Building the Sabres: Time for some transactions
If Buffalo wants to be competitive in short order, they have a lot of moves to make in a truncated offseason
Since the suspension of the 2019-20 regular season, fans of the Buffalo Sabres have speculated wildly as to what the team will do this offseason. With quite a few areas to address, and a growingly impatient fan base, new GM Kevyn Adams has his work cut out for him.
Despite the seemingly daunting list of needs, nothing on the Sabres’ to-do list is unreasonable. If Adams can be aggressive and discerning, there are ways to make this team competitive as soon as next season. That’s not to say it’ll be easy, but it’s far from impossible.
Let’s dive right in and try to put together a reasonable slate of trades and signings for the months ahead.
Restricted Free Agents
To make things relatively simple here, I’ll be using Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool as a reference here. The fabled “mountains of cap space” the Sabres have this offseason will be eaten into quite a bit here. That being said, even with all of these signings, there is additional flexibility to be gained via trade (which we’ll get to later on).
1. Sam Reinhart - 6 years, $7 million AAV
2. Victor Olofsson - 4 years, $4.5 million AAV
3. Dominik Kahun - 2 years, $2.9 million AAV
4. Linus Ullmark - 2 years, $2.5 million AAV
5. Curtis Lazar - 1 year, $850,000 AAV
6. Casey Mittelstadt - 1 year, $958,000 AAV
7. Tage Thompson - 1 year, $800,000 AAV
After all of the above re-signings, the Sabres would be left with just under $15 million in space to work with. We’ll skip the draft section, but in this scenario I’ll spoil things a bit and let you know that the team’s 2020 first-round pick does NOT get traded in this scenario. For fun, let’s say that Marco Rossi falls to eighth-overall and that’s who we pick.
Now comes the fun part. If the Sabres are going to push for a playoff and end the league’s longest active postseason drought, they’ll need to be busy and aggressive on the trade market. For that reason, this will be the most extensive and lengthy portion of this mock.
Trade No. 1: Sabres acquire Phillip Danault from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Rasmus Ristolainen and Casey Mittelstadt
I know, I know. A lot of people still really like Rasmus Ristolainen and feel that the analytics community has been unfairly harsh on him. I am not one of those people, so I still see him as a means to address the team’s most glaring need - a second-line center.
Last season, it was rumored that Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin was interested in acquiring Ristolainen. After last week’s report that Phillip Danault had grown unsatisfied with his role in Montreal, it seems that there is a good chance he is dealt this offseason.
If Bergevin’s interest in the Finnish workhorse still exists, this would appear to be a mutually beneficial deal for both sides. On the surface, this deal could look lopsided in the Sabres’ favor, but when you consider that Danault is only signed through next season, the Canadiens may have trouble getting the type of return you might expect for a second-line center.
In order to make this trade, the Sabres would have to be sure that Danault would entertain an extension in Western New York. Otherwise, it would be relatively pointless. For this exercise, let’s assume that he’s keen to accept a heavier role in Buffalo behind a star centerman in Jack Eichel.
As for Mittelstadt, losing him does pose a risk, but at this point he’s much closer to Alex Nylander territory than future second-line center. In order to entice Montreal to make this in-division trade, the Sabres need to make a very competitive offer. A second-line center is well worth the above price.
Over the last three years, Danault has been one of the most consistently strong assets on the Canadiens roster. He has ranked among the team’s top-three forwards in expected-goal rate since 2017, and his two-way ability is certainly something the Sabres need. It’s tough to imagine a better mentor for Dylan Cozens as he acclimates to the NHL-level.
Salary Cap Room Remaining After Trade: $18.25 million
Trade No. 2: Sabres acquire Andrew Copp for Brandon Montour and a 2020 7th (Dallas)
Wait a minute. Another center?
That’s right. In my world, Cozens starts his NHL career on the wing. In order to do that, the Sabres would need to acquire two NHL-caliber centers this offseason. Andrew Copp is an defensive stud, and an ideal (and likely less expensive) replacement for Johan Larsson’s shutdown role.
Copp is one of those players who is undervalued around the league because he doesn’t exactly light up the score sheet. With Danault in the fold, the Sabres wouldn’t need him to. He would serve as a perfect defensive compliment to a your player like Cozens on his wing, and allow his linemates to be offensively creative without his line becoming a defensive liability.
