What a bizarre season the Buffalo Sabres just had; the only normal thing was that they didn't make the playoffs. With the future of just about every major player up in the air, this offseason could go a lot of different ways. With that in mind, I've written out what I would do as GM in three separate scenarios.
In the first scenario, the team has been galvanized by Don Granato and is raring to go next season, especially once key players like Jack Eichel return from injury. Departing free agents want to re-sign with the team and show what they can do with someone capable at the helm. Granato has been given a two-year contract with a hefty extension coming if he can prove that he's not Ron Rolston 2.0.
In the second scenario, everything has somehow gone even further down the toilet. Eichel wants to go, Sam Reinhart's late-season surge was just an attempt to increase his arbitration award, Linus Ullmark and Jake McCabe have no interest in coming back, Rasmus Ristolainen is furious he grew a playoff beard only to not make the playoffs, and Victor Olofsson wants his salary to be at least doubled next offseason. In an effort to fix the culture, John Tortorella has been hired with the hope he can repeat his first few years in Columbus.
The third scenario is middle-of-the-road. Eichel is still greatly frustrated with management and ownership over the lack of success, but Reino is ready to lead the team. The FA's have some interest in coming back, but only at the right price. Bruce Boudreau has been brought in as head coach to get the most out of a promising attacking lineup.
Common Moves in All Scenarios
There are some roster moves--including almost all of the RFA signings--that I think make sense in all three scenarios, so instead of repeating them each time, I made this section.
To SEA: RHD Collin Miller
This one's pretty straightforward, as the Sabres don't have a ton to offer Seattle. I like Colin Miller, but he likely would have left after his contract expired at the end of the 2021-22 season anyway.
LHD Rasmus Dahlin, 8 yrs/$8 million AAV
Is this an overpay for the first season or two? Probably, but the Sabres can afford the hit. Dahlin has shown what he can do with competent coaching under Phil Housley and now Granato; he even had very good possession numbers when Ralph Kreuger neutered him offensively. I expect him to be a dominant defenseman for a long time to come.
RHD Henri Jokiharju, 3 yrs/$4.5 million AAV
As Dahlin's partner for the foreseeable future, the Joker gets a nice payday as well. While he doesn't have a ton of offensive upside, his defensive awareness, skating, and passing ability mean that he gets paid quite well. This contract is up for renewal 1 year before he becomes a UFA.
C Casey Mittelstadt, 3 yrs/$2.5m AAV
A bridge deal for Mitts. He's certainly earned it. He gets lower end 3C money because of the Sabres' leverage, but may well double his salary, if not more, with his next contract.
LW/C Rasmus Asplund, 2 yrs/$1.2m AAV
Asplund gets himself a decent pay raise, but more importantly, a guarantee of being a full-time NHL'er. He does get less money than Tage Thompson, but it's for a shorter contract. He should bring plenty of speed and PK ability, plus some good scoring touch for the next few seasons, hopefully improving his hands and passing. Even if he doesn't, he'll still be a good bottom-six player.
RHD Will Borgen, 2 years/$900k AAV
Borgen gets a chance to prove he belongs in the NHL. I've been impressed by his physicality, and while his skating and passing were better than I expected, they'll still have to improve if he wants to stick around long-term as more than just a depth defenseman.
G James Reimer, 1 yr/$4m
A quality 1B goaltender to keep UPL's spot warm for the 2022 season, and also win a fair amount of games in 2021. Definitely a bit of an overpay, but that's the UFA market for you.
LHD John Merrill, 1 yr/$1m
Merrill has been a longtime favorite of mine as a big-bodied (6'3") defenseman who's still a solid skater and puck mover. He's a great fit to man the 3LD spot while the Sabres' young defenseman marinate in Rochester for one more year. I mostly like what I've seen from Jacob Bryson and Mattias Samuelsson this season, but I think they'd both benefit from some more time with the Amerks.
W Drake Caggiula, 1 yr/$800k
Love the skating and energy that Caggiula brings. He hasn't had any finish in Buffalo, but considering that his shooting percentage this year is less than 1/4 of his career average (2.5% v. 10.8%), I'd expect some progression to the mean next season.
