Sabres 2021 Guide
Well Sabres’ fans, it’s that time of the year where you make an annual pilgrimage to my website for some analysis on the direction of the team is heading. I do appreciate everyone who reads and this always seems to be a popular choice. Here I am, once again, writing about a Sabres’ team that failed to make the playoffs, as they finished 31st out of 31 teams. This offseason should be fun, at least for someone like me who enjoys the roster/asset management part of the sport as much, and possibly more than watching games (yes, I still watch plenty of hockey too). The team will have to navigate an expansion draft, the rookie draft with the first overall selection, and potential trades of multiple “core pieces.” In the past, I have generally written this piece by putting together a roster that I think is logical while making moves I consider fair. This year, I am going to break my discussion into multiple sections, expansion draft, trades, rookie draft, and free agency, and discuss what I would do (being reasonable) and my best guess at what the Sabres actually do. Let’s get rolling!
The Sabres don’t have a lot of tough decisions to make here but there are a few things they will have to consider. Ideally, they make some of the anticipated trades before submitting their protected list. However, I could see trade partners dragging their feet to not make their protection lists more complicated. If Buffalo is going to trade players like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, or Rasmus Ristolainen, the goal has to be to maximize value. If that means having to steer Seattle in one direction or another to get a better return so be it.
For example, if you can give Seattle your fourth-round pick to take Player A and then trade someone like Ristolainen for more than that, you have created what is referred to as an arbitrage, where you “pocket” the difference in value! I have a feeling this is the route Buffalo ends up going as they frankly don’t have many valuable assets to exposure without making any trades. Chances are a team acquiring a Eichel, Reinhart, or Ristolainen will have a slightly more difficult protection decision. If an acquiring team would need to expose multiple quality players, it would certainly “cost” more to steer Seattle away from one of them. A trade is certainly possible prior to the expansion draft but I think the organization ends up navigating the expansion draft first then make their trades between then and the prospect draft.
I would be shocked if Buffalo did not choose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. There are only two difficult decisions the team has to make and that is who will be the seventh forward and third defenseman.
With Jeff Skinner agreeing to waive his no-move clause the only tough decision is who will be the third defensemen. At forward the team will protect Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, and Victor Olofsson, Anders Bjork, Tage Thompson, and Rasmus Asplund. On defense, the team will definitely protect Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. The goalie decision is also pretty straight forward as Linus Ullmark, despite being an unrestricted free agent, is the only goalie worth protecting. If the team were to make a trade before the expansion freeze, acquiring a goalie to protect would make sense if they don’t get Ullmark signed.
Jeff Skinner waiving his no-move clause is big for Buffalo as it removes a decision of who to protect between Bjork, Thompson, and Rasmus Asplund. Chances are Seattle won’t take Skinner and if they did, I don’t think that is a major problem for Buffalo. I think Skinner can still be a good player but will never live up to the $9M cap hit. If Seattle did take Skinner without being incentivized, the Sabres suddenly have an additional $9M in cap space. I think it is safe to assume Kyle Okposo, Cody Eakin, and Zemgus Girgensons remain exposed along with Skinner. On defense, it seems likely the final protection spot comes down to Will Borgen or Rasmus Ristolainen.
What I Expect to Happen
My guess is the organization chooses to make Ristolainen the third defenseman. This would leave Borgen and Colin Miller as attractive options for Seattle and unless Buffalo works out a side deal, they would likely lose Borgen. My guess is Seattle would have enough interest to Miller to be able to give them a mid-round pick to steer them there and that is what I expect will happen.
Predicted Reality: Seattle selects Colin Miller while obtaining Buffalo’s 2022 4th round pick.
What I Would Do:
If you have read anything I have written in the past, you will know where I stand on Rasmus Ristolainen so there is no chance I am protecting him unless I already have a trade in place to get a significant return for him. If I lose him for nothing, I’m fine getting out from his cap hit. If Seattle picks and flips him for a mid-round pick, I’m also ok as that would be what I would probably have to pay them to take someone like Miller. To me, protecting Borgen is the no-brainer. He is closer to what people think Ristolainen is than what Ristolainen actually is.
I would inquire what it would take for Seattle to select one of Girgensons, Eakin, or Okposo. I might also discuss the possibility of Skinner but if he waived as a favor but would prefer to stay in Buffalo, you have to honor that. If I could give up a third-round pick or less OR swap first overall for second overall to lose one of those three forwards, I would go that route.
