It’s been quite a while since I rolled out a mailbag and as this is a pretty long one, we might as well jump right in. Thanks to everyone for submitting your questions.
@strikeforcetim How would you format the postseason/award the Cup this year?
I’m going to steal the plan Elliotte Friedman floated on this week’s 31 Thoughts podcast because I think it makes the most sense on just about every level. His theory would be to give every non-wildcard team a first-round bye and then set up two play-in series between the next two teams in each division to determine the fourth team through to the next round.
Based on his approach, the play-in match ups in the East would be between the Panthers and Canadiens and the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets. In the west it would be the Jets, Predators, Canucks and Coyotes. His idea called for a two-game set, played in one arena and determined by total goals. Later in the podcast he detailed an idea floated by some around the league that would actually incorporate more teams (as many as 24) in play-in scenarios. That seemed a little far-fetched to me, although it might not be so bad if it meant the Sabres were a “playoff” team.
There are only two things I’d change about Friedman’s initial plan. The first would be changing the play-in teams from the next two in each division to the next four in the wild card race. Pitting the next two teams from each division would eliminate teams higher in the standings and closer to the wild card race that was suspended. Simply picking the top four teams in the wild card race would reward the teams who would have been most harmed by the current shutdown. The other change I’d make would be to the two-game play in. Friedman suggested total goals and allowing ties with the only sudden death coming in the second game. I’d prefer both games to be played to a conclusion as opposed to aggregate goals since it’s almost certain there would be some sort of controversy born from that decision.
Ben/@ben_bverrico Contract predictions for key pieces like Olofsson, Kahun, Reinhart?
Since unrestricted free agency has become a boondoggle for any signing aside from cornerstone, elite talents or bargain depth signings, I want the Sabres to avoid doing business in that market whenever possible. Part of that means getting key players locked up to contracts with term so there are fewer holes that need to be filled on an annual basis.
Of the three players in question, Olofsson and Kahun are the most interesting cases to track, in my opinion. Both are 24 and have limited NHL experience but each has produced well in the time they’ve been in the league. Olofsson’s NHL resume is shorter but there’s little doubt he will be getting a steep raise from the $767,500 he’s getting now. Kahun has the benefit of a slightly higher salary and an extra year to evaluate. He looks like a quality middle six player who will be due a bit more than the $925,000 he’s made the last two years after signing as a European free agent.
While neither have a long resume to compare to, my hope is that the Sabres sign each to longer contracts. No fewer than four years. At 24 there isn’t too much more growth that will likely occur and rather than risking a bridge deal and then needing to balance a larger raise at an older age, a longer deal that leads each player close, or to their 30-year-old season makes more sense to me.
This is something the Nashville Predators have leveraged well with a number of their players. Viktor Arvidsson signed a seven-year deal with a $4.25m cap hit after a 31-goal season. Calle Jarnkrok posted 15 goals and 31 points before signing a six-year deal with a $2m cap hit the same summer as Arvidsson. Colton Sissons had a nearly identical season to Jarnkrok and got $2.857m over seven years for his efforts just last summer. Those deals offer a fair framework for the deals I’d like to see Olofsson and Kahun signed for.
Salary and cap inflation will bump up the cap hit for each, so I’m expecting Olofsson to come in somewhere around $5m per year while Kahun ought to garner at least $3m. Olofsson’s goals total was depressed by his injury and while there’s some risk given he’s played one NHL season, he’s produced at every other level. Getting him signed at $5m or $5.5 could provide the Sabres a bargain salary to build around. The Sissons deal might look bad for the Preds as his 15-goal 2018-19 looks like an outlier season, but that deal is a pretty good comparable for Kahun. A bump in salary given Kahun’s slightly more consistent production and you fall somewhere in the neighborhood of $3m or $3.25m. Another deal that has the potential to be a steal after a year or two.
I’d be perfectly content if each pulled down six-year deals at those respective cap hits as the contracts would lead them to their 30-year old seasons where the Sabres would then have flexibility in retaining or replacing them while avoiding bridge deals that could complicate Buffalo’s salary structure.
I mention avoiding bridge contracts because Sam Reinhart’s contract is going to be more complicated because of the bridge deal they signed him to and all the other extenuating circumstances surrounding the player. Can he produce away from Eichel? Can he drive his own line? There’s a laundry list of questions on Reinhart but his production is such that they can’t afford to lose him. His overall skillset is something the Sabres should be trying to find more of anyway, so I have little issue seeing him get a fair contract. Looking back, it’s unfortunate that the Sabres didn’t extend him two years ago when his deal would be among the league’s best bargains since now he won’t likely get less than $6.5m with the final hit probably falling closer to $7.5m.