G Michael Houser 2 yrs/$800k AAV
Taking a roll of the dice on Houser after a few great games is definitely worth it.
C/RW Steven Fogarty 1 yr/$800k
Fogarty has shown to be a capable scorer in the AHL and grinder in the NHL, so he gets to stay on for another year. Wouldn't be shocked if he was the first winger called up.
RHD Cody Golobeuf 1 yr/$800k
Some experienced depth and physicality for the Amerks. Golobeuf also has some good NHL experience.
RHD Louis Belpedio, 1 yr/$750k
A skilled depth defenseman for the Amerks who moves the puck well, even if he's a little undersized and never going to be a big point producer.
C/LW Marcus Davidsson 3 yrs/$750k AAV
A versatile grinder for the Amerks; Davidsson's form and production have picked up a lot since being traded from Vaxjo to Sodertalje.
C/RW Vasily Glotov 2 yrs/$900k AAV
I'm finally signing development camp legend Vasili Glotov. A couple seasons in the KHL should have him more than ready for the Amerks, and skill like his is always worth giving a shot. Would this actually happen? I doubt it, but let me dream.
Scenario 1: Sunshine and Roses
Sam Reinhart, 7 yrs/$7.5 m AAV
Reino has more than earned his extension, adding an extra $1-$1.5 million to his salary with his play this season.
G Linus Ullmark, 4 yrs/$4m AAV
Ullmark gets some long-term stability, as he's shown to be a good goaltender when healthy. While this is certainly a risk due to injury, it's a risk the Sabres almost have to take with their current goaltending situation. Not to mention that Ullmark did take a bit of a hometown discount.
LHD Jake McCabe, 3 yrs/$4m AAV
McCabe gets a bit of a pay bump to keep playing the steady game he's played for the last several seasons. Hopefully he can build off his great possession numbers from this season, though I never expect him to become an offensive dynamo.
RHD Sami Vatanen, 1 yr/$3m
With Colin Miller gone, the Sabres need someone on the right side, even if this is a bit of an overpay since Vatanen isn't the same offensive force he was earlier in his career.
C Maxim Letunov, 2 yrs/$800k AAV
Letunov is a 6'5" beast who will be Jack Quinn's best friend for the Amerks, both in terms of protecting the youngster and scoring a fair few goals himself. Think an AHL version of Artem Anisimov in his prime.
LHD Joe Hicketts, 2 yrs/$800k AAV
Speaking of undersized, Joe Hicketts is only 5'8", but is an absolute dynamo of a defenseman. He'll take Bryson's role in Rochester, and could possibly play a bit in the NHL, as he's played a few dozen games.
LHD Calle Rosen, 1 yr/$800k
More young depth for the Amerks.
To NAS: LHD Jacob Bryson
To BUF: RHD Alex Carrier
This is just a case of one team having a lot of LHD prospects and another team having a lot of RHD prospects. Both Carrier and Bryson are primarily puck-moving defensemen, but I have to say I prefer Carrier's more steady, albeit slightly less productive, style of play to Bryson's boom-or-bust style.
To CBJ: RHD Rasmus Ristolainen
To BUF: LHD Dean Kukan, 2022 2nd
The Jackets get their David Savard replacement, though Risto certainly has more offensive ability than Savard. Dean Kukan is a solid skater and possession player who can actually make an exit pass. He will battle Merrill, Carrier, and Borgen for a spot on the 3rd pairing, a battle I expect him to win. Both players are on expiring contracts, so that doesn't affect the trade. The Sabres get a 2nd due to Risto's greater experience and offensive skill. Kukan himself should also be worth a mid-round pick at the deadline thanks to his steady, dependable game. He'd also be worth keeping for the playoffs should the Sabres actually make them.
LHD Carson Lambos, Winnipeg (WHL)
You didn't really think I'd willingly take anyone from Michigan, did you? Lambos is an excellent all-around defenseman, even if he doesn't have world-class offensive upside. With the trade of Bryson and pending departures of Merrill and Kukan, there are holes to fill on the left side. I'd expect Lambos to be fully NHL ready once McCabe's contract expires, possibly playing a rotational role in the final year of said contract.
