The Buffalo Sabres are in need of a No. 2 center. Yes, we know, they had one but it seems as if thier prior No. 2 was never going rediscover his love of the game in Buffalo and he ended up finding it in a fairy tale ending with the Blues. C'est la vie.
Buffalo GM Jason Botterill thought he had a stop-gap No. 2 in Patrik Berglund but that blew up in his face but luckily he also lost his love for playing North American Hockey and walked away from the three-plus remaining years on his contract, or over $12 million. Actually it was a bit deeper than that as Berglund was fighting his own demons and opted for mental health over money. Berglund's issues are nothing to take lightly and he deserves nothing but best wishes in his battle.
That said, the Sabres did get lucky in that his $3.85 million cap hit is off the books giving them some added flexibility this year and beyond. What they do with that flexibility is still up in the air but that extra cushion may come in handy this year as the 2018-19 NHL cap-ceiling of $81.5 million came in at about $1.5 million under recent estimates. Botterill may use that extra cushion to help sign a free agent, he may trade for a player with a large salary or he has the ability take on a high-dollar, albatross contract from another team in conjunction with a trade for a more desirable player.
When we look at the No. 2 center position we know it's very difficult to fill although not as difficult as the top center and top defenseman. The Sabres have their No. 1 center in Jack Eichel and two other long-term pieces in a No. 1 defenseman (Rasmus Dahlin) and a first-line, scoring winger (Jeff Skinner.) After the Berglund failure Buffalo was forced to use rookie Casey Mittelstadt at No. 2 but that didn't work out as planned. Although it wasn't a complete disaster, and it's the belief here that having an incompetent coach didn't help matters, Mittelstadt proved that he wasn't quite ready for a stage as big as that. At 20 yrs. old he still has a lot of growing to do and the idea of the stop-gap was to give him third-line minutes while he got himself acclimated to the game. Mittelstadt definitely has top-six talent and the IQ to play in that role, but as with most kids he needs to get stronger and will get better as he gets to know the league and players better.
Botterill and the Sabres headed into the off-season in search of a No. 2 and two potential candidates are off the board. Buffalo dogged a bullet when the Philadelphia Flyers traded for the rights to pending unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes and signed him to a colossal 7 yr./$50 million deal, but it looks as if they lost out on any potential trade for Vegas Golden Knights center William Karlsson, a pending restricted free agent. The 26 yr. old Karlsson is expected to sign a team-friendly 8 yr./$47.2 million extension with the club in a city he's said to love. The Sabres have the cap-flexibility to help Vegas out of impending cap-woes and a player like Karlsson would have been coveted by Buffalo in a deal where they took on a heafty contract.
We know for a fact that center Matt Duchene is a pending UFA, and we also know that he'll probably be inking a huge contract, especially in light of the Hayes deal. The 28 yr. old Duchene is coming off of a 5 yr./$30 million deal signed with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 and he has been a road warrior as of late after getting traded to the Ottawa Senators in November 2017 and the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2019 trade deadline. Duchene put up strong numbers for Ottawa and lesser numbers for Columbus in the regular season but really excelled for the Blue Jackets in the playoffs with 10 points (5+5) in 10 games, assuring that he'd get a big payday.
Duchene was selected third-overall in the 2009 NHL Draft by the 'Lanche and while in Colorado averaged 25 goals and 60 points per 82 games. He upped that considerably in his short, 110-game stint with the Sens (37g/79p per 82) but only had 12 points (4+8) in 23 games for the Jackets. One consistent theme with Duchene is that his plus minus has been decidedly in the negative going a minus-60 in 586 games for Colorado, a minus-25 in 110 games for Ottawa and a minus-1 in 23 games for Columbus. His plus/minus rating is pretty much reflective of the teams he's played on.
Many have labled Duchene "Ryan O'Reilly lite" and there's a lot of credence in that statement. However there won't be anything light about his upcoming contract as there's no reason to believe, based upon supply and demand as well as the trend this year, that he'll sign for anything less than $9.5 million and because this will be his last big contract, there's no reason to believe he'll sign for less than max term.
And it might take even more to get him to play in Buffalo. Would the Sabres offer up a 7 yr./$10 million deal to lure him here?
Evgeni Malkin is an old war-horse by NHL standards. The 32 yr. old has played in over 1,000 regular season and playoff games since being drafted second-overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2004. Malkin has a lot of miles on his body and the wear and tear is starting to really show as he's missed 98 games the last six seasons while playing a 78-game season once. Yet, when he's on the ice, he's still a force. In those six seasons since the 2012-13 lockout-shortenened season Malkin averaged 36 goals and 92 points per 82 games. In 2017-18 when Malkin played in 78 games he was top-10 in goals with 42 and tied for 12th-overall in points with 98...as a 30 yr. old.
Malkin has always taken a back seat to Sidney Crosby despite having the talent and leadership ability that came very close to rivaling him. In 2011-12 when Crosby was suffering concussion-related effects and only played in 22 games, Malkin totaled 109 points (50+59) in 75 games and led the Pens to the playoffs despite the entire hockey community writing them off.
The Penguins signed Malkin to a huge 8 yr./$76 million contract extension in 2013 and he has three more years left on the deal that pays him an average of $9.5 million per season.
Numbers alone separate Malkin from Duchene even with the former being four years older and having logged harder and heavier minutes. However, their careers are heading in opposite directions as Duchene is full-blown in his prime while Malkin is beginning to head into the sunset. Last season they were on par with each other in overall production with Duchene putting up 70 points (31+39) in 73 games while Malkin put up 72 (21+52) in 68 games.
In addition to future production the cost to attain them is different as Duchene would cost nothing to sign to a free agent contract while the Penguins would want compensation. How much compensation is something to be determined but it would cost Buffalo assets.
When placing the two side-by-side through the lens of the Sabres immediate and long-term needs and/or plans, Malkin is the better choice here. Sure, the next three years could be a disaster if his age finally catches up to him and from a cap standpoint Buffalo will have Dahlin joining Eichel and Skinner in the $9-10 million AAV category the final year of Malkin's contract, not to mention a potential Sam Reinhart extension that could put him up in the $7-8 million range. The Sabres would still have that cap-hit problem with Duchene but one might assume that his production will exceed that of Malkin's at that point and on a longer-term basis.
However, in the short term the Sabres are looking at Mittelstadt, or possibly even 2019 seventh-overall pick Dylan Cozens, as the heir to that No. 2 slot without the weight of a long-term commitment like that of Duchene. The plan with Malkin would revolve around him holding the fort for a year or two while Mittelstadt acclimates himself to the game. In addition to that the Sabres also gain the valuable experience and leadership of a player that's won three Stanley Cups.
If the Sabres have a choice between Duchene and Malkin, for what they're looking at short and long-term, there's no doubt Malkin would be an ideal choice even if they are gambling a bit because of his age.