GM For a Day: The Offseason
After exceeding all expectations in 2021-22, what should the Sabres do next?
I have written about four different variations of this Buffalo Sabres GM For a Day. It has been a giant conundrum trying to figure out how to maintain the momentum of this past season, keeping the opportunities for this young core to find spots to grow in the lineup, and also to hit the cap floor. The most pressing questions I have to answer going into this are
1. What do we do at goalie?
This is going to be the most interesting question going into the offseason. Going into the 2021-22 season, it was pretty evident that the Sabres weren’t looking to PDO their way to a playoff spot given their free agent acquisitions at the position. This year there has been a pretty big wrench thrown into the goalie plans, with both Devon Levi and Erik Portillo going back to the NCAA, despite the expectations that at least one of them would’ve signed this offseason given their performances this past year. I would’ve thought that the opportunity to be the starting goalie in Rochester might have swayed Portillo to sign a year early, but alas, he returned to Michigan.
There should be legitimate concern about Erik Portillo not signing in Buffalo. If Portillo doesn’t sign after next season, he’ll be able to wait out the Sabres to become a free agent the following offseason. There isn’t enough playing time to warrant both Levi and Portillo signing next offseason, and hard decisions are going to have to be made regarding which of the three goalies recently drafted or traded for are going to remain in the organization.
2. How do we reach the cap floor?
This one has perplexed me the most. Given the finish to the season and the assumed promotion of Peterka and Quinn from Rochester to Buffalo, there aren’t exactly a lot of holes that need to be filled that warrant contracts necessary to get to the cap.
If we take Evolving Hockey’s contract projection for Victor Olofsson of four years at $5 million AAV, that still leaves the Sabres at around $16 to $18 million short of the salary cap floor, with two right-handed defensemen and the goalie situation to figure out. Essentially being asked to carry shorter term players at a $4 to $5 million dollar average cap hit is going to be a tall order without a trade or without taking on a significant buyout.
3. Who is our second line center next year?
I have contemplated for over a week about a trade that would send Olofsson and/or Mittelstadt to the the Wild (with other pieces involved) for Kevin Fiala. I have moved away from that idea, but I’m still wondering if we have our future second line center currently on the roster. Cozens has looked really good on the wing in the World Championship, and while I’ve seen others in the Sabres Twitterverse championing his transition numbers, his rush offense and small area skill is still in the works. If he continues to keep making progress in the right direction, I think he gets there.
4. How much do I want to stay on a two year rebuild?
I expected a borderline last place finish this year. To see the improvements this past year given the goalie situation it’s been hard not to just swing for the fences and improve the goalie situation and make one big splash in UFA or trade. However, I think we play it out this year with the kids and short-term UFA signings. Next year, we should end up with Levi coming into the fray, and have a larger sample size of what UPL gives us in net at the NHL level. We have a lot of capital to use to swing on a RHD if needed. However, it is so tempting to try to make one or two big moves given the cap situation and the progress this team has made, to see if we can stomp on the accelerator of the post-Eichel rebuild.
So let’s dive into this.
Buffalo Trades: Anders Bjork and a 2022 5th (NJ pick)
Arizona Trade: 2024 7th (Boston)
There is no room for Bjork on the current roster. As much as I swallowed the Bjork pill in 2020-21, it doesn’t make sense to entertain keeping him on the roster given.
Buffalo Trades: Erik Portillo
Edmonton Trades: 2023 2nd and 2024 4th round picks
I don’t know how Edmonton watches Mike Smith and doesn’t immediately try to fix this cheaply with Portillo. They’ve got cap problems this year, but having a two-to-three year fix down the road would be more beneficial than two draft picks in future drafts.
For the Sabres, you don’t have much leverage once the season starts with Portillo, so getting any sort of capital better than his draft stock is what I’d be shooting for.
