Eyes On the Dollar Preseason Edition: Buffalo Sabres

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:55 am by Cam Lewis

This is a 30 part series analyzing the short and long term cap situations of each team in the NHL as we head into the 2015-16 season. The stats and information that I use in these articles is courtesy of Hockey Reference and War on Ice, and of course, NHLnumbers. 

The Buffalo Sabres have had an exciting offseason. After being the worst team in the NHL offseason, the Sabres added the greatest consolation prize to Connor McDavid imaginable in Jack Eichel to an already pretty loaded prospect core. They also made a blockbuster trade for Ryan O’Reilly and then signed him to the biggest contract in franchise history. Now there’s talk that they’re interested in signing Cody Franson, who was supposed to be one of, if not the best defenceman on the UFA market this summer. The Sabres aren’t going to go all the way from the bottom of the league’s standings to a contender in one offseason, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be an interesting team to watch this year. How much better did they get, and what can be expected of them this season? Are they going to be able to fit all of these good, young players under the cap in a few years? 

OFFSEASON SUMMARY

  • Traded a 2015 first-round pick to the Senators for Robin Lehner and David Legwand. 
  • Traded Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, JT Compher, and a 2015 second-round pick to the Avalanche for Ryan O’Reilly and Tye McGinn. Then they signed O’Reilly to a seven year contract with a $7.5 million cap hit. 
  • Bought out Cody Hodgson. He’ll carry a $1.042 million cap hit for eight seasons. 
  • Signed Matt Donovan to a one-year, $0.825 million contract. 
  • Signed Jason Akeson to a one-year, $0.575 million contract.
  • Signed Cal O’Reilly to a two-year contract with a $0.700 million cap hit. 
  • Signed Carlo Colaiacovo to a one-year, $0.900 million contract. 
  • Signed Phil Varone to a one-year, $0.600 million contract. 
  • Signed Mark Pysyk to a two-year contract with a $1.125 million cap hit. 
  • IN: Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, David Legwand, Jason Akeson, Phil Varone, Jamie McGinn, Cal O’Reilly, Carlo Colaiacovo, Matt Donovan, Robin Lehner. 
  • OUT: Cody Hodgson, Patrick Kaleta, Mikhail Grigorenko, Matt Ellis, Zac Dalpe, JT Compher, Andrej Meszaros, Nikita Zadorov, Andre Benoit, Tyson Strachan, Anders Lindback, Matt Hackett. 

FORWARDS

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The biggest move the Sabres made this summer — aside from drafting Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the draft — was acquiring Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche. They sent Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, JT Compher and a second round pick to Colorado for O’Reilly, who was set to become a UFA on July 1, 2016. Quickly after acquiring him, they signed O’Reilly to a seven year contract extension with a $7.5 million cap hit. This seems like a huge amount of cash and term to give a guy who doesn’t exactly produce like an elite forward, especially considering it’s the biggest contract ever given out to a Buffalo Sabre. This deal also might make some people uncomfortable because both Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are going to be at the end of their entry-level contracts three years from now. People have been suggesting that O’Reilly’s deal is going to be this summer’s David Bolland, or that he’s akin to Shawn Horcoff when he signed a massive extension with the Oilers back in 2008. 

Personally, I think Ryan O’Reilly is being underrated, and I think he’s going to be huge for Buffalo’s rebuild. He’s been in the league for six years now, but people forget that he’s only 24 years old and he’s going to continue to grow and improve along with the rest of this young Sabres team. What O’Reilly also does is completely take the pressure off Jack Eichel this season. O’Reilly has logged at least 19 minutes of ice time per game in three of his past four seasons, and he’s done so while making pretty heavy defensive zone starts against tough opposing competition. As a result, Eichel won’t need to come into his rookie season needing to play huge, important minutes. He can be sheltered with nice zone starts and weaker opposing competition as he gets his feet wet, and if everything works out, he can start taking on a more difficult role. And if he doesn’t right away, that’s fine because barring injury, O’Reilly is completely capable of being Buffalo’s No. 1 centre. 

