We’re roughly a month away from free agency beginning and with it the hope that comes with a new Buffalo Sabres season. There was a time when the Sabres were concerned about how they would manage to stay under the salary cap (it was the 2019-20 season but never mind that), but splashing the cash is old and busted and being frugal and wise is the new hotness in Western New York and now GM Kevyn Adams has to find ways to reach the salary floor.
Spending money in the NHL is easy but with Sam Ventura and the Sabres analytic staff providing better insight, being punished financially for mistakes may be a rare occurrence. Ideally, at least.
We’ve got a lot of time and idle minds are the internet’s playground, so brainstorming ways for the Sabres to improve while staying at the bottom of NHL payrolls makes for a fun and creative time.
With the number of options through free agency or via trade for the Sabres to improve upon last year’s positive vibes and 75-point season they could go lawful or chaotic, but whether it’s good or evil... that’s where it gets interesting.
As for business, the cap might be $82.5 million but for the Sabres the target is be as close to the salary minimum of $61 million and — according to Cap Friendly — they’re at $46.1 million after acquiring Ben Bishop’s contract from Dallas and a seventh round pick on Friday. Hitting the salary minimum is not going to be difficult.
Once the Sabres re-sign restricted free agents Victor Olofsson, Jacob Bryson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Brandon Biro, Brett Murray, and Arttu Ruotsalainen their combined cap hits will come out to around $10 million or so. The only player whose salary will have any profound effect on the salary situation is Olofsson. Our friends at Evolving Hockey (subscribe to them, it’s worth it) project a four-year deal with a $4.95 million cap hit.
So how do we go about making a difference in the Sabres? Well... there are lawful and chaotic means to go about and we’re going to look at them. If you’re wondering where the neutral stuff is — get wrecked, nerd! We operate in extremes in the offseason.
(FYI — Salary estimates on free agents below are done with consideration towards what Evolving Hockey predicts but are not their exact numbers.)
Trade for: Jonathan Quick ($5.8 million cap hit)
Re-sign: Craig Anderson (one year, $1 million)
Sign: Josh Manson (four years, $18 million, $4.5 million cap hit); Johan Larsson (one year, $1.5 million)
There’s no secret to what the Sabres biggest offseason needs are — it’s goaltending and support defensemen. If Craig Anderson wants to return, cool, bring him back and give him a million and have him be ready for anything. But you don’t want him to be your No. 1 at 41 years old, so finding a goalie with minimal term and big money normally might be tricky, but — ah-ha — there are the Los Angeles Kings.
L.A. has Cal Petersen (I’m sure you remember him) starting the first year of his three-year, $15 million extension in 2022-2023 and franchise legend Jonathan Quick is headed into the final year of his monster 10-year, $58 million deal. The Kings keeping two goalies making nearly $11 million against the cap would be a curious and expensive choice.
Listen, we know you can never have enough goaltending but it can get uncomfortable trying to balance minutes. The Sabres finding a way to acquire Quick could help the Kings solve that problem.
“But Joe, isn’t Quick washed?”
Every time the internet attempts to bury Quick he finds a way back. He’s the Lazarus of goaltending at this point.
Quick bounced back from a pair of tough seasons with a .910 save percentage in 2021-2022 and helped the Kings push the Edmonton Oilers to seven games in the first round. Among goalies with 40 or more games he was seventh in goals saved above expected (via MoneyPuck) and fifth in save percentage above expected. That’s a strong season that says, “you can’t get rid of me yet,” in many cases except now Petersen is making nearly as much as he is. You’d have to think something has to give there and Adams providing a reason to do so would go a long way to buoying the Sabres net.
Quick is a winner (two Stanley Cups), an American (unfortunately not from the greater Western/Central/Eastern/Upstate New York area), and a former college player (unfortunately not Penn State, he went to Massachusetts). He’s also a well-respected and beloved member of the Kings and trading guys like that is hard to do (see: Miller, Ryan).
Unfortunately, the Kings don’t have an immediately ready goalie in the AHL to ascend as a potential backup to Petersen, which makes their perspective a bit different. But in fantasy land, like we’re working with here, it makes a ton of sense for Buffalo to explore that option.
The desire for a defensive stud defenseman on the right side is real. Henri Jokiharju has been fine, and the late-season pairing of Rasmus Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson means you don’t have to go too crazy to find a guy. But an investment in Colorado’s Josh Manson would provide a physical thumper who can clearly keep up with the fastest teams in the league.
