An Offseason Plan for the Buffalo Sabres
The 2017-2018 NHL season left the Sabres with more questions than answers. Finishing dead last in the league for the third time in five seasons, the team was a complete disappointment, relative of many fans expecting progression instead of the regression seen this season. Before we jump into looking at specific players, let’s look at what was so bad about this team.
The offense was not nearly good enough to sustain much success. The Sabres amassed 198 goals for this season. The league average was 244 goals; a whopping 46 goal difference. Keep in mind, that is a league average, not a statistic of the President’s Trophy winner. Though, while we’re here, I’d like to note that the President’s Trophy-winning Nashville Predators scored 261 goals this season. As for the goals against stat, the numbers aren’t quite as ugly. The Sabres allowed 278 goals against, which is 34 more than the league average of 244. Again, for sake of comparison, the Predators only allowed 204 goals against. Buffalo’s power play and penalty kill percentages were also below league average. Before we move on, I think it’s worth looking at the team’s shooting percentage. The Sabres finished with 7.7%, compared to the league average of 9.2% and the Predators’ 9.9%.
So what do these statistics tell us? Well, for this team, it shows that there is a lot of work needed to be done. Offense, defense, and goaltending all need to be considered by general manager Jason Botterill if he hopes to turn this team around. First let’s look at the pending UFAs and RFAs that the Sabres are responsible for this offseason:
LW/RW Jordan Nolan (69 GP, 4 G, 4 A, 8 PTS, 69 PIM)
Claimed off of waivers from Los Angeles prior to the start of the season, Nolan was expected to be an upgrade over Nic Deslauriers. Throughout the season, he wasn’t awful, but he didn’t do enough to warrant having a spot in the lineup for most of the season. Whether or not they resign him, he’ll come cheap so this decision doesn’t matter much. Personally, I’d elect to not resign him.
LW Scott Wilson (49 GP, 6 G, 8 A, 14 PTS, 8 PIM)
Acquired from Detroit for a fifth-round pick in 2019, Wilson turned his season around once joining the Sabres. After going pointless in twenty games as a member of the Red Wings and Penguins, Wilson established himself as a solid depth piece for the team potentially long-term. He was able to play up and down the lineup without looking out of place with his reasonable skill and hockey sense. I would certainly resign him as he will not be expensive and he effectively fit with the team. It’s worth noting that Botterill has ties with Wilson from their tenure in Pittsburgh, leading me to believe it’s all but a guarantee you will see Scott Wilson next year.
Prediction: 2 years, 1.5M per year
LW Benoit Pouliot (74 GP, 13 G, 6 A, 19 PTS, 22 PIM)
Making barely over one million dollars this season, it’s hard to complain about Pouliot. On one hand, he had stretches where he was the driving force behind the team’s secondary scoring. On the other hand, he was very inconsistent and would go through stretches where he was invisible. I think it’s time to move on from Pouliot and try to experiment with a player in a similar situation looking for a chance to prove himself.
D Justin Falk (46 GP, 1 G, 1 A, 2 PTS, 28 PIM)
In his second season as a Sabre, Falk seemed less impressive than he was last season. Of course, this could be a product of a worse team. Either way, Falk is a typical journeyman defenseman who really should either be in the AHL or serve as the team’s seventh man. Whether the team elects to resign him or not is fairly inconsequential as the most notable thing about him the entire season was his conflict with Evander Kane during practice. This offseason, I’d look to bring him back on a one year deal just for the depth he brings.
Prediction: 1 year, 650K
D Josh Gorges (34 GP, 0 G, 2 A, 2 PTS, 17 PIM)
This season should prove to be the end of the road for Gorges in his four year tenure with the Sabres and possibly his NHL career. While a great veteran presence, Gorges’ ability to play the sport has diminished dramatically this season. He wasn’t necessarily “horrible,” but he’s not getting any younger and the Sabres have quite a few defensemen who could easily take his spot in the lineup. Therefore, I would let Gorges become a UFA and hopefully he gets another shot elsewhere.
G Chad Johnson (36 GP, 10-16-3, 3.55 GAA, .891 SV%)
Johnson’s return to Buffalo was extremely disappointing. The reliable backup everyone expected after a stellar 2015-2016 campaign backing up an injured Robin Lehner was nowhere to be found. The numbers above tell the story pretty well. I doubt Botterill brings him back and neither will I in this offseason plan.