Opening Night Lineups
This is a very solid team. Up front, Jack Quinn has two guys who will keep him clean and finish the chances he creates with his skill. The second line has experience, plus Eakin gives Weissbach some creative freedom. The third line has two fan favorites in the pest Pekar and playmaker Glotov centered by the dependable Oglevie. The fourth line is young, but Rousek and Davidsson have both played against men for multiple in their home countries.
The defense has a good mix of youth and experience; I'd be comfortable calling up any of the top four in case of injury (though I might pick Belpedio over Laaksonen). It's also got a solid mix of skillsets, from physical players like Samuelsson and Golobeuf to offensive-minded players like Hicketts and Laaksonen. The goaltending is also quite good, as all 3 goalies have won games for the Sabres this season.
Kukan-Carrier OR Borgen
Scratched: Merrill, Borgen OR Carrier
Cap Hit: $80.6/$82.5 million
Yes, I know this team is right up against the cap. Thankfully there's relief on the way with Vatanen and Reimer leaving at the end of the year, as well as Okposo likely being bought out. Eakin's buried contract will also be gone at the end of the year, freeing up a little over $1 million.
As for on-ice performance, there's some risk going with the largely the same forward group that did so little for most of last season. However, Eichel will be back to his best and Jeff Skinner should play better now that he doesn't hate coming to the rink every day. Reino may be even better than he's been lately at 2C due to better matchups, plus he'll have Dylan Cozens on his wing to make up for his average speed. The third line should be productive, especially as Anders Bjork is a bit of an offensive upgrade over Rasmus Asplund. The fourth line should be buzzing around every time they get on the ice, even if they don't bury a ton of chances.
The defense isn't incredible, but Dahlin and Joker should both take a step forward given their career trajectories. Vatanen takes some of the puck-handling pressure off McCabe. The third pair will be quite versatile, though a bit more defensively inclined. Both goaltenders dependable when they play, which is first time I've said that in awhile.
Scenario 2: Hellfire
Sam Reinhart 1 yr/$6.5m
Sam goes to arbitration and ends up getting himself a nice one-year deal.
W Nikita Gusev, 1 yr/$3m
The Sabres will need some offensive talent this coming season with the coming exodus. Plus, Gusev should be tradeable at the deadline for a midround pick should he perform even decently well. This is a bit of an overpay given Gusev's last couple seasons, but that's always the case with UFA's going to rebuilding (or perpetually rebuilding) teams.
RHD Mark Pysyk, 1 yr/$1.5m
Poor Mark Pysyk. He's a good player who's stuck in Buffalo when the team is struggling. The Sabres roughly double his current salary in order to entice him to play 50-odd games before getting flipped at the deadline.
LHD Samuel Morin, 1 yr/$800k
A 6'6" enforcer who will come off the bench for certain games where we have to deal with Brad Marchand, Tom Wilson, and their ilk. Just don't ask him to do much with the puck.
To FLA: W Victor Olofsson
To BUF: RHD MacKenzie Weegar
The Panthers need top 6 help and the Sabres need defensemen. While defensemen are more valuable than wingers, Olofsson's extra years of team control make this is a straight-up trade.
To DAL: RHD Rasmus Ristolainen (50% retained)
To BUF: 2022 1st, LHD Thomas Harley
The Sabres get a nice return for Risto, especially because they eat half of his contract. The Stars have a very deep left side, but nobody behind John Klingberg on the right, so Risto slots right into their second pair. For the Sabres, Harley helps fill a long-term void at LHD, as Dahlin is the only full-time NHL'er signed for the long term. At 6'3", he's got plenty of size, plus he's been putting up over .5 ppg in the AHL this season.
To COL: C/RW Sam Reinhart (50% retained)
To BUF: LHD Adam Graves, LW Sampo Ranta
A solid return for Reinhart considering he's just a rental. The Avs clear a bit of a logjam at LHD (they also have Girard, Devon Toews, and Byram there), but do give up a player in Graves with two years of control as opposed to Reinhart's one year. Graves is 6'5", 220 defenseman who only has average possession numbers, but does have decent production. Sampo Ranta is a projection at this point, but he improved his point and goal totals in each of the three seasons he spent at the University of Minnesota, as well as putting up .5 ppg in his first year in the AHL, albeit in limited action.
