This article is part of our Cap Compliance series.
While the current season remains on hiatus, there is no time like the present to start looking ahead to next year. Over the next several weeks, we'll take a look at the cap situation for all 31 NHL clubs, including restricted free agents, unrestricted free agents and even potential buyouts. Then, we'll play a little armchair General Manager by providing our recommendations for how we would approach the upcoming 2020-21 campaign if we were running the club.
In our second Twitter poll, the Buffalo Sabres came in first and will kick off this week's articles.
2020-21 Cap Situation
The Sabres currently have four forwards, five defensemen and one goaltender under contract for next season at a price tag of $46,225,000 and will also be on the hook for another $791,667 for Cody Hodgson's 2015 buyout. Assuming a flat cap of $81.5 million, this leaves the club with $34,483,333 in salary cap space and 13 spots under the 23-man roster to fill.
Restricted Free Agents
Sam Reinhart ($3.65 million) Dominik Kahun ($925,000) Victor Olofsson ($767,500) Curtis Lazar ($700,000) Brandon Montour ($3,387,500) Lawrence Pilut ($925,000) Linus Ullmark ($1.325 million) Tage Thompson ($925,000)
AJ Scholz: While just over $34 million in cap space sounds like a lot, it will be eaten up quickly by this large group of restricted free agents. The one that should expect the biggest paycheck is Reinhart after racking up 22 goals and 50 points this past season. The two contracts that come to mind for the 24-year-old are William Karlsson (eight-year, $47.2 million) and Jason Zucker (five-year, $27.5 million). Even with a depressed market due to the flat cap, Reinhart should still be capable of raking in a $6 million AAV, it will just come down to how long the Sabres want to commit. I don't think a max eight-year deal is out of the question. What to do with Montour will be another tough choice for the club, as he is already making over $3.3 million. In his first full season with Buffalo, the blueliner is on track to miss the 30-point mark for the first time in his three-year career. I just can't see the Sabres wanting to give him a significant raise or a lot of term. A three-year, $12 million contract offer is probably the furthest they'll be willing to go. Prior to getting hurt, Olofsson was putting together a fantastic rookie campaign, which will complicate his contract negotiations. I'd expect the team doesn't want to give up his RFA rights, so anything more than three years is probably a non-starter with an AAV in the $1.9 million range, just ahead of Lawson Crouse's bridge deal. Lazar, Pilut, and Thompson can all likely expect to sign their qualifying offers, which should come in with base salaries at $735,000, $874,125 and $874,125 respectively, though the team could consider offering an extra year or two on term, especially in the case of Pilut. While he doesn't have a pair of Stanley Cup rings, Ullmark should probably be looking at the Matt Murray deal when it comes to his contract negotiations. A three-year bridge contract that keeps his RFA rights at the end with a slightly less AAV the the Penguins netminder, we'll call it $2.8 million, should keep everybody happy. Last but not least, you have Kahun who was acquired by the club at the deadline. He's hit the 30-point mark in back-to-back season and could be a fantastic speed winger to play with Jeff Skinner or Jack Eichel, and he'll want to be paid accordingly. He'll probably want to avoid being an RFA after signing this next contract, which could see him forego some immediate dollars. Buffalo would be smart to try and lock him up with a four-year, $15 million contract that it can easily afford right now.
Kyle Riley: I don't see Reinhart inking a max eight-year deal, but contracts signed by comparable players over the past few years suggest the 24-year-old winger, who's notched at least 22 goals and 50 points for three straight seasons, should be looking for a deal with an AAV somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 million. I think a five-year, $33 million deal would make sense for both sides. It'd allow the Sabres to keep one of their top players for the foreseeable future while also setting Reinhart up to sign another major contract an an unrestricted free agent at 29 years old. Montour's on track to miss the 30-point mark for the first time since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2017-18, but I think that's more the result of a decrease in power-play time and Buffalo's offensive struggles as a whole than a personal decline for the 26-year-old blueliner. Nonetheless, Montour shouldn't be expecting a major raise, so I think AJ's pretty much on the money with a three-year, $12 million extension being fair for both sides. Olofsson is arbitration eligible, so I don't think his camp will allow him to be bullied into a three-year deal just so Buffalo can maintain his RFA rights. Prior to the league's stoppage, the 24-year-old rookie was on pace to put up 25 goals and 28 assists, and although he's working with an extremely small sample size, I don't think the Sabres will risk souring their relationship with him by playing hardball during negotiations. I see the two parties coming to terms on a five or six-year deal with an AAV right around $5 million. Lazar has struggled to stay in the lineup this season, Pilut has only logged 13 games with the big club in his second year, and Thompson only appeared in a single contest before suffering a season-ending sholder injury, so none of them should expect much more than their qualifying offers. Ullmark had seemingly taken over as Buffalo's No. 1 netminder prior to suffering a leg injury in late-January which kept him sidelined for more than a month, so getting him signed to a multi-year deal should be a priority for the Sabres this summer. He's still only had two seasons of solid NHL play during which he's been a regular with the big club, so as AJ said, I think a three-year bridge deal with an AAV in the neighborhood of $3 million should work for both sides. Kahun is a solid player, but I think his ceiling is that of a good bottom-six option that can move up in the lineup when injuries strike. Nonetheless, he should be good for double-digit goals and around 40 points on an annual basis, and that's obviously valuable, so I'd be comfortable signing him to a three or four-year deal with an AAV just north of $4 million.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Wayne Simmonds ($2.5 million) Michael Frolik ($4.3 million) Jimmy Vesey ($2.275 million) Zemgus Girgensons ($1.6 million) Johan Larsson ($1.55 million) Vladimir Sobotka ($3.5 million) Matt Hunwick ($2.25 million)
AJ Scholz: The three easy choices are Hunwick, who missed all season due to a back injury, Simmonds, who was on the trade block at the deadline, and Frolik, who struggled to get into the lineup prior to the league going on hiatus. None of these three players should be retained by the Sabres come next season. If Sobotka is willing to take a pay cut, for instance a one-year, $2 million deal, it's worth giving him a new deal, but if he insists on anything more than that, Buffalo should let him walk as well. In the case of Girgensons and Larsson, these are a pair of bottom-six depth forwards whose production ceiling is likely right around 20 points, which would warrant slight price increases for 2-3 years each, though neither player should top the $2 million mark. The toughest decision facing the organization will be what to do with Jimmy Vesey. The natural center has topped the 30-point mark just once in his four-year career, so his cap ceiling should probably be in the $3-3.25 million range at the absolute most, though I'd be hesitant to commit any more than two years at that price.
