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With trade season right around the corner in the NHL, a familiar reality is setting in for Sabres fans. A 10-point gap between them and either a wild card or division playoff spot has once again put the Sabres in the seller’s position leading up to the trade deadline on February 24th.
This isn’t to say that the Sabres can’t explore moves that would upgrade their future squad, like the Brandon Montour trade last year. However, when you’ve got the third largest team cap hit and are that far out of a playoff spot, it’s time to look inwards and admit that even with a change in coaches, role and ice time, some players just shouldn’t be taking up that much cap on your team.
This goes beyond the usual expiring unrestricted free agents who already have one foot out the door. For years the Sabres have waited for players to take that “next step” and never seen it happen. Accommodations have been made, systems were changed and still the Sabres are consistently among the worst teams in the NHL at getting good value from their players.
As of today, the Sabres have 39.575 million dollars of cap dedicated to their forward group. The number is lower than it should be with Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson on the injured reserve list however, that works to our advantage to help illustrate the lack of value up front.
So far this season the Sabres have generated the third fewest shot attempts at 5-on-5 and have the league’s worst expected goals for. Even with Skinner’s cap hit technically off the books, the Sabres have out spent teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets. All three of those teams are in a playoff spot and all three rank in the top 12 in expected goals for.
The core issue with the majority of the forwards appearing in the “dull” quadrant (aside from the fact that it’s very boring to watch) is that in order to win this way you generally need to be getting exceptional goaltending. That’s not likely to happen given that the Sabres have dedicated only 5% of the salary cap to their two goaltenders. They’ve gotten what they’ve paid for out of their duo in net but unfortunately for the Sabres they’ve been unable to find a way to spend that money correctly on their forward group.
Marcus Johansson (1 year, 4.5 million AAV) has been inconsistent all year and despite improvements to his defensive game, Kyle Okposo (3 years, 6 million AAV) still represents the worst value at the forward position. Dealing either of these forwards wouldn’t be about the return, the value in moving them is simply having the chance to dedicate that money somewhere else. It may very well cost the Sabres some assets, but keeping their combined 10.5 million dollar hit on the cap will probably hurt them worse than whatever they give up to move them.
The defensemen don’t escape blame here either. The Sabres have dedicated just over 22.5 million dollars to their blue line (10th highest in the NHL) and while they’ve done well at limiting opposing teams’ offensive chances, it’s simply not enough to make up for how little they help create offensively.
Rasmus Dahlin does a good job of generating shot attempts, however, the offense dries up there for the Sabres’ blue line. They gave up a first-round pick and young defenseman Brendan Guhle to acquire Brandon Montour (restricted free agent) and haven’t received the offense they were hoping for. Rasmus Ristolainen (2 years, 5.4 million AAV) has taken a step forward from the disastrous season he had last year, but he as well has struggled to generate any offense at 5-on-5.
The Sabres defense this year actually serves as a mildly amusing case study of marginal utility gone wrong. They added several defensemen in the off-season, two of them young right shot defensemen, who generally carry additional value due to the scarcity around the league. However, the wound up adding one too many players for certain roles and have received less value than expected from each one. They have four right shot defensemen who are capable of playing balanced second or third pair minutes, but with only two spots on that right side, each of those defenders at one point or another has been pushed into a role they weren’t meant for. Colin Miller was Dahlin’s top pair partner until he was a healthy scratch. Ristolainen still sees the most minutes of any defender and the logjam of players has prevented the Sabres from expanding Henri Jokiharju’s game.
This is a surplus the Sabres should be taking advantage of to address their scoring issues. There’s simply no way to find the right role for all the right shot defenders and keep them all happy. It’s possible some of these defenders have lost some trade value while being stuck in the seven man rotation, but the fact that they play a position in such great demand should make them an attractive enough asset to be used in a trade that can help elevate the offense.
The good news for the Sabres is they’re in a unique position to make wholesale changes. Most of their commitments up front carry very little term, and aside from Zach Bogosian’s expiring deal, none of the defensemen carry cap hits that would impede the Sabres from making a deal. The opportunity is there for Jason Botterill to make moves that would give the Sabres additional assets and cap space to add players who can provide better value to them moving forward.
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