The Buffalo Sabres once again finished near the bottom of the NHL standings last season, but were finally rewarded with the ultimate prize for non-playoff teams. The Sabres won the draft lottery an will almost certainly select Rasmus Dahlin with the pick. The clear choice for first overall, Dahlin will immediately upgrade the Sabres defence and together with Rasmus Ristolainen, could create a dynamic 1-2 d-pairing for a long time (obviously being called the Rasmus pairing). Now choosing a possible top 2 defensemen first overall is great, but it’s the easy part. The tough part is everything else the sabres have to tackle this off-season.
Jack Eichel’s 10 million dollar cap hit kicks in next year, and if you combine his Salary with Okposo’s and O’Reilly’s, the Sabres have 23.5 million dollars invested in 3 forwards for the next 5 seasons. Out of the three, Okposo’s contract easily hurts the most. He is making 6 million dollars a year and hasn’t been able to crack the 20 goal or 50 point barrier in his first 2 seasons with the Sabres. I wouldn’t worry to much about him though right now, as he hasn’t been given a lot of help around him lately, especially since Jack Eichel has had some injury trouble recently.
Its the depth of the forwards that is concerning. Sam Reinhart is a RFA who put up 50 points last season. The Sabres have cap space and I don’t see him being an issue to sign. Casey Middelstadt could see a full season with the Sabres next year and he looked good with 5 points in his 6 games with the team last year. Then things start to look bad. Jason Pominville isn’t what he was 5 years ago, and Zemgus Girgernsons hasn’t developed the way the Sabres were hoping for. Behind them are are a couple Pending UFA’s in Jordon Nolan and Benoit Pouliot and a couple role players who don’t put up a lot of points in Johan Larsson (17 points last season) and Evan Rodrigues (25 points last season).
The defence is going to improve with the addition of Dahlin. Once he signs his entry level deal with the Sabres they will have 6 NHL defensemen under contract next season. Dahlin, Ristolainen, Bogosian, Scandella, Beaulieu and McCabe. Honestly, not a terrible group at all. The more concerning factor is the goaltender, Robin Lehner. He is 26 and an RFA this summer, but there are many questions about him that have yet to been answered. He posted solid save percentage numbers his first 2 seasons in Buffalo (.924 and .920) but took a step back last season with a .908 save percentage in 53 games played. He is a bit of a streaky goaltender that can sometimes lose focus in a game and let in a soft goal from time to time. He hasn’t proven that he take take a team to the playoffs yet, which is concerning to Sabres fans who are tired of losing. However, he only 26 so he can still get much better. I don’t see the Sabres getting a better goalie than him elsewhere, and Lehner still has something to prove. He made an AAV of 2.225 million per season in his last contract, which for a goalie who in 2 of the past 3 season posted a save percentage over .920 is a pretty good bargain. Best case scenario for the Sabres would be a bridge deal of about 2 years at an AAV of 3.5 million per season. This would give Lehner another shot to prove he can be a true number 1 goalie in this league while also not having the sabres commit to him long term just yet.
For this off-season I wouldn’t expect the Sabres to be super busy in the trade market. There has been some rumours that teams with a top 15 pick should be offering it to the Sabres for Ristolainen, but why do they think that Sabres wouldn’t love to have 2 top pairing defensemen to go with their franchise centre? The Sabres are filled with good young talent. Names like Casey Middelstadt and Alexander Nylander have just dipped their toe in the water that is the NHL. What the Sabres need to do this off-season more than anything are get good veterans with character that they can plug into their forward group and play well, while also implementing a winning culture into the organization. A couple good cheap options would be players like Joel Ward or Chris Kunitz. They need to focus on depth players and let these young players like Dahlin, Middelstadt and Nylander join the core of Eichel, O’Reilly and Ristolainen and see if this team can take some steps forward next year. It might be to much to say this team can compete for a playoff spot next year, but if they can show big signs of improvement and get out of the basement of the NHL standings, I think that management, fans, and the players will be happy with that progress.
But hey, thats just my opinion of the the upcoming off-season for the Buffalo Sabres. I’m not Jack Eichel, and if last year was any indication, he seems to have a decent say in what happens with the Sabres…