C/RW Sam Reinhart (82 GP, 25 G, 25 A, 50 PTS, 26 PIM)
After a very rough first half, Reinhart exploded into a near point-per-game player in the second half. With Reinhart, the Sabres have a very big decision to make. The second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft has yet to fully live up to his expectations, but he made some progress this season by achieving career highs in goals and points. The question that the Sabres need to consider is whether they will attempt to sign him to a bridge deal or a long-term deal. If I were Botterill, I’d look at hammering out a long-term deal before he potentially becomes a perennial sixty or seventy point player. Reinhart at this point has at least proven he can pot 20+ goals and 40+ points each season, which has value. If he would take between $4.5-6.5M a season long-term I think it would be wise for the Sabres to negotiate. Either way, Reinhart will almost definitely be a Sabre next season, barring a trade that is too good for Botterill to reject.
Prediction: 6 years, 6.2M per year
G Robin Lehner (53 GP, 14-26-9, 3.01 GAA, .908 SV%)
Lehner’s performance this season left a lot to be desired. His numbers aren’t as poor as Johnson’s, but they are still below average for a starter. In my opinion, it’s still too early to determine whether or not he is the long-term solution in net. This season it seems like the answer is no, but he can still be a valuable stop-gap as top goaltending prospects Linus Ullmark and Ukko Pekka-Luukkonen develop. At 26, he’s young enough that there is a possibility for him to develop as well. It seems like Botterill could move on from Lehner, but I would look to bring him back for at least one more season while his rights are still owned by the team as a RFA. Somewhere in the ballpark of one year $4-5M seems about right for both sides.
Prediction: 1 year, 4.25M
Since there are many players here whose contracts are fairly insignificant in value, I’ll split them up into players I would sign and wouldn’t sign.
Sign: LW C.J. Smith, C/LW Danny O’Regan, C Sean Malone, RW Seth Griffith, G Adam Wilcox, RW Hudson Fasching, RW Nick Baptiste, RW Justin Bailey, D Zach Redmond
Release: G Jason Kasdorf (same age as Lehner and has made little progress in the ECHL)
The Sabres were blessed with the first overall pick of the draft for the third time in franchise history and first time since 1987, where they selected Pierre Turgeon. The number one choice in 2018 is as obvious as it gets, but the Sabres have another high-value pick with the 32nd overall selection. The Sabres also possess two fourths, a fifth, sixth and seventh round selections. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll only mock the first overall selection and list out some possibilities for pick number thirty-two.
1st Overall: D Rasmus Dahlin, Frölunda HC, SHL
All that needs to be said has already been said. The hype for Dahlin is absolutely justified. Just read what Erik Piri from Elite Prospects has to say about him:
“Dahlin is a smart two-way defenseman who can play in any situation. He is a terrific skater and stick handler who can rush the puck, or join the attack in a hurry. Impressive agility makes him a good one-on-one defender. He has fine passing ability, and although not a big-time bomber, he has an accurate shot from the point. Not one to shy away from the physical game, Dahlin is an accomplished open-ice hitter. A young player, he must learn when to make the simpler play. Adding more weight should help him in board battles and around the crease.”
The realization and mere thought of Jack Eichel potentially not being the best player on this team feels surreal. Eichel has proven that he is a dominant player already and certainly is in the elite category of NHL players. Adding a piece with a similar projection as an elite player is huge for a Sabres team that can’t seem to take the next step in the rebuild. That being said, fans should be patient with Dahlin and not expect a rookie season reminiscent of fellow Swedes Erik Karlsson, Niklas Lidstrom, Victor Hedman, or Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Of course, he could prove to be ready immediately and go home with the first Calder Trophy awarded to a Sabre since Tyler Myers in 2010. Either way, he is hands-down the best player in this draft and leaves Jason Botterill with an exceedingly easy decision at first overall.
