Sabres Have Options if Skinner Walks

The acquisition of Jeff Skinner proved to be a real coup for both the Buffalo Sabres and Skinner. For Skinner, he tied a career high in points with 63 and set a new career mark for goals by reaching 40. For the Sabres, they found a legitimate winger for star centre Jack Eichel and their first 40-goal scorer since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09.

The match is unquestionably a great fit. That’s why Skinner’s lack of a contract is so concerning to Sabres fans. As July 1 nears, it becomes more and more likely that Skinner will decide to test the free agent market.

Sabres center Jeff Skinner
Sabres center Jeff Skinner (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Sean Tierney built a chart based on Evolving Wild’s contract projections for UFAs and RFAs next season. According to the model, Skinner is poised to sign an eight-year deal worth $9,130,806. That number really feels right for both sides. Skinner will get a significant raise while playing with an elite centre with whom he has chemistry and the Sabres can lock up a cornerstone member of their franchise at age 26 for years to come.

On a team starved for goals, finishing 24th last season, Skinner paced Eichel by 12 goals. While losing a 40-goal scorer is never good, it’s extremely detrimental to what the Sabres have ahead of them given their dearth of offensive talent. This summer is crucial for general manager Jason Botterill and he needs to direct his team to it’s first playoff berth since 2011. There are options for the Sabres to replace Skinner’s offence and some are easy to imagine while others will require some creativity.

Sabres UFA Options

Signing UFAs is always a gamble. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), most players don’t become UFAs until they are nearing 30 and will become major burdens to their teams after signing seven-year deals. There are some options this year, however, that are younger and could prove to fill some of the Sabres’ holes effectively. The bonus of signing a UFA is that the only resource you need to give up is cap space. While some of the following players are projected to earn eight-year deals, the Sabres can only offer eight years to Skinner as he was their property this season.

Artemi Panarin

Panarin is arguably the most coveted free agent available this offseason. The 27-year-old put up 87 points in 79 games this season. Over his four-year career, his has produced just under a point per game. He is an offensive driver and will have no shortage of offers from teams looking to contend.

Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets
Artemi Panarin looks to be on the move this summer. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

He is rumored to be interested in signing with a team near a body of water. While Lake Erie can have it’s moments, it seems more likely that Panarin will be looking for something a little bigger and brighter. THW’s own Eric Bancker recently speculated on whether or not the Rangers would go all-in for Panarin. If Buffalo really wants him, it will likely be the greatest test of Botterill’s sales skills. For what it’s worth, he is projected to make $11,255,493 on an eight-year deal.

Kevin Hayes

Hayes is not regarded as being an offensive dynamo like Skinner and Panarin. While not producing eye-popping numbers, Hayes has averaged .601 points-per-game over his five-year career. What sets him apart is his defensive game. According to Evolving Hockey, Hayes demonstrates a great ability in the defensive zone to get the puck out and build offence. As a bonus, he could slide into the coveted second line centre role to take the pressure off of Casey Mittelstadt. Projected to sign an eight-year deal at $8,045,539, the 26-year-old should be able to fit into the cap structure in Buffalo on a seven-year deal and would provide stability up the middle.

Matt Duchene

Duchene was the beneficiary of a trade deadline move from the Ottawa Senators to the Columbus Blue Jackets. With the Blue Jackets, Duchene was an integral part of their playoff run. In 10 playoff games, he collected five goals and five assists and was a key cog in sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning. Evolving Wild projects the 28-year-old centre will sign a six-year deal worth $6,902,851.

Columbus Blue Jackets Matt Duchene
Columbus Blue Jackets center Matt Duchene. (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

If that deal was possible, most teams in the NHL would make room for him. While not being a defensive stalwart, his offence and ability to play centre would make him an attractive option for the Sabres. Given his age and the likelihood that someone will overpay for him, the odds of Duchene becoming a Sabre appear low at this point.

Erik Karlsson

Arguably the defenceman that is most well-equipped to replace the offence Skinner brought the Sabres is Karlsson. Having put up over 500 points in his career, the two-time Norris Trophy winner was able to find success with the San Jose Sharks this season. His struggles have involved remaining healthy. Undergoing ankle surgery in 2013 and 2017 as well as dealing with a nagging groin issue this season, one wonders what the future holds for this thoroughbred.

He was reportedly offered $80 million to stay in Ottawa last summer but turned the offer down. He’s now projected to sign a seven-year pact worth $9,071,015, a total of just under $63.5 million. Playing on a deep San Jose blue line, Karlsson struggled to shine as he had done in Ottawa. In Buffalo, he would be their top defenceman but may not be for long with the emergence of young stud Rasmus Dahlin. If the Sabres could sign him to the projected deal, it may be too difficult a gamble to move on from.