The Jets are still pretty desperate to bolster their defense and it was a clear weak-link for them once again in 2019-20. Montour is the type of player who still holds value because of his speed and transition ability. While I don’t feel he’s as big of a detriment as others do, he isn’t worth the $4.8 million projected extension (per Evolving Hockey’s model).
Salary Cap Remaining After Trade: $15.97 million
Trade No. 3: Sabres acquire a 2021 fourth-round pick from the Nashville Predators in exchange for Marcus Johansson
This trade is pretty straight-forward. The Sabres need to recoup some futures. Over the next two years, they don’t have any third-round draft picks. While this trade doesn’t rectify that issue, it adds another piece to their war chest.
Johansson is a fine player, but experimenting with him at center last season was a failed venture. While he would almost assuredly prove more valuable on the wing next season, at $4.5 million, I would rather take the added flexibility in the UFA market, as well as a future piece.
He’s a good player, but in this situation, the financial flexibility and draft choice are more valuable to me.
Salary Cap Remaining After Trade: $18.62 million
Trade No. 4: Sabres acquire Vince Dunn from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Ryan Johnson, and a 2020 Second-Round Pick
The Ryan O’Reilly trade lives fresh in the minds of Sabres fans, but that shouldn’t stop Adams from taking advantage of this opportunity. In this scenario, we’ll assume that the Blues reach an agreement to re-sign star defenseman, Alex Pietrangelo. If that happens, they’ll almost certainly unload a defensive asset via trade as a result.
Dunn could very well be the odd-man-out in this scenario. Craig Berube doesn’t appear to recognize his value as an extremely positive impact player on the blue line. Not only does he have outstanding xG and Corsi ratios, but his GAR rating of 12.1 ranks 14th in the entire league among defensemen. He is undervalued likely as a result of only posting 23 points in 71 games last season, but the analytics community absolutely loves him, and for good reason.
With players like Pietrangelo, Marco Scandella, Colton Parayko, and Justin Faulk locked into long-term deals, they simply wouldn’t have space for him in the top-four anyway. This deal gives St. Louis an inexpensive, young contributor to shelter and develop on their blue line, financial flexibility, and a second-round pick, which they don’t currently possess.
As a restricted free-agent, the Sabres would re-sign Dunn to a three-year, $2.9 million AAV contract.
Salary Cap Space Remaining After Trade: $15.72 million
Trade No. 5: Sabres acquire a 2020 Third-Round Pick (Edmonton) From the Calgary Flames in exchange for Colin Miller
So, leading up to this point, the Sabres are missing their second and third-round draft picks in 2020. In order to address that issue, and get some value back for a player who clearly isn’t a favorite of Ralph Krueger, they made a deal with the RHD-needy Flames.
This return is a loss compared to the second and fifth-rounders Jason Botterill sent to the Vegas Golden Nights for Miller last summer, but the sunk-cost fallacy shouldn’t stop them from making this deal.
The Sabres still need a top-pairing right-side defenseman in this scenario, and Miller isn’t that. If they are to acquire one in free-agency, they’ll need to have as much financial flexibility as possible. Even with the $15.72 million they’d have available before this trade, paying $3.875 million for a third-paiirng defenseman isn’t great.
Salary Cap Space Remaining After Trade: $19.595 million
To this point, the Sabres have addressed their needs at center, and added a very good second-pairing defender to serve on the left side behind Rasmus Dahlin. With over $19 million in salary cap remaining, they would hit the free agent market with three remaining needs - a top-six right-winger, top-pairing right-side defenseman, and a backup netminder.
If you listen to the podcast, you are probably aware of my adoration for T.J. Brodie. As one of the better defensive-defensemen on the open market (who is also used to playing big minutes), he seems like a perfect compliment to Dahlin on the first-pairing.
While his offensive contributions have been sporadic in terms of impact over the years, he’s always been a strong presence in his own end. On top of that, he gives you similar transitional impacts that the Sabres lost in the Montour trade.
According to EH, he is expected to command a three-year, $4.9 million dollar contract on the open market. Due to his age and probable desire to sign with a legitimate contender, let’s assume the Sabres would have to pay a bit of a premium in order to secure his services.