32nd Overall: D K’Andre Miller, USNTDP, USHL
There are many possibilities here and it pretty much comes down to who falls out of the first round. My choice here is K’Andre Miller, who many project to be drafted late in the first round. However, if he falls to #32, the Sabres would be wise to draft him. The left-shot defenseman could be a nice supporting piece long-term behind Dahlin on the LHD depth chart. Joe Haggerty from NBC Sports Boston (who projects him to be drafted by the Anaheim Ducks at #23) has this to say about Miller:
“The converted forward is a big, hard-skating body that can finish off checks, move the puck…Miller is headed to the University of Wisconsin next season where he should continue developing his game, and definitely feels like the kind of big, physical D-man that could have a lot of success.”
Miller’s physicality will slot in well with a defense core that seems to be heavy on skilled and fast puck-movers. Miller also possesses the talent to adequately fit in Housley’s system.
Of course, there is a high probability that K’Andre Miller does not fall to the Sabres, so let’s discuss other options at pick 32.
Alternate: RW Dominik Bokk, Växjö Lakers, SHL
Along with defense, the Sabres still have to address offensive needs. Bokk, a German, is a potential solution here who could bolster the team’s depth on the wings. He was dominant in the J20 league with play that warranted a call-up to the SHL, where he potted a goal and an assist in fifteen games. These numbers may not seem appealing, but it’s important to note that the SHL is composed of men, many of whom have NHL and AHL experience, rather than boys his age. Similarly to Miller and others mentioned, there is definitely a chance that he does not make it out of the first round undrafted.
Alternate: D Jett Woo, Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL
Woo is a pretty obvious fit here, with Will Borgen being the only noteworthy RHD in the pipeline. Long-term, he could find a place behind Rasmus Ristolainen and likely could replace the oft-injured Zach Bogosian down the line. Woo scored nine goals and added sixteen assists during a forty-four game campaign with a dominant team in Moose Jaw.
Reality is that, at least for this season, none of the players taken at pick 32 should make an impact at the NHL level. The choice here is still important, essentially a late first-round pick in terms of value. The rest of the Sabres draft picks later on are even more inconsequential than the second rounder, but hopefully Botterill unearths a hidden gem.
It will be interesting to see which direction Jason Botterill takes in a free agent market headlined by superstar center, John Tavares. Other big-name players will be available as well, such as James van Riemsdyk and John Carlson. Personally, I don’t think Tavares will be a Sabre, and the savvy moves needed to be made to clear cap room for him would make this offseason plan turn into something out of a NHL 18 Franchise Mode simulation. With that being said, I will identify some potential targets here who address a need. I’ll also talk about each of the top free agents and explain why the Sabres should or shouldn’t have interest. According to CapFriendly.com, the Sabres have just under 19M in cap space. Subtracting the cash needed to resign the aforementioned players, the Sabres would only have roughly 6.39M in cap space. This certainly isn’t enough to sign a high-end player without subtracting one of O’Reilly, Lehner, or Reinhart. That being said, I will still address these big-name free agents.
C Joe Thornton, SJS
2017-2018: Hindered by full ACL and MCL tears in his right leg, Thornton’s season was shortened considerably, including not playing a single game during the Sharks’ postseason run. Prior to the injury, he posted some pretty solid numbers.
47 Games Played, 13 Goals, 23 Assists, 36 Points
Prediction: There’s not a chance Thornton would sign with the Sabres. Turning 39 the day after free agency begins, he does not fit the Sabres’ timeline and most likely is only interested in Cup contenders. Coming off of a season where he was paid 8M, it will be interesting to see if he takes considerably less than this to fit on a team’s payroll.
LW Rick Nash, BOS
2017-2018: Nash continues his drastic decline since his 42 goal season in 2014-15. Starting on a struggling Rangers team, he was flipped at the deadline to the Bruins where he contributed to their playoff run with three goals and two assists in twelve games.
71 Games Played, 21 Goals, 13 Assists, 34 Points
Prediction: Nash, even more so than Thornton, is not the same player he used to be. At 33, he’s five years younger than Thornton, but declining much earlier. The Sabres would be wise to avoid Nash as he likely will still have a good amount of suitors, based on the high price the Bruins paid to acquire him at the deadline.