Matt/mjtiernan Why do you think so many other players went ahead of Skinner (who never was called) in the shootout against the Caps?
He hasn’t scored a shootout goal since 2012-13 and has only taken one attempt over the last three seasons. While I think it’s fair to question how well he and Ralph Krueger get along, I don’t think there’s too much to be concerned about with him in the shootout.
Rob/@lazytown716 Who would choose to be President of Hockey Ops if you could Jedi mind trick our boy Terry into hiring one?
Short answer is none as I don’t think there’s much value in the position. That being said, if I need to pick someone, Mike Gillis sounds like someone whose train of thought is such that he’d implement the processes the Sabres need to see some significant change. It’s been reported that Gillis has spent a lot of time learning how analytics can be utilized in business (and elsewhere) since he left Vancouver. If there’s one thing the Sabres haven’t truly committed to, it’s been putting more stock into how analytics can help them make good decisions. So Gillis would get my vote in that regard.
Otherwise, I don’t think there are any ex-GMS out there who I’d be overly confident in helping to make any sort of difference based on their past work. That doesn’t mean Dean Lombardi or some random ex-Sabre would be bad, but I don’t know if the background is there to have a ton of faith in such a hire.
Jimmy/@jspoon021 I know they have Byrson and Borgen in the minors so it seems Montour and Risto could be used for 2nd line help in a trade. Would you do that or try and re-sign Montour? I like the idea of Dahlin and Jokiharju being heavily relied on next season. Thoughts on that?
If there’s one thing Jason Botterill has done well, it’s been reinforcing Buffalo’s blueline. The Sabres are well stocked from the NHL right down through the rest of the pipeline. There’s plenty of room for improvements, but in terms of capable bodies, that position looks set for a number of years.
That also means they have bodies to spare. Between Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour and Rasmus Ristolainen, they have at least two expendable players who would not only be decent trade fodder, but could be replaced by players in the system with little worry. Montour and Ristolainen’s underlying results have been poor this year and their track records are such that most signs point to moving them as a prudent decision.
I’m still a fan of Montour’s and I’d love to see the Sabres produce a situation where his tools are able to flourish, but that’s looking more and more unlikely. Meanwhile, Ristolainen’s name has been all over trade rumors and if he still has the value to garner a quality forward in return, it’s a move the Sabres shouldn’t hesitate to make. In fact, the Sabres should probably try to swap Ristolainen and Montour for forwards this offseason.
They have bodies that can come up to take NHL minutes and there will almost certainly be other options available via trade or free agency that can be utilized to fill roles as well. Ultimately the names don’t matter quite as much as the process. The Sabres have a glaring need at center and could use more talent elsewhere in the forward ranks. Utilizing their surplus on defense – whether that’s Montour, Ristolainen or prospects like Mattias Samuelsson or Jacob Bryson – is the most likely way for them to plug those holes.
Charlie/@cchris017 Is the suspended season going to allow JB to slide under the radar and keep his job another year?
Rob/@rob_gregoretti With the current stoppage will this affect the status of Botterill?
I’m stuck on this one. On one hand, it was looking more and more likely he’d be out of a job as the recent losses piled up. Various insiders insinuated that change would be coming and this postponement doesn’t change what went wrong for the Sabres this year.
However, I’m of the opinion that the continuity and synergy of Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott is something the Pegulas value. Those have been buzzwords here for a good 15 years and Beane and McDermott have finally been the proof of concept so many people were looking for (whether you believe that to actually be the case is another source of debate). I think the Pegulas would like to see that same sort of process play out with the Sabres, where trust in the plan and providing time and patience to execute it are needed. But the results speak for themselves, so it’s very hard to see how they’d grant Botterill another year. Maybe the delay in the season saves him, but I won’t be surprised in the least if he’s fired.
Patrick/@patlawsome Chris, do you think hockey takes a dramatic shift in style of play in next few seasons? Sort of what should we expect league to look like I’m two years?
I’m not sure there’s too much more that we’ll see come into style that we aren’t already living through presently. The fourth lines of the past are relics and fewer and fewer teams are able to effectively employ a heavy style. Speed and skill are king and I don’t know if we’ll see the sort of ebb and flow that occurred after the 2005 lockout and into the early 2010s.
That being said I think the continued evolution on defense is where the most change can still come. Players like Rasmus Dahlin, Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes will likely serve as trailblazers for more, dynamic, offensively gifted defensemen over the next few seasons.
