I recently spoke about the Buffalo Sabres possible draft selections. With that in the rearview mirror, it’s time for part two of their off-season: the re-sign phase.
The Sabres are a rising contender, and if they’re able to retain the players that are hitting the books, they should be taken very seriously next season.
Upcoming Unrestricted Free Agent Forwards: Jeff Skinner, Jason Pominville
Jeff Skinner (40 goals, 23 assists, 52.4 Corsi For%, Averaged 18:31 Time On Ice)
The Sabres, with the upcoming increase in salary cap, will have $30.208M in free space to work with. Jeff Skinner is the big fish in the Sabres pond, and he is a must re-sign. He had a 40-goal season on a team that missed the playoffs, which in itself is impressive.
But it’s also Skinner’s first time ever hitting that mark in his National Hockey League career. That tells me he just simply fits in well with this organization, and the fact that the team is young and has so much promise, there’s no reason to believe Skinner wouldn’t want to stick around and see where this team goes. At just 26-years-old, he is still smack dab in the middle of his prime. The Sabres should offer him a four-year contract for about $8.5M per year.
Jason Pominville (16 goals, 15 assists, 51.6 CF%, Averaged 12:28 TOI)
After the Skinner signing, the Sabres would have about $21.708M remaining in cap space. Jason Pominville is 36, but is still a solid bottom-six veteran. He produced over 30 points, making him a key offensive piece on that bottom-six, and should be re-signed.
The question isn’t whether or not he should get signed however. The Sabres are a young team, and they are nearly complete. What they need to get into the playoffs next season, are middle-six forwards, or even guys who can move up and down the lineup, while still producing. Pominville can still be that guy, as he has produced valiantly in his role.
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But that’s just it, he’s a role player. I don’t see Pominville being a guy who can play on the first line for extended periods and finding much success, especially given his age. Not to mention, the Sabres will likely (at least in the article I wrote) select Kirby Dach with the seventh overall pick, and I believe he could make the roster. His youth and offensive upside make him a more appealing forward from a production standpoint. His hard-nosed, physical play, along with his general size and strength to back himself up, allows him to also play in a role that Pominville would play.
For me, Pominville would be a good player to keep, but it’s just not necessary with the youth that’s ready to jump and the potential prospect they pick, and how close that player truly is to making the jump to the NHL squad. But for now, I have him as being let go. The Sabres can always circle back and give him an offer while he’s in the open market of course, but I believe it’s best to part ways now.
Upcoming Restricted Free Agent Forwards: Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Evan Rodrigues
Zemgus Girgensons (5 goals, 13 assists, 48.5 CF%, Averaged 13:37 TOI)
Still standing at $21.708M in free space, the Sabres have quite a bit of wiggle room. Girgensons brings something to the table that not many teams have; incredibly solid center depth. Buffalo has Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt down the middle on the top two lines, with Girgensons doing a solid job behind them on the third line.
Glancing at his statistics quickly, you’re probably thinking he’s not that great, why am I praising him? Well, you need to take a deep dive to figure out what went wrong this season.
In his career, Girgensons has averaged closer to 15 minutes of TOI, whereas this season he did not. He has also started his shifts in the offensive zone 42.5% of the time throughout his career. This season? His offensive zone start % (oZS%) was at just 15.3%. He started his shifts on the defensive end almost 90% of the time this past season. That’s just unfair for him, and it hurt his stats.
In the 2017-18 season, his oZS% was 49.5%, and his CF% was at 48.3% (career best). He still didn’t produce that many points, but his possession statistics were better, and he has always been a good penalty killer for the Sabres.
His importance to the team is major, because they clearly trust him in the defensive end if they deploy him there as often as they did this past season. I think they have to re-sign him for his defensive usage, and his lack of production and pedestrian possession analytics will make him cheaper than what his true value to the team really is. I’d say a 2-3 year deal, worth roughly $2.5M per season.
Johan Larsson (6 goals, 8 assists, 49.5 CF%, Averaged 14:18 TOI)
After the Girgensons re-signing, the Sabres would be left with $19.208M in free space. Larsson is in his prime like Skinner (26, going on to 27). But unfortunately, he too was left to fend for himself by terrible line deployment. Similar to Girgensons, he had a oZS% of 15.6%, while he usually averages 32.3% oZS%. It’s concerning to me that these players, although usually reliable in their own end, are just thrown out there time and time again to play strictly defensive hockey.
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Larsson would be a nice re-sign here, but like Pominville, there are a lot of guys in the pipeline coming up. For example, Tage Thompson, Alexander Nylander, Victor Olofsson, and Rasmus Asplund, to name a few, are either very close to being NHL ready or will be set to make the roster next season. With that being said, there are other, likely better, options for Buffalo. It’ll also be cheaper on their end to call a young kid up then go re-signing a guy who hasn’t exactly been the most attractive third-liner.
