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Building the Sabres: It’s time to get creative

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Revamping the forward corps will be key

Columbus Blue Jackets v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game One Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

Tasked with assuming the role of General Manager of the Buffalo Sabres, you’ve caught me counting my threads, tightening my tie, and polishing my finest shoes. I lean back in my office chair after pouring a glass of scotch, neat of course, as I feel like I have done what my predecessors haven’t for the last decade - put together a playoff-caliber roster.

It wasn’t easy, as I wanted to be as realistic as possible. It is important to remember that player value, despite the numbers available, is still very subjective. It is impossible to be able to know what other general managers are thinking, without actually engaging in those discussions. So I did my best.

What I mean by “my best” is that I got creative. The Sabres are not a piece or two away from being a contender. Good teams are built through good drafting, but the luxury of time (and patience) is not available to me. Free agency is not a smart route to build a team through, so I mostly deferred to the trade market. I needed to build my team for next season, and I believe I did so successfully.

Without further ado, here’s what I was able to construct:

Restricted Free Agents

There are seven projected restricted free agents expected to sign with the Sabres, and I have no problem retaining them all. I also would’ve loved to reward Lawrence Pilut with an NHL contract, but since he had no way of knowing that before he bolted to the KHL, I will simply qualify him to retain his rights. Here’s the deals I dished out, based off of Evolving-Hockey.com’s contract projections:

  • Sam Reinhart - 5 years, $7 million AAV
  • Victor Olofsson - 3 years, $4.6 million AAV
  • Dominik Kahun - 2 years, $2.9 million AAV
  • Curtis Lazar - 1 year, $813k AAV
  • Tage Thompson - 1 year, $800k AAV

I realize I said I had no problem keeping the seven restricted free agents expected to remain with the club, but only handed out five contracts. That’s because I qualified both Brandon Montour and Casey Mittelstadt with the intention of signing, but other opportunities came across my desk. Stay tuned.

Buyouts

The nice thing about this offseason for the Sabres is that a lot of contracts are coming off the books. While I re-signed a majority of the restricted free agents, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Frolik, Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Vladimir Sobotka, Matt Hunwick, and Scott Wilson are all unrestricted free agents that I will not be pursuing. I did have some interest in bringing Larsson back, but I believe he’s probably looking to find a good fit and some extra cash elsewhere.

There is one player left under contract, however, that is not in my plans going forward. That player is goaltender Carter Hutton. I considered burying him in the minors, but that would leave two-thirds of his cap hit counting against me. Instead, I opted to buy him out in order to spread out the cap hit to only one-third this season and one-third the following season. This gives me a bit more spending room for the upcoming season.

Trades

With draft day coming and going, it’s fair to assume I have drafted a forward at pick number eight. I do not, however, anticipate that player making the team immediately, so I will breeze over the draft and get right into my wheeling and dealing.

Trade 1: The Sabres acquire a 2021 third-round pick from the New York Rangers (originally belonging to Buffalo) in exchange for forward Matej Pekar

There is a plan here. My number one goal this offseason is to upgrade the forward group. It’s not easy to find good forwards, especially top-six caliber talent, so I’m taking an alternative route.

This may not seem like an important deal on the surface, but it is the key to my entire plan. In reacquiring the pick traded for Vesey, I now have the assets required for compensation on an offer sheet in the $6,341,153 - $8,454,871 range, per the CBA, which is a 2021 first-round pick, a 2021 second-round pick, and a 2021 third-round pick. Since the picks have to be a team’s own original pick, this is the only way to make this type of offer sheet possible.

And who would I use it on? You may have guessed already, but my target would be Tampa Bay Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli. Before you put that in ink though, I have another idea. I get on the phone with Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois, and:

Trade 2: The Sabres acquire defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and forward Yanni Gourde from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a 2021 first-round pick and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson

What just happened? Stick with me here, because this is how I see it:

According to CapFriendly.com, the Lightning have only about $5.3 million in projected cap space, with Cirelli, Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Mathieu Joseph to re-sign. Sergachev and Cernak aside, they also only have three defensemen under contract for 2020-2021 in Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Braydon Coburn, so additional defensemen will need to be signed.

Cirelli is projected to earn a cap hit of about $5.8 million per year, and Sergachev about $6.5 million per year. Clearly, the Tampa Bay Lightning are cap trouble - something has to give.

So why didn’t I just hand Cirelli an offer sheet? The answer is pretty simple - I believe BriseBois would do anything he can to match it. Second-line center, as the Sabres surely know, is very difficult to replace. In my mind, any other forward not named Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point becomes instantly expendable to clear up the cap space required to match the offer sheet.

So how did I come away with this trade? By being candid.

My phone call to BriseBois would explain my intentions to offer sheet since reacquiring my third-round pick, but also see if we could work something out instead. If I just made the offer sheet, I could end up without a slice of the pie if it is matched and ensuing cap clearing moves occur with another team. Whereas by simply negotiating a trade instead I am likely to get not only a piece of the pie, but do so with leverage from the looming threat of an offer sheet.

I decided on Sergachev and Gourde for two separate reasons. Sergachev is stuck on the third-pair at left defense behind both Hedman and McDonagh, who have five and six years remaining on their deals, respectively. This makes him expendable, as Hedman has a no-movement clause and McDonagh has a no-trade clause. To allocate significant dollars to a third-pair defenseman doesn’t make much sense, in this case.

