Buffalo is one of eight teams in the league with more than five million dollars in cap space and one of only five teams in the league with ten or more million dollars freed up. Given that teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers are up against the cap while dealing with top young players who want long-term contracts, you’d think it would be a no-brainer for the Sabres to swoop in and make some offers that the others couldn’t match.
Given Darcy Regier’s statements and actions since the season’s end, it’s no surprise that nothing has happened. That doesn’t mean it has to be that way though. The Buffalo Sabres stand to be one of the worst teams in the NHL as they’re currently being built, but with a few shrewd moves, along with the retention of Cody Hodgson – via Buffalo’s own free agency negotiation – the Sabres can at least get out of the scrap heap and into the playoff mix. Here are a few RFAs the Sabres could still pursue to make their team better right now and in the future as well. You can find a complete RFA list along with compensation parameters here.
This is far and away the first guy Regier should pursue. Not only do I like Kadri, but I like Kadri more than Hodgson. Kadri put up 44 points in 48 games while averaging 16 minutes/game and playing between Rock Hands McLaren and some barber to whom Randy Carlyle owed money. Meanwhile, Hodgson put up 34 points in 48 games while averaging 18 minutes/game and playing alongside Thomas Vanek for most of that time. Successfully signing Nazem Kadri would either give the Sabres leverage with Cody Hodgson or put him in a position to be moved for similar to compensation to what they just gave up for Kadri. Essentially you could give up the first and third necessary to make a deal sweet enough for Kadri to sign an offer sheet and Toronto to not much, then either sign Hodgson or let him walk for the same bundle. Either way, the Sabres would come out better for it.
Toronto stands close to $5M in cap space, but they still have to negotiate with Kadri, Cody Franson and Leo Komarov (who, while not in this piece, is a guy I wouldn’t mind the Sabres taking a look at). If the Sabres offer Kadri a deal close to what Adam Henrique got from the New Jersey Devils (6 years/$24M), they would force Toronto’s hand with not only Kadri, but with Franson as well. If the Sabres keep their offer below $5.04M, they would only have to give up a 1st and 3rd round pick, which is a steal for Kadri provided the Sabres aren’t the worst team in the league and give up a top three pick for that signing. With the addition of Kadri and the retention of Vanek and Miller, they’d have a decent shot at avoiding that fate. If the Leafs do match a Sabres offer for Kadri, that would likely set the stage for the next move the Sabres could make.
This is more because they could and because Franson would still be about the 4th or 5th best defenseman on the Buffalo roster at worst. Why not take a shot at someone who can make you better? Franson would be a cheaper option, but he’s a big, young defenseman who can make the team better. The Sabres need depth and they’d take it from a division foe for a mid round pick to boot. Kadri should rate at the top of Toronto’s RFA concerns and he’s the guy we may want. Franson would be a nice consolation prize for a focused attack on Toronto’s cap situation though.
Here is another situation where Buffalo needs to be aggressive with their cap space when they have a chance to get a kid who also put up 44 points last season, but has a bigger body of work to justify a long term deal. The Rangers are about two million dollars under the cap as they negotiate with Stepan. Offer the kid 3.3 and you only have to give up a second round pick. Offer him the contract he wants (and the one the Rangers don’t want to offer) and you’ll scuttle him off for a 1st and a 3rd round pick. The Rangers could still match and shuffle to make it work, but then you move the ball along and force another conference opponent to weaken itself or lose a good player. And if the Rangers don’t match, you’ve stolen a bright young player with great offensive upside. But that’s right, general managers whose teams spend all year competing and hating each other aren’t supposed to be competing when it comes to roster building. My bad.
Trade for: Alex Pietrangelo
Forget the crowded blue line in Buffalo and forget what I said in Franson’s space. If you can get a defenseman this good, you make it happen. Peitrangelo’s demands are likely such that the Sabres would not want to risk that many first round picks for him, so a trade would likely be the best mutual option here. Give the St. Louis Blues a young defenseman who can play now and a starter up front as well and take the rights to Pietrangelo. Mark Pysyk might fit the bill here. He can be an NHL contributor right now and he’s still on an entry level contract. Even if you give up Pysyk and more for Pietrangelo, your blue line looks like this if you play your cards right:
Pietrangelo – Ehrhoff
Myers – Tallinder
McBain – Weber
Spare: Ruhwedel, McNabb, Sulzer
And that’s without any regards to Rasmus Ristolainen, who is a decent bet to at least play in Buffalo this year, if not Game 1. Between Risto, Myers, Pietrangelo, Nikita Zadorov, and whoever else comes along, the Sabres would have a stacked young blue line to play in front of whoever ends up as the goalie of the future.
Speaking of goalies, here’s another way you could maybe take the Buffalo-St. Louis angle. What if Buffalo throws in Miller? The Halak-Elliott tandem is fine to get a team to the playoffs, but how has it helped St. Louis? They’ve won one playoff series against a wilted Sharks squad. They are a very good, but not elite team. If you’re St. Louis, you have to win a playoff series this year. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are both fine goaltenders, but neither are as good as Ryan Miller and neither have won as many big games as Miller has. Halak and Elliott are also both UFAs after this upcoming season, so the whole “Miller could leave after a year” argument against his trade value is moot. Any goalie in a Blues uniform could leave after this season. That’s up to management to prevent.
So the skeleton of a deal would see the Sabres send Miller and Pysyk and get back Halak (because his cap hit is double that of Elliott) and Pietrangelo. The Sabres would have to throw in more in the way of picks/prospect and probably eat some of Miller’s salary in 2013 to make that work, but right now Buffalo has that kind of flexibility. The Sabres would get the same blue line as before, but now they’ve also resolved The Miller Problem without putting the weight of the whole city on Jhonas Enroth or Matthew Hackett. Halak can share the starts much in the way he did in St. Louis with Enroth. It may not be a move that’s been at the top of people’s minds because defense hasn’t been as glaring a hole as goal scoring, but the Buffalo Sabres are likely one of the few teams who can really deal with St. Louis in a way to help that team get better while also giving Buffalo another top young player along the blue line to lead a hastened rebuild.
Obviously all of these deals wouldn’t fit under the cap even for the Sabres, but any one of them would be a step in the right direction. At the very least, it would be a sign that the Sabres are taking some initiative to improve themselves. I understand they’re preaching patience because they’re in a rebuild, but these things don’t have to take years if you do it right? Just because you’ve decided to rebuild, that doesn’t mean you have to sit on your hands for the next two years and watch good, cheap young players walk right past you. All of the guys mentioned above are young enough to be a part of any future plans the Sabres might have. And I’m not saying ignore Cody Hodgson in favor of anyone listed above (though, again, Kadri and Pietrangelo would be better than him if it came to that). Sign him too. Any one of these moves in conjunction with a deal for Hodgson would fit under the cap.
Create depth and competition on the roster first, worry about having too much later. This is a trade-heavy league. If the Sabres have a surplus somewhere, they’ll find a taker down the line. Show your best two players that this is where they want to be for the primes of their careers. There are ways to get better without stunting a rebuild, and restricted free agency, while widely ignored by NHL GMs today, might be one of the best avenues of improvement for the Buffalo Sabres.
Cory Buck is a staff writer for Sabre Noise. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.