Kyle Riley: Simmonds, Frolik and Hunwick are all older players in the twilights of their career. There's no question in my mind that the Sabres should simply let Frolik and Hunwick walk, but if Simmonds is willing to sign another one-year deal, perhaps at an AAV around $3 million, it wouldn't be a terrible idea to keep him around as a veteran presence that can contribute on the power play. Sobotka only picked up three points in 16 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in January and only totaled 13 points in 69 games for the Sabres a year ago, so I don't think there's any reason for Buffalo to make an effort to re-sign him. Girgensons and Larsson are both solid bottom-six guys who are important members of the Sabres' penalty-killing unit, so I think a two-year, $3.5 million extension would make sense for both players. If Buffalo ends up re-signing Simmonds, I think Vesey will be probably headed elsewhere, but if not, I see the Sabres trying to pen him to a two-year deal with an AAV around $2.75 million.
Minor-League Free Agents *Who appeared in an NHL game in 2019-20
AJ Scholz: At 28 years of age, Wilson probably isn't going to develop into a full-time NHL player. Since joining Buffalo, he's logged just 70 NHL contests. If he's willing to potentially serve as the captain for AHL Rochester, then he's be worth a one-year, $1.1 million deal. Otherwise, it's probably time to let him walk in free agency. Casey Mittelstadt was selected eighth overall in the 2017 NHL Draft to be the 1B to Jack Eichel's 1A in terms of center depth. So far, it hasn't worked out that way. Still, it's way too early to bail on the 21-year-old. A qualifying offer would net him a $874,125 paycheck on a two-way deal, so Buffalo can probably get away with offer him closer to $950,000 AAV for another 2-3 years. Unless they are really enamoured with him, Smith can probably be allowed to walk, while Johansson should be signed for slightly more than his $735,000 qualifying offer in or to maintain the organizational depth in between the pipes.
Kyle Riley: Wilson has been a productive player for Buffalo's AHL affiliate, but as AJ said, his chances of developing into an NHL regular are nil at this point. If he's willing to sign a cheap two-way deal, then he'll be worth keeping around as a veteran presence for Rochester. Otherwise, the Sabres should say sayonara. I still have hope for Mittelstadt, but at this point it's become pretty clear that he may not develop into the second-line center Buffalo was hoping for when the team selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft. I still think he'll make north of $1 million annually on a two or three-year bridge deal that will allow the Sabres to determine if he's a late bloomer or simply a bust at minimal risk. Smith is 27 years old and has only appeared in one game with the big club this season, so there's no reason to try and re-sign him. Jonas Johansson has played well in the minors this campaign and at just 24 years old could still be Buffalo's goaltender of the future, so I think a two or three-year deal with an AAV around $1 million would make sense for both sides.
AJ Scholz: If the Sabres follow the plan I outlined above, and they should, that would leave them with around $4.2 million in cap space in a year in which the free agent market could be a little sparse in terms of available cash. This would allow them to be big players in the market and try to pursue a second-line center and move Marcus Johansson back to the wing where he belongs. One pending UFA that would be an intriguing match for this club would be Tyler Ennis, who might be willing to make his way back to the Queen City for another run with the blades.
Kyle Riley: If the Sabres follow the plan I outlined above, they'd be left with right around $1 million in cap space, which obviously wouldn't give them much flexibility in terms of being players in the unrestricted free agent market, but would allow the team to be flexible with roster moves throughout the 2020-21 campaign. If the team's young players, including Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel, Olofsson and Reinhart continue to improve, and Jeff Skinner's able to bounce back after a disastrous 2019-20 season, Buffalo should be a significantly better team next year.