Sabres with most to prove in 2019-20

Next season will serve as a “prove it” year of sorts for several of the presumed roster regulars in Buffalo

With preseason hockey less than a month away, fans of the Buffalo Sabres have commenced the annual task of lineup prognostication. With that comes the placement and anticipated performance of certain individuals who project to be roster regulars this coming season.

Like it or not, 2019-20 will be another evaluative year of sorts for the blue-and-gold. As of next summer, the Sabres will have just nine of their current NHL contracts remaining on the books. For several players (most of whom have just one year remaining on their current deals), their performance this season will determine whether or not Jason Botterill elects to keep them around to be part of the core moving forward.

Vying for a Role Beyond 2019-20

Obviously, every NHL player (especially those on expiring contracts) has something to prove in a given year. Barring something unforeseen however, it’s pretty easy to tell which of the 2020 free agents on the Sabres’ ledger will and conversely, will not be offered extensions (barring something unforeseen).

In the case of players like Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick, Vladimir Sobotka, and the like, the organization is in all likelihood running out the clock before their respective contractual expirations provide much needed cap space. For this reason, we’ve limited the following list to players who fall into a gray area of sorts in that regard, as their future in Buffalo (or lack thereof) is less obvious.

Brandon Montour

Given the Sabres’ newly acquired slate of talent on the right side, Montour’s situation got a little more interesting for 2019-20. When Botterill sent Brendan Guhle and a late first-round pick to the Anaheim Ducks for the puck-moving 25-year-old, an eventual long-term extension seemed likely.

It’s tough to imagine the Sabres’ GM allowing him to walk after next season, especially considering the assets he parted with in order to acquire him. Still, the term and salary that the front office will be willing to offer him will be directly contingent on his performance this season.

Montour’s numbers during his three-year stint with the Ducks was a bit of a mixed bag, especially from an analytics standpoint. While it is worth noting that most of the Anaheim blue line experienced a similar RAPM dip last year, his performance in particular was one of the most stark in contrast.

In what was a relatively small sample size of 20 games, Sabres fans can take some solace in the fact that Montour’s metrics were very strong after his arrival to close out the 2018-19 campaign.

At the moment, it’s no secret that Buffalo possesses an embarrassment of riches on the right side of the defense. Even if bodies (of value) are sent out prior to the opener, there is an NHL-capable right-hander in Borgen who gives Botterill the ability to let Montour walk next summer, especially if his production doesn’t justify what could be a significant raise in financial demand from his current cap hit of $3.387 million AAV.

Jake McCabe

McCabe is the only player on the list who is actually signed beyond 2019-20. As has been the case with perhaps most of the Sabres’ defensemen over the past decade, the jury is still out on his long-term viability in the top-six. When healthy, fans seem to agree that he is at least a serviceable third-pairing presence on the left side.

Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, he has missed 52 games over the past two seasons. As a result, a player who was once thought to be a long-term fixture in the starting-six on the back end, may not be part of the long-term vision.

Leading up to the 2018-19 campaign, spectators were excited to see what McCabe would bring to the table. It was widely speculated that his poor performance the season prior was in large part a result of a nagging shoulder injury. Last year, while there was modest improvement early on (particularly in his own end), he did miss most of the month of March.

As a responsible, physical player on the back end, despite the injuries, McCabe earned himself a two-year extension worth $2.85 million AAV. At this point, the Sabres know what he is. If McCabe can stay healthy, Botterill might entertain keeping him around for another contract, but with young blueliners like Marcus Samuelsson, Oskari Laaksonen, Will Borgen and Jacob Bryson coming up through the system, it’s far from guaranteed.

Regardless of whether or not McCabe can earn himself a long-term role in Buffalo, he’ll be auditioning for 31 other organizations as well. Should he miss considerable time yet again, teams will be hesitant to commit anything significant for his services by July of 2021.

Evan Rodrigues

Similar to Sheary (but to perhaps a greater extent), there was significant debate this summer as to whether or not the Sabres should negotiate a long-term extension with Rodrigues. Due to his modest base statistical output, paired with impressive underlying numbers, the cost for a renewal with significant term might have been the most advantageous avenue for the team to pursue.

Obviously, Botterill hadn’t seen enough to justify such a deal, considering the fact that the two sides went to arbitration, where the 26-year-old was awarded a one-year, $2 million contract. With 29 points in 74 games, that value was right in line with his production.

2019-20 will be the quintessential “prove it” season for a player like Rodrigues. Fortunately for the team, they will hold most of the cards, as he will once again be an RFA next summer. At the moment, he is the Sabres’ best option to serve as the third line center, a role in which he excelled last season.

Should he experience an increase in scoring production beside a mildly improved crop of wingers, his future as a potential core piece in Buffalo’s bottom-six will be interesting to monitor. If the Sabres’ brass still isn’t convinced by March, he too could be a trade deadline piece to keep an eye on.

