Sabres’ Arbitration Cases Put Team in a Pickle

After snaring prized free agent Taylor Hall, the Buffalo Sabres have roughly $13 million in projected cap space. How will they spend it?

“We’re looking at our roster overall and we’re working through each individual situation, but not in a vacuum, how the one individual fits into the bigger piece of all this. We’re going about it methodically,” said Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams. “I believe everybody is a priority and that’s the way we have to think every day.”

Goalie Linus Ullmark and forwards Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson are all scheduled to have their case heard in front of an independent arbitrator in the coming weeks. Each player could strike a deal with the Sabres before or during a hearing – negotiations are fluid and can happen at any point in the process. This year, they’ll be virtual rather than in person.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)
First-year GM Kevyn Adams has his work cut out for him. (Photo: Andy Martin Jr)

Both the player and the team are permitted to submit up to a 42-page document with a proposed contract amount and comparable player contracts.

Given each player elected arbitration, the Sabres will be able to decide if the term will be for one or two years. Similar to court cases, both the player (often represented by the NHL Players Association) and the team have 90 minutes to make their case, including rebuttals and witnesses.

Efficiency is the New Mantra

With team owners Kim and Terry Pegula whacking nearly two dozen employees from their jobs in April, there’s a clear signal that money matters. Despite throwing money at a revolving door of coaches and executives, this team isn’t producing and hasn’t shown progress since being purchased in February 2011.

Buffalo Sabres Terry and Kim Pegula
The same owners who once said money would never be an issue, now talk about being more efficient. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

The message from the Sabres top brass is about building a lean organization that’s more efficient, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they decided not to spend up to the cap ceiling for next season.

Linus Ullmark’s Next Contract

Ullmark’s date is set for Oct. 26. The 27-year-old netminder played on a one-year, $1.325 million deal last season while recording a .915 save percentage in 34 games for the Sabres.

Linus Ullmark Buffalo Sabres
Linus Ullmark stole the crease from Carter Hutton last season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Head coach Ralph Krueger said last week that Ullmark and Carter Hutton are the team’s goaltenders at this point, though he did leave it open that it could change.

Related: Sabres Need to Overhaul Their Goaltending

Comparables for Ullmark vary since goaltending money is often disparate. Several goaltenders have been signed in free agency, the closest comparison being the New York Rangers’ Alexandar Georgiev. He recently inked a two-year deal for $2.425 million annually. Another comparable is Darcy Kuemper who signed a two-year deal for $1.85 million annually in 2018.

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Ullmark will likely be looking for a low-to-mid $2 million deal.

Sam Reinhart’s Next Deal

Reinhart’s arbitration date is Oct. 27. The 24-year-old winger, the second-overall pick in 2014, played through his latest deal, a two-year, $7.3 million bridge deal signed in Sept. 2018. He made $3.65 million against the salary cap in each of the past two years while scoring 44 goals and 115 points in 151 games during that span, second only to captain Jack Eichel.

While Reinhart doesn’t need to hire a Brinks driver for an excessive haul, he will be due a substantial raise after three straight 50-plus point seasons. It’s still head-scratchingly odd why he wasn’t separated from Eichel last year – a contract year – that would’ve allowed him to show his ability to drive his own line.

Reinhart’s comparable contracts range from the high-priced Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, who pulls in $6.1 million annually, to the Nashville Predators’ Victor Arvidsson, who fetches $4.25 million. He’ll likely be in the $6 million range, nearly doubling his salary.

Buffalo Sabres Sam Reinhart
Will Reinhart take a deal to stay with his best bestie, Jack Eichel? (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Head coach Ralph Krueger prefers a speed-based, north-south game that doesn’t necessarily fit Reinhart’s skillset. Instead, Reinhart is a smart two-way player and a decent skater that doesn’t go hard on the forecheck. It could be the case of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

If Reinhart is awarded a $6 million deal, he may not factor in the team’s future. While it’d be a shame to let him walk, the harsh reality is… the team has overpaid several players, including Kyle Okposo, Jeff Skinner and Zemgus Girgensons. There’s only so much money left to go around.

Victor Olofsson Could See a Big Pay Day

Olofsson’s hearing is set for Nov. 4. The 25-year-old sniper, chosen in the seventh round in 2014, completed the final season of his entry-level contract in 2019-20. He was named to the NHL all-rookie team and scored 20 goals with an annual average value of $925,000.

Comparables for Olofsson include Dominik Kubalik who earned a two-year, $7.4 million deal a few weeks ago and Andreas Johnsson, who signed a four-year, $13.6 million deal in 2019.

Buffalo Sabres Victor Olofsson
Olofsson was taken in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. (AP Photo/Bryan Bennett)

Olofsson will likely be asking in the neighborhood of $3 million, or triple his qualifying offer. It’s hard to argue with his incredible shot and lamp-lighting success, even if it was while flanking Jack Eichel.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Olofsson gets a bridge deal to keep his numbers down in the short term as he continues to prove his value. It’s a risky move that could easily backfire, as the Sabres have added more talent to their top six, where he’ll most likely be playing.

Cap Unfriendly

It’s likely these three players will net out around $12 million. That will push the Sabres perilously close to the salary cap limit. That in itself is concerning, but when factoring in the entry-level performance bonuses for Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin, they could be way over.

Creating a winner doesn’t mean overspending or spending to the cap. It’s about spending wisely. Signing Ullmark, Reinhart and Olofsson to right-sized deals will be another step in the right direction for a team that’s still trying to sniff the postseason and break the NHL’s longest streak of missing the playoffs.

While the Sabres want to find the postseason, right now, they find themselves in a pickle.

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