Is this $72.5M Sabres roster playoff-worthy?
TSN's Frank Servalli placed the Buffalo Sabres amongst "at least" 17 NHL teams that have reduced expenditures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In actuality, the Sabres led the charge with a June 16th "bloodletting" of 22 people that took out general manager Jason Botterill, his management team and AHL coaching staff as well a scouts and development coaches. Servalli points out that the Sabres coaching staff, led by head coach Ralph Krueger, took a voluntary 20% pay cut from April 1 until July 13, "at which point they turned down a subsequent request for a 25 per cent reduction."
Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula stressed a lean and efficient hockey operation at their end-of-season presser, which was prior to the firing of Botterill and Co., leaving many to wonder just what will happen to the roster. Servalli addressed that by writing, "Sources say the Sabres are considering an internal salary cap in the low $70 million range."
A figure like that is not all that shocking when you consider Pegula has reportedly lost tens of millions of dollars on the Sabres alone and Pegula Sports and Entertainment (their umbrella company) is getting buried in all their financial investments (save for maybe the Buffalo Bills right now) as result of a once in a century pandemic. We can get into a blame game, which is a circular argument that's been going on for a long time in these Sabres threads, but the gist of the matter is that financial changes are afoot and it looks as if the Buffalo Sabres are tightening the belt, which is the owner's prerogative.
What's shocking, however, is that this belt-tightening might be coming at a time when superstar, face-of-the-franchise center Jack Eichel has openly displayed his distaste for losing and many feel that if the Sabres don't make the playoffs this year, or at least make some serious strides in that direction, he could want out. Rock meet hard place. Also, this off season seems like an ideal buyers market as most teams will feel the effects of Covid-19 and will be making tough choices based upon finances.
There's hope in Sabreland that Pegula will keep his wallet open for one more season but we're not planning on it so we're going to work with a figure of $72.5 million in salary expenditures for the 2020-21 season, which puts us in the upper-level of that "low $70 million" area.
Those locked in
Eichel leads a group of only 10 Sabres players under contract for next season. As a group, the players here have just about the same salary and cap-hit which is important as actual salary for this season may well be what Pegula is looking at with an internal cap. The 10 players are Eichel, forwards Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo, Marcus Johansson, defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju and goalie Carter Hutton .
Total cap-hit for this group is about $48.291 million with actual salary expenditures of $48.323 million, according to CapFriendly. Of note, all player cap numbers used here come from CapFriendly.com.
Buffalo has eight restricted free agents, five of which look like locks to be re-signed for the roster with one other as a possible reserve. As we sign these players, including potential unrestricted free agents, we're taking into consideration that the pandemic and subsequent financial quandary the NHL is experiencing will put a damper on salaries across the board. And for the sake of simplicity, we're also going with straight up cap-hit/salary. That said, the following numbers and term seem very reasonable for the state the NHL is in.
RW, Sam Reinhart--4yrs, $6.5M AAV
F, Victor Olofsson--4 yrs, 3.5M
F, Dominik Kahun--1yr, 1.85M
F, Tage Thompson--1 yr, 950K
G, Linus Ullmark--3 yrs, 2.65M
F, Curtis Lazar--1 yr, $750K (slated for the Rochester Americans, here, pending waivers)
According to CapFriendly, center Casey Mittelstadt is a 10.2(c) free agent who doesn't have enough professional seasons for Group 2 RFA status and is also ineligible for an offer sheet. We signed Mittelstadt to a 1 yr, $950K contract with the intention of giving him more seasoning in the AHL with the Rochester Americans as he's still waivers-exempt. He'll be looked at as a first call-up (along with Lazar) amongst forwards.
Both of the following players RFA's have arbitration rights but might not be a part of the future in Buffalo.
Defenseman Lawrence Pilut signed a two-year contract with Russia's Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in June. We're not sure whether there's an out in his contract but it seems as if he and the Sabres have parted ways. Pilut is a good defenseman and will be used in a trade for this exercise.
Brandon Montour is a defenseman Buffalo acquired from the Anaheim Ducks who is also an arbitration-eligible RFA. The 26 yr. old had a $3.3875M cap-hit last season and there were rumors that the Sabres wouldn't qualify him. For this exercise we traded him unsigned to the Los Angeles Kings for their 2020 second round pick and an additional 2021 third-rounder (TOR.)
Internal help from entry-level contracts
Rasmus Dahlin leads a group of young players on entry-level deals and much is expected of the third-year NHL'er. Having him anchor the defense will help immensely in the quest for a $72.5M roster as will fellow defenseman Henri Jokiharju who, at only 21 years of age, already has the look of a top-four d-man.
