This offseason for the Buffalo Sabres has a different feel than it had just a few months ago. Tim Murray was about to begin his fourth offseason as general manager and needed to put together a team that would make the playoffs in the 2017-18 season.
That game plan changed when Murray was relieved of his duties by owner Terry Pegula at the end of April. A few weeks later Jason Botterill was hired as the club’s new general manager. Botterill enters this offseason with a clean slate and will approach things differently than Murray would have with his job likely on the line.
Not only does Botterill need to get a handle on being a first-time head of a hockey department, but also has to navigate the first expansion draft since 2000. He has a lot of decisions to make in what is being projected as one of the busiest offseasons we’ve seen in the history of the league.
I’ll do my best to navigate you through the decisions the Sabres have to make and some ideas on how they can approach each task this offseason.
Projected Cap Space (Cap Friendly with $75 million cap ceiling): $24.8 million
Restricted Free Agents: Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, Robin Lehner, Zemgus Girgensons, Evan Rodrigues, Brady Austin, Justin Kea and Jean Dupuy
Unrestricted Free Agents: Cody Franson, Brian Gionta, Dmitry Kulikov, Taylor Fedun and Derek Grant
The NHL buyout window opened on June 15. The Sabres have a few candidates who could be getting their tickets out of town with the window now open. The first of course is Matt Moulson, who has been discussed as an option for a buyout for a few years now. Moulson has two years remaining on his contract with a $5 million cap hit. According to the Cap Friendly buyout tool, it would save the Sabres $2.2 million this season and $1.2 million next season. They would still be on the hook for a cap hit of $833,333 in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
The cost isn’t by any means prohibitive as it was last summer, but the Sabres may be able to get the Vegas Golden Knights to take Moulson’s contract, at a cost of course, instead of going down the buyout route.
Josh Gorges is the other player who could find himself as a buyout candidate. The 32-year-old is entering the final year of his contract with a $3.9 million cap hit. According to the Cap Friendly buyout tool, the Sabres would save $2.6 million on the cap this season but add a cost of a $1.3 million cap hit in 2018-19. Unless the club is desperate to unload the veteran defenseman, it seems like it would be wise to let Gorges finish out his contract as a sixth or seventh defenseman. They could also explore finding a trade partner and retaining some salary in the trade this season.
The expansion draft is adding a different element to this offseason. Teams are not only putting together their protected lists, but they are also working side deals with the Golden Knights to convince them to select a certain player or stay away from a certain player. We’ll also likely see a lot of player movement from teams who don’t want to lose big assets with no return.
The Sabres are in a good position regarding protecting their important players. They’ll likely reach out to the Golden Knights to see if general manager George McPhee will be open to taking one of the big contracts of either Zach Bogosian, Tyler Ennis or Moulson. It’ll likely cost them a draft pick or a prospect to entice the new franchise to select one of those players in the draft. The Sabres have two second-round and third-round picks in the upcoming draft, which gives them some flexibility to make a deal.
NHL Draft & Trade Market
The trade market is full of quality players this season that can help improve a team quickly. We’ve even seen big names like Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane crawl into the rumor mill. Now, how true the rumors are is another thing. The good news for the Sabres is that their biggest need in defense is arguably the deepest in regards to players on the market. Players like Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, Sami Vatanen, Calvin de Haan, Travis Hamonic, Chris Tanev and Tyson Barrie are believed to be available.
The one stumbling block the Sabres may have in acquiring one of the aforementioned top-four defensemen is the lack of assets to compete with other teams on the market who are looking for help on defense. Teams have big pieces like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Alex Galchenyuk and Jordan Eberle to use as trade bait to pick up a defender.
The biggest pieces the Sabres have are Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft. It appears as though they don’t have interest in moving Reinhart, which is understandable. As a first-time general manager, you have to wonder if Botterill would be eager to trade his first-ever first-round pick. That leaves Kane, who seems like he’ll be moved prior to next season, but his value is the question. He has one year remaining on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent. We’re also well aware of the off-ice issues that follow the 25-year-old forward.
The Sabres may need to get creative in order to make a move that upgrades their blue line. The price seems to be high on all defenders and Botterill has to decide how big he wants to go in year one.
It’s no mystery from a Sabres perspective that they are willing to trade goaltender Robin Lehner and Kane. The idea of trading Lehner still doesn’t make a lot of sense and would be just creating another hole on the roster, but general managers like to have their “guys”.
The Sabres will head into free agency with a lot of cap space, especially if the salary goes up to the expected $75 million with the NHLPA using the escalator. The increased cap ceiling will give the team just under $25 million with four NHL restricted free agents to sign. The downside of that is the free-agent class is not pretty this summer. Kevin Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie, and Alex Radulov are the big fish this year, but none are really that intriguing to the Sabres. Perhaps Shattenkirk, but he may already be ticketed for the New York Rangers.
That being said, there’s some talent in the secondary levels of the free-agent market the club can explore. One name I think fans should get really familiar with is current Pittsburgh Penguins forward Nick Bonino. The 29-year-old fits a need as a third-line center and has been mentioned by Botterill for his ability to play both the pivot and the wing. He could be one of the guys Botterill brings over from the Penguins to his new team.
Jordan Weal is another intriguing player who could add depth. The 25-year-old forward from the Philadelphia Flyers scored 12 points in 23 games last season. Weal is a Group 6 free agent, which allows him to hit the open market at such a young age.
On the defensive side, a player like Brendan Smith could be a good addition. He won’t break the bank and had a great run with the Rangers after the trade deadline. He’s not that flashy of a player but is a physical presence and is a decent puck mover. He can fit in as a four or five on a good blue line.
Karl Alzner from the Washington Capitals is another player the Sabres can explore, but he may get overpaid as the second best option on the market. Michael Del Zotto is the last guy I’ll mention as an idea. The 26-year-old has struggled with injuries but is a good skater with the ability to contribute on the offensive side.
The Sabres can go a lot of different ways this summer. Phil Housley will also need to decide on who the future captain of the franchise is going to be with Brian Gionta likely not returning. Jack Eichel or Ryan O’Reilly? We’ve seen a lot of change in Buffalo in the past two months and may be in store for some more over the next month or so.