I’m not going to say that this is bargain contract by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, I’m not even going to say that it’s a great contract at all. I do agree that $7.5 million is pretty steep for O’Reilly, even though I do think he’s a really good player, but having him locked up long term is important to the success of the Buffalo Sabres. He’s also going to be 31 when the contract comes to an end, so it’s not the Sabres are going to have to deal with any twilight years of Ryan O’Reilly if they don’t want to, unless, of course, he gets injured and his game completely falls off a cliff. Right now, the Sabres have a 24 year old who can play in tough situations, log first line minutes, produce adequately, and drive possession at an elite level all while two of the best prospects in the game — Eichel and Reinhart — take their time developing into star players. 

Like I said, the Sabres don’t have to worry about new contracts for Reinhart or Eichel for three more years. They also don’t need to worry about Evander Kane for three years, or Matt Moulson or Tyler Ennis for another four. As long as the Sabres manage their cap nicely, nothing should get in the way of Reinhart or Eichel getting big, long term contracts if they deserve them by then. And if I’m a Sabres fan, I’m hoping they do warrant big contracts three years from now, even if it does make the team’s cap outlook more cluttered. 

This summer, the Sabres’ biggest concern is likely going to be heart and soul forward Zemgus Girgensons, who’s first entry level contract comes to an end on July 1. Girgensons has had a pretty impressive start to his career. In just his second year in the NHL, he logged 19:05 minutes of ice time per game while making nearly 60 per cent of his even strength zone starts in the defensive zone. He also played against the most difficult competition of any Sabres forward last season, which is incredibly impressive for his age. Aside from Girgensons, the Sabres will also need to figure out RFA contracts for Marcus Foligno and Nicolas Deslauriers this summer, which shouldn’t be an issue, as David Legwand and Jamie McGinn’s combined $6 million comes off the shelf at the end of the season, and let’s be honest, the Sabres are years away from being a team in a cap crunch situation. If they want to re-sign somebody, they’ll be able to. 

DEFENCEMEN 

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Defence is pretty easily the Sabres’ biggest weakness heading into the 2015-16 and beyond. There have been rumours that the Sabres are interesting in adding Cody Franson on a two year deal, but nothing has happened yet. Earlier this summer, Franson had suggested that he was interested in playing on a contender, which Buffalo obviously isn’t, but with just over a month to go until the season starts, he may have to accept that isn’t going to happen. As of right now, the Sabres only have two true veteran defencemen on their roster: Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian. Franson would be a nice addition to the team in the same way that O’Reilly is, as he would help shelter Buffalo’s young defencemen — Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe — as they continue to ease their way into a larger role in the NHL in a much more effective way than Carlo Colaiacovo, Mike Weber, or whoever else can. If they don’t sign Franson, I imagine the Sabres will try something along the lines of pairing a veteran defenceman with a younger one, so we’ll probably see Ristolainen play with Gorges, Pysyk with Bogosian, and McCabe with Weber, or whoever the de facto third pairing veteran guy ends up being. 

Of all their young defencemen, it appears that Ristolainen is the most likely to break out and emerge as a top pairing defenceman next season. Last year, which was his second season in the league, he played 38 games, putting up eight goals and 12 assists, and averaging 20:37 minutes of ice time per game. He also made roughly 60 per cent of his starts in the defensive zone and faced the second best opponent competition of any defenceman on the team and still managed to have a 37.3 Corsi For percentage — which isn’t that bad because he played on the Sabres. Pysyk and McCabe are much more difficult to gauge because they only appeared in seven and two games respectively last season. 

Bogosian and Gorges are locked up for five and three more years respectively, while Ristolainen and McCabe need new RFA deals at the end of the season, and Pysyk needs one in summer of 2017. Just like with their forwards, the Sabres don’t really have to worry about finding a way to squeeze these guys into their cap picture. If they command a fair amount of coin, that’s great. It means that they’ve takes a big step forward in their development and Buffalo’s rebuild is going in the right direction. 