My Result: Seattle selects and trades Rasmus Ristolainen
Trades! Trades! Trades!
Although I wouldn’t blame Sabres’ fans if they avoided coverage of the team this offseason, I would be shocked if you were reading this and weren’t aware that Jack Eichel is almost certainly going to be traded and Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen will likely be as well. For this section, I will discuss each of those players and what I expect to happen as well as what I would do. After those three players, I’ll discuss other trades.
It’s time to come to terms with it. Jack Eichel is getting traded this summer. There are certain disagreements between a team and player that can be overcome. Medical disagreements are not one of those. The only way it doesn’t happen is if every team is using the injury as an excuse to severely low-ball Adams. I don’t see that happening. Will some teams try to do so? Yes. However, a team whose best offer would be slightly weaker should still put that offer out there. Let me explain what I mean by that. I think most people would agree the two most desirable assets (that are realistic) for Buffalo would be Quinton Byfield (Los Angeles Kings) and Alexis Lafreniere (New York Rangers) with Trevor Zegras (Anaheim Ducks) not far behind. If the Kings or Rangers don’t want to part with those players, that’s within their right. It’s then within Kevyn Adams’ right to tell them they aren’t getting Eichel then. Now, Anaheim is in the driver’s seat if they will part with Zegras. If they won’t part with Zegras, someone else then moves to the top. At some point, a team has to realize this is their best and probably only chance to get Jack Eichel and be willing to part with what Adams wants.
What I Expect to Happen
It seems like Byfield and Lafreniere are off the table. The Kings could still make something happen by including Alex Turcotte but if he is their centerpiece, their offer is likely to be on the same level (or less) than other offers. I would think out of principal, you take an offer from another team then since they are refusing to include Byfield. With all of the reports coming out of Buffalo, it seems like the team to connect the dots with is Anaheim. The Sabres seem to covet a second top 5 selection so they can leave the draft with Owen Power and William Eklund. I find it unlikely they get Seattle’s second overall pick without giving up first overall or another high pick acquired separately. New Jersey sits at fourth overall and Columbus fifth overall. Columbus doesn’t have enough desirable assets to satisfy what Buffalo should be looking for in return for Eichel. New Jersey is one of the few teams that probably does not need to make this trade. If Buffalo is walking out of the draft with Power and Eklund, Adams will really need to work the phones or make a trade with Anaheim to get third overall.
In addition to having the seemingly coveted third overall pick, Anaheim has their share of attractive trade assets. If Buffalo could get a package centered around third overall and Trevor Zegras, that would be huge for the organization. My guess is they don’t get Zegras. I think this draft has plenty of talent at the top though no immediate impact player and getting Power and Eklund would be great for Buffalo’s long-term outlook. However, I would worry Buffalo is too focused on accomplishing this that they might pass up what I would consider a better deal. Let me be clear: I don’t think the deal I am about to predict is necessarily bad BUT I would probably do something different.
Predicted Reality: Buffalo acquires 3rd overall, Maxime Comtois, Sonny Milano, Adam Henrique, and one additional pick/mid-level prospect for Jack Eichel
What I Would Do
Ideally, you don’t trade Jack Eichel but it seems like it is time for both parties to move on. With that in mind, I’m setting my price and seeing who is willing to meet it. I want at least a first round pick this year, a top prospect, a younger roster player, and some other piece of value. If Anaheim is willing to part with Zegras and third overall, they are firmly in the discussion for me. However, without Zegras included, I’m focused on pitting Vegas and Minnesota against each other. From Vegas, it starts with Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch while I am looking for Marco Rossi (possibly Matt Boldy) and Kevin Fiala as the centerpieces. To me, these two teams should have the most motivation to get something done as a healthy Jack Eichel makes them legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. If you follow me on Twitter or read my draft preview from last year, it is no secret I am a member of the Marco Rossi fan club. His complications from COVID-19 are certainly a concern but I still view him as an elite prospect in the mold of Danny Briere.
I feel as though Minnesota is the best fit for Jack Eichel. They are a contender, with elite depth players, top wingers, strong defense, and quality goaltending but lacking a first line center. They also just cleared $10M in salary cap space. Vegas is probably a legitimate top line center away from winning the Stanley Cup but would have to perform some cap gymnastics to make it work and frankly might be better off playing Krebs on his entry-level contract and keeping Tuch and whoever else would need to be moved over Eichel but I would have said the same thing last offseason with them sacrificing Nate Schmidt to sign Alex Pietrangelo.
