Are the Buffalo Sabres finished this off season?
Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams took care of three restricted free agents with arbitration rights before their respective hearings. The team announced that they re-signed right wing Sam Reinhart and goalie Linus Ullmark to one-year deals on Sunday and earlier today the Sabres announced that winger Victor Olofsson signed a two-year deal with the club. Buffalo still has two more players to sign in center Casey Mittelstadt and defenseman Lawrence Pilut both of whom were tendered qualifying offers but remain unsigned.
It's an uncertain time for the National Hockey League and it's players as Covid-19 is still shrouds the immediate and near-term future of the league. The NHL has already laid out a scenario where the cap-ceiling will remain at $81.5 million for this season and next with a potential $1 million increase for the 2022-23 season and in doing so has created a salary structure conundrum for players and teams.
Very few long-term deals have been reached this off season with the Sabres opting for one, two and three-year deals for 14 players leaving only 10 players signed through next season. Their biggest, most stunning signing was former NHL MVP Taylor Hall who signed a 1yr./$8 million deal with the club on October 12. In all Adams and the Sabres re-signed four of their restricted free-agents to one-year deals including Reinhart, who will still be an RFA next season. "I think every player in the times right now would be open to a long-term deal," said the 24 yr. old during a Zoom call this morning when asked if a one year deal was right for these uncertain times. "Unfortunately that's not always the case, it's not always available."
Reinhart is on his third contract with Buffalo since signing his entry-level deal in 2014 (with a one-year slide that season) and flat-out said that he's "certainly comfortable playing on short-term deals like I always have."
Indeed. Reinhart has outplayed his contract every season as he's consistently gone from a 23-goal/42-point rookie campaign to a 22-goal/65-point season in 2018-19. Last year his 22 goals and 50 points in 69 games projected out to 26 goals and 59 points for a full 82-game season.
Having Reinhart in the fold means five of Buffalo's top-six forwards are in place and with the two-year contract extension signed by Victor Olofsson this morning, it puts their projected forward group at 12 players. And that's without Mittelstadt or promising forward Rasmus Asplund, both of whom are waivers-exempt or 19 yr. old Dylan Cozens who seems to be on the cusp of an NHL spot.
Re-signing defenseman Brandon Montour earlier this month filled out their defense although it's still weighted to the right as they have five right-handed defensemen and only two lefties signed. Pilut is a left-handed d-man and the Sabres still own his rights, however he's under contract in the KHL and shouldn't be counted on, at least at this point, to be on their opening roster defense.
Adams filled out his crease by re-signing Linus Ullmark to a one-year deal. Ullmark showed some real promise as a starter last season before going down with an injury. In his only game post-injury/pre-Covid, he defeated the Washington Capitals for the first time in his career with a 3-2 shootout win. The 27 yr. old will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end and he could end up anywhere, including the Pacific Northwest where the Seattle Kraken could take him in the expansion draft if the Sabres were to leave him unprotected.
It's a situation that isn't likely as he and the organization have been together through every step of his professional career including three years in his native Sweden, an emergency call-up/split season in 2015-16, and two full seasons in Rochester followed by two full seasons with the Sabres. Ullmark split duties in 2018-19 with Carter Hutton as the starter and last season he took over the starters role after Hutton stumbled miserably.
Ullmark's one-year deal looks like a "prove-it" contract and it's something he just rolls with. The affable net minder shrugged it off saying that he always needs to prove his worth in goal and he'll be relying on the experience of being dubbed the starter last season to move forward in that same probable role as starter for 2020-21. As he dealt with the fast pace and accurate shooting these past two seasons with the club, he gained valuable reps which allows him to "read and react in a more natural way," he said, "because experience builds upon itself."
"Experience makes a huge difference for a goaltender," he continued, "everything I do every day is helping me take the next step."
He also alluded to the talent Adams brought in that will help him at practice. "Doing the repetitions and movements every day at full speed against better and better players is certainly helping me to act in a natural way and not a fabricated way."
With all but Mittelstadt and Pilut signed, the Sabres have a nearly full roster right now and head coach Ralph Krueger enters the 2020-21 season with more firepower up top thanks to the signing of Hall. Reinhart praised Krueger for his approach to coaching and as a person saying this morning, "just the level of honesty and the communication he has is something that every player wants to play under. I think that's a big part of why you see these players wanting to come here right now and I truly believe it's because of the kind of person he is and how bad players want to play for him."
Unless Adams and Krueger have something else up their sleeves, the Sabres roster for this season looks complete. The recent signings brings the Sabres projected cap hit, according to CapFriendly, to just a smidge over $78 million dollars and when looking at that figure we also need to keep in mind that they'll be carrying overages from last season totaling just under $1.5 million which means they really only have $2 million in cap space. And that doesn't include any potential performance bonuses for this season so if they're so inclined to upgrade anywhere, it will need to be a money-in/money-out scenario.
Without any changes, this is what the roster could look like at the start of the 2020-21 NHL season (whenever that is):
Taylor Hall - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Jeff Skinner - Eric Staal - Tage Thompson
Victor Olofsson - Cody Eakin - Kyle Okposo
Zemgus Girgensons - Curtis Lazar - Tobias Reider
With Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Asplund and possibly C.J. Smith vying for roster spots.
Rasmus Dahlin - Colin Miller
Jake McCabe - Rasmus Ristolianen
Brandon Montour - Henri Jokiharju
With Matt Irwin, rookie Will Borgen and possibly Lawrence Pilut vying for spots on defense