Sabres’ Cap Situation: How it Stacks Up

Digging into the Buffalo Sabres’ cap situation can explain a lot of things, especially when you put it next to upper echelon teams. Doing this can provide context for why the Sabres are spinning their wheels as they try to improve their roster. 

Buffalo’s Cap Space

A quick search on CapFriendly will further explain what I’m about to break down. The Sabres are paying a good chunk of money to Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. It was inevitable that management would have to overpay Skinner, and that has held true to this point in the season. That being said, Eichel and Skinner were two players the Sabres had to lock up.

Jeff Skinner earned his big contract in the offseason but has failed to live up to his big payday so far (AP Photo/Gerry Broome).

The Sabres were crunched up against the cap before general manager Jason Botterill made a pair of trades that opened up some wiggle room. With that being said, there are still some glaring cap issues that exist on this roster. Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson are players that stick out to me, mainly because of the production that goes along with money being paid.

Vesey sits with 19 points, although he has been given several opportunities to play on the top line. The Hobey Baker winner has struggled to find any sort of consistency in his pro career, much of the same taking place in his first year with Buffalo. $2.275 million per year is no an outrageous contract, but the stability he brings to the lineup has been sorely lacking. Marcus Johansson has two years remaining on a $4.5 million per year deal, contributing 25 points in 53 games played. The problem I see with Johansson is you’re paying him second-line money, even though the points don’t correlate to that.

Then there’s the atrocious Kyle Okposo contract. Okposo is owed $6 million through 2022-23 on a contract he will not play out. He has made multiple trips to the injured reserve list and has suffered several concussions in his past. The ex-Islander regularly plays on the fourth line; no successful NHL franchise has a $6 million player sitting on their fourth line. 

Colorado Avalanche

Let’s compare Buffalo’s cap situation to that of other teams, starting with the Colorado Avalanche. Joe Sakic has methodically built a Cup contending team over his years as general manager. He’s managed to do this by plucking depth pieces from the free-agent pool, along with negotiating fair contracts to some of his star players.

Related: Sabres Need Skinner to Find His Spark

I think it’s only fitting to start with Nathan MacKinnon, who is arguably on the friendliest contract in the NHL. MacKinnon and Okposo’s contracts both have four years remaining on them, however, Colorado’s best player is only making $300,000 more per year.

To give perspective to this, Okposo has tallied point totals of 45, 44, and 29 in his past three seasons. Compare that to MacKinnon, who has point totals of 53, 97, and 99 over that same stretch of time. Furthermore, Okposo has 14 points this season, although it should be noted he has only played 43 games due to injury. Even with that being said, MacKinnon has played 59 games this season, accumulating 84 points.

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon is an elite talent that is severely underpaid (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers).

It’s also important to note that Buffalo is actually paying their forwards more than Colorado. It is astonishing how balanced the Avalanche’s forward scoring is, with 11 forwards who have tallied 20 or more points this season. The Sabres have four.

Amongst these forwards is Andre Burakovsky, who was acquired in the offseason by Sakic. Burakovsky makes a modest $3.25 million per year for this year only and has contributed greatly for Colorado with 20 goals and 45 points. Vesey was brought in with the mindset of contributing at a similar rate at which Burakovsky has, something Buffalo has yet to get from their own offseason acquisition.

Washington Capitals

The top of Washington’s cap page is similar to Buffalo’s in the sense that both teams have paid decent money to their star players. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Niklas Backstrom make up a good percentage of their cap hit.

Besides these players, the Capitals have succeeded by having pieces throughout their lineup that have managed to outperform their contracts. Jakub Vrana is the biggest case in point, as he has vastly outperformed his $3.3 million contract. Vrana is in his third full season in the NHL, already surpassing his career-best 47 points from last season. He currently sits third on the team in points with 49 and is destined to get a significant pay raise in the near future.

Jakub Vrana has become yet another offensive weapon for the Washington Capitals this season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers).

With the mention of Vrana, it’s important to note that Sam Reinhart actually stacks up to the Capitals forward. When comparing age to their contracts and point production, the two seemingly have identical value. The problem being that Vrana is a second line winger, while Reinhart is a top-line winger that is expected to produce at a high level. Vrana has players like Ovechkin and Kuznetsov to help shoulder the load, while Reinhart has the sole assistance of Jack Eichel.

The Glaring Issue

Through it all, the main issue that rears its ugly head is the overpayment of depth pieces on the Sabres roster. When comparing them to teams like the Avalanche and Capitals, it’s quite clear how important it is to get the most out of your depth players.

Part of this problem I think falls on the player evaluations. In reality, each teams cap money is distributed throughout the team based on their own evaluations of the players. Now I know in some cases teams are inheriting the contracts of players via trade, but in most circumstances, the front office determines how the money is spent accordingly.

For this Sabres team, money has carelessly been put in the hands of underperforming players. Until that changes, Buffalo will continue to find themselves in an uphill climb.