If I asked for Minnesota’s and Vegas’s best offers, I would expect the following to be in the ballpark:
Minnesota: Rossi, Fiala, Kaapo Kahkonen & Victor Rask or Nico Sturm & Cam Talbot, plus one or possibly both 1strounder picks.
Vegas: Krebs, Tuch, likely Reilly Smith (if it is Shea Theodore, the rest of the asking price goes down), 1st round pick, New Jersey’s 2nd round pick, Jack Dugan
My Result: Buffalo acquires Marco Rossi, Kevin Fiala, Kaapo Kahkonen, Victor Rask, 21st overall for Jack Eichel
Jack Eichel is gone. I will not confidently say the same about Sam Reinhart. It’s hard to read the situation. Does Buffalo want him back? Does Reinhart want to stay? Reinhart has a lot of control and leverage over the situation. He is one year removed from unrestricted free agency (UFA) and needs a new contract this offseason. If Reinhart wants out he can simply sign the team’s one-year qualifying offer, and force Buffalo’s hand. I think if Reinhart makes it clear that the only contract he is signing with Buffalo is a one-year deal, the organization needs to trade him. If Buffalo really doesn’t want to move him this summer they could go into the season and potentially move him at the deadline as there is a chance he could be more valuable then, especially if he clearly wants to be an UFA. If they do move to trade him, the best return for Buffalo would involve Reinhart agreeing to an extension with the acquiring team prior to executing the trade.
What I Would Do
I’ve said many times in the past that I would have already committed a long-term contract to Sam Reinhart. Whether that would matter right now, I don’t know. If Reinhart were willing to sign, I’d offer him a long-term contract paying him $8M+ per season. However, I’m not sure Reinhart would sign so I am going to move on to what I expect to happen without further discussion because that lines up with what I would do if Reinhart would choose not to sign.
What I Expect to Happen
This is probably where I am least confident in what will happen. First, I might be reading the situation wrong but I think Reinhart ends up being traded. Second, I don’t know who that trade partner might be. With Eichel, there is a lot of logic that can be applied and dots connected to come to good conclusions. With Reinhart, there are significantly more possible outcomes. A contender could view him as a one-year rental and want to pay a price to reflect it. A team could work out a sort of sign and trade to acquire him as a long-term asset. That team could be a contender or even a team looking to turn the corner, which would bring most of the league as possible destinations. Let’s think through logically to come up with a list of teams to focus on first. For Reinhart to sign long-term, the team would likely need to be closer to his native Vancouver or a team that is a contender who seems close to being so.
Seattle is once again a wild card though probably more so for Reinhart than Eichel. Could Buffalo use Reinhart and a later first-round pick (21st overall from Minnesota?) to get the 2nd overall pick? Could Reinhart get that on his own? Could Seattle accumulate enough other desirable assets to peak Buffalo’s interest? Even though Seattle is very close to his hometown, I would wonder if he would commit to a long-term deal along with the trade given the uncertainty around how quick they could contend. Without him committing long-term, I’m not sure Buffalo gets the needed assets to make sense.
With Seattle out of the way, let’s look at the other teams that I think make the most sense. A lot of the teams that have been talked about as destinations for Eichel should also be considered as possibilities for Reinhart as he is probably the second best center available behind Eichel in talent and possibly the best for a team looking to minimize risk or with less cap space available. I would bet on one of the following teams acquiring him (in order of cap space): Vegas, Philadelphia, Calgary, Los Angeles, Vancouver, St. Louis, Anaheim, Nashville, Columbus, Colorado, or Minnesota. Of those, I like the fits of Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Colorado the most. No team is acquiring both Eichel and Reinhart. I think Reinhart would provide any team with the ability to play as a very good 1C or elite 2C. He could also very easily slide over to play as an elite RW . With those teams and that knowledge, let’s look at why those four teams make sense and what assets Buffalo would be looking at.