Matt/@mattkoepps Who is a dark horse within the organization that you could or would like to see in the lineup next season?
The easy answers here are Will Borgen, CJ Smith or Andrew Oglevie but my final answer is Jacob Bryson and Arttu Ruotsalainen. I’m cheating and picking two but it’s my blog and I can do what I want.
Bryson has had a pretty nice year as a first year pro and the hallmarks of his game in Providence have been on display with the Amerks. He’s a strong puck mover who fits well with the rest of the human breakouts the Sabres have been trying to stockpile. He’d need to be used in a sheltered role, but I’d love to see how his game translates at the highest level.
Ruotsalainen probably should’ve made the team out of camp, if only to keep him in North America and developing under the Sabres nose. Instead, he’s back with Ilves and the Sabres will have to wait until next fall to make a decision on him. His production in SM-Liiga has been strong once again and as an option for the middle or bottom of their lineup he’s far more intriguing to me than Zemgus Girgensons or Jimmy Vesey.
Chad/@CMDeDominicis Dibs on the goalie question…favorite idea of a goalie to target in the offseason
There’s one big problem facing the Sabres when it comes to their goaltending for 2020-21 and that’s Carter Hutton. He has another year left on his deal and while his $2.75 cap hit is really affordable, it’s not the cheapest deal on the market either. His play has been streaky at best and poor at worst, so moving him won’t be easy. If the Sabres find a taker on him then that opens a number of avenues for them to consider. If they don’t find a taker, I’m not sure how limited they may be in their decision making.
Assuming that they find a home for Hutton. Whether via trade, buyout or burying in the minors, opening up a job at the NHL level would give the Sabres an opportunity to buy a few more points in the standings with a smart acquisition. Alexandar Georgiev is going to be the hot name this summer but I’m not overly keen on chasing him down. First, the Rangers are expected to be asking an arm and a leg for him. Second, I’m simply not the biggest fan of his play. I think he’s a little overrated for the amount of coverage he’s gotten as an up-and-coming goaltender. I could be wrong but I see him peaking as a 1B, but probably more likely serving as a really solid backup.
There will be a few other situations to track around the league; Pittsburgh will have a decision to make on Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray; Vancouver needs to re-sign Jasob Markstrom; and strong backups like Jaroslav Halak and Anton Khudobin will be on the market. The two names I’m most interested in are Joonas Korpisalo and Antti Raanta.
Korpisalo’s availability is fully dependent on what the Blue Jackets want to do with their pair of 25-year-old, pending restricted free agent goaltedners. Elvis Merzlikins had been dubbed the goalie of the future in Columbus and he hasn’t disappointed thus far as an NHL rookie. However, Korpisalo put forth and All Start worthy performance prior to being injured in December. The Jackets have Matiss Kivlenieks cooking in the minors as well and a choice to make in goal.
It seems like a long shot that either Korpisalo or Merzlikins would be on the market this summer, but if the Jackets opt for one over the other, it seems likely that Merzlikins is the player they’d select. So, assuming the Jackets make Korpisalo available, he’d be worth pursuing. He represents a legitimate number one option for the Sabres, a goalie who wouldn’t just pair with Linus Ullmark, but seriously challenge him for the starting job. And at 25 years old, the potential for him to steal that job and hold it isn’t out of the question. The primary issue with chasing Korpisalo isn’t just availability but acquisition cost. If he’s made available (a big if) he’s going to cost an arm and a leg. Probably more than the Sabres would want to pay for help in goal.
Raanta doesn’t offer the same ceiling that Korpisalo would but he’d be the cheaper acquisition as well. Injuries have plagued him since being traded to Arizona but his play hasn’t suffered. His injury shortened 2018-19 season as a down year but in 2017-18 and 2019-20, with larger sample sizes, Raanta has been terrific. In 17-18 he posted a .930 and 2.24 with a 24.82 GSAA and this year he’s sporting a .921 and 2.63 with a 11.69 GSAA. Acquisition cost for him wouldn’t be too much lower than a hypothetical trade for Korpisalo, but the Coyotes have invested in Darcy Kuemper, which should open the door for Raanta to be moved.
Raanta is signed for one more year at $4.25, offering a much stronger partner to pair with Linus Ullmark. Raanta has been so strong for the Coyotes that it’s not unreasonable to expect a Raanta/Ullmark pair would provide the Sabres with the level of goaltending they’ve needed to be playoff contenders.