To VAN: C Jack Eichel
To BUF: G Thatcher Demko, C/LW J.T. Miller, RW Jake Virtanen, C Linus Karlsson, 2022 1st
With Eichel, Pettersson, and Horvat, the Canucks may have the best 1-2-3 center trio in the league. They even come out a little bit ahead on salary in this deal. They are forced to trust Holtby and their young prospect DiPietro in net, but given DiPietro's AHL performances, that's a risk worth taking.
As for the Sabres, they finally have their first true #1 goaltender since Ryan Miller, and on a five-year contract. J.T. Miller only has two years left on his contract, but is perfect to hold the fort down until one of Mitts/Cozens/Karlsson/2021 draft pick is ready to be the 1C. He should be good for 60 points a season the next two years. Virtanen is a power forward and a bit of a reclamation project. Given his career before this season (where his numbers have cratered due to starting in the defensive zone 2/3 of the time), Virtanen should be good for 15-20 goals a season over several more years of team control. Karlsson is particularly interesting, as he has averaged over 1 ppg in the Swedish league over the last two seasons. He should be ready for Rochester, signing a 3-year ELC for $900k/year.
C Matt Beniers, Michigan
You thought it was my nightmare scenario because we traded Eichel, Reino, and Olofsson? No, it's a nightmare scenario because the Sabres drafted a Michigan Wolverine (ok fine, it's actually a nightmare scenario because of the trades).
Opening Night Lineups
The first line should put up quite a few points, plus they have Murray to bring the physicality. The second is well balanced and should give Weissbach space to work his magic. The third line gives Glotov a sniper to pass to and a pest to open up space for him, as well as score a few himself. The fourth line would be a third line on a lot of AHL teams, at least if Rousek plays like he did in the Czech Republic.
Regarding the defense, Golobeuf will do the dirty work to free up Bryson on the first pair, with Bryson taking an extra year to iron out the not-so-occassional lapses in his game. Samuelsson and Laaksonen complement each other very well. The third pair has two solid puck movers who will occasionally chip in offensively, with Harley possibly doing so more than occasionally. As mentioned earlier, there is finally good goaltending depth in Rochester. Two of the lefties (plus possibly Laaksonen) should be NHL-ready by the start of the 2022 season.
Scratched: Morin, Borgen
Cap Hit: $76.7/82.5 million
The forward lines certainly aren't ideal, even if they're decently balanced. Bjork's energy and skating ability should open up chances for Gusev to showcase his creativity, and for Miller (plus Bjork to a lesser extent) to finish plays. Mitts gets some high-end skill in Skinner and a bodyguard in Virtanen, who should be back to his 15-20 goal best now that he's not being deployed as a defensive specialist. The third line has a lot of creativity and skating ability; let's just hope Cozens and Thompson can take a step forward with their physicality (maybe two steps forward for Tage). The fourth line has a decent amount of skill, and Asplund helps make up for Okposo's lack of speed.
The first pair should be dependable, with Dahlin given a chance to fill the role Zach Werenski played in Columbus. The second pair should be more than solid, as both Graves and Weegar aren't afraid to throw their weight around, but also have good skill on the puck. As for the third pair, the question is whether the prospects (be they in Buffalo or Rochester) are good enough to take their place early in the season, or whether they'll have to wait until the trade deadline. Funnily enough, the worst team of the three scenarios (at least in my opinion) has the best goaltending.
Even with the massive teardown, this team should finish in a better spot than the Sabres did this season.
Scenario 3: Splitting the Baby
Sam Reinhart 7 yrs/$7.5m AAV
As I wrote earlier, the man deserves a very nice extension and pay raise.
G Linus Ullmark, 4 yrs/$5m
Ullmark doesn't take a hometown discount, but does decide to re-sign, filling a massive need.
RHD Mark Pysyk, 1 yr/$1m
In this situation, Pysyk gets to go to an actually good Buffalo team, hence the smaller pay raise than in the hellfire scenario. He's still possible trade bait, but I'd be fine just keeping him for the whole season.
RW Jeremy Bracco, 2 yrs/$850k AAV
While he is undersized, Bracco is hyper-skilled, putting up roughly 1 PPG in the AHL over the last two seasons combined. Skill like his is always worth taking a shot at.
To VAN: RHD Rasmus Ristolainen
To BUF: LHD Olli Juolevi, 2022 1st, C Jay Beagle
The Canucks don't have any RHD behind Tyler Myers, so they pull the trigger on Risto. After a longer-than-expected development track, Juolevi has finally made it to the NHL, though he could definitely use some seasoning. I'd sign him to a 2-year/$900k AAV bridge and park him in Rochester for the season, or at least most of it. But once he's ready, I expect his slick puck possession game to be very useful. Beagle is a cap dump that turns what likely would've been a second rounder into a 1st while also providing some penalty kill value.
To NSH: C Jack Eichel, W Arttu Ruotsalainen
To BUFF: LHD Mattias Ekholm, W Eeli Tolvanen, RHD Dante Fabbro, RW/C Luke Kunin, C/RW Philip Tomasino
The Sabres do get a monster return, though it's tempered by giving up R2 and Ekholm only having one year left on his contract. Nashville has tried to get a 1C twice already, with Ryan Johansen doing the job for a bit before slowing down, and Matt Duchene not yet close to living up to his contract. They also get a cheap, skilled forward in R2, as Tolvanen is due for an immediate raise.
As for the Sabres, they get quite a bit. Ekholm is an immediate, albeit temporary, upgrade behind Dahlin on the left side. Fabbro should be a dependable #2 RHD for a long time to come. Kunin can play anywhere in the middle six, but is best with a center who can get him the puck. Tolvanen has a ton of high-end skill, and is just scratching the surface of his potential; I view him as a better version of R2, who's going the other way in this trade. Tomasino is only 19 but has put up over 1 PPG in the AHL this season.
Tolvanen and Fabbro are both RFA's. I'd give Tolvanen a 3-year deal at $2.3 million AAV. While that's a bit much initially, I'm guessing it would be a bargain in the last two years of the deal. Tolvanen is on a 20-goal pace in his rookie season on an average team. As for Fabbro, I'd give him a 3-year deal at $2.5 million AAV. I think that's about right for a young #4 defenseman, which is currently what he is.
There are very few holes on this Sabres team, with 3 good centers, plenty of wings, a very stocked LHD cabinet, two good NHL RHD, plus Borgen, who may turn into one, and solid goaltending. They could really go anywhere in this situation.
Opening Night Lineups
The first line has a ton of skill, plus Murray's muscle to back them up. I'd bet one of Tomasino and Quinn will be a good C, as Quinn was playing there before his injury. The second line lets Bracco playmake due to their hard work and (especially in Pekar's case) other antics. The third line should really showcase Weissbach's creativity, especially with a forward who can finish (at least at the AHL level) like Fogarty. The 4th line is just blooding in a couple young guys with a slightly older guy.
Defensively, the pairings are very well-balanced; I'd be fine playing each of them 20 minutes a night. Not only that, but all six players are solid on the puck, even if only Bryson and Laaksonen are true offensive defensemen. Ideally, all three of the lefties would make it to the NHL in 2022. As I've already said, the goaltending is very good by AHL standards.
Scratched: Okposo, Caggiula
Cap Hit: $76.6/$82.5 million
The first line is almost all skill, and I expect quite a bit of possession and scoring from them. The second line is more balanced, with Kunin's digging opening up chances for Skinner and Mitts. The third line will have both grit and finish; I'd guess all three players end up with 15-20 goals by season's end. The fourth line will be out a ton on the PK and taking defensive zone faceoffs, but I wouldn't expect too much offense from them with Beagle playing.
Since I've talked about Dahlin and Joker a lot already, I'll move on to the second pair. Ekholm and Fabbro are both large defensemen who move the puck well and can be counted on in just about any situation. The third pair will be solid enough when it comes to possession and the penalty kill, but won't be scoring a whole lot. In a very safe prediction, the goaltending should be improved.