Manson’s not a big scorer nor will he drive offense, but he doesn’t have to with Dahlin and Owen Power around. If there’s a reason to be hesitant it’s that he’s been a bit injury prone in the past. It’s part of the price you pay for playing his style of defense, but he would provide balance in the defensive lineup with Dahlin, Power, and Jacob Bryson as puck movers.
You can sign anyone to a league minimum deal and call it a day but what’s the fun in that? Assuming they’re losing Cody Eakin’s vibes (and old cap hit) to free agency means there’s a fourth line that could use some help. So let’s bring back Larry.
The Sabres team Johan Larsson left and the one he’d be coming back to would be night and day and that might be change enough for Grumpy Larry to come back and own it on the energy line. Our friend Anthony broke down good reasons to bring him back at Expected Buffalo and I agree with him. Give Larsson a one-year deal at $1.5 million and then throw a welcome back party.
Sign: Marc-Andre Fleury (one year, $7 million), P.K. Subban (two years, $9 million, $4.5 million cap hit)
Re-Sign: Cody Eakin (one year, $1 million)
The pipe dream for a lot of Sabres fans is solving the goaltending problem by signing Marc-Andre Fleury and why not? He’s had a fantastic career, he’s hopped around a little in the past couple years, and he’s eminently likable by everyone. There are so many guys you can call “gamers” as goalies and Fleury is right at the top. He’s won Cups and a lot of games and he’s been through just about all of it. A guy who can be your absolute No. 1 and be a perfect mentor for Luukkonen would be a dream scenario.
Fleury, now 37, is reaching the end of his career so that would likely mean he wants to wind up with a Cup contender or perhaps look to wrap it up in Pittsburgh but, again, this is fantasy and the Sabres adding Fleury would be the happiest brand of chaos.
Alternatively, you could go extra chaotic and trade for Cam Talbot — Fleury’s battery mate in Minnesota — if Fleury decides to stay there or for Semyon Varlamov from the New York Islanders to throw a cap strapped team a bone and taking a fat contract off their hands for the final year of his deal. Those are neat ideas, but nowhere near as joyful as Fleury suiting up in blue and gold.
We’re having fun here, right? And we’re all about keeping the fun going and riding the positive vibes into a new season, correct? Buffalo has a need for righthanded defense help, right? Well would you look who’s available...
I know this sounds insane but hear me out.
P.K. Subban’s eight-year, $72 million deal just ended and he had a relatively quiet season with 22 points for the New Jersey Devils last season. He’s not the dynamic offensive-defenseman he was nearly 10 years ago, but he’s been fine. You know you’re not getting a super stopper on the blue line, but you’re also not adding someone who’s a complete liability in their own zone either. His offensive play is still strong as he’s able to help generate shots and can move the puck up the ice. You won’t need him to work the power play with Dahlin and Power set to be the quarterbacks on those units, but if you need someone to pinch in to help on that occasionally he can.
If you’re big on continuing the vibes, Subban is a guy who generates vibes on his own. Follow him on Instagram and soak in his lifestyle for a moment and find out. His younger brother Malcolm became a fan favorite by making some ridiculous saves and being able to really nail singing the National Anthem. Hey, maybe have both of them part of the organization and sign Malcolm for Rochester and be NHL depth.
Would his personality be too much for a very young team starting to find their stride? Maybe? Adding a fun-loving guy to a room that enjoys playing together and having fun seems to make sense, no? A contract between $4 and $5 million for a year (or two) seems about right for a guy coming off a deal that was paying him $9 million against the cap and can still hack it. Who knows? Maybe if you re-sign Malcolm he could be had for a little less.
As for how to make this really chaotic, they could re-sign Cody Eakin and keep the vibe train alive and well.
LISTEN... I know. His numbers weren’t great all around, but the intangible numbers as a cool dude off the ice are sky high. You want your vibes high, Eakin is your guy. No, I am not his agent but he can use that line if they want to, it’s fine. Sign him for a cool million and if you want to get Sean Malone or someone else into the mix in the lineup, you don’t feel terrible about sitting him.
Trade for: John Gibson (five years remaining on eight-year, $51.2 million contract, $6.4 million cap hit); Matt Dumba (final year of a five-year, $30 million contract - $6 million cap hit)
When it comes to using the word “evil” here this isn’t about acquiring the NHL’s version of Darth Vader, but the cost it would take to make a deal. The classic “got to give something to get something” cliché comes to mind here. Lawful evil in this case means adding excellent talent but with the risk that comes either with the player or how many assets it costs to get them or both... it’s usually both.