C Paul Stastny, WPG
2017-2018: Like Nash, Stastny was also on the move at the deadline, going from St. Louis to Winnipeg. Stastny was very productive during the Jets’ playoff run with six goals and nine assists in seventeen games. At 32, he still offers enough production to slot in as a second-line center for many teams.
82 Games Played, 16 Goals, 37 Assists, 53 Points
Prediction: The Sabres have too much depth at center with Eichel, O’Reilly and Mittelstadt presumably down the middle next season. Stastny’s playoff performance should warrant a good payday with some term. Conversely, if the team does trade O’Reilly, Stastny is the best option to replace him on the open market not named John Tavares.
D Mike Green, DET
2017-2018: Starting the season hot, Green cooled down quickly and finished the season with comparable numbers to his previous two seasons in Detroit. It’s interesting to note that Green was not traded at the deadline by the mediocre Red Wings.
66 Games Played, 8 Goals, 25 Assists, 33 Points
Prediction: Green is not nearly the player he was in Washington. As a right-shot defenseman, there just isn’t enough of a need there with Ristolainen, Bogosian, and Nelson already signed for the Sabres to consider bringing in Green.
G Kari Lehtonen, DAL
2017-2018: Backing up Ben Bishop, Lehtonen put together a decent campaign after three pretty bad seasons as the Stars’ starting goaltender. At 34, his best years are behind him, but he could be valuable to teams searching for an experienced backup.
37 Games Played, 15-14-3, 2.56 GAA, .912 SV%
Prediction: Lehtonen is the first player on this list so far that I think makes sense for the Sabres. With Ullmark expected to be given every opportunity to become the starter, an experienced mentor could prove to be a good addition for his development. Lehtonen should come relatively cheap, too. I’d imagine he would cost considerably less than Lehner’s projected 4.25M. Personally, I would just hold on to Lehner because he has shown the ability to be relatively successful as the starter in case Ullmark struggles. However, if Jason Botterill decides to make a run for a top free agent like Tavares, signing Lehtonen instead of retaining Lehner would be a savvy move to clear up some cap space.
C Valtteri Filppula, PHI
2017-2018: Filppula seems to have regressed to a third-line center throughout the past three years split between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. He should be a solid bet for a 30+ point season and may also get into double digits with his goal count.
81 Games Played, 11 Goals, 22 Assists, 33 Points
Prediction: Coming off a contract where he was overpaid at 5M per season, it’s all but a guarantee that Filppula will have a much cheaper deal. I don’t think he reaches 4M a year, but there is a chance he could end up in the 3M range. At 34 years old, he wouldn’t be a long-term solution. However, if Botterill trades O’Reilly or plays Mittelstadt on the wing, Filppula would certainly be an upgrade on the third line over Zemgus Girgensons or Johan Larsson. With that being said, it is likely that Filppula will be seeking his second Stanley Cup (first with Detroit in 2008) and the Sabres currently are not a good destination for a player with that goal.
LW James Neal, VGK
2017-2018: Neal’s Golden Knights are the NHL’s story of the year, battling for the Cup as I am writing this. Neal finished sixth on the team in scoring and fourth in goals. Overall, it was not a bad season for Neal, but last season’s decline does not seem to be a fluke.
71 Games Played, 25 Goals, 19 Assists, 44 Points
Prediction: The Sabres would be wise to avoid making a play for Neal. The 30 year old is bound to be overpaid by some team in free agency and I’d imagine he’ll be getting some term on this contract as well. Neal is a proven talent who also brings a physical edge, but it’s not enough to warrant Jason Botterill investing precious cap space on him.
LW James Van Riemsdyk, TOR
2017-2018: JVR amassed a career-high in goals with 36 and added three more during Toronto’s brief playoff run. At 29, he should have around five good years left in him, evidenced by setting a career-high at this stage. Contrastingly, a comparable like James Neal, who is only one year older, is a lot closer to career-lows than highs.
81 Games Played, 36 Goals, 18 Assists, 54 Points
Prediction: I’d much rather the Sabres pursue JVR than Neal, but I’m not sure if this makes sense without shedding some salary. He seems poised to be earning upwards of 6M next season and it almost certainly will be a longer-term deal. The Sabres can’t afford another Kyle Okposo-esque signing to not work out, making this a very dangerous move if JVR happens to decline sooner than expected. Overall, I’d pass on JVR here just to keep the Sabres with some wiggle-room in cap space down the line.