Conor Sheary

Moving on to the forwards, Sheary presents a particularly interesting case with a few different scenarios. Fans were somewhat split on their feelings regarding what the former Pittsburgh Penguin brought to the table last season, but in reality, his production was about what should have been expected.

With 34 points in 78 games, his base statistical output was nearly identical from the season prior. Analytically, he was relatively average across the board, which is actually a good thing in context, especially considering the fact that his most prominent centerman was a struggling rookie in Casey Mittelstadt.

So what’s interesting about a statistically average middle-six winger? Looking at the Sabres’ current forward group, there is a massive question mark regarding who will play right wing on the top line. If Sheary does end up playing in that role, the question then becomes whether or not he could duplicate his 2016-17 production (53 points in 61 on the Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby) beside Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

Should his statistical production see a significant improvement in that scenario, his contractual demands could increase substantially, perhaps no longer matching his relative value. It is for this reason why some felt that it might have been prudent for the Sabres to negotiate an extension with Sheary this summer, rather than wait.

If he fails to look the part on the top line (assuming he even sees significant time there), then it would be an easy decision to let him walk a year from now. Depending on the result (or manifestation) of the aforementioned scenarios, Sheary’s name might be one to watch at the trade deadline if Buffalo is on the outside of the playoff picture.

Jimmy Vesey

Among all of the new acquisitions this season, Vesey is probably the most head-scratching. On July 1, the Sabres sent a third-round pick to the New York Rangers for the 26-year-old winger, the same price that Tim Murray paid the Nashville Predators for his rights in 2016.

Offensively, Vesey is a capable scoring presence in the middle-six. The problem however, is that he gives back every bit of that production and more, given his defensive shortcomings. Over the past three years in the Big Apple, he has ultimately failed to display any improvement in that regard.

In looking at his RAPM numbers from last season, it is important to note that Vesey did spend a majority of his time with Brett Howden as his primary center last season, but even with Kevin Hayes as his most prominent linemate from 2016-2018, his overall impact was relatively similar across the board.

Because of this, his need to be sheltered in an offensive role has made the task of picking his optimal linemates (who are both defensively competent and also capable of driving offense) a bit cumbersome.

It may seem a little premature to say that Vesey is fighting for his NHL life this season, especially after posting 35 points last year, but another season of mediocre offensive impact paired with dreadful defensive play could leave him as a fringe player, in Buffalo, or otherwise. If he wants to be considered a serious top-six option moving forward, he needs to show that he can make significant strides with a change of scenery.

Linus Ullmark

Ullmark’s long-anticipated debut as a full-time NHL goaltender certainly left a lot to be desired. His inability to steal the starting job from Carter Hutton (who also put forth a lackluster performance last season), left most fans less than optimistic about his long-term prospects in the NHL (and rightfully so).

Metrically, he was one of the worst goaltenders in the league in terms of GSAX, despite a relatively easy workload. Hutton was close behind.

At 26 years old, Ullmark still has time to turn things around. As we all know, goalies sometimes take a little longer to hit their stride, and analytically, their position is the toughest to predict on a year-by-year basis.

Last month, the Sabres made the wise decision of taking Ullmark to arbitration and finalizing a one-year, $1.325 million deal. Like Rodrigues, he too will be an RFA again next summer.

Even if Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen doesn’t miss a beat following his return from offseason hip surgery, the organization isn’t particular deep in net. Hutton is an average entity at best (not to mention 33 years old), and Erik Portillo is a long-term project on the farm. If Ullmark can put together a bounce-back season, he could still fit into the team’s plans moving forward. Should he prove capable, he would be an ideal bridge starter until Luukkonen is ready.

Should he repeat his performance from 2018-19, Botterill may be forced to either find another veteran via free agency next summer, or hope that Luukkonen can handle an expedited path to the NHL (maybe both).

Make That Money

Some readers may be wondering why players like Mittelstadt and Sam Reinhart did not make the list. Despite how important their respective performances will be in 2019-20 (both for their own financial interests, and for the team as a whole), barring something cataclysmic, they’re both pretty strong bets to be core pieces for the foreseeable future.

For these two, the big thing will be money and term. In Reinhart’s case, another year of measured growth will result in a pretty big payday. After betting on himself with a two-year bridge deal in 2018, things have worked out well for him so far.

If Krueger gives him the opportunity to run his own line this season, he could prove even more valuable. Fortunately for Buffalo, the soon to be 24-year-old is still and RFA in 2020.

For Mittelstadt, a similar scenario could play out once again. If he puts together a year where he nets say, 40 points or more, Botterill will have a similar decision to make. Force the young player to “prove it” with a bridge deal, or lock him down at a more manageable cost right away? One way or another, even if his production improves only slightly, the organization isn’t about to give up on him. If that ends up being the case however, he’ll certainly make the list for 2020-21.

RAPM Charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey

GSAX Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey

Teammate Ice Time data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick