For a team hoping to reshape their identity this offseason, the Buffalo Sabres are seriously short on talent and assets which can be parlayed into the type of deals which would bring about any sort of marked improvement.
Outside of Ryan O’Reilly, who could fetch a king’s ransom should he be traded, the Sabres have scant few assets they can give up in trades. They’re short on picks and expendable prospects with value. O’Reilly is the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue and San Jose’s first round pick is another valuable option but there isn’t much beyond that.
One avenue available to Botterill is a path he’s ventured down once during his time as the Sabres GM. Taking on salary to land the player he’s seeking. Even with the added cap hit that Jason Pominville carried, the deal that brought Pominville and Marco Scandella to Buffalo was a coup for the Sabres. Botterill was able to acquire a solid defenseman for his top four for a pair of forwards who were quickly becoming spare parts in Buffalo. The Sabres took on about $3mm in cap when it was all said and done, a minor uptick to unload dead weight and seriously upgrade the blueline.
It’s a tactic Botterill is in position to take advantage of once again this summer.
Even with the salary cap increasing to $79.5mm, there are a number of teams already up against the upper limit. Botterill is in a position to take on salary as a way to ease cap concerns while leveraging that assistance to acquire valuable players at a cheaper rate. With $23mm in cap space entering free agency, the Sabres have enough cushion to take on a big deal without being handcuffed with other deals they’ll need to make.
Realistically, the Sabres would probably only make one deal where they took on any sort of big contract as even their cap space isn’t limitless. They may have space to pull a couple deals where they’re taking on money, but in terms of a strict cap dump, one is the max that the Sabres (or any other team) would want or be able to take on.
CapFriendly currently shows 11 teams within $15mm of the salary cap, with five of those teams sitting within $5mm of the upper limit. Of the teams flirting with (or outright fighting) cap concerns, there are six who I feel have talent that the Sabres would be wise to poach.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings are sitting just over $3 million from the cap after signing Ilya Kovalchuk but they actually have a pretty good distribution of salaries and there’s little in the way of dead weight on their roster. Even a player like Dustin Brown, who was a popular cap dump in recent years, is probably off the table thanks to his 28-goal campaign last year. Although, his contract isn’t the type the Sabres would want to take on anyway.
There’s been some speculation that Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez could be on the block but I can’t see the Kings parting ways with either. The same goes for Tyler Toffoli or Tanner Pearson. As close as the Kings are to the cap, it’s hard to see them parting ways with anyone on their roster who would yield any sort of considerable return.
Trevor Lewis would be a nice add to the bottom six but he’d offer minimal cap relief to the Kings. Given the lack of cap anchors, the Sabres wouldn’t be in a spot to ask for rising talent like Adrian Kempe either. There’s probably a deal to be worked with the Kings, even if it’s just for minimal cap relief and minimal return for the Sabres, but even that will take a fair bit of creativity.
Pierre Dorion’s apparent aversion to trading within the division likely eliminates any sort of deal with the Senators. But if there’s an owner who would happily see his team operate at the salary floor, it’s Eugene Melnyk. With all the drama surrounding the Sens this summer, they could be ripe for a discount offer that would see a team fetch additional return if they agree to take Craig Anderson off the books after his recent trade request.
Anderson has two years left at $4.75mm and has steadily alternated between stellar and below average play going as far back as 2010-11. Some of his down years have been okay and others have been downright horrible but the good news is if he continues to follow his historical trend, he’s due for a big year. Anderson’s big years tend to be the Vezina buzz, back your team into a playoff run type of good.
There’s some concern that he’d retire after this season and his 35+ contract would stay on Buffalo’s books while he’s chilling on the beach. But should he play out the final two years of his deal, he’d serve as a perfect mentor and bridge to Linus Ullmark.
As great as it would be to ask for Mark Stone the Sens simply won’t part ways with him. He’d probably still cost a first or more even with Anderson included. Given that asking for Stone is prohibitive, I’d love to see if taking Anderson off their hands would result in a discounted price on Ryan Dzingel. He’d be a terrific addition to Buffalo’s vacant left wing. I also wonder if offering help on Anderson could bring about a few extra picks in the 2019 draft which the Sabres could use in additional deals.
Pittsburgh is a team I’ve had particular interest in this offseason. Not only because it would elicit howls from the fringes of Buffalo fandom about working another deal with the Pens, but because I think they’re in a situation to turn over a valuable piece that wouldn’t require to take on an anchor at the bottom of the lineup or a contract they’d need to buy out.
The Pens only have $5mm in cap space to work with and Jim Rutherford hasn’t been shy about saying he plans on making changes this offseason. Pittsburgh has been connected to Jeff Skinner, whose hit would take Pittsburgh over the cap ceiling. Carl Hagelin seems like a prime candidate to be picked up at a bargain basement price and the speedy winger would be a terrific addition to the bottom six and Buffalo’s penalty kill units.
Above and beyond Hagelin, Conor Sheary would be another excellent addition who would give the Pens cap relief, though I suspect Rutherford would prefer to keep him over Hagelin if given the choice.
One other avenue I’d pursue with the Penguins would be adding Tristian Jarry to whatever deal you swing. If Hagelin or Sheary would be available for a later draft pick, could you get Jarry along with him for a mid-round selection or even a cost-controlled prospect who has been passed on Buffalo’s depth chart?
As far as goalies go, Steve Mason is one of my least favorite in the entire league. But the Jets are going to have a cap crunch once Connor Hellebuyck, Josh Morrisey, Jacob Trouba and their other key restricted free agents. Mason didn’t see much action due to injury and Hellebuyck’s Vezina nominee season and now his $4.1mm cap hit is working against Winnipeg’s offseason plans. Taking Mason off the Jets for a premium would be worth dealing with his up-and-down play for a season.
Targeting some of Winnipeg’s prospects such as Sami Niku, Nic Petan or Kristian Vesalainen (yeah right) would be a huge get for the Sabres. They’d still need to pay up but like the other targets on this list, the idea of taking Mason should lower the typical ask from the Jets. And if Winnipeg is hoping to retain Paul Stastny while getting their key free agents locked up, shedding Mason would be a big help in that regard. From a Sabres perspective, Mason would play a similar role to Anderson in passing the torch to Ullmark while the pot sweetener of a discount price on a guy like Petan would give the Sabres a big boost up front.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa is really only an option if they somehow manage to sign John Tavares. If Tavares goes elsewhere, which seems awfully likely, the Lightning will have the opportunity to punt on their cap issues for at least another year.
Steve Yzerman will still have some tough decisions to make come next summer, so shedding cap ahead of extending Nikita Kucherov would give Yzerman flexibility above the $5mm of cap space he’s working with now.
Tyler Johnson has been at the top of anyone’s list of cap shedding options out of Tampa with Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat rounding out the most popular candidates. Johnson and Palat inparticular would be good fits in Buffalo, particularly Johnson who scored 21 goals this year and had 19 in 66 games in 2016-17 despite a little less attention being paid to him since The Triplets Line put Johnson, Palat and Kucherov in the spotlight a few seasons ago.
Johnson offers a bit more offensive upside than Palat, though the latter is signed for two fewer seasons on a contract which will take him to his age 31 season as opposed to age 33 like Johnson’s deal. Tampa probably has time to sit on this decision but it’s likely whoever they choose to unload will be moved for picks over players or even prospects, meaning it will be a situation worth tracking as the Sabres search for help at forward.
There’s a mandate in the Twin Cities to reshape the Wild’s core after another early postseason exit. It sounds as if nearly every young player is available for the right price as Minnesota navigates contact negotiations on key RFAs with just a shade over $11m in space to work with.
Tyler Ennis’ name has been floated as a player the Wild are looking to attach to a trade in an effort to shed salary cap and the names that have been connected with Ennis would be helpful additions to a team bereft of talent in their top nine like the Sabres. Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker have consistently appeared in reports from Michael Russo, someone who is unrivaled with connections to the Wild’s inner workings. If there’s any one team where a cap saving deal could be made, it’s probably with Minnestoa.
Strip away the cap considerations and the Wild are a team worth calling early and often. Both Niederreiter and Zucker would drastically improve the depth and talent on Buffalo’s wings, Zucker in particular as his elite speed and 30-goal 2017-18 make him a prime candidate. Any other day Zucker would cost, at a minimum, a first round pick and probably a quality prospect. But rolling Ennis into the mix would shed $4.6mm off Minnesota’s cap while also ridding them of an RFA with arbitration rights. That would almost certainly drive down the asking price on Zucker. I would hope that agreeing to take Ennis back would allow the Sabres to keep both of their 2019 first round picks, but I find it hard to believe a 2nd round pick and a prospect (or maybe inexpensive NHLer) would get this across the finish line.
Taking Ennis back would be a minor penance to pay in order to acquire a winger who immediately makes your top six faster and more talented. Whether via a buy out or burying his salary, the one-year cap hit would barely affect the Sabres. His hit would combine with the expiring deals of Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson to clear over $13mm off Buffalo’s books next summer. Providing a boatload of cap space for a team which should finally be turning things around.