I think Minnesota should be more aggressive for Eichel than Reinhart but if they somehow can’t make Eichel work, Reinhart would be a fine consolation prize. He would fit with what Minnesota currently has in their forward group. A lot of hard-competing, strong two-way players who aren’t the flashiest but get the job done. Reinhart could easily slot into Minnesota’s lineup as Kaprizov’s center and form a quality dual. Assuming Reinhart signs a long-term contract, many of the same assets previously discussed would be in play but the number of pieces will be less and Marco Rossi is probably off the table. I would think Buffalo would be looking at Matt Boldy, a 1st round pick, and possibly Kappo Kakhonen.
Los Angeles is very interesting as Reinhart would provide them flexibility to either act as their 2C while Byfield (and possibly Turcotte) continue their development then slide to wing or even remain their long-term 2C. The downside with Reinhart, is his playing profile is very similar to the other top wingers already on the team. Byfield would be off the table in a trade for Reinhart. I would think the pieces that would be discussed would be Gabe Vilardi, Alex Turcotte, Artur Kaliyev, and the 8th overall pick. Could Buffalo get two of those four assets? Possibly but they may have to take Jonathan Quick as well, which might not be the worst thing for Buffalo considering their current goaltending situation. I’m not here to say Quick is any sort of solution but with the team really needing to add two NHL goalies he would be fine to play for two years as a bridge in a tandem. If taking on Quick gets two valuable assets, you do it as Buffalo. My biggest concern with the Kings is if there is the ability to match up value to get the type of return they should be striving for. I could see the Kings having neither Turcotte or their 1st round draft pick being on the table for Reinhart. If that’s the case, you move on.
I absolutely love the fit of Sam Reinhart on Vegas as a center between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. He also would count less against the cap than Eichel. The assets Buffalo would be looking at would be very similar to what was discussed above in the Eichel trade except the money Vegas would need to shed would not be as much. Unless Buffalo likes Cody Glass (I would probably steer clear), they probably would need to get Peyton Krebs back as the centerpiece. That could be a no-go for Vegas. An interesting kicker here is I could see Vegas having some interest in Rasmus Ristolainen as well, especially if they don’t bring back Alec Martinez. Could Buffalo send Reinhart and Ristolainen at 50% cap hit for Krebs, Tuch, and Smith? It probably would cost Buffalo one additional cost-controlled asset, like a Victor Olofsson, Rasmus Asplund, Anders Bjork, or Tage Thompson but that shouldn’t stop Buffalo. Again, value matching might be tough.
Much like Vegas, I really like Colorado as a fit for Reinhart. My gut feeling is Gabe Landeskog ends up leaving as an UFA. Reinhart could then slot in as his replacement. After Nazem Kadri’s playoff suspension, I have to wonder if Colorado wouldn’t like to replace him as the 2C. Reinhart could also fill that role for Colorado. Side note: I would think Kadri would be moved in a separate deal if Colorado were to move on. What return should Buffalo look for? I would want to make one of Bo Byram or Alex Newhook the centerpiece. Tyson Jost, Shane Bowers and Martin Kaut are other players that could be under some level of consideration.
Predicted Trade: Buffalo acquires Peyton Krebs, Shea Theodore, and Reilly Smith for Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, and Mattias Samuelsson. Smith would get flipped for a prospect or pick, possibly with salary retained
In my scenario, I allow Seattle to take Ristolainen. If that happens, I look to trade Colin Miller, who probably has a little less value but probably enough to offset what it would cost to steer Seattle away from Ristolainen and the foregone value of a Ristolainen trade. I could be wrong on this notion but I don’t have the same information as the Sabres’ organization, who should have an idea of the trade value of both Ristolainen and Miller. If the Sabres’ go the route I expect, they will still have to trade Ristolainen as he CANNOT under any circumstances be on the roster next season. Just because it is not what I would do, it is completely justifiable.
Ristolainen is an extremely difficult player to predict a trade of. His underlying numbers have been terrible for basically the entirety of his career EXCEPT at the start of last season when he was playing with Jake McCabe. However, there still seem to be people who like what he brings to a team and some might look at how bad the Sabres’ have been in his time with the team and write-off his performance to that. I think in the right situation someone could get some value out of Ristolainen. He needs to play sheltered minutes (weaker opponents with more offensive zone starts) and could be a nice addition to a power play. He should not be looked at as a legit top four defenseman.
