The 2020-21 season has not gone the way the Buffalo Sabres might have expected, and rookie general manager Kevyn Adams has admitted as much, among others in the organization. In fact, it’s gone so off the rails that the team went into full seller mode at the NHL Trade Deadline earlier this month. But now, management must set its sights on next season, which includes addressing the pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) set to hit the market in the offseason.
Adams has his work cut out for him if he wants to ice a better hockey team next season, and it all starts with finding a new head coach to fill the vacant spot left by Ralph Krueger. The next most important area is to sign the pending UFAs who can be part of the solution and say goodbye to those who can’t. Here’s a list of every player currently on an expiring contract and the odds the Sabres will seek to re-sign them.
Contract Extension Odds: Rieder was one of the depth forward signings Adams made shortly before the Sabres’ training camp began ahead of the season and started out hot before fizzling out and becoming virtually invisible on the ice. The odds that Adams chooses to hand him another deal after this season are slim, especially given the group of young prospects that the Sabres have given a shot toward the end of this season might be better options.
Pros: Adams brought Rieder in based on the merit of his penalty-killing prowess, but with the team currently sitting at 20th in the NHL on the penalty kill with a 78.4% success rate, it would seem that little project has yet to pay off. Outside of his special teams play, Rieder hasn’t offered much else on the ice this season.
Cons: Looking up and down the Sabres lineup, Rieder is consistently one of the worst players on the ice. Usually playing alongside his equally underperforming linemate Cody Eakin, Rieder is often behind the play, making simple mistakes, and appears slow compared to other players on the ice.
Contract Extension Odds: Much like Rieder, Sheahan was another signing late in the offseason in an attempt to bolster the Sabres’ bottom-six forward depth. Sheahan wasn’t even expected to be in the opening night roster, but somehow he has played in all but three games for the team this season. Unlike Rieder, the odds are a bit higher for Sheahan earning another deal with the Sabres.
Pros: All things considered, Sheahan has been a decent player for the Sabres this season. When captain Jack Eichel went down with an injury back in March, Sheahan temporarily filled the number one center role, adding a veteran presence and even adding a couple of goals in the process. He is much better suited for a fourth-line role, though, and I think he is an effective player when used that way.
Cons: Sheahan is one of those players who used to get by on his speed and skill but hasn’t been able to succeed that way in the NHL. And he doesn’t add much in the way of grinding or physicality, either, so he often looks lost out on the ice. His 11 points are not too shabby given where he’s played all season, but he is not part of the Sabres long-term plan. He might be part of the short-term plan, though.
Contract Extension Odds: There is virtually no shot that Irwin re-signs with the Sabres, especially since other, younger left-shooting defensemen Jacob Bryson and Mattias Samuelsson have broken into the NHL this year and have often played better than Irwin has. In addition to being cheaper, those players are just overall better options moving forward.
Pros: Irwin has added a stabilizing presence to the Sabres back end this year and has looked calm and collected even during the worst of times. His demeanor, probably procured from his days with winning teams like the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, has positively impacted younger defensemen in the lineup.
Cons: When Irwin makes mistakes with the puck, they seem pretty obvious and avoidable. He is not the strongest with the puck on his stick and plays better away from the puck. In addition to hitting teammate Kyle Okposo in the head dumping the puck into the offensive zone, he often makes noticeably bad turnovers.
Contract Extension Odds: There is no chance at all that Hutton will be back next season. He has already overstayed his welcome with the three-year contract he is currently on, and Adams would be misled to keep him around for longer. Additionally, he has been out with an injury for close to a month now, so he hasn’t been able to help his case at all.
Pros: Hutton served his purpose in his three seasons as a Sabre, and was probably a good mentor to Linus Ullmark and some of the younger players on the team. He had been part of a good St. Louis Blues team, and has by all accounts been a good locker room presence.
Cons: Hutton came into the season ranked lower than some teams’ backup goalies, and played like it all season long. His 3.47 goals against average (GAA) and .886 save percentage (SV%) are career worsts, and if the Sabres want to win, they need to find a goalie who can be competitive at the NHL level, and that is not Hutton.
Contract Extension Odds: Ullmark is probably the most likely player on this list to receive a new contract once the season finishes. Adams and himself pretty much agreed upon as much when he wasn’t moved at the trade deadline, with reports that teams had been calling about acquiring him. Getting Ullmark extended will be crucial in trying to be competitive next season.
Pros: Out of the Sabres’ 13 wins this season, Ullmark has nine of them. And he has been injured – twice – keeping him off the ice for more than a month’s time. His 2.63 GAA and .917 SV% are outstanding for the record of the team he plays for, and he has single-handedly stolen games for the Sabres this season.
Cons: Ullmark is prone to injury, and not just during this season, either. He sustained an injury in the 2019-20 season that kept him out for an extended amount of time, as well, and negotiating a contract with term and money that works for the team might be difficult because of this.
Contract Extension Odds: Houser was an emergency signing by Adams when Hutton and Ullmark went down with injuries at the same time, so as to avoid having to call up goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and force him into an NHL game too early. Because of this, there is no chance Houser re-signs with the team.
Pros: Given that Houser hasn’t played a game with either the Sabres or the Amerks this season, there are no pros.
Cons: The only real cons that I can think of are that we didn’t get to see Houser start a game for the Sabres. Seeing an ECHL goalie play for them would have been the cherry on top of this season.
Contract Extension Odds: The odds he re-signs is little to none unless the Sabres are planning to expose him to the expansion Seattle Kraken in this summer’s upcoming expansion draft.
Pros: While he is a fast skater with some definite upside in a bottom-six role, Caggiula hasn’t had the opportunity to do much else for the Sabres in the games he has played in.
Cons: Caggiula was picked up off waivers from the Arizona Coyotes shortly before the trade deadline, and has appeared in just four games with the Sabres, scoring zero points and registering a minus-4 rating.
Contract Extension Odds: In another world, McCabe might have had a really strong season that warranted a contract extension, but that’s not the world we live in. Unfortunately, after a strong start to the season playing next to Rasmus Ristolainen, McCabe suffered an injury that would keep him out for the remainder of the season. Because of this and other reasons, it is highly unlikely McCabe re-signs with the team.
Pros: McCabe had one goal, two assists, and was a plus-2 rating for the Sabres in 13 games before getting hurt, and he looked to be playing the best hockey of his career up to that point. He paired well with Ristolainen, and the two of them were scoring near the top of the NHL in defense metrics together.
Cons: The Sabres drafted McCabe all the way back in 2012, and they have not made the playoffs the entire time he has been in Buffalo. He has only ever known a losing culture, and it might be time to move on from him and build for the future.
Contract Extension Odds: Fogarty might have an outside chance of signing a new contract with the Sabres, though it would likely be a two-way contract for him to report to the AHLs Rochester Americans. For what his role has been with the Sabres this season, I think it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility for him to be back next season.
Pros: In nine NHL games this season, Fogarty scores one goal (the first of his career), two assists, and added eight penalty minutes for the Sabres. He played his role of fourth-line winger quite well, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a stretch of games with him in the lineup at a later date.
Cons: Fogarty is 28 years old, and while he could be an effective bottom-six forward, the Sabres likely have better options in the system who are younger and have a bigger potential upside.
Contract Extension Odds: Despite only appearing in one game for the Sabres this season, Dea might actually have a decent chance in landing a new contract with the Sabres, likely another one-year, two-way deal so he can play in the minors with the Americans.
Pros: Dea has previous NHL experience and can be a contributor and veteran presence at the AHL level, ready and skilled enough to be called up to the NHL if needed.
Cons: Outside of being a serviceable AHL player, Dea doesn’t have much upside. He failed to register a point in the one NHL game he played this season and isn’t going to unlock some hidden potential that sees him become a full-time NHL player any time soon.
Contract Extension Odds: Davidson will not be back with the Sabres next season. He has only appeared in six games with the team, contributing zero points and registering a minus-4 rating.
Pros: Serving as a taxi squad regular, Davidson has been dependable enough when called into the lineup, usually on an emergency basis.
Cons: Davidson never really added much on the offensive side of the ice, and it was clear he was always the seventh defensemen type of player.
The Verdict: Who Should Get an Extension?
If I were in Adams’ seat heading into the offseason, I would be looking to make serious changes to the current roster, including moving on from most of the pending UFAs on this list. Out of the 11 players on this list, I would only offer new contracts to three: Ullmark, Sheahan, and Fogarty.
Re-signing Ullmark is one hundred percent vital to have any chance of competing in their division next season while re-signing Sheahan and Fogarty gives the team two effective bottom-six players who could also start in the AHL and serve as viable injury replacements. One thing is for sure: Adams has some difficult decisions to make before next season.