It's pretty safe to say that center Dylan Cozens is off-limits in nearly every trade scenario and we put him at 3-C as he transitions from Canadian Junior to the NHL. Dependent upon what the NHL and CHL do, Cozens could conceivably play a couple of months in junior before making the jump to the NHL. There is no American Hockey League option for him this year so we're pretty sure he'll be in the Blue and Gold for the 2020-21 season.
Two other players on entry-level deals have played well, and had some solid success, at the AHL-level. Center Rasmus Asplund came over from Sweden and had two solid seasons with the Americans while also playing 29 games for Buffalo last year. He needs to be in the Sabres mix. Twenty-three yr. old defenseman Will Borgen left St. Cloud State (NCAA) after his junior season and also played two seasons in Rochester showing great progress. He's another that, in this scenario, needs to be in the Sabres mix.
The big trade
In order to make an internal cap work while also filling a roster need and making this team a hopeful playoff contender, we need to pull off a big trade. From our own Sabres89 we heard that Calgary Flames center Sean Monahan and Buffalo's 2020 first rounder, the 8th-overall pick, were being discussed and we're going to run with it.
Monahan is an intriguing get as he fills the Sabres need for a No. 2 center behind Eichel. There are those in the hockey world, and in here as well, who believe at best he's a good 1b who might be able to drive his own line but he also has defensive deficiencies. Sending the 8th-overall seems like a bit too much for that as the top eight to ten players in this draft look like serious contributors at the NHL level.
The Sabres need to fill a hole (or four) and Monahan goes a long way in doing that. To help balance things out we believe that Buffalo could also get Flames whipping boy Sam Bennett while sending defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and the aforementioned Pilut to Calgary as their d-corps consists of four signed players right now and is somewhat lacking on the right side. Here's how it looks:
Buffalo gets C, Monahan and F, Bennett
Calgary gets 2020 eighth-overall, RHD Ristolainen and the rights to LHD Pilut.
An added plus to this trade is that Monahan, as pointed out by a poster in our recent thread, is on the books for a $6.375M cap-hit but will only have a $2.5M salary if the Flames pay his $3.5M bonus this year.
Look, I get it, there will be lovers and haters of this trade but Buffalo has some pieces, like Mittelstadt and Montour or whatever (save for Cozens,) that if Risto isn't Calgary's cup of tea, something can be done to make it work. For as much as this writer hates the idea of sending the eighth-overall pick this year in a trade for Monahan, as a weak farm system won't get any stronger, bringing back RFA Bennett in the trade makes it easier to stomach.
Filling out the roster
After trading away two defenseman, the Sabres will need to fill their defensive holes and we're doing that with two unrestricted free agents. RHD, Dylan DeMelo played a lot of minutes (21:08 ATOI) for the Winnipeg Jets last season and we're not sure if an AAV of $2.4M on a three-year deal is enough to entice him to come to Buffalo, but in these uneasy times it's a nice raise over the 2yr/$1.8 million contract he just played out in Winnipeg plus it gives some contact stability to the 27 yr. old.
The Sabres also have a hole on the left side and we look to the Kings to fill that. Twenty-seven yr. old d-man Ben Hutton is coming off of a 1yr/$1. million deal in Los Angeles and we're also going to get him through these tough times by offering a 3yr/$5 million ($1.667M AAV) contract.
Boston left-winger Joakim Nordstrom is finishing up a 2yr./$2 million contract with the Bruins. We're offering him a 2yr/$2.5 million contract to come to Buffalo for fourth-line duties. Derek Grant had a stint with the Sabres in 2016-17 that didn't go as planned, but he'd be a solid add on a 1yr/$750k as he seems to have found his game in a fourth-line role.
The final roster (cap-hit)
Olofsson ($3.5M) Eichel (10) Reinhart (6.5)
Skinner (9) Monahan (6.375) Kahun (1.85)
Bennett (2.55) Cozens (.894) Johansson (4.5)
Nordstrom (1.25) Asplund (.845) Okposo (6)
Grant (.750) Thompson (.950)
Dahlin (.925) DeMelo (2.4)
McCabe (2.85) Jokiharju (.925)
B. Hutton (1.667) Miller (3.875)
C. Hutton (2.75)
Total cap hit according to CapFriendly's Armchair GM calculator: $75.937 million.
When you calculate the total salary expenditures right now which is adds 32k for the actual salaries of all 10 signed players, but subtract the $3.5 million from the Flames paying Monahan's bonus, the total salary expenditure is: