Over-Thought: Seven Days Out and Waiting for Action

It feels a little soon for the Sabres to be playing actual hockey games, but we’re a week out from the start of the NHL regular season and given the Sabres seemingly perpetual state, there isn’t much room for optimism.

There’s still time for Jason Botterill and Ralph Krueger to actually remove some players from the roster that finished in the bottom five last year. It’s just getting harder to have confidence anything substantial is going to happen when all of the usual suspects are still around.

Rasmus Ristolainen is the elephant in the room and his presence on the trade block is a matter of debate. Not only is there debate in the fanbase over whether or not he should be traded but whether or not the Sabres are actually shopping him or if they’re simply taking calls on him. Beyond Ristolainen there’s Vladimir Sobotka, Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson occupying the fan’s doghouse. There isn’t much in the way of Sabres information in this week’s 31 Thoughts (or last week’s) but it’s still going to serve as the kick off to The OT for this season.

One thought from last week that stood out was the note on the contracts for Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy and Ivan Provorov. Elliotte Friedman’s note focuses on the trio garnering a higher AAV on their respective second contracts. Matthew Tkachuk and Brayden Point worked the same leverage, putting them in a situation to potentially collect a big, one-year arbitration award and walk to unrestricted free agency.

It’s been fascinating to see the players take advantage of their negotiations as RFAs. Finding a way to leverage a situation that previously lacked it has been a big win for the players. With a number of bridge deals that carry a high final year salary, players are finding better ways to maximize their earning potential while still under team control. It’s resulting in fewer long-term contracts out of an entry level deal and it’s putting teams in tougher situations. This could even have an effect on the Sabres and their RFA negotiations with Rasmus Dahlin, Sam Reinhart and others. There are still a few more RFA contracts to play out, as well. I’m betting we get a couple more bridge deals that walk players closer to UFA status.

  1. We’ll see if the NHL and NHLPA agree to a different number as part of negotiations, but at last week’s Board of Governors meeting, the 2020-21 cap was estimated at $84.5 million, if the players do not use any escalator at all.

An estimated three million increase isn’t much to write home about. It will be helpful to have a firm grasp of what teams will have to work off of, but that’s a pretty minimal jump. At the risk of putting my foot in my mouth (again), the Sabres should be in good shape to work the cap come next summer. The Sabres have 10 contracts coming off the books next summer and while a few of those players will be back, they should have a hefty chunk of cap space to leverage.

This should sound familiar since it’s been a talking point with the Sabres for a few years now. Even including this summer. And here they are, a couple million over the cap. So forgive me for being caution. Still, there are few teams with the freight coming off their books that the Sabres do next July. It doesn’t mean they’re a lock to take on salary in a trade, but they ought to have options once again. Hopefully those options come on the heels of a successful campaign this time.

  1. Some of the teams looking for defencemen are considering Stanley Cup champion Joel Edmundson from St. Louis. He will earn $3.1 million, and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. I think the Devils are trying to add a blueliner, but am not certain he’d be the one. I’m wondering if Winnipeg is there, too.

This note became old news awfully fast as Edmundson got shipped over to Carolina. Interesting to see the Devils added to the mix when it comes to defensemen. They could use some help on the left side as there isn’t much beyond Will Butcher. Their right side, however is strong. PK Subban and Sami Vatanen are two solid puck movers and Damon Severson just got locked up. Still a surprise to see the Devils thrown in the mix on the defenseman shopping spree.

I wouldn’t look for a Sabres tie-in here. They may have the space but I’m not crazy enough to think they would take Marco Scandella. Even with half of his salary retained. Besides, the Devils are getting credit for pushing more advanced statistics into their decision making, so he’s not going to be an option anyway.

  1. Anaheim continues to look for a righty, after the aborted Justin Faulk trade.

    Did someone say righty?

On the other hand, the Ducks and the Jets look to be the two most likely destinations for Ristolainen. It seems likely that he’ll be on the move and with Justin Faulk off the market, Botterill should have more wiggle room when it comes to working a deal. I find it hard to say that moving Ristolainen will solve most of the Sabres’ problems. The lack of any other subtractions is frustrating and I’m at a point where the data on Ristolainen is strong enough that I trust that he is who he is. I’m also at a point where despite Ristolainen’s age and skillset, I have doubts that his value on the market is going to equal what his boosters in Buffalo feel he is worth. It sure would be nice if Ondrej Kase or Nikolaj Ehlers was coming the other way, I just have my doubts. Ultimately, I need to see some actual change on this roster. Botterill did an admirable job adding new talent, but without subtracting anything, it’s hard to see much progress coming this year. Getting just fair value for Ristolainen would be a start towards doing this differently than the Sabres have over the last five-plus years. And that’s better than nothing.

  1. Nothing imminent as far as I can tell on Tyler Toffoli, but, he’s another potential UFA and teams know he’s an option to add.

The Kings are an interesting club at the moment. Most of the core that led them to their pair of Stanley Cups are getting long in the tooth. That group is also earning some serious money against the cap. Los Angeles has begun to push for younger talent as the potential for a rebuild creeps up on them, but they’re still stuck in limbo. Their key veterans are still good enough to compete, but they aren’t at the level they were three or four years ago. They also have a group of not so young, not so old players like Toffoli. He’s had a few rough seasons in terms of counting stats and I’d have to assume his value around the league is a heck of a lot lower than after that 31 goal, 58 point season in 2016.

His underlying numbers remain strong and an uptick in shooting percentage will result in a spike in production and overall value. He’d be a decent buy low option for a lot of teams. What I wonder is if the Kings are hanging on his previous production and still asking for a big return despite Toffoli’s recent play.

  1. Last year, Nylander returned at the beginning of December, and was not able to catch up. I think there are teams and players hoping Byfuglien or Justin Williams gives it another try at some point during the year. In this age of sports science, more data is needed to a) see if it can work, and b) discover the optimal time to return.

Friedman has mentioned load management on his podcast a few times and we’re seeing teams figure out how to better manage their goaltenders on an annual basis. I doubt that we’re on the verge of seeing a new way of veterans jumping into action with guys like Byfuglien and Williams sitting out. Both appear to be genuine in their desire to take some time away from the game. That being said, if one or both do decide to come back and they’re able to jump in with little trouble, I think more teams will start researching how much down time to offer some of their stars. Above and beyond the midseason bye week, could we see big name players getting nights off on occasional back-to-backs and non-conference or better matchups where their absence won’t be as noticeable?

  1. As everyone continues to look for ways to grow the game, one spot to watch might be UC-Irvine. Anaheim’s new practice facility (getting excellent reviews) has four sheets of ice, one of which seats 2,500. That one was sold out for the Ducks/Kings rookie game, while Arizona/San Jose drew 700 on a smaller rink. The Samuelis, who own Anaheim, have a connection with the university. Something to keep an eye on down the road.

The recent formula for pushing new NCAA hockey programs into existence has been pretty straightforward. Step one; find a rich donor. Step two; figure out where your facility will be. Step three; make sure your school has an ACHA program.

It wasn’t long ago that the #ACHAtotheShow hashtag was more a pejorative than anything. Now it’s more of an inside joke on how the organization is helping to cultivate collegiate programs that can take the next step to NCAA status. Serving as an NCAA feeder system isn’t in the ACHA charter, but the foundation ACHA programs operate on have proven vital for teams wishing to turn varsity. Penn State and Arizona State have both enjoyed their own levels of success after making the jump, as has the Lindenwood women’s program. Illinois seems to be on the verge and Alabama’s program continues to get quite a bit of respect for what they’re doing. UC Irvine would be a slightly different jump, as they’re not a DI ACHA program. It could serve to lead them down a slightly different path than PSU or ASU, as both of those were basically varsity programs to begin with. But it looks like Irvine has a facility, now they might just need the donor to finish the job.

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