1.) MTL: Shane Wright, C, OHL
2.) NJ: Juraj Slafkovsky, LW, Liiga
3.) ARZ: Logan Cooley, C, USNTDP
4.) SEA: Simon Nemec, RHD, Czechnia
5.) Trade: Buffalo trades picks: 9, 16, and a 2023 2nd (Buffalo)
Philadelphia trades picks: 5, 68, 100
Buffalo selects: David Jiricek, RHD, Slovakia
There are two picks I want at pick 9: David Jiricek and Brad Lambert. Lambert could fall all the way to 16 hypothetically, but Jiricek is going somewhere in the top 6 in my opinion. With Jiricek, the Sabres land the potential best defensemen in this class, a player that is oozing with offensive skill and defensive shutdown ability. He’s coming off of knee surgery looking a bit slower than previously, but his offensive game compliments the styles of Power and Dahlin, and we’re talking about a true top pairing potential with his 200-foot game. After Cooley goes off the board, I’d swing on the potential top 6 center in Lambert or the potential best defensemen in Jiricek.
Would I, myself, make this trade? If you’ve read anything I’ve written the past few years about my draft philosophy, you know I’m breaking one of my cardinal rules by trading up. For this exercise, I did it for a few reasons:
1. Chasing top-pairing defensemen in UFA means throwing $6+ million dollars on a player that is most likely over 27 years old and giving term.
2. I don’t think Philadelphia is going to draft a right handed defensemen in this draft, and feel that if you’re going to get one of Nemec or Jiricek you’re going to have to jump Columbus to do it.
3. I think he’s the perfect complimentary defender to Dahlin and Power compared to Nemec.
Here is the rest of my draft with a summary of each player:
Round 1, Pick 28: Noah Ostlund, C, J20 Nationell
Of the Djurgarden trio he’s the most likely to fall to the Sabres. A deceptive playmaker who can control the neutral zone with the puck on his stick; Ostlund is the type of home run swing I’m hoping to make with the second first round pick.
Another great Noah Östlund clip to check out.— Josh Tessler 🇺🇦 (@JoshTessler_) May 1, 2022
Great work on the forecheck. Stayed aligned to the attacker when the attacker pivots and ended up stealing the puck. At the end of the clip, you see him complete a far side snap shot goal from medium danger. #2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/BDe6r4qDZP
Round 2, Pick 42: Gleb Trikozov, RW, MHL
When the European scouts at Smaht started hyping Trikozov at the beginning of the year, I began to watch a few of his games when he moved to the MHL. He’s electric with the puck on his stick, a fantastic shot, and severely undervalued by the consensus rankings. Scouch’s recent video is a great follow up to Josh Tessler’s report.
Gleb Trikozov's (#8 in Black) problem solving ability in transition is 🔥#2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/2KrXaukKlr— Josh Tessler 🇺🇦 (@JoshTessler_) December 28, 2021
Round 3, Pick 68: Vladimir Grudinin, LHD, MHL
In the abbreviated World Juniors this past winter, I thought Grudinin was far and away the best defender that Russia brought to the tournament. An offensive-leaning defensemen who has the mobility to keep gaps and isn’t afraid to use the body to separate the man from the puck? Sign me up.
Vladimir Grudinin is fun. Lures the attacker in to buy himself space and then fires a saucer pass to his teammate at the opposite half-wall.#2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/QhrBV4zEOM— Josh Tessler 🇺🇦 (@JoshTessler_) April 20, 2022
Round 3, Pick 73: Devin Kaplan, RW, USNTDP
Kaplan is one of my favorites to outperform his draft stock in the 2022 draft. A 6’3” winger who can play using his size and has skill for days that’s often ranked in the back-half of the second round or early third? I’m all over this. While his point totals never hit the levels of some of the other NTDP forwards, he was the transition king on his line with McGroarty and was relegated to third line duties in the u18s. Go watch the championship game in the u18s against Sweden. He played six shifts through the first period and a half; on every shift, he either scored, assisted, had a breakaway, or was directly involved in a scoring chance. The Boston University commit is going to break out in a big way in the next year or two.
Reason number 230525 why points don't matter.— Austin (@BMaster716) April 16, 2022
Devin Kaplan is good. pic.twitter.com/QmXv1ifHRM
Round 4, Pick 100: Dylan James, LW, USHL
Sioux City surprisingly won the Clark Cup in the USHL this past year, and Dylan James was a big reason why. He’s a monster as an F1 forechecker, has sneaky good skill in the offensive zone, and gets the puck to goal-scoring areas in a multitude of ways. His pace is a bit of a concern, but his skill and ability to generate chances both with and without the puck on his stick make up for it. I don’t know if he ends up falling to the fourth round anymore, but given the current lists and mock draft sites, I will gladly walk away with one of the stars of the USHL playoffs.
3!!! NO HE HAS 4!!! DYLAN JAMES!!! 2-GOAL LEAD!!! @USHL pic.twitter.com/Huxw04yvoq— Sioux City Musketeers (@Musketeerhockey) April 2, 2022
Round 4, Pick 105: Michael Fisher, RHD, USHS-Prep
Few prep school prospects put together the tape of high-end skill and speed like Fisher did this past year. He was a force to be reckoned with on with his limited game tape on InStat. However, without any tape against higher level competition and going to a Princeton team that isn’t going to be ultra-competitive, I do have to bake in some caution into his projection.
Round 5, Pick 133: Connor Kurth*, F, USHL
Kurth is just too much fun to pass up on. He’s a great playmaker who I found myself putting on USHL games just to watch him play. His skating has developed a bit from last year but still isn’t at an above-average pace. Going to Minnesota in the fall I expect him to play minimal minutes on a team that brought the majority of their team back, but in his sophomore year I’d expect a big season.
Stephen Halliday of the @fightingsaints puts Team White on the board first at the #BAAG, courtesy a nifty dish from Connor Kurth. Both will re-enter the #NHLDraft this summer. https://t.co/2vv6K8JtAphttps://t.co/1P3bsvf429pic.twitter.com/v5CZiXAQQ6— FCHockey (@FCHockey) January 17, 2022
Round 6, Pick 169: Joel Jonsson, RW, J20 Nationell
One of Smaht’s favorite small prospects. Shifty with a ton of skill, but undersized and didn’t have a large sample in a European men’s league. Give me all of the Joel Jonsson stock.
Round 6, Pick 187: Marcus Nguyen, LW, WHL
Matt Somma’s favorite player in the WHL. Nguyen was on a loaded Portland team and saw minimal ice-time and no power play time, but still managed to make an impact in most of my viewings. Great in the offensive zone, very smart player off the puck, and over the course of the next two years, the August-birthday prospect should start getting more opportunities to showcase and develop his already impressive skillset.
Marcus Nguyen (#72 in white) is great at using his stick to disrupt the play, which usually results in an odd man rush. pic.twitter.com/7bZPmT2Xqi— Matthew Somma (@Mattsomma12) April 6, 2022
Round 7, Pick 201: Zach Bookman**, RHD, AJHL
I think I was the only one who ranked Bookman in all of scouting last year. Bookman took the reins from Corson Ceulemans this past year and went off to the tune of 102 points in 55 games for the AJHL champion Brooks Bandits. He has always been a deft skater with great puck skill who uses his skill to move up into the zone to create and score goals. 14 of his 21 goals were scored at even strength, and 78% of his points 5v5 were primary points.
He has three strikes against him: he’s a double overager, he plays in the AJHL, and he’s going to a lower division NCAA team in Merrimack. However, give me all of the former Jr. Sabres’ stock. Hell, if you see me at HarborCenter I’ll even show you his picture on the wall. Destined to be a Sabre!
As I say that Bookman then does this pic.twitter.com/xEkXRAaSIC— Austin (@BMaster716) January 1, 2021
Re-Sign Vinnie Hinostroza: 1 year, $1.2 million
I think most people would slot Hinostroza as the 13th forward, but given the unproven nature of the forward group, I think there would be a role for him on most nights in the lineup as the youth movement would benefit from a rotation in-and-out of the lineup until injuries force the Sabres’ hand.