Gourde, on the other hand, is one of four forwards on the Lightning roster with a no-trade clause, along with Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn. Steven Stamkos has a no-movement clause. The only other two Lightning forwards that carry major cap hits are Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, who are arguably their best two up front. That leaves Gourde as the most expendable and likely cap dump, in my eyes. He was relegated to fourth-line duty for parts of this past season, and only managed 30 points in his role.

If myself and the Lightning execs can convince him of better opportunity in Buffalo, then I can see him waiving his no-trade clause. I’m sparing a valuable first-round pick and a young defenseman, as this is likely what Tampa Bay will be after. Futures and entry-level contracts will be the most valuable to them going forward, as their core is clearly intact and cap-strapping them for years to come. Also don’t forget that I’m coming from a position of leverage, and Gourde is considered a “cap dump” so this should be enough to pull off this deal.

Trade 3: The Sabres acquire center Dylan Strome from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for defenseman Brandon Montour and a 2021 fourth-round pick

Here’s where Brandon Montour comes into play. Even with Gourde in the mix, this Sabres roster could use an offensive center to play with Jeff Skinner on the second line. Strome would be a good feasible target here, as Kirby Dach has emerged as the front-runner to center Patrick Kane on the Blackhawks’ second line.

Strome is a restricted free agent, so while Chicago may not want to pony up two years at $3.4 million average annual value, I certainly will. He’s not the ideal second-line center, as he does have defensive issues, but the he can serve as the stopgap until Dylan Cozens develops into the role.

Trade 4: The Sabres acquire forwards Bryan Rust and Jared McCann from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and forward Casey Mittelstadt

Ristolainen has been rumored to be on the move for multiple years and to multiple teams, but ultimately I settled on Pittsburgh as the right destination here. Like Tampa Bay, the Penguins will be somewhat cap-strapped, but they clearly want to upgrade their defense corps. Ristolainen is the hot name, and when paired with a former eighth-overall pick in Mittelstadt, I should be able to get a decent return.

Pittsburgh’s top-six is loaded, especially with the mid-season acquisition of Jason Zucker. This leaves a reduced role available for Rust, who stepped up in a big way when asked to play more important minutes due to injuries.

McCann is another restricted free agent who the Penguins may command more dollars than the role available to him in Pittsburgh, especially when those dollars could be allotted to upgrading the defense instead. A good all-around and versatile forward, I gladly would hand McCann the two-year, $3.3 million contract projected by Evolving-Hockey.com.

Trade 5: The Sabres acquire a 2021 third-round pick from the San Jose Sharks (originally owned by Washington) in exchange for forward Marcus Johansson

With all of the wheeling and dealing, I needed to clear some cap space. A team like San Jose can not only afford Johansson’s $4.5 million hit for a year, but he would serve as a good mentor and addition to the Sharks’ young and upcoming forward group that includes a healthy dose of Europeans.

Free Agency

I’ve left myself with about five million dollars to play with for some low-key, underrated additions to fill the two empty spots left on defense, as well as a good tandem partner to pair with Linus Ullmark in net.

Starting with the goalie, I hand a one-year, $3 million contract to Anton Khudobin. “Dobby”, as he is nicknamed, is currently starting for the Dallas Stars in the playoffs and performing pretty well. He is unlikely to re-sign there, as Ben Bishop is their incumbent starter. I can sell him a tandem split on a one-year prove-it deal with the team in order to potentially earn himself some more money come next offseason.

As for the defensemen, I settled on right-handed Jan Rutta, and left-handed Joakim Ryan. Both are underrated puck-movers, and have good underlying offensive metrics. These are quintessential traits I look for in my defensemen, especially with all of the moves I made to overhaul the forwards.

Roster

Here’s how the team looks, after my makeover:

Forwards

Olofsson - Eichel - Reinhart

Skinner - D. Strome - Rust

Gourde - McCann - Kahun

Lazar - Cozens - Okposo

T. Thompson

Defense

Dahlin - C. Miller

Sergachev - Jokiharju

McCabe - Rutta

J. Ryan

Goaltenders

Khudobin

Ullmark

Final Thoughts

In acquiring Strome, Rust, Gourde, and McCann, I have versatile forwards who can play up and down the lineup. Rust and Gourde both measure very favorably on the powerplay and penalty kill as well, which require a major upgrade. Strome can contribute offensively and on the powerplay, and McCann is very strong analytically five-on-five.

On the back-end, Sergachev can chew up important minutes in all situations, but I’d also like to see Jokiharju on the second powerplay unit, as he was strong there in his rookie season in Chicago. I paired Colin Miller with Dahlin, as they seemed to gel nicely by the end of last season.

Of course, pairs and lines can be very fluid. The long-term plan will be for Dylan Cozens to develop into the second center role, but starting him out on the fourth line with two defensively responsible wingers will take a lot of pressure off of him. I can envision him working his way up the lineup throughout the season as he gets more comfortable, and also stepping into special teams roles as well.

After plugging in this lineup, along with the projected powerplay and penalty-kill units, into my points-projection model, this version of a Sabres roster is projected for 97.6 points. To put into context, the most optimal lineup for last-season’s squad capped at only a projected 90.98 points, and that’s if everything went right.

Clearly, 97 points is a significant upgrade and should be enough to get them into the playoffs. Who knows, maybe if the promising young talent on the team takes another leap forward we could see a Sabres team start to do some real damage.