Rasmus Dahlin is still an unsigned restricted free agent and the decision that lay ahead for general manager Kevyn Adams comes is something Shakespeare-like in its tone.
To bridge or not to bridge? That is the question.
Whether it’s more cost-effective to sign him to a long-term deal and suffer the slings and arrows of ownerships fortune laid bare or to take up the cause of a short-term deal meant to make Dahlin prove himself makes quite the tempest of a conundrum.
This summer has seen young defensemen commit to long-term contracts across the league and for very big money. Columbus re-signed Zach Werenski to a six-year, $57.5 million deal while Colorado also went six years with Cale Makar for $54 million. Dallas committed eight years to Miro Heiskanen for $67.6 million and those were just the players who were also restricted free agents. When you factor in the deals signed by Seth Jones (eight years, $76 million) and Darnell Nurse (eight years, $74 million) it’s been a great time to be a very good defenseman.
Dahlin presents a fascinating situation for Buffalo. In his first three seasons with the Sabres, he’s played for three different coaches and had two GMs. Each of those coaches have used him in different ways, two (Phil Housley and Don Granato) more similar than the third (Ralph Krueger).
Housley used Dahlin in a way that was more like the way the Hall of Fame defenseman was used when he played while Krueger worked to instill more defensive know-how and accountability to his game. We’ll get a much better idea of how Granato wants to do things this season, but early the early takeaway indicated he wants Dahlin to play naturally to his strengths.
So how do you properly judge Dahlin and get a contract that suits the type of player he is and the kind of player he’s supposed to be? Before the offseason went wild with contracts conventional thinking was Dahlin would get a two-year bridge deal to see how he continues to develop and evolve as a defenseman. After all, you could argue he’s had roughly one-and-a-half good and one-and-a-half bad games through his entry-level contract.
But how you decide is a virtual psychological exam to see whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. The glass-half-full way to see his future is that he will evolve into the player everyone thought he would be as the No. 1 pick in 2018. If Adams is a true optimist, the correct move is to go long-term and lock him in at a likely lower cap hit. If he’s more of a glass-half-empty guy, then a bridge deal would surely be the way so you’re not stuck with a fat contract for a long time when you believe Owen Power will usurp him the instant he joins the Sabres.
This kind of argument is one former GM Jason Botterill had to make regarding Sam Reinhart. Botterill decided to do a bridge deal and Reinhart improved each season thereafter. Adams could’ve extended a long-term contract to him last summer too, but with COVID interrupting everything, a flat cap, and doubts about how much money would be available it meant Reinhart saw yet another bridge deal and now he’s a Florida Panther because… well, you saw how things went last season.
The Sabres are in a position to ensure that doesn’t happen again with Dahlin. The similarities are there and Dahlin’s upside and potential is far greater than Reinhart’s was. Reinhart is a very good player while Dahlin is meant to be an elite one. Going long-term with Dahlin, when put through that lens, is a no-brainer.
If the Sabres hedge their bets, they could wind up paying out even more down the road if he takes that leap. This is what happened to the Montreal Canadiens with P.K. Subban, although those negotiations were seemingly more acrimonious. While Subban won the Norris Trophy in the last year of his bridge deal, he ensured a big payday and inked an eight-year, $72 million contract because of it. A bridge deal could be a safety play for the Sabres, but the risk of something similar happening with Dahlin should be reason enough to be scared – particularly since Sabres ownership has played much tighter with spending.
This is an unenviable situation for Adams and one he’d better be able to focus solely upon if not for the Eichel situation. But it’s also another big test for him and one he cannot fail because it means further attention from the Pegulas for being pennywise or pound foolish with their cash.