Frankly, I don’t know if Buffalo is getting more than a second-round pick or mid-level prospect for Ristolainen. I wonder if the best trade of Ristolainen is in a package to act as a sort of sweetener. As previously discussed, Buffalo seems locked in on the idea of having two high draft picks to draft both Power and Eklund and I wonder if trading Ristolainen could help accomplish that goal. Would a team like the New Jersey Devils have enough interest in Ristolainen to trade back from fourth overall? They shouldn’t but it’s worth wondering. I really struggle to pinpoint teams that are most likely to be involved. I feel like Chicago, Philadelphia, Calgary, Winnipeg, Colorado, and New Jersey are the most likely destinations with Vegas possibly lurking as previously discussed. Boston could be a darkhorse. I include Colorado on this list because of the possibility of them overcorrecting after their playoff defeat to a bigger, “grittier” Vegas team. I’m not sure a team that has a strong analytics department and seem to generally make moves that fall in line with smart analytic decisions.
Considering the number of years, I predicted a Ristolainen trade to Winnipeg, I feel as though that ship has likely sailed already. I also don’t know if New Jersey is a great fit considering they would likely only have Ristolainen for a year or less after he expressed a desire to play for a contender and I don’t see New Jersey as that. My best guess is he ends up in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Calgary. Chicago likely has their eyes on bigger names such as Dougie Hamilton or Seth Jones. However, they seem to want to retool quickly and if they strike out on both, they could turn to Ristolainen. I think the same could be said for Philadelphia. Calgary is interesting as it seems like they are trying to shake things up and could use another right-shot defenseman. They also could put Ristolainen in a role that maximizes his abilities. I also think they have a decent chance at making the playoffs. I would love to get my hands on Andrew Mangiapane if I were Buffalo as he is an elite play driver but I can’t see Calgary doing that (or at least I would hope they wouldn’t). Maybe Buffalo could add to make that happen but I feel like Ristolainen is destined to be traded for a second or third round pick.
Prediction: Buffalo acquires the 76th overall pick from Calgary for Rasmus Ristolainen
I would say it’s unlikely Colin Miller is a Buffalo Sabre at the start of the 2022 season, whether he is Seattle’s expansion choice or traded after the draft. Basically, everything said above about Ristolainen could apply to Miller as well though there could be more suitors with him being under contract for cheaper. I don’t think the return would be much more than a mid-round draft pick. I would expect Buffalo to try to move Cody Eakin but I can’t imagine there being much, if any, interest. He was arguably the worst forward in the entire NHL last season. Maybe they could include him in one of their bigger trades but the most likely scenario is they have him as a depth forward that rarely plays while riding out the final year of his contract.
Some other possible trade scenarios for Buffalo could revolve around a goaltender or weaponizing cap space to acquire some future assets. Another possibility, especially if the team takes Power first overall, is to trade one of their defensive prospects for a forward prospect to balance their organizational depth. As I’ve been discussing throughout, there could also be trades to try to secure William Eklund as well. I think that would be tough without getting a high pick for Eichel or Reinhart but if the organization is motivated enough they probably will have the assets to make it happen.
Frankly, if the team makes the trades as discussed above, that would already be a massive amount of movement. If I am being realistic, the only other move could be a goalie and that probably depends on if one is included in an Eichel or Reinhart trade. If they don’t acquire one before the protection list is due, I don’t see them trading for one this offseason. The teams with the most protection issues in goal are Arizona (Adin Hill and Darcy Kuemper), Calgary (Tyler Parsons), Chicago (Lankinen and Delia), Minnesota (Talbot and Kahkonen), Montreal (Jake Allen), Pittsburgh (Jarry and DeSmith), St. Louis (Villie Husso), Vancouver (Braden Holtby), and Washington (Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek). I’ve already discussed Minnesota. The other players that I would have some interest in are either goalie from Arizona, Jake Allen, one of the Pittsburgh goalies, or one of the Washington goalies.
Depending on how discussions with Ullmark are going, it would impact my sense of urgency. If Ullmark is likely to stay, I probably dip into free agency for a second goalie. If he has basically indicated he is gone, I’m probably trying to acquire a goalie between now and the expansion draft freeze. Another trade candidate could be Mikko Koskinen from Edmonton. He’s by no means a long-term solution but you may be able to extract an asset from Edmonton to take on his cap hit and use him as a bridge to your younger goalie.
Other Predicted Trades: None outside of possibly swapping some draft picks.
Other Trades I would make: Having already acquired Kahkonen, I will look to free agency for my goalie. Depending on interest, I might move Colin Miller.