PK Subban: 3 years, $4 million AAV
Evolving Hockey’s contract projection goes for a year longer than I’d be comfortable with, but I can live with it given our cap situation and the fact there’s nothing long term I’m going to throw out there in free agency. Subban gives a veteran presence in the room, had a nice little rebound year with New Jersey, and can be a steady force if Jokiharju starts faltering with Dahlin.
Troy Stecher: 1 year, $1.5 million
This one has been in my mind since watching the World Championships in 2021. Owen Power had his coming out party, and it was in large part due to the change in deployment for Power with his partner Troy Stecher. Stecher defends the blue line exceptionally well, and allows for Power to play softer on the blue line which was to his strength. Also, Power got super aggressive in the offensive zone, and Stecher made sure to cover any activation strategy Power wanted to employ. A one year contract for minimal salary allows for defensive depth and reunites Power with a familiar partner.
Marc-Andre Fleury: 1 year, $6 million
Casey DeSmith: 2 years, $2.75 million AAV
This comes down to playing the salary cap and term. I need to overpay a goalie in free agency this summer, or I’m going to have to make a trade to buyout some salary. Unfortunately, I don’t see a buyout contract that’s easily digestible right now. Thus, I look to do two things:
1.) Get some trade chips for the deadline.
2.) Keep the terms short to leave the door open for UPL/Levi/Portillo
Worst case scenario is subpar goaltending for the year, and no assets come out of it. Best case scenario is DeSmith and UPL look great and Flower resurges at the deadline for us to flip him for an asset. Even then, the best case scenario still could be we make the playoffs riding a goaltending PDO.
RFA (all contracts are Evolving Hockey projections)
Victor Olofsson: 4 years, $5 million AAV
Jacob Bryson: 2 years, $1.6 million AAV
UPL: 1 year, $900,000
Not much to say on this front. Bryson is the seventh defender, Olofsson earns a 4 year deal at $5 million AAV. If you can flip the numbers to 5 years at $4 million, I think you have a steal. UPL is in his last year before he’s no longer waivers-eligible, so he’ll keep it to a one year deal to ensure he’s either in Buffalo next year or traded.
Opening Night Roster
Skinner (9) - Thompson (1.4) - Quinn (.863333)
Peterka (.855333) - Mittelstadt (2.5) - Tuch (4.75)
Asplund (.825) - Cozens (.894167) - Olofsson (5)
Girgensons (2.2) - Krebs (.863333) - Okposo (6)
Extra: Hinostroza (1.2)
Dahlin (6) - Subban (4)
Power (.9166667) - Stecher (1.5)
Samuelsson (.925) - Jokiharju (2.5)
Extra: Bryson (1.6)
Marc-Andre Fleury (6)
Casey DeSmith (2.6)
Total Salary: $62.54 million
As hard as it is to not want to make some drastic moves and push for the playoffs before the Sabres youthful core starts entering their first and second RFA contract bumps, I’m sticking to my original thought that this is a two year rebuild.
In the first year we were the All-Vibes Sabres. Nothing but low expectations and a feel-good story that made us proud of the team and how they rebounded after a depressing offseason. This year, it’s about being more critical towards some of the younger players who we are looking to fill longer term roles. Specifically, I look at players like Mittelstadt and Jokiharju to see if they’re ever going to make that jump we’ve been hoping for before their RFA status is up, or if Cozens or Krebs can solidify a roles down the middle for us. How will Quinn and Peterka transition to the NHL? I think these are the questions that we need to answer this year before we start to really push to open a playoff window.
I think about a future of having a Dahlin/Samuelsson and Power/Jiricek top 4 and how scary that will be. If one of Ostlund or Trikozov hit their full potential, we could be entering a renaissance of Sabres hockey. There’s a sort of hope in the air that I haven’t really felt since the 2015-16 season, and for that feeling alone I’m excited to see what 2022-23 will bring.