Evan Rodrigues (9 goals, 20 assists, 51.3 CF%, Averaged 15:49 TOI, 74 GP)
With $19.208M still remaining in space, it’s likely the Sabres re-sign this man. Rodrigues, 25, has been a very productive and successful 2nd/3rd liner for the Sabres. His possession analytics are solid as his CF% is over 50%,, and he’s deployed like the average player with 41% oZS%. Although his production is down for a second liner, he should most definitely take a big step in the right direction over the next few seasons, especially with the growth of Mittelstadt, who he will more than likely play alongside with fairly often.
Due to his lack of production, his contract may be very cheap, despite the fact that he has been solid in possession statistics and his defensive zone play. The term should be a short “prove it” type deal, as he has shown promise but hasn’t quite hit his stride yet. Two years at $2.5M should be good for Rodrigues, leaving $16.708M in free space.
Upcoming Unrestricted Free Agent Defensemen: None
The defensemen on the Sabres are all very young and very talented. They’re either locked into an Entry Level Contract (ELC), are locked in long-term, or are restricted free agents. That is a huge cushion to fall back on, as if they can’t re-sign a defenseman, they can hold his rights and get something for that player, rather than have them walk for nothing at all.
Upcoming Restricted Free Agent Defensemen: Jake McCabe
Jake McCabe (4 goals, 10 assists, 48.4 CF%, Averaged 18:57 TOI)
McCabe has really started to look good in the Sabres organization. For the most part, his CF% has gotten better and better, and he may finally hit the 50% mark next season based on his recent trends.
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While his ice time has gone down over the past two seasons, people must also realize the talent that is around him. Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen make up the top two, while other defensemen consist of Zach Bogosian, Brandon Montour, Matt Hunwick and Marco Scandella. Taking into account the defensemen he is competing with, his value to the team takes a dip, as they have a few options to put in to replace McCabe, at least to the best of their abilities.
You then have to look at who can get called up, which includes Lawrence Pilut, Brandon Hickey, and William Borgen. Suddenly, McCabe is not a need. Pilut, in my opinion, is more than ready to compete and succeed at playing in the top four next season, effectively replacing the hole left behind by McCabe.
Because McCabe is restricted, the Sabres have options. The most likely option is a trade including his rights heading elsewhere, where a need for defenseman is growing. A team like the Dallas Stars may be a good fit, as they’re a great team as is and he could find a lot of success there.
Upcoming Restricted Free Agent Goalies: Linus Ullmark
Linus Ullmark (15-14-5 Record, 2 Shutouts, 3.11 Goals Against Average, .905 Save %)
Ullmark played in a career high 37 games last season, which is a step in the right direction for the young netminder. However, it was also his worst statistical year of his career. His save percentage (SV%) was terrible, and his goals against average (GAA) being above 3.00 is not pretty at all.
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When you look into their system, you find top goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and he could very well be ready next season to backup current number-one goaltender Carter Hutton.
I feel like Ullmark isn’t a fit in Buffalo, and should find a new job elsewhere with a stronger roster in need of a backup. A place that fits the bill would be the Colorado Avalanche, as they could be losing Semyon Varlamov, and the Vancouver Canucks, a rising team in need of a reliable backup behind Thatcher Demko.
After moving on from Larsson and Pominville in terms of forwards, the Buffalo Sabres will have two open roster spots. Dach takes one right out of the draft in my series, while Thompson and Nylander can battle for the last spot.
I feel that all three guys should be slotted into the lineup, therefore a trade may be on the horizon. Conor Sheary could be a solid trade option and could bring in some decent draft capital, or even a solid prospect for the future. Sheary would fit best on a contending team looking for depth, and the easy selection is the Avalanche. I will get into potential trades in my next part of the Sabres offseason series.
If they do trade McCabe, that leaves them with seven defensemen at the NHL level. However, Casey Nelson and Hunwick aren’t exactly the most appealing bottom pair defensemen. They could look into their prospect pool and call up Pilut (which I touched on earlier), and move Nelson for a small draft package (perhaps a late round pick) to a team looking for a half-decent seventh defenseman.
Overall though, their d-core is the best thing this team has, and they’re all on the younger side of the spectrum. The main focus should be on goaltending and scoring, by adding another top forward.
Although they do not necessarily have a top end starter with either Hutton or upcoming rookie Luukkonen, they should have patience. Luukkonen has a very bright future, and the Sabres should not be desperate enough to sign a guy like Sergei Bobrovsky, which would only hurt Luukkomem’s growth moving forward. They need to just stay patient and let Luukkonen blossom into their future starter.
All stats via hockey-reference
All salary cap related info via capfriendly
Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals