There’s no doubt the Sabres need to upgrade their roster. Free agency, which opens Saturday, is a prime time to do it.
Buffalo has two problems, though. The lineup is crowded, and there’s not a lot of money available.
That’s not the welcome gift Jason Botterill would have liked.
Despite missing the playoffs for six straight seasons, the Sabres have a fairly full roster heading into free agency. Fans can certainly debate whether the players should be in Buffalo, but there’s no denying the players have contracts with Buffalo – at least for now.
Here’s a look at the players with a realistic shot to be in the opening-night lineup Oct. 5, plus their salary cap number (asterisks represent the qualifying offers for unsigned restricted free agents):
Ryan O’Reilly ($7.5 million), Kyle Okposo ($6 million), Evander Kane ($5.25 million), Matt Moulson ($5 million), Tyler Ennis ($4.6 million), Marcus Foligno ($2.25 million*), Zemgus Girgensons ($1.15 million*), Johan Larsson ($997,500*), Jack Eichel ($925,000), Hudson Fasching ($925,000), Sam Reinhart ($894,167), Evan Rodrigues ($787,500*), Nicolas Deslauriers ($775,000), Nick Baptiste ($718,333) and Justin Bailey ($670,000).
Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4 million), Zach Bogosian ($5.14 million), Josh Gorges ($3.9 million), Jake McCabe ($1.6 million), Nathan Beaulieu ($1 million*), Victor Antipin ($925,000), Brendan Guhle ($697,500), Justin Falk ($650,000), Casey Nelson ($650,000) and Taylor Fedun ($650,000).
Robin Lehner ($3.15 million*) and Linus Ullmark ($750,000).
The NHL roster limit is 23, so at least four of the players wouldn’t be in Buffalo. But including them all shows where the Sabres’ salary structure stands.
Those 27 players total $62,957,857. According to numbers from CapFriendly.com, the Sabres should account for another possible $7,487,500 in entry-level bonuses. Eichel, for example, missed a $2 million bonus last season by one point.
With bonuses, that cap number rises to $70,445,357. The salary cap will be $75 million, leaving the Sabres with $4,554,643 in cap room.
How can the Sabres alleviate their problems? Here are a few ways:
* Trades – Botterill has been talking with other general managers, but he was unable to strike a deal leading up to the draft. He mentioned Pittsburgh made a trade for Phil Kessel on July 1, 2015, so the GM is clearly hoping a big swap can be made on signing day.
* Demotions – The Sabres can send high-salaried players to Rochester, but the savings aren’t as great as they once were. The formula changed with the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2013. Only the league minimum salary ($650,000) plus $375,000 is subtracted from the cap hit.
For example, say the Sabres send Gorges to the minors. He has a cap hit of $3.9 million. After applying the $1.025 million subtraction, Gorges will still count $2.875 million toward Buffalo’s cap even though he's in Rochester.
Savings can be had, but they’re not phenomenal.
* Buyouts – Owner Terry Pegula has no problem throwing money around. He’s already paying for three buyouts.
Christian Ehrhoff will get $857,143 next season (and every season through 2027-28). Ville Leino will cash $1.22 million checks each of the next three seasons. Those were compliance buyouts that don’t count against the cap.
Cody Hodgson was a regular buyout. He receives $791,667 per year through 2022-23. Because of the buyout formula, he’ll count just $41,667 against the Sabres’ cap next season, according to CapFriendly.com. The Sabres will get a $458,333 credit in 2018-19, and Hodgson will cost $791,667 for each of the following four seasons.
Let’s examine buyout costs for Moulson, Bogosian and Gorges, three players left unprotected in the expansion draft. They can be bought out at two-thirds of their salary over double the remaining length of their contract. All numbers are from CapFriendly’s buyout calculator.
Moulson has two years remaining with the aforementioned cap hit of $5 million. However, he has just $8 million in salary remaining, including $3 million in signing bonuses. His cap hit would be $2.833 million next season, $3.833 million in 2018-19 and $833,333 in each of the following two seasons.
Bogosian’s contract has three years remaining with the $5.14 million cap hit. He still has $17.5 million in salary left to be paid. After a buyout, his cap hit would drop to $1.588 million next season, $1.087 million in each of the following two years, and $1.944 million from 2020-21 to 2022-23.
Gorges has one year left with $3.9 million in both cap hit and salary. His buyout cap hit would be $1.3 million for each of the next two seasons.
Just like with demotions, savings can be had through buyouts. The long-term effects give pause, however. Buffalo will need to re-sign Eichel, Reinhart and any prospects who flourish during the next couple of years. Having dead money on the cap could impact the deals.
One of Botterill’s strengths is combining his knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement with his master’s in business administration. He’ll need all of his tools to improve Buffalo’s roster this week.