GOALTENDERS 

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The Sabres rolled through three different goaltenders last season: Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, and Anders Lindback. This year, they’re hoping that Robin Lehner — who they acquired from the Senators earlier this summer — can finally put an end to their inconsistent goaltending carousel. Lehner, who’s now 24 years old, was pushed out of the Senators organization due in large part to an amazing run by Andrew Hammond, who came out of nowhere last season and played a huge part in Ottawa’s surprising playoff run. I’m not going to go into detail right now about Ottawa deciding to roll with Craig Anderson and Hammond rather than keeping Lehner around, but Buffalo could very well have found themselves their goaltender of the future. Well, at least they’re hoping they have, because it cost a fair amount to acquire him. The Sabres had to give up pick No. 18 in the 2015 draft for Lehner, and they also had to take on the final year of David Legwand’s contract, which carries a $3 million cap hit. 

That’s a pretty steep price to pay for a goaltender who hasn’t really proved anything over an extended period of time at the NHL level. That being said, the Sabres have a boat load of draft picks and prospects, so taking a gamble on an incredibly talented goaltender who has shown flashes of brilliance in the past. Over the past three years, Lehner has had a really good showing, a decent showing, and a pretty bad showing. In 2012-13, he showed why Senators fans were giddy over him, posting a 0.936 save percentage and 10.34 goals saved above average in 12 games. Small sample size, I know. The next year, he played in 36 games and managed a 0.913 save percentage, which at this point, is his career average through 86 career games. He struggled last year, though, putting up a 0.905 save percentage in 24 games. Lehner has two years left on his contract, and by the end of it, I’m sure the Sabres will have an idea of whether or not he’s the guy they’re going to roll with moving forward. 

CONCLUSION

The Buffalo Sabres were the worst team in the NHL last season and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll finish towards the bottom of the standings again this year. That being said, they’ve definitely taken a step in the right direction, and they should be a fun team to follow this season. Obviously adding Jack Eichel to an already pretty loaded group of prospects is exciting, but we’re finally going to get to see Evander Kane suit up for the Sabres for the first time since being acquired from the Jets mid way through last season. The Sabres also have a fair amount of cap space available right now, so there’s a chance they can still make an addition to their team before the season gets started. Obviously Cody Franson — who they’ve been linked to for a while now — makes the most sense, as their defensive core is thin to say the least. Even if they don’t add Franson, adding O’Reilly, Eichel, and getting a full season from Kane will make them a much better team than they were last season. 

What about their long term situation? This summer, they’ll need to figure out new RFA deals for Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen, which shouldn’t  be too difficult because they only have eight forwards, three defencemen, and one goalie signed into 2016-17. The big situation the Sabres should be planning for is the summer of 2019 —when Eichel and Reinhart finish their entry deals and Kane becomes a UFA. As of right now, only O’Reilly, Moulson, Ennis, and Bogosian under contract past 2019, so unless they hand out a bunch of albatross contracts between now and then, there should be enough space to sign all three of them. Of course, that isn’t the focus right now. The main concern is whether or not Eichel, Reinhart, and all of the other prospects the Sabres have acquired develop properly and become good enough players that they warrant big contracts, because stressing over how to fit all of your star players under the cap is a lot better than not having any good players at all. In the mean time, all the Sabres can do is bring players in, like O’Reilly, to help the development of their key prospects, but at the same time try to ensure that their cap situation gets cluttered down the road. That’ll mean making tough decisions on players like Kane, Ennis, and Moulson as to which players are going to be worth keeping around for the long haul and which ones can be traded to open up more cap space when the time comes. It also means looking to sign good veteran players on short term deals even if it means giving them a higher chunk of cash over that time than they might be worth. All in all, the Sabres are going to be a fun team to follow over the next few years. 

Previously in this Series: 

Anaheim Ducks

Arizona Coyotes

Boston Bruins