Sabres Trade Targets

Florida Panthers

There is rampant speculation that the Panthers will be busy this summer. Having signed arguably one of the best coaches of all time in Joel Quenneville, general manager Dale Tallon is looking to go all-in and bring a winner to South Florida.

The Panthers are rumored to be making a push to bring in both Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Both players are big ticket UFA targets this summer and will likely cost around $20 million combined. Next season, the Panthers will have around $21.5 million in cap space with other holes to fill. They will have to get creative with managing the cap this offseason.

A name that has been said to be available is Jonathan Huberdeau. In 82 games this season the 25-year-old put up 92 points including 30 goals. A solid contributor in Junior, Huberdeau has taken some time to find his way in the NHL. After posting career highs in points the last two seasons, we may be beginning to see the emergence of a star. His Goals Above Replacement per 60 is only .05 goals below that of Skinner.

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers Oct. 17, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Huberdeau currently carries a $5.9 million salary through 2022-23. An affordable offensive player of his calibre will not come cheap, especially not in a trade within the division. If Florida wants to make salary cap space, a move of Buffalo’s seventh overall pick should not be scoffed at.

Vegas Golden Knights

It seems like eons since the Golden Knights were a fledgling expansion team without a hope of contending. After two very successful seasons, the Knights now find themselves in some cap trouble. If the cap rises to the reported $83 million next season, they will have less than $1 million to fill out a roster that has four UFAs and five RFAs.

Vegas is obviously under pressure to make some moves in order to be cap compliant. One of the RFAs that could be available is 26-year-old William Karlsson. Karlsson had a breakout year in 2017-18 tallying 78 points which lapped his previous career high by 58 points. Obviously skeptical, Vegas signed him to a one-year deal worth $5.25 million. It now seems unlikely that there will be room for him in Vegas on a new deal.

William Karlsson
William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

While he may not be a consistent 30-goal scorer, Karlsson could prove to be reliable for 25 goals and play responsibly in his own end as a centre. Over the last two seasons, he has a superior Wins Above Replacement compared to Skinner at 5.1 to 4.1. His Goals Above Replacement of 28.3 is also preferable to Skinner’s 23. Projected to make $6,682,019 on a five-ear deal, Karlsson could help bolster Buffalo’s offence without breaking the bank. A package of picks to Vegas and possibly a prospect should get the job done.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild are very similar to the Sabres of about 10 years ago. They are a veteran team that has had consistent success but has yet to be able to get over the hump. general manager, Paul Fenton is looking to make changes to his core group to get a few fresh faces and open up some cap room.

Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet talked about Minnesota in his sixth thought of his 31 Thoughts blog this week. He mused that Jared Spurgeon and Jason Zucker could both be on the move this summer. Zucker has proven to be a reliable 20-goalvscorer with the ability to score over 30. Spurgeon is the definition of a defensive-defenceman, regularly playing solid hockey in his own zone and driving offence.

Jason Zucker
Jason Zucker, Philadelphia Flyers versus Minnesota Wild, January 14, 2019. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Zucker is 27 and is signed at an affordable $5.5 million through 2022-23. Spurgeon is 30 and has one year remaining at just under $5.2 million. A combination of both would provide the veteran leadership and offensive depth the Sabres so desperately need. Could a package of Rasmus Ristolainen, a prospect and picks be enough to pry them from Minnesota?

Sabres Offer Sheet Possibilities

Rarely used by NHL GMs, the RFA offer sheet can be an effective tool to build your team or adversely affect your opponent. When used properly, a predatory offer sheet will be digestible for your team to absorb but, if matched, will make things difficult or at least inconvenient for the matching team.

Mitch Marner

The Sabres have had a front row seat to watch Mitch Marner at work during his first three seasons. Averaging 0.93 points-per-game over his career, he has the obvious offensive skills the Sabres covet. While not being solid defensively, his ability to set teammates up for goals more than makes up for it. Would he ever consider leaving Toronto for Buffalo? It seems doubtful, but THW’s own Chris Faria recently outlined some of the stress Toronto is facing in getting Marner signed. If Marner wants a similar contract to teammate Auston Matthews, why not have Buffalo be the team to give it to him?

Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews,
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

If Buffalo were to attempt to sign him to a deal at $11.5 million they could get Marner in the same conversation as Matthews in terms of AAV. Would the number be too high for Toronto to turn away? Probably not. Where you make it uncomfortable is offering a four-year deal. That deal will send him straight to free agency and help limit the window that Toronto has to contend.

If the Maple leafs did opt to back away, the pressure is on and you have to make sure none of your next four first round picks are lottery bound. That’s sadly a tall task for this Sabres team. But with that AAV, it would be difficult for Toronto to walk away, especially when they’d now be forced to play Marner five or more times each season. A move like this could prove savvy for Buffalo.

Sebastian Aho

The Carolina Hurricanes are facing an interesting summer. Having made the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons and currently playing in the Eastern Conference Final, they need to figure out how they will commit money to their team for next season. They are by far the lowest cap hit remaining in the playoffs, currently carrying over $16 million in cap space. Next year, however, things will be different.

While not being a team that spends to the the cap for years now, owner Tom Dundon will be forced to open his purse strings to keep the talent that Carolina has amassed. Joseph Aleong of THW recently speculated on what Aho’s contract could look like. He noted that, “It seems likely Aho will command anywhere from $7 to $8 million per year on a long-term contract.” Evolving Wild is projecting Aho to sign an eight-year deal worth $10,052,118. While Carolina will no doubt see an increase in ticket sales after this season, a salary that high may be too tough to swallow and could throw off the balance of their salary structure.

Buffalo Sabres Zemgus Girgensons Carolina Hurricanes Sebastian Aho
Buffalo Sabres Zemgus Girgensons stick checks Carolina Hurricanes Sebastian Aho. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Should Buffalo offer the minimum comparable compensation that they are able to on an offer sheet ($10,568,590), they could be getting an offensive fireball who finished with more points than their own $10 million captain this season. The Hurricanes may have reason to pause with rookie Andrei Svechnikov being eligible for a new contract just over a year from now and goaltender Scott Darling is only signed for next season. Making it a five-year deal helps keep the cap hit as low as possible while also helping them take advantage of Aho’s prime years.

Brayden Point

The most attractive offer sheet target should be the Lightning’s Brayden Point. Arguably the best player from the 2014 NHL Draft, although drafted 79th overall, Point has lived up to his name, putting up 92 points this season. While that can be attributed to playing for a dynamic offence in Tampa Bay, looking deeper into his numbers helps us to appreciate how special a player he is.

Most of the options we have looked at to replace Skinner have followed the mantra of being strong offensively and weak defensively. Point breaks that mold. Take a look at how he compares to Marner over the course of their careers with Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) chart.

While Marner possesses stronger Goals-For, Point is superior in every other metric, including his expected offence in both zones. Over their careers, Point has 50.3 GAR compared to Marner’s 39.1 and a WAR of 9.1 to Marner’s seven. Add that Point is a centre, and his value is clearly superior.

The Lightning appear to have less than $10 million in cap space for next season, with four RFAs and three UFAs to decide on. The likelihood is that general manager Julien BriseBois will get creative and move nearly any piece before he has to move Point who is projected to sign a five-year deal worth $8,313,740. But will BriseBois be comfortable signing his young stud to only five years? Buffalo could be in a position to offer him a longer deal but would need to really up the price to entice him to leave.

Tampa Bay Lightning Brayden Point
Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point. (AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.)

If Buffalo offered $10.5 million over seven years, it could make things interesting. Because of the rules for offer sheets, the AAV would be $14.7 million. While that number may seem reckless now, the increase in revenues and addition of Seattle will no doubt see the cap rise significantly in the next five years. Buffalo could add offence that would more than make up for Skinner and have it at the centre position as well.

One common hangup with deals involving the Lightning is the difference in taxes to Buffalo. According to Gavin Group, the difference in taxes paid on this proposed contract would be $903,000 annually. Basically, a contract of $10.5 million in Buffalo would only need to be worth $9.6 million in Tampa. Will BriseBois make Point his highest paid player? Only time will tell.

Jason Botterill Has Decisions to Make

Indeed, Jason Botterill will have his hands full if Skinner decides to leave for greener pastures. If that happens, though, there are options available. Not finding elite offensive talent to replace him is not an option at this point. Whether it be through UFA, trades, or extending an offer sheet, Botterill has to find a way to infuse more offence into his squad.

While not all options are necessarily realistic or maybe even possible, they need to be explored. Having already fired Phil Housely, the pressure is squarely on Botterill now. This summer will go a long way to determining whether he will have a long career as an NHL GM or simply be a footnote in the sad recent history of the Buffalo Sabres. Your move, Botts.