Over the next month, we at NHLnumbers are going to be taking a look at where each team in the league currently stands based on what we learned from them last season, and where they realistically can and should go this summer with the resources and cap space they have.
It’s time to start thinking about the playoffs again in Buffalo. The Sabres took a massive step forward last season, winning 12 more games and finishing with 37 more points in the standings than they had the previous year when they were fully immersed in the once-in-a-lifetime Connor McDavid tank-off. Unfortunately for them, and much to the chagrin of general manager Tim Murray, the Sabres’ catastrophic 2014-15 season ultimately didn’t result in them winning the golden ticket, but instead, they were handed the best consolation prize imaginable in Jack Eichel.
After an excellent rookie season from The Other One coupled with the continued development of a strong young core developed from years of being terrible, the Sabres actually looked like a professional hockey team last season. If they can have another offseason like they did last year, in which they added Ryan O’Reilly, Cody Franson, and Robin Lehner, they should realistically be able to take another step forward, which would mean playoff hockey in Buffalo for the first time since 2011.
The best way to describe the Sabres roster is promising, but incomplete, which is pretty standard for a team nearing the light at the end of the tunnel after a long, painful rebuild.
They’re loaded with talent and depth up the middle thanks to back-to-back years of high draft choices landing them Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, but they also made a savvy deal last summer to acquire Ryan O’Reilly, who can eat ugly minutes and allow the latter to thrive in offensive situations. Although he’s been around forever, O’Reilly only turned 25 years old in February, so it’s not like the seven-year extension that kicks in this season is going to be some huge detriment. Speaking of players who have been around forever, Evander Kane, one of Buffalo’s four 20-goal scorers, doesn’t turn 25 until August.
The Sabres also have a pretty decent bottom-six, and while it doesn’t really provide a hell of a lot in terms of offence, it’s formidable in a checking role and in shutting the other team down. Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson are both centres who can be relied on in the defensive zone, but haven’t shown much offensive upside, while Marcus Foligno and Nicolas Deslauriers add physicality and grit to the roster.
Like I said, though, there isn’t really much here in terms of supplementary offence after Eichel, Reinhart, Kane, and O’Reilly. You would expect that to come from Matt Moulson or Brian Gionta, but it didn’t last season, and if the Sabres are going to step forward next year, they’re going to have to find some better depth scoring options on the wings.
Buffalo’s defence is a similar story, with a couple of rising stars and some issues with talented depth. Obviously the key of this group is Rasmus Ristolainen, who led the Sabres in ice time and scored 41 points, but his possession numbers leave quite a bit to be desired. After him, Jake McCabe made a pretty impressive impact, posting some of the best possession numbers among defencemen on the team while logging 22 minutes per night.
Zach Bogosian pretty much is what he is at this point, which is a big and physical defensive defenceman who doesn’t provide much in terms of offence, which is somewhat similar to Buffalo’s other veteran defenceman, Josh Gorges. Then the rest of the tea Sabres’ defensive core is rounded out by Mark Pysyk, who could see an increased role next season, and Cody Franson, who, well, wasn’t really utilized at all last year.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that Buffalo is set in net right now with Robin Lehner, who was very good last season when healthy. Of course, that’s kinda the issue with him, is that he’s never actually managed to play a full season. Regardless, for better or for worse, he’s the goalie of the future Buffalo is rolling with.
Currently, the Sabres have roughly $26.5 million in cap space with nine forwards, four defencemen, and one goalie signed, but a pretty prominent group of young players, Ristolainen, Girgensons, Deslauriers, McCabe, and Foligno, all need new contracts. When all of those players are signed, there really isn’t a hell of a lot of wiggle room in terms of roster space to make additions via free agency. The Sabres have a few bad contracts that they’ll likely want to move so that they can get their key RFAs signed to new contracts and so that they can actively pursue upgrades on the free agent market.
The money will be there this summer for the Sabres, but obviously they’ll need to be careful about handing out long-term deals, as Eichel, Reinhart, and Ristolainen especially are eventually going to command a hefty amount of cash in the not-so-distant future.
First things first, the Sabres need to get their six RFAs signed, obviously. After that, they can start to make decisions on which contracts to try to unload and how the subsequent holes left by those players’ departures can be filled.
Matt Moulson, as I mentioned earlier, was pretty terrible last season, scoring just eight goals in 81 games. He has a $5 million contract for another three years, but his positive possession numbers and low shooting percentage suggest that he could be a good rebound candidate, so this certainly isn’t an unmovable contract, and really, it isn’t the end of the world if he’s playing in Buffalo again next season. Josh Gorges and his $3.9 million deal is another name that realistically could be floated around on the trade market as the Sabres look for an upgrade in free agency that can produce more offensively. Same goes for Cody Franson, who carries a $3.325 million cap hit for one more season.
When assessing Buffalo’s roster, it becomes pretty clear that their biggest holes are depth scoring contributors, both in terms of scoring wingers and puck moving, offensive-minded defencemen. Right now, they only really have one (two if you consider playing Reinhart on the wing) legitimate scoring winger in Evander Kane, and a possible rebound candidate in Matt Moulson. On defence, the only one with much in the way of offensive upside is Rasmus Ristolainen, and possibly Cody Franson if he’s used in that kind of role.
The hole of a top-four defenceman could be filled by either Keith Yandle or Alex Goligoski, but unfortunately for the Sabres, quite a few teams will be interested in adding both of those players as there aren’t many of the sort available this summer in free agency. With that in mind, if they strike out on one of the good free agent defenceman options, they could always pursue an upgrade via trade. Colorado’s Tyson Barrie or Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen would be a good fit. But they would likely have to accept moving the eighth overall pick at the draft, which isn’t all that attractive of an option for a team that decimated their prospect capital in trades for O’Reilly and Bogosian/Kane last year.
The scoring winger need is a significantly easier one to fill, as the free agent market is loaded with skilled wingers. The number one option would be either Loui Eriksson or Kyle Okposo, but they’re obviously both going to come with a pretty massive price tag attached to their name. Teddy Purcell, Mike Santorelli, Kris Versteeg, Lee Stempniak, and Chris Stewart are all options that would come at a much cheaper price, which might make more sense for the Sabres, as they should be adding a few cheaper, depth players on short-term deals right now rather than big, long-term contracts.
The Sabres took a massive step in the right direction last season and their future looks really bright, so much so that they might actually be legitimate contenders for the playoffs in 2016-17. Obviously it’s important for the Sabres to have a productive offseason like they did last summer so that they can continue to move in the right direction, but there are two things they really, really shouldn’t do.
First, they shouldn’t trade the eighth overall pick. I mean, if the right deal for a young defenceman comes along, sure, pull the trigger, but this team has dealt away damn near all of its prospects in the past year on two different trades, and it’s no mystery that you need cheap talent coming up through your system in order to be competitive for an extended period of time in the salary cap world. And second, they really don’t want to add a really bad contract for the hell of signing a big name player. This goes hand in hand with the first point of operating in the cap world, but when you’re a rebuilding team teetering on the edge of competing for a playoff spot, it’s easy to get overzealous and make a Dave Bolland-esque signing in an attempt to accelerate things.