Veteran players are unlikely to be lining up to sign with the perpetually rebuilding Sabres if they have other options. However, I think the Sabres offer a few opportunities that could be intriguing. First, they likely will have cap space and could probably give a player a nice long-term deal. Second, there will be opportunities to take on bigger roles. Players coming off a down year could try to use Buffalo as a recovery destination. Finally, with the team likely to be out of contention at the trade deadline again, players could sign one-year contracts and expect to be traded to a contender for a playoff run a la Taylor Hall. With that in mind, let’s look at forwards that could be fits on longer term and one-year deals and then discuss defense, goalies, and their own free agents.
I feel like Buffalo would love to add Gabe Landeskog but I don’t know how much interest he would have in coming to Buffalo even if they paid him a premium. Maybe he will strictly look to maximize his value which possibly gives Buffalo a chance. However, if he wants to remain with a playoff contender and is fine with going after a fair deal, Buffalo is probably out. I am personally not a huge Brandon Saad fan and it seems as though his on-ice impacts have been declining but I wonder if the same applies.
Although long-term is relative there are two other forwards that I think could be smart signings on deals with some term. They are Phillip Danault and Blake Coleman. Both players have proven to be elite or close to elite two-way players, dramatically improving their teams’ performance when they are on the ice. Why would either consider Buffalo? First, they could play first or at worst second line roles this upcoming season. Second, they probably could leverage more money. From Buffalo’s perspective, both players could initially help provide some shelter for their younger players while not getting absolutely caved. Once those younger players are ready to step into bigger roles, you still have players that will provide tremendous value in your lineup even if they are playing lesser roles. Even though you may be paying them more than you should at the tail end of their contracts while they could be playing third line roles, they would be far from anchors. All of the top teams have been able to roll four solid lines that even if they aren’t scoring will positively impact their team with puck possession. For Danault, I might offer $24M over four years and Coleman $16M-$20M over four years. I would think Coleman would be more likely considering he has won two Cups and now could get a nice payday.
Another name that could fit here but I would stay away from is Casey Cizikas. You already let a similar player walk last year in Johan Larsson. You still have another similar player in Zemgus Girgensons. There are other players out there that would be cheaper, younger, and provide just as much value on the ice. I also would stay away from Barclay Goodrow. He was great this year for Tampa Bay but doesn’t have the same sustained success as Danault and Coleman. I would worry this season is too much of an outlier.
One Year Forwards
If Buffalo trades Eichel and Reinhart for mostly futures, they could look to add a couple veteran forwards to help shelter their younger players until the trade deadline then try to flip them for assets. There will probably be some options here. Players who might get financially squeezed or may be coming off a little of a down year could actually view Buffalo as a decent opportunity. There are plenty of forwards that could fit this bill so I will highlight a few. I could see Derek Stepan, Alex Wennberg, Jordan Martinook, Joel Armia, Alex Chiasson, Erik Haula, and Tomas Nosek fitting this bill. Stepan, Wennberg, or Martinook could slot into a quasi-top six center for Buffalo, an opportunity I don’t see them getting elsewhere. The others could probably get a little more money and potentially play top nine minutes.
I don’t see the team dipping much into the defensive market. Last season, they went with five young defensemen (Dahlin, Jokiharju, Borgen, Bryson, Samuelsson) who should all be back. They might need to do something to fill their sixth spot if they move on from both Ristolainen and Colin Miller. Maybe they retain Miller to fill the sixth spot but I could see them looking adding a couple low cost veterans to add a little depth and experience. If they are going to draft Power, there is no reason to pay anyone more than the minimum on a multi-year contract. The only exception might be Dougie Hamilton. Otherwise, I am looking for a RD to fill a bottom four role for the upcoming season and a veteran or two to be a seventh and possibly eighth defenseman. My top options would probably be Jason Demers, Jani Hakanpaa, and old friend Mark Pysyk. All have provided positive or nearly neutral on-ice impacts for most of their careers. That’s perfect for a potential sixth defenseman. Another way to add to this group would be to be incentivized to take on a contract from another team. PK Subban or Anton Stralman would be interesting options. They also could end up taking someone back in one of their bigger deals. I wouldn’t spend too much time looking at defensive options. More on this shortly but keeping Jake McCabe could be an option too.
