Sabres could be in line for roster remake
Difficult decisions await Botterill during offseason
When the Buffalo Sabres reconvene inside KeyBank Center for locker cleanout Monday, they will be asked by reporters to reflect on all that went wrong this season and how each player plans to help the franchise snap its NHL-worst eight-season playoff drought.
For some, the final step before the offseason can be emotional. Last April, Ryan O’Reilly said he “lost the love of the game” multiple times during a 25-win season, and the center was traded less than three months later.
The reality is some Sabres could be cleaning out their locker for good. General Manager Jason Botterill surely will conduct another roster overhaul after a historic collapse led to the team finishing 27th in the NHL. Though there are only two pending unrestricted free agents on the roster, Botterill will have four restricted free agents and difficult decisions to make.
His third offseason could be his most important one, and he has already identified the Sabres’ needs.
”I think it’s imperative for us moving forward that we continue to develop skill, to add skill to our forward group,” Botterill said during a news conference Sunday in KeyBank Center. “It was great to see this year the success of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart having a career year. After a tough month, it was nice to see Jeff Skinner get that 40th goal. But we relied on them too much. We have to continue to develop our young players in our organization, both in Rochester and Buffalo here. We also have to continue to look to find depth scoring.”
Jason Pominville’s reaction Thursday morning indicated the 36-year-old likely has played his final game in a Sabres uniform. When asked if that night’s game could be his last inside KeyBank Center, the pending unrestricted free agent fought back tears and his voice quivered as he spoke passionately about his time in Buffalo.
Pominville’s legacy was celebrated hours later when he scored a third-period goal to take sole possession of 10th in franchise history. He finished fourth on the team with 16 goals and added 15 assists in 73 games. If he is to continue his playing career, the writing is on the wall that he will have to do so elsewhere. Pom
inville was a healthy scratch three times during a two-win month of March and averaged a career-low 12 minutes, 28 seconds per game.
His contract counted $5.6 million against the Sabres’ salary cap and a willingness to play for much less on a short-term deal may not be enough for him to return.
In addition to changing the roster’s dynamic, the Sabres will be getting younger with Victor Olofsson and Alexander Nylander likely to carve out full-time roles next season.
Skinner will determine the direction of the Sabres’ offseason. The 26-year-old is a pending unrestricted free agent after scoring a career-high 40 goals during his first season in Buffalo. He has expressed a desire to return, however, his agent, Don Meehan, has yet to come to terms with Botterill on a long-term extension.
Skinner will command a higher annual salary than the $5.725 million he counted against the cap this season. If somehow Skinner departs, the Sabres will have a significant void to fill through trade or free agency. Re-signing Skinner will be Botterill’s first order of business since that deal will determine how much cap space the Sabres will have for trades or free-agent signings.
The Sabres have roughly $23 million in cap space entering the offseason, but Botterill won’t overspend since he must prepare for other possible long-term extensions, including one for Reinhart, who will be a restricted free agent next offseason.
Additionally, the Sabres must decide if they will bring back their NHL restricted free agents: Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Evan Rodrigues, Jake McCabe and Linus Ullmark. The latter three are sure to receive qualifying offers from the Sabres and will receive raises.
Rodrigues had nine goals among 29 points with a minus-7 rating in 74 games, while Ullmark had a .905 save percentage in 37 appearances during his first full NHL season. McCabe, a 25-year-old defenseman, was on pace for a career year before injuries limited him to 59 games. He is among the Sabres’ best penalty-killers and his defensive impact was illustrated when he returned for the final week of the season. That will earn him a raise from the $1.6 million he made this season.
Girgensons and Larsson, on the other hand, are candidates to go elsewhere. While both excelled on the penalty kill, neither contributed much offensively and their efforts were inconsistent during the Sabres’ slide. More troubling, they struggled during 5-on-5 play, one part of the team’s game Botterill will work to improve this offseason.
Botterill also faces decisions regarding several players currently under contract. Vladimir Sobotka, 31, will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and counts $3.5 million against the cap, which could make him a candidate for a buyout or trade. He scored five goals with eight assists in 69 games, and his playing time decreased after he publicly expressed disappointment about his role.
The Sabres also will have to sort out the logjam on their blue line. Defensemen Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick, Lawrence Pilut and Casey Nelson are under contract next season. Additionally, Will Borgen could be ready for a full-time role.
Bogosian, Scandella, Nelson and Hunwick will be pending unrestricted free agents while Montour and Pilut will be restricted in 2020. This is where a trade is most likely since there is strength in numbers, though consistency was an issue for most of the group.
”The other element is I still think we have a lot to improve on defensively,” Botterill added. “That’s why we went out to get a Brandon Montour. There are things we need to work on from a structural standpoint, defensively, but I still think we need to move pucks out of our D zone quicker and spend less time in our D zone.”
Botterill previously stated that he would like to add to the group by acquiring a young player under contract, much like he did with Montour on the eve of this season’s trade deadline. Dealing from a position of strength, a promising pool of prospects and draft capital could address the Sabres’ need for a topsix forward.
“There are things we need to work on from a structural standpoint, defensively.”
General Manager Jason Botterill will have several difficult decisions to make regarding the Sabres’ roster during the offseason.