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Inside the Sabres: Saying goodbye to underachievers won't be easy

The season is about to mercifully end for the Buffalo Sabres, who need to overhaul the roster to ensure another miserable year doesn't follow. Some goodbyes will be tougher than others.

Not because it's painful to let go. Rather, how do you say goodbye to guys who don't leave?

The Sabres' roster simply can't remain the same, but six of their NHL defensemen have term left on their contracts. The Sabres have large dollar amounts attached to their forwards.

What teams would trade for the players? What would it cost to make teams take them? General Manager Jason Botterill has a tough summer of sales ahead if he wants to move players under contract. The good news is there are usually teams who think they can fix guys.

Here's a look at the contract situation for each position heading into the 2018-19 season.

GOALTENDER

Under contract (2): Linus Ullmark, signed for $750,000 through 2018-19; Jonas Johansson, signed for $759,167 through 2019-20.

Restricted free agents (2): Robin Lehner, Jason Kasdorf.

Unrestricted free agents (2): Chad Johnson, Adam Wilcox.

Ullmark is set to enter next season as the Sabres' No. 1 goalie. Johansson can continue to learn in Rochester or Cincinnati.

The question, of course, is what to do with Lehner. He will be due a qualifying offer of $4 million, the same salary he made this season. If Buffalo doesn't extend a qualifying offer, the 26-year-old becomes an unrestricted free agent.

In the grand scheme, it would be hard to give up Lehner for nothing after trading a first-round draft pick for the netminder in 2015. Botterill, though, is in position to wash his hands of that deal. He can say, "This was Tim Murray's move, and it's best to cut our losses and walk away." Botterill wouldn't be at fault.

The Sabres could attempt to trade Lehner or negotiate a multiyear deal for less than $4 million. No matter what, Lehner will be an offseason focal point.

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DEFENSE

Under contract (11): Rasmus Ristolainen, $5.4 million per year through 2021-22; Zach Bogosian, $5.14 million through 2019-20; Marco Scandella, $4 million through 2019-20; Nathan Beaulieu, $2.4 million through 2018-19; Jake McCabe, $1.6 million through 2018-19; Brendan Guhle, $697,500 through 2019-20; Matt Tennyson, $650,000 through 2018-19; Taylor Fedun, $650,000 through 2018-19; Will Borgen, $864,166 through 2020-21; Devante Stephens, $743,333 through 2019-20; Brycen Martin, $685,000 through 2018-19.

Restricted free agents (1): Victor Antipin.

Unrestricted free agents (4): Casey Nelson, Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, Zach Redmond.

The Sabres thought they upgraded their defense last summer. They didn't do a good enough job. With so many NHL players still under contract for next season, they'll have to find takers for guys who are overpaid, underachieving or injury-prone.

Ristolainen is not a No. 1 defenseman or leader. Bogosian has played in 58.2 percent of the games since being acquired in 2015, including just 18 of 82 this season. Beaulieu has failed to live up to expectations. That's already half of the projected top six.

Signing the blossoming Nelson before he hits the market would seem to be a priority. No one would fault Antipin for returning to Russia after a painful first year in North America.

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FORWARDS

Under contract (15): Jack Eichel, $10 million through 2025-26; Ryan O'Reilly, $7.5 million through 2022-23; Kyle Okposo, $6 million through 2022-23; Jason Pominville, $5.6 million through 2018-19; Matt Moulson, $5 million through 2018-19; Zemgus Girgensons, $1.6 million through 2018-19; Johan Larsson, $1.475 million through 2018-19; Casey Mittelstadt; $925,000 through 2019-20; Evan Rodrigues, $650,000 through 2018-19; Alex Nylander, $894,166 through 2020-21; Cliff Pu, $759,166 through 2020-21; Kevin Porter, $650,000 through 2018-19; Kyle Criscuolo, $650,000 through 2018-19; Eric Cornel, $695,000 through 2018-19; Vaclav Karabacek, $685,000 through 2018-19.

Restricted free agents (9): Sam Reinhart, Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, Scott Wilson, C.J. Smith, Hudson Fasching, Sean Malone, Danny O'Regan, Seth Griffith.

Unrestricted free agents (3): Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan, Jacob Josefson.

There are dilemmas with the restricted free agents and guys under contract.

For the RFAs, Buffalo needs to determine whether Reinhart warrants a long- or short-term deal. Bailey, Baptiste and Fasching will all require waivers to be sent to Rochester next season. Does Buffalo see them cementing NHL spots, or should it trade them to teams that see potential?

The Sabres obviously have a lot of money tied up with forwards, notably O'Reilly, Okposo, Pominville and Moulson.

They can buy out Moulson in June, but the cap hit and actual money would be similar if they just send him to the minors again. He would count $3.975 million against the cap while buried in the minors, with an actual salary of $3 million. With a buyout, he would get $2.33 million in salary (including a $1 million signing bonus) and count $3.66 million against the cap next season and $666,667 in 2019-20. He'd be off the books for 2019-20 if they send him to the minors.

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On July 1, Okposo's deal transitions from a no-move clause to a modified no-trade. He submits a list of 15 teams to which he will not accept a trade, according to CapFriendly.com. Okposo turns 30 this month and has five seasons left on his contract.

O'Reilly hasn't been the leader Murray envisioned when the former GM immediately signed the center to the richest deal in franchise history (since eclipsed by Eichel). Ignoring the contract, O'Reilly would ideally slide in as the third-line center behind Eichel and Mittelstadt, provided the latter grows into his potential.

There's more wiggle room for change at forward than defense, but it still won't be easy. Including RFAs, 11 regulars remain under contract.

That's too many for a roster that simply doesn't work.

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