For some people the idea of acquiring Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson would be “savvy” or even “fun,” but there are a few risks to consider in such a move.
Gibson has been a stud No. 1 goalie and it means the Sabres would be sending Luukkonen or one of the goalie prospects (Erik Portillo, Devon Levi) the other way in the deal but you can part with them when you add a goalie of Gibson’s caliber. The Sabres would be buying low on Gibson based on his past three seasons with the Ducks, and buying low is better than selling low. But if the Gibson we’ve seen the past three seasons is who you’re planning on having play 60 games a season for the next five years... that’s real tough.
You could argue that Gibson excelled when the Ducks were still a playoff team or a competitive team to reach the playoffs and his numbers suffered as they transitioned into a rebuilding team. And that’s fair, but...
Gibson can absolutely be what we’ve seen in the past, provided his health cooperates as well. Of course, he has a modified no-trade clause in his contract and Buffalo might be on his list and this whole discussion is pointless, but we don’t care about that right now! But hey, he is from Pittsburgh so you never know.
If we’re really pushing the envelope to get the Sabres to vault up the standings, adding a studly righthanded defenseman would do the trick and Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild would be a fantastic addition. Of course, there’s a catch.
The Wild are in a salary cap bind with $13-$15 million in dead cap the next few seasons because of the buyouts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. With Dumba’s contract set to end after this season, trading for him would come with the possible risk he could walk at the end of the year. Obviously this is a deal you make if you can get an extension signed and if he approves going to Buffalo with his no-trade clause. The cost would be tough and good, inexpensive players would be in demand for the cap-hampered Wild. The chances range from minimal to nil that the Wild would move Dumba. But if he could be had... what a pickup he would make to play alongside Power, Dahlin, or Samuelsson.
Those two acquisitions cost more than money, but if they go big like that, the Sabres administration would be praying daily for everything to work out given the price they paid to make it happen. Somewhere in Ontario, Tim Murray smiles at the idea.
Trade for: Jordan Binnington (five years remaining on six-year, $36 million deal, $6 million cap hit)
Sign: Nazem Kadri (seven years, $56 million, $8 million cap hit)
When it comes to being outright maniacal, opting to give zero F’s about what the fans or players would think is the only way to go. Damn the vibes, we’re going full Joker here and man, signing Nazem Kadri to a fat contract would definitely do it.
Kadri is in the midst of having an incredible playoffs for Colorado and he’s even kept up his work as an irritating opponent to play against. He managed to get under the collective skin of the city of St. Louis and predictably got disgusting reactions from the Best Fans In Sports or racists cosplaying as St. Louis fans. He’s been a more than effective player through his career and escaping the lens of Toronto has done him a world of good.
Adding Kadri to the Sabres would twist up the fans that rooted very hard against him, particularly when he was duking it out with Rasmus Ristolainen. Kadri isn’t doing his job well if he’s not ticking off everyone on the opposing team by scoring or just being an irritant. It’s an element missing from the Sabres roster and that they’re on the trajectory to returning to the postseason, adding a fast-skating, hard-playing, rage-inducing, goal-scoring element to deepen a roster would go a hell of a long way to helping.
Picture Kadri and Dahlin teaming up to doubly bother Brad Marchand. Makes you smile, doesn’t it? Everyone loves it when the pain in the butt is on your team and Kadri excels at it. Sliding him into the middle-six lines would strengthen and deepen Buffalo’s lineup in a big way, but it would likely come at the cost of moving Casey Mittelstadt because having him be your fourth line center wouldn’t exactly lean into his strengths.
But why stop the chaos there? Let’s throw some fuel on the fire and trade for Blues goalie Jordan Binnington too.
C H A O S
Not only are we adding a volatile no. 1 goalie, we’re also bringing him in with the guy he threw a water bottle at after a game which they collided in the playoffs, injuring Binnington. When you’re going chaotic evil you no longer care nor respect vibes. You’re fixing problems and doing reckless things to do it and boy would this be insane.
We already know Binnington is a hot head. He’s prone to throwing fits at will and especially after tough games. He’s a deadly serious person and the chances of seeing him having fun playing Connect Four with Jeff Skinner seem slim. He’s also coming off a below-average season compared to what he’s done in his career and lost out on starts to Ville Husso down the stretch of the regular season. Buy low, inject volatility... go for the playoffs? Postseason or not, at least there would be a lot of drama and the NHL loves its drama. Don’t let them fool you into thinking they don’t.