LW Thomas Vanek, CBJ
2017-2018: Starting with the Vancouver Canucks, Vanek was unable to secure a contract with term and with the cash you would expect to come after a reasonably successful season with the Wings and Panthers. He started the season hot with the Canucks and was dealt to Columbus for a rather miniscule return and continued his success there. Vanek finished with his best season since 2013-2014, the season he was traded to the Islanders, then to the Canadiens.
80 Games Played, 24 Goals, 32 Assists, 56 Points
Prediction: The Sabres should be all over Vanek. As a team desperate for talent on the left wing, Vanek fits the bill perfectly. He could also be quite the asset to solidify the extremely weak secondary scoring. Not to mention, his obvious ties to Buffalo and success here would make for a homecoming move similar to when Jason Pominville rejoined the Sabres with the Marco Scandella trade. Maybe I’m blinded by nostalgia, but the idea of bringing back Vanek to a team where he is not the best player makes me think of the 2005-2007 era where Vanek was supported by players like Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Ryan Miller, and Maxim Afinogenov. If the Sabres can manage to pay him less than 4M on a short-term deal, the move is obvious. For the sake of numbers, I’ll project the Sabres sign him to a two year, 7M deal, paying him 3.5M a season.
D Calvin de Haan, NYI
2017-2018: de Haan’s season was cut short after he elected to have surgery on an injured shoulder back in December. However, he did start out pretty well and throughout his career he has been a steady presence on the blueline with the Islanders.
33 Games Played, 1 Goal, 11 Assists, 12 Points
Prediction: At only 27 years old, de Haan could be a solid option for the Sabres. When adding Dahlin to the picture, it doesn’t make as much sense. With Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe, and Brendan Guhle amongst others already vying for the LHD spots in the top six, there isn’t as much of a need for a player like de Haan as there was last offseason.
G Jonathan Bernier, COL
2017-2018: Since leaving Toronto, Bernier has enjoyed a reasonable amount of success as the backup in Anaheim and this season in Colorado. He’s played 38 and 37 game seasons the past two years and has proven that he can take on a reasonably large workload.
37 Games Played, 19-13-3, 2.85 GAA, .913 SV%
Prediction: If the Sabres elect to not resign Lehner, Bernier is my top target. He can fit in well in a 1B role with the team if needed which is perfect for the inexperienced Linus Ullmark who most likely will have some cold streaks next year. Bernier would come cheaper than Lehner and I would imagine he’ll fall somewhere in the 3M range.
RW Michael Grabner, NJD
2017-2018: Starting with the Rangers and ending with the Devils, Michael Grabner has his second straight 27 goal season. He is coming off of a two-year deal that paid him only 1.65M, a number that is sure to increase. It’s important to note that Grabner’s numbers once joining the Devils are not nearly as good as his with the Rangers as he scored only two goals in twenty-one games with them.
80 Games Played, 27 Goals, 9 Assists, 36 Points
Prediction: Potential suitors for Grabner, like the Sabres, should be aware of his drop in production in New Jersey. Prior to joining the Rangers, he struggled in Toronto struggled in the latter half of his career as an Islander. If the Sabres can’t get Thomas Vanek, Grabner would be a solid solution to bolster the secondary scoring, but buyers beware as he may not even get close to a near 30 goal season. If I were Botterill, I wouldn’t be looking for anything longer than a two-year deal when it comes to negotiating with Grabner.
C Derek Ryan, CAR
2017-2018: Ryan picked up where he left off last season, where he came out of nowhere and had a solid rookie season at the age of 30. He proved to have value in a weak core of centers on the Hurricanes’ roster.
80 Games Played, 15 Goals, 23 Assists, 38 Points
Prediction: Similarly to Valtteri Filppula, if the Sabres trade a center like O’Reilly or move Mittelstadt to the wing, it would be worth looking into Ryan. He’s coming off of a cheap 1.425M deal signed after his rookie season and will no doubt seek out a pay raise. We’ll see if teams trust his rise enough to pay him, but he would be a solid addition to the Sabres on the third line either way.