This is probably the free agent list Sabres’ fans should spend the most time getting familiar with. I have already spent some time discussing but right now, the team has no one that should be counted on in the NHL next season. Tuukka Rask is the best goalie available. He isn’t coming to Buffalo. Jaro Halak is also not coming to Buffalo. The realistic goalies the Sabres should be interested in are Antti Raanta, James Reimer, Philipp Grubauer, Petr Mrazek, Jon Bernier, David Rittich, Brian Elliot, and Chris Driedger. If you are throwing money at Grubauer, it is probably because you envision him as a longer-term option. I think Buffalo is looking forward to having Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (UPL) and Erik Portillo as their future goalies. Overpaying someone like Grubauer (dollars and length) would not be smart future asset management. The team does not need a stud right now but more of a two to three-year bridge goalie. Of those, I like the fit of Petr Mrazek the best. He probably won’t command as much as Grubauer or even Driedger but was one of the best at saving goals above expected (Evolving-Hockey). Bernier, Rittich, Raanta, and Reimer were all pretty average and would be fine 1B type options. I think I would stay away from Freddie Andersen.
In-house free agents
All of the restricted free agents who played in Buffalo (Reinhart, Asplund, Mittelstadt, Borgen, Dahlin, and Jokiharju) should be qualified, allowing the team to retain their rights. Personally, I would look to try to sign each to a long-term contract. The team should have the cap space now and as long each continues to progress, they should be underpaid when the Sabres should be starting to contend. This is what Colorado and Tampa Bay have done and both teams have built legitimate long-term contenders. Outside of Reinhart, it is likely every other player is at a point where their value is at the lowest. Lock them in now. Reap the reward later. If done correctly, the team could have their entire trove of young players under team control for eight or more seasons!
If the team did not bring a single one of their unrestricted free agents back, it would not be a huge issue. Linus Ullmark and Jake McCabe would be nice to retain but Ullmark is probably no more than a 1A/1B type goalie. If he will stay for that type of contract, you have a little less work to do. Otherwise, let him explore free agency and see if he can find a better option. McCabe was elite in the games he played last season but then sustained a serious knee injury. Much like Ullmark, he would be nice to retain but as the organization looks forward, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways. If he is looking for a one-year deal to prove he is healthy, staying in Buffalo would make a lot of sense. As discussed earlier, the team will likely have one spot to fill on their blueline. Although the right- and left-handed split would be skewed toward left shots, McCabe has proven to be a high-end defensive defenseman.
The team should let Matt Irwin, Brandon Davidson, and Tobias Rieder walk. If the team needs a depth player or two, I would have no problem with them bringing back one or both of Riley Sheahan and Drake Caggiula. Both would be far superior options to playing Cody Eakin.
Predicted Signings: Buffalo signs Petr Mrazek, David Rittich, and retains Jake McCabe plus two veteran depth defensemen
What I would do: Sign Phillip Danault, Mark Pysyk, and Petr Mrazek.
Let’s keep this brief. Buffalo currently owns the first overall pick. They seem locked on Power at first overall and a want to get another top pick to possibly add William Eklund. Just because this draft doesn’t have a clear star at the top, there should be plenty of good players. I would compare this to the 2014 draft where Aaron Ekblad went first and Sam Reinhart second. There were plenty of good players in that draft. I’m not going to get into their other picks as that is purely guessing.
I expect Buffalo to acquire the third overall pick. They will take Owen Power first and William Eklund third.
What I Would Do
I really like William Eklund and Luke Hughes as prospects. I don’t have a problem with Power either. If I can add Rossi and Krebs to my prospect pool, I think I would be set down the middle. I was able to flip Reinhart for Shea Theodore. With enough young defensemen in my system, I go for my top forward prospect who also fills a need and select William Eklund at 1st overall.
One thing that became apparent as I worked through this exercise is there are probably will be a lot of pieces coming back so Buffalo might be wise to do as I did with the Reinhart trade and add someone to up the return. I have no interest in using any buyouts or using assets to get out from contracts. I am not expecting to compete this year so I will ride out Eakin and Okposo’s contracts for now. There is no sense to stretch out cap hits and have them hindering me as I look to become a contender.
Predicted LineupLet’s start with my best guess to what Buffalo’s opening night lineup will look like. This is a lineup that lacks any sort of top end threat. It basically is rolling three middle-six quality lines. However, the pipeline is strong and there is reason for future optimism.
Stats are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Evolving-Hockey. Contract and expansion data from cap friendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.