As another season of Buffalo Sabres hockey swirls its way down the toilet that is their last decade of hockey, attention has begun to turn toward this summer. The months of May through September will be used to completely reshape the next decade of Sabres hockey.
Whether it was designed this way or not, this summer will see the Sabres rid themselves of expensive contracts and have the flexibility to completely revamp this roster.
Flexibility will be key. Reports came out last week that the NHL was expecting next season’s salary cap to rise to $84-$88 million. A nice increase would certainly help many teams feeling a cap crunch.
With the spread of the coronavirus, NHL teams are facing the reality that they may not be playing any more games this season. Such a case would mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Obviously, the health and well-being of humans matter most. No trophy or performance bonus is worth the risk of spreading a debilitating virus. The loss of employment to those who rely on 20,000 fans eating, attending and celebrating after hockey games is also a high priority.
Besides these heavy, real-life matters, there are still questions around what the next NHL season will look like for teams. With empty arenas, there is significantly decreased revenue which could mean less money for salaries next season.
Regardless of what happens, the Sabres are set-up to be successful if they play this right.
Goaltending Stability Both Good and Bad
The Sabres will enter the summer with a great degree of stability in net. This is both a good thing and a bad thing.
Carter Hutton is under contract for next season at $2.75 million. He has underachieved, no doubt. He has been below average and has not shown himself to be a goaltender that can be relied upon long-term. That being said, he can perform in short spurts and his contract is not an albatross that will inhibit the team next season.
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Linus Ullmark will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. He could be brought back on a short-term deal in the $2 million range. He has been consistent while also unspectacular.
In short, the Sabres can conceivably enter next season with their goaltending situation shored up for under $5 million. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this goaltending has proven to simply not be good enough to win games.
The Sabres will no doubt make a move of some kind between the pipes. In all likelihood, this will mean moving on from Hutton and finding another option outside the organization to platoon with Ullmark while they wait for the arrival of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Whatever they decide to do, they are set up to have suitable, affordable options in net next season.
Sabres’ Defence Set For a Decade
The greatest level of certainty we can have with the Sabres is the fact that they are in a great position defensively. Entering next season, they will have Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju all under contract. These players have an average age of 24.
Decisions will need to be made on two players currently on the roster. Brandon Montour and Lawrence Pilut will both be restricted free agents at season’s end.
At present, the five defencemen currently under contract for next season make less than $14 million total. That will not be the case for long, however. After next season, new contracts will be required for young studs Dahlin and Jokiharju. Dahlin has the makings to be the top defenceman in the league and Jokiharju has shown himself to be a steady, creative influence on the backend. The two of them could realistically be the Sabres’ top-pair through their 20s.
With a significant chunk of salary no doubt going to those players in just over a calendar year, decisions made this summer will carry extra weight.
Pilut has played well with the Rochester Americans and looked good last season with the Sabres. This season, he has struggled to get consistent ice time and has also had a hard time finding the groove for his game. The creativity and ability to move the puck are obvious, but combining that with good decision-making and the physical toll of the NHL game has been a challenge for him.
Montour also showed very well last season. He was a puck possession monster and was solid in transitioning the puck. This season, he has continued to transition the puck up ice but has done very little else once he gains the zone. He has not been stellar at defending quality chances against and has also not been great at sustaining pressure in the offensive zone.
Could the struggles of these two players be attributed to the change in coaching? Perhaps. Ralph Krueger’s system is certainly different from Phil Housley’s system of last season. Dahlin has looked less aggressive in it.
The decision on what to do with Montour and Pilut is not an easy one. On one hand, both are young, mobile puck-movers who are coveted in today’s game. On the other hand, if Pilut doesn’t really have a role in this system and Montour just is what he is now, it may be best to parlay them into some help upfront while they still have value.
Regardless, a move needs to be made with this group to bolster the forwards. Moving one or more of Ristolainen, McCabe, Montour or Miller could certainly contribute to that. The Sabres are still sitting pretty with youth, value and flexibility in the defensive zone.
Forwards Facing an Overhaul
The area of the Sabres’ roster than undoubtedly provides the most intrigue is the forward corps. This is the unit that requires the most attention and it’s also the area that can most easily be overhauled.
In terms of forwards currently signed for next season, only Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo and Marcus Johansson are currently on the roster. That looks like a great deal of malleability but the reality is that these four players will account for nearly $30 million towards the cap.
What the Sabres have with these four players is an anchor for each line. Eichel obviously fits in as the number one centre. Skinner can help drive offence on the left side of the second line. Johansson can enhance the puck transition of the third line. Okposo will continue to embrace his new role as a strong possession checker on the fourth line.
The general manager will have a very open canvas to work with in the forward group. With two-thirds of the positions currently open, whoever is managing this team in July will have the ability to really transform this squad into something resembling a competent roster.
Not all the help needs to come from the outside. The Sabres have a plethora of options that are restricted free agents they should be looking to bring back. Sam Reinhart, Dominik Kahun and Victor Olofsson are absolute no-brainers to bring back. Those three should be fixtures of the lineup for years to come.
Tage Thompson is another restricted free agent who should be back. Although he struggled through last season and then suffered a season-ending injury in his only game with the Sabres this season, he is the last tangible vestige of the Ryan O’Reilly trade remaining on the roster and will no doubt be given a longer leash than most.
Casey Mittelstadt is another young player who will no doubt be signed. Significant draft capital was invested in him and the organization is counting on that pick becoming a success. He has shown improvement with the Americans but may still need more time to build his game for the Sabres.
Things get interesting beyond that. Curtis Lazar is another restricted free agent who has played well in a depth role. The unrestricted free agent ranks feature Michael Frolik, Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson. To me, these decisions are simple.
I would not retain any of these players. Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate what Larsson brings to the table. He has been a good soldier and has solid defensive metrics. If they were to bring him back on a reasonable deal I certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep. Beyond that, the rest of the players can find new homes.
The bottom-six has notoriously underperformed. As stated, Larsson has value. At this stage, though, I think it’s time for the Sabres to pursue as fresh a start as possible. The opportunity in front of them to completely reshape this much of their roster is one that doesn’t come by very often. They need to take full advantage.
An Exciting Summer Ahead
The next few months will be must-see for the Sabres. Once the realities of this season are finalized, the work for this organization will truly begin. Even after they re-sign all their pertinent players, they could have potentially $5-$10 million to add to the forward core.
All the pain, suffering and disappointment of the past decade can be wiped away. The opportunity that lays in front of this organization is so rare and must be taken advantage of. With the way that the past three seasons have gone, this summer really feels like a summer of change.
There could be changes in management. There could be changes in coaching. There WILL be changes in personnel. Although most Sabres’ fans have reached the point of apathy with this organization, the product they have next season could be vastly different.
Let’s hope it is – for all our sakes.