G Carter Hutton, STL
2017-2018: Hutton did an excellent job backing up Jake Allen, who did not live up to the standard expected of a starter. Hutton provided St. Louis with relief as needed and put up great numbers while doing so.
32 Games Played, 17-7-3, 2.09 GAA, .931 SV%
Prediction: I can’t see Hutton hitting free agency, honestly. It just wouldn’t make sense to me that the Blues would let him go and hold on to Allen when their core is young and talented enough to make the playoffs pretty easily. I’m curious to see how they will fit him in and if Hutton will take a lower salary just to remain in St. Louis. If not, the Sabres should be kicking tires on him. If he does hit the open market, he may very well get paid what I projected Lehner to be paid (~4M) so it’s important that Botterill thinks he could be the guy. He’s not particularly young at 32 either, so the search would still remain for a long-term solution in net.
D John Carlson, WSH
2017-2018: Carlson sets regular season career-highs in goals, assists, and points and he is currently having a monster playoff performance, all happening right before he is poised to enter the free agent market.
82 Games Played, 15 Goals, 53 Assists, 68 Points
Prediction: Carlson would undeniably be the Sabres #1 defenseman next season, even with Dahlin coming in. That being said, he will get a big time payday here and I just don’t think the Sabres would be able to afford it without trading Ristolainen, dumping Bogosian’s or Okposo’s contracts.
C John Tavares, NYI
2017-2018: Like Carlson, Tavares also put on a show before he looks for a new contract. He finishes only a goal and an assist off from tying his career-high in goals, assists, and points. There was never any doubt that Tavares isn’t talented, but he puts in another great season just to strengthen his standing amongst the NHL’s best players.
82 Games Played, 37 Goals, 47 Assists, 84 Points
Prediction: Tavares will be paid a lot of money. I’m guessing his floor would be Jack Eichel’s high salary of 10M and it’s more likely Tavares gets closer to Connor McDavid’s 12.5M cap hit on the open market. This isn’t something the Sabres can afford without pulling off a lot of maneuvering of the cap and certainly trading Ryan O’Reilly. I get the idea of Buffalo’s proximity to his hometown of Mississauga and the legacy his uncle left here with the Bandits, but I’m still not entirely convinced that Buffalo is a top destination for Tavares. Also, we don’t even know if Tavares will hit the open market, or if he will end up like Stamkos back in 2016. If he does make free agency, Botterill should of course make calls here and try to swing a deal to get him, but I can’t see it happening and it would be too complicated to predict here.
C Ryan O’Reilly (81 GP, 24 G, 37 A, 61 PTS)
O’Reilly is the hot name in Buffalo this offseason after his locker cleanout comments describing the effects of the team’s mediocrity on him. The 2018 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy candidate and 2014 winner has a plethora of suitors and would carry a hefty price tag in a trade. Lately, Carolina has been the biggest team out there to mock trades with after Bob McKenzie alluded to interest coming from the Hurricanes’ brass, who desperately need an offensively-productive center. The Sabres could look at LW Jeff Skinner, who would be a perfect line-mate for Jack Eichel or top pairing defenseman Justin Faulk (not the Justin Falk already on our team). Either one could solidify the Sabres’ needs at defense or left wing. They could also look at a player like Brock McGinn (brother of former Sabre Jamie) who seems to be on the rise with a 16 goal season and would help the Sabres and their bottom six. Of course, the Sabres then could look at the aforementioned free agent centers Valtteri Filppula and Derek Ryan to help replace O’Reilly on the depth chart.
The Sabres offseason could be defined by three of management’s decisions. One would be what they do with Sam Reinhart and whether or not they sign him to an expensive long-term deal or a cheaper bridge deal. Another is what they do with Robin Lehner. If they release him or trade him, then we can expect to see the Sabres active in free agency with Kari Lehtonen, Jonathan Bernier, or Carter Hutton amongst others. And finally, the O’Reilly situation. If he is traded, the door is open to the possibility that the Sabres make a huge splash in free agency by pursuing John Tavares or they solidify their depth by adding guys like Filppula and Ryan. Overall, the 2018-2019 season will certainly be an interesting one with at least Rasmus Dahlin as the franchise talent is practically a guaranteed addition to the team. Let’s go Buffalo!