In this mock, we’ll say that the two sides reach a four-year, $5.3 million AAV contract, which is still justifiable considering what he brings to the table.
With about $14 million remainig to spend, the Sabres must be careful. In the summer of 2021, they have contract extensions for Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju to consider. Neither one of them will be “cheap”, especially not Dahlin. For that reason, my goal was to leave enough of a nest egg to avoid another contract crunch a year from now.
So, to address the final right-wing spot on the roster, I turned my sights to New York Rangers forward, Jesper Fast. He’s currently projected to command a three-year, $3 million AAV contract on the open market. Applying the “perennially bad team tax” to this scenario, let’s assume the Sabres could acquire the 28-year-old for three years at $3.5 million AAV.
My last move in free-agency is the acquisition of a player who could start for 30-35 games in relief of Ullmark next season. Aside from an unrealistic re-acquisition of a fan favorite in Ryan Miller, San Jose Sharks rotational-starter, Aaron Dell is the best option to my eye.
Last season, Dell was the superior player in the Sharks goaltending tandem, despite Martin Jones receiving more starts. Despite a relatively low raw save percentage of .907 on the year, his GSAx rate is more indicative of his production since the Sharks were a very poor defensive team overall.
His GSAx/60 rate of -0.189 was actually very good, considering he faced the eighth-most difficult workload in the league last season in terms of team xGA/60.
Due to the fact that EH does not have goaltender contract projections available, we’ll base his UFA deal off of his performance and current salary. His base stats were underwhelming, and that’s the main driver of contract price for goalies on the open market. Still, he’ll receive a raise from his last AAV total of $800,000.
Let’s say he signs with the Sabres for two-years at $1.25 million.
Salary Cap Space Remaining After Free-agency: $9.66 million
Final 2020-21 Roster
As you may be able to tell, I tried to develop this lineup to look relatively similar to how the Columbus Blue Jackets are currently built. Like John Tortorella, Krueger runs a defensively-inclined system, but he didn’t have to correct players to optimize it in 2019-20. This roster should give him the ability to run a similar system, with hopefully much more success.
Victor Olofsson - Jack Eichel - Jesper Fast
Jeff Skinner - Phillip Danault - Sam Reinhart
Dominik Kahun - Andrew Copp - Dylan Cozens
Curtis Lazar - Arttu Ruotsalainen - Kyle Okposo
Rasmus Dahlin - T.J. Brodie
Vince Dunn - Henri Jokiharju
Jake McCabe - Will Borgen
The key to this lineup for me is balance and flexibility. The first line gives you some high-octane scoring with Eichel and Olofsson, paired with a defensively conscious presence in Fast. The second line gives Skinner two very talented two-way linemates and would allow him to do as much free-wheeling as he’d like offensively.
The third line is a nice compliment that includes a very good defensive center, and a great transitional player in Kahun. Their responsible play (paired with a decent level of offensive ability) gives Cozens two very steady, veteran linemates to learn from and lean on at the next level.
The fourth line is a little bit of a wild-card, which in this scenario is alright. The additions of Danault and Copp no longer the Sabres to use their fourth line exclusively for defensive shutdown duty. That said, they’re certainly capable of a defensively-tilted deployment approach.
Defensively, your top-pairing is stellar. Brodie is responsible enough to allow Dahlin to be a little more creative as a puck-carrier. Dunn and Jokiharju are a very nice two-way tandem who could be used in a pretty even deployment setup. McCabe and Borgen are a defensive shutdown tandem who would be sheltered to an extent on the third pairing, with Dahlin and Brodie facing off against opponents top scoring lines.
The goalie tandem is a little bit weak overall, but we’d just have to keep our fingers crossed that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen keeps developing as a future top-flight netminder.
For fun, I plugged this lineup into Sean Tierney’s WAR model which prognosticates standings points of a given lineup. I had to make some exceptions since Ruotsalainen, Cozens, and Borgen aren’t included in the list of available players. For Ruotsalainen I subbed Zemgus Girgensons, For Cozens, Nick Suzuki of the Canadiens, and for Borgen, Tim Heed of the San Jose Sharks.
According to that model, the lineup projected around 92 standings points on the year. As expected, the goaltenders were the weak link, but overall, not too shabby.
RAPM and GAR Charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey
Shot Heatmaps courtesy of Hockeyviz
GSAx Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey