As we await the NHL’s plans for the upcoming season and with our solid understanding of the Buffalo Sabres’ roster, we can look towards the 2021 free-agent market and who may be a good organizational fit.
Pending UFAs & RFAs
Here’s a list of the Sabres’ notable pending UFAs and RFAs along with their salary once the 2020-21 season comes to an end.
- Taylor Hall ($8 million)
- Eric Staal ($3.25 million)
- Brandon Montour ($3.85 million)
- Jake McCabe ($2.85 million)
- Carter Hutton ($2.75 million)
- Linus Ullmark ($2.6 million)
- Sam Reinhart ($5.2 million)
- Rasmus Dahlin ($925,000)
For all intents and purposes, it’s reasonable to project that Hall (sorry, optimists) Staal, Montour, McCabe, Hutton, and Ullmark either won’t be back or are expendable in this exercise, which would leave $23.3 million in freed-up cap space. Reinhart and certainly Dahlin will be due for raises – pending more financial clarity.
Let’s pretend prospect development goes swimmingly this upcoming season and the organization is comfortable filling a few holes internally with Artttu Ruotsalainen, Jack Quinn, and Oskari Laaksonen.
This leaves us with glaring needs on defense, at center, on the wing, and in nets. With that, here are the potentially prized UFAs of the star-studded 2021 free-agent class who could fill the Sabres’ positional holes.
Potential UFA Fits
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) – C/LW – Current Cap Hit: $6 million
Nugent-Hopkins has been a regular in the trade rumor mill for years. Fresh off back-to-back 60-point seasons, he could fill the hole at center once Staal departs. He has drastically improved his two-way game in recent seasons and would be an upgrade over Staal at this point in his career. Additionally, he can also play on the wing which provides the lineup with further flexibility and versatility. He’s an excellent passer which would bode well for Jeff Skinner’s success on a potential second line, as well.
While Nugent-Hopkins will be due a raise somewhere in the range of the $7-$8 million range, he shouldn’t demand much more than that. And with given the financial instability league-wide, he may come even cheaper, but not likely.
Kyle Palmieri (NJ) – RW/LW– Current Cap Hit: $4.65 million
Palmieri continues to be one of the most underrated wingers in the game. He has strung together five-straight 20-goal campaigns and has even eclipsed the 30-goal plateau once. While he’s not quite Taylor Hall, he could fill in admirably of Hall departs next offseason. Apart from his scoring prowess, Palmieri would bring veteran stability and leadership to a very young Sabres team.
He will command more than his current $4.65 million cap hit but wouldn’t be due Hall money. Somewhere in the $6-$6.5 million range seems reasonable, which would allow the Sabres to allocate the difference elsewhere.
Dougie Hamilton (CAR) – D – Current Cap Hit: $5.75 million
Signing Hamilton would be a boon for this franchise. He is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman with incredible offensive instincts. He was well on his way to a Norris Trophy campaign with 40-points in 47 games before he went down with a broken leg last season. Additionally, he was averaging over 23 minutes of ice time and was a plus-30 before the injury.
Pairing him with Dahlin would form one of the best defensive duos in the game. Not to mention the mentorship he would provide while also taking pressure off the youngster as he continues to evolve.
He will be expensive, probably in the $8 million range, but he would be worth it and a major upgrade over Montour.
Frederik Andersen (TOR) – G – Current Cap Hit: $5 million
Anderson is easily the best goalie the Toronto Maple Leafs have had in years. However, due to the ruthless Toronto media and playing behind a porous defense, he is often unfairly criticized. He turned in a career-worst 2.85 goals-against average (GAA) and .909 save percentage (SV%) last season, but those numbers are fine considering the Maple Leafs were one of the worst teams in shot suppression. He was stellar in the teams’ five-game playoff loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets – registering a 1.84 GAA and .936 SV%. Quite frankly, some beer-league teams play better defense than Toronto did last season.
Above all, Anderson is a consummate professional who never throws his teammates under the bus while also holding himself accountable. Buffalo has lacked a true number-one goalie for years and desperately needs a foundational piece in the blue paint – which he would provide.
A contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $6 million sounds reasonable for Anderson, one similar to the deal Jacob Markstrom just signed may be a good starting point.
Is signing all of the above free agents likely? No. But is it plausible? Sure. A lot would have to happen, but I thought SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL had a better chance of signing Hall than the Sabres did this offseason. General manager Kevyn Adams has a penchant for making a splash and with the potentially loaded free-agent class in 2021, there’s no better time to show Buffalo fans that the organization is serious about assembling a championship-caliber team.
Jordan joins THW as a lifelong hockey fan and Upstate New York native. He started playing hockey at the age of 5 and continued playing competitively into college. Being a loyal Sabres and Bills fan has taken a toll on his general well-being but remains hopelessly optimistic that a Buffalo sports renaissance is near.