose any of these players but it also wouldn’t be a devastating loss. And even though Kahun and Mittelstadt are currently the last two players being protected, that could easily change before the draft depending on how Brown and Thompson play during the year. I think Kahun should be protected as it stands right now but if Brown, Thompson, and Mittelstadt start showing that they are capable of hitting their ceilings, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that Kahun could be left unprotected.
After the acquisition of Jake Bean this group should be a no-brainer. With only one year left on their contracts, I don’t think it’s worth using a spot on Risto or Miller and either player would free up cap space that Buffalo could use for extensions next year. Worst case scenario here is Seattle taking Borgen which would hurt depth while not freeing up cap space, but this would not be a massive loss considering Borgen’s lack of NHL experience. I think it’s more likely that Seattle looks at Buffalo’s young forwards so the six players listed could easily make up the Sabres’ defense for 2021.
Lock: Linus Ullmark
With Hutton traded, Raanta being a free agent, and UPL not needing to be exposed, this is another easy decision. Jonas Johnasson would exposed in this situation and if Seattle decided to select him over Tage Thompson, Logan Brown, Rasmus Asplund, or Will Borgen then more power to them.
As my time as GM comes to a close, probably because I didn’t fire someone the Pegulas wanted me to, I think the team is in a great place. We added enough talent so the Sabres can immediately make the playoffs but young enough so that the team can still grow into a legitimate contender over the next few years. We didn’t completely handicap the team’s salary cap situation moving forward by adding any huge contracts but also didn’t sell the farm just to get 2-3 years from a single player before risking having them leave in free agency. The Sabres should have the flexibility to be able to re-sign their young players depending on their development but any important young players are RFA’s so we don’t risk having to overpay to keep any UFA’s for quite a while. I think this is the right balance of trying to compete now while still looking at the big picture that could lead to quite a few good years for the Sabres’ organization.
Please feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments!
Sources: Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Wild, The Athletic, Cap Friendly