AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

How COVID-19 could affect a team like the Buffalo Sabres

We’ve been talking about how COVID-19 could affect NHL teams going forward with a focus on the Salary Cap and the possibility of it not increasing next season past the $81.5 million already in place. So far the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks are not looking good while the Colorado Avalanche will need to be careful this year with Cale Makar and Gabriel Landeskog’s contracts ending next year. Now it’s the turn of the Buffalo Sabres.

Formed in 1970 the Buffalo Sabres, along with the Vancouver Canucks, hold the record no team wants of being the longest-running franchise without a Stanley Cup. Add that to the fact the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010-11 season and you can understand why a loyal fan base who are known for their love of the game is starting to become frustrated. If General Manager Jason Botterill plays his cards right this offseason that could be all about to change.

With $35 million (possibly more depending on where the Salary Cap ends up) available to re-sign players and add what’s needed the Sabres find themselves in a golden position to challenge in the Eastern Conference going forward. Add that to the fact Rasmussen Ristolainen will probably start the season elsewhere and the Sabres could have near $40 million to work with. But where should it go?

Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Ristolainen has already asked for a trade and the extra salary cap the Buffalo Sabres would receive should be enough to make it happen. Photo: The Canadian Press

Firstly, let’s face it the Sabres aren’t (nor should they) resign Michael Frolik and Wayne Simmonds will probably move on too. This leaves Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons, and Johan Larsson as the three remaining UFA forwards. If deals can be done to extend without too much of a jump in pay then the Sabres should probably do it which would bring them to the $35 million range. If better (cheaper) options are available on the free-agent market then maybe you go that route as none of the three players mentioned are anything more than a bottom-six player at best.

This $35 million should be more than enough to take care of RFA’s Sam Reinhart, Dominik Kahun, and Victor Olofsson while leaving enough to play devil’s advocate with an offer sheet. For that reason, the Tampa Bay Lightning should be looking very worried. Why Tampa Bay? Well, they are cap-strapped with a number of quality players becoming RFA’s. Plus you make a Division rival weaker while you get stronger. It’s a win-win. Sure it’s a bit prick-ish but do you want to be liked or do you want to win?

Buffalo Sabres
Could Tampa’s Anthony Cirelli (left) be an offer sheet candidate for the Sabres? Photo: Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

Defensemen Brandon Montour and Lawrence Pilut both need to be resigned but as RFA’s the Sabre’s shouldn’t be pressured into anything ridiculous money-wise, especially with next year being the last of Rasmus Dahlin’s entry-level contract. Anything you do this season has to have that in the back of your mind if you are Jason Botterill.

The last of the RFA’s, Casey Middlestadt, Linus Ullmark, Tage Thompson and Curtis Lazar, should be offered the bare minimum in terms of salary and term. Middlestadt has failed to live up to the hype that convinced Buffalo to pick him in the top ten during the 2017 draft and could be used as trade bait should the Sabres decide to go that route. If he does stick around then a third-line role behind Jack Eichel and Dylan Cozens is in his future and you definitely don’t want to overpay for that. Meanwhile, Ullmark is nothing more than a backup, Curtis Lazar a third liner at best and Thompson the same. The latter has also only played one NHL game this season due to injury.

Colorado Avalanche Mount Rushmore

Overall the Sabres are in a decent position even if the Salary Cap doesn’t raise due to the COVID crisis, as long as they don’t do anything silly. They will lose some bad contracts in the summer (Frolik, Sobotka, and Hunwick) giving them a real chance to overhaul a franchise that needs to give their fans something to cheer before it’s too late.

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