With the most coveted trophy in sports being handed out Thursday night in Sin City, the 2017-18 season came to a bittersweet end. However, before the Washington Capitals had even finished taking their victory laps around T-Mobile Arena, Down the Frozen River was already taking a look ahead at all the exciting possibilities this summer.
Welcome to the 2018 NHL offseason.
Stay tuned to DtFR for the next 10 days, as we’ll be breaking down each and every team’s needs, wants, holes and excesses and how they might address them before training camps commence in September.
We’ll be tackling this series in the same order as the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, so that means the Buffalo Sabres are first up!
2018 NHL Entry Draft
Forgive me for making too many assumptions, but I think this might be the most clear-cut decision of the offseason for any of the 31 clubs in the NHL. The first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft is scheduled for June 22, and it might as well start with D Rasmus Dahlin standing next to Commissioner Gary Bettman already wearing blue and gold.
Whether or not the 18-year-old Swede will be able to play the high-level defense demanded of this league right out of the gate is irrelevant, as Dahlin is clearly the most talented option available in this year’s crop of prospects.
Assuming they select him like everyone believes they will, the Sabres are hoping Dahlin develops into the two-way defenseman of any coach’s dreams: one cut from the same mold as Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, but potentially even better.
If the 2017-18 season in his domestic league is any indicator, Dahlin will only continue to impress. His 19:02 time on ice per game was third on his team (Frölunda HC in the SHL) behind two players at least nine years his senior, and his .49 points per game was 13th-best in the league among all defensemen that played at least 35 games (another group in which every other player was at least four years older than him).
Of course, what truly sets Dahlin apart is his scoring touch. In only 41 games played this season, the young blueliner buried seven goals for .17 goals per game. Among defensemen that played at least eight games, that was second-best in the SHL.
Seven goals may not sound like a lot, but the number grows much more impressive when we acknowledge that he managed one more marker than the Sabres’ current No. 1 defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen, who had the benefit of 32 more games played this season.
In other words, Dahlin should slot in nicely as a bottom-four defenseman for Buffalo in his debut season.
Pending free agents
With a touch over $19 million in projected cap space, the Sabres – who finished the season with a league-worst 25-45-12 record – have only nine NHL contracts that expired when the campaign came to a close, split as evenly as possible among the three positions and between the restricted and unrestricted varieties.
F Jordan Nolan and LW Benoit Pouliot are Buffalo’s only forwards that could become UFAs come July 1, and it has rights to F Sam Reinhart and F Scott Wilson due to them being RFAs since they are under 27-years-old.
Of those, 22-year-old Reinhart is clearly the most valuable, as his (t)team-leading 25 goals and .61 points per game from the 2017-18 season easily dwarf the efforts of Wilson (six goals, .29 point per game), Pouliot (13 goals, .26 points per game) and Nolan (four goals, .12 points per game).
It would certainly not be unexpected for General Manager Jason Botterill and Reinhart to hammer out a four-year deal that saw the forward receive an increase in pay from the $3.5 million per year he’s been receiving from his entry-level contract, as a signing of that length would allow the player to test free agency at its completion. I’d estimate a pay increase to at least $4 million per year, likely more.
There is always the possibility that Buffalo could trade the natural center, who spent a lot of the season on the wing due to the Sabres’ plethora of talent at that position, but I’m led to believe the rumors that F Ryan O’Reilly could be on the move sooner than Reinhart, who has yet post a season worse than the one before it. That would free up $7.5 million and a center position for Reinhart, which would allow W Alexander Nylander to compete for a full-time roster spot of his own.
Defensively, D Victor Antipin is Buffalo’s only RFA, while both D Justin Falk and D Josh Gorges are slated to test free agency. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Falk in new colors come September, but the Sabres would be silly not to keep Antipin – who averaged .21 points per game in 47 showings this season, the fourth-best of any Buffalo defenseman with at least 38 appearances – in the organization.
Oh, he said he’s going to head back to the KHL next season? Dang… Well, the league’s (t)ninth-worst defense in terms of shots against just took another step back. All eyes are truly on you Dahlin, though D Brendan Guhle – Buffalo’s second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft – will likely have intentions of earning a full-time role with the Sabres instead of the Rochester Americans.
Where things are undoubtedly going to look different in the 2018-19 season for Buffalo is its goaltending depth chart, as G Jonas Johansson and G Linus Ullmark are the only two netminders with contracts in the Sabres’ system. Botterill has indicated that Ullmark will be one of Buffalo’s two goalies, which doesn’t look good for 31-year-old UFA G Chad Johnson‘s chances of returning to Upstate New York.
Sporting a .908 save percentage in 50 starts this season, RFA G Robin Lehner is also unlikely to get much attention from the Sabres this offseason. Since he made $4 million this season, Buffalo would have to offer him another one-year contract at the same price unless it took him to arbitration, which would only bring the deal down to $3.4 million. Instead of the club going through all that, I think Botterill will try to attract the services of a free agent from outside the organization or package Lehner’s rights in a deal for a more established netminder.
If free agency is the route the Sabres elect to take, one of the most attractive free agent goaltenders this summer is going to be G Carter Hutton. Though he is 32-years-old, it’s hard to knock Hutton’s .931 save percentage and 17-7-3 record in a season that saw him take home only $1 million. Hutton will likely earn himself a pay raise on what should be his last major contract, but he will likely still fall within Botterill’s budget.