It's normally quiet in the NHL in August. Many GMs are at their Canadian cottages and so are the media types north of the border who specialize in transactional rumors. But the sense around the game is an avalanche of news is coming.
What makes this summer unusual is the cadre of restricted free agents who remain unsigned and are looking for big money out of their entry-level contracts. Too many teams simply can't make moves until they get these situations squared away, and some of the outcomes figure to leak into training camp and perhaps beyond.
Look at the names here: Toronto's Mitch Marner, Winnipeg's Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Tampa Bay's Brayden Point, Vancouver's Brock Boeser, Boston's Charlie McAvoy, Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk, Colorado's Mikko Rantanen, Columbus' Zach Werenski, Minnesota's Kevin Fiala and Philadelphia's Ivan Provorov.
Not only are their teams mired in uncertainty but it impacts teams such as the Buffalo Sabres who are happy to have all their RFAs and arbitration cases completed but can't make any deals because so many teams are still figuring out the cap impact of their unsigned young stars.
"It is the unknown," admitted Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill. "You look at the fact the cap maybe didn’t go up as much as some teams expected or probably the industry expected and it made it tighter. You look at the fact these are significant contracts and as much as it’s a difficult process going through salary arbitration, at least we get our players signed and at least we know a month going into camp we have our guys signed up.
"It’s never a fun period going through with someone not being at camp like we did with Sam Reinhart at the start of the year last year, and that we were glad we got that resolved right away. But, yeah, it’s certainly holding things up because teams don’t know (what) their cap space is going to be with these young players."
The market for Rasmus Ristolainen does not appear to be large and, based on what Botterill and coach Ralph Krueger said at Fan Fest, the Sabres aren't completely against the idea of going into the season with Ristolainen still on their roster. Still, Winnipeg needs help on the blueline and seems like a good destination for Ristolainen but the Jets can't do anything without some resolution of their RFA dilemma.
Things got even more dicey last weekend when Laine did an interview in Finland with Sportsnet and said there had been no negotiations with the Jets all summer.
"It’s still business, you’ve got to be prepared for anything," Laine said. "But yeah, you never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything."
Laine had 30 goals last year, down from his totals of 44 and 36 in his first two seasons, and had some prolonged slumps. Given that, the Jets are probably thinking bridge deal over a long-term contract.
Things are getting equally intriguing in Toronto, where Marner seemingly wants to approach the $11.634 million Auston Matthews is getting but the Leafs may be looking at more of a bridge deal as well.
Then came Wednesday's stunner when the Zurich Lions, the same Swiss team Matthews played for four years ago, tweeted that they've been asked by Marner's agents if he can practice with them this fall. The team said no decision has been made.
The Leafs are trying to avoid a repeat of the William Nylander saga that dragged into December last year before the winger finally signed a six-year deal.
The RFAs are holding up teams and individual players. There's never been a list of RFAs this attractive this deep into summer and there's plenty of unrestricted free agents to be had as well.
Unsigned unrestricted free agents include names like Jake Gardiner, Pat Maroon, Brian Boyle, Thomas Vanek and Dion Phaneuf. Players like Jason Pominville, Justin Williams and Joe Thornton seem to be waiting for their old team to bring them back or are deciding on retirement. And Patrick Marleau was hoping to return to San Jose after his stint in Toronto but that seems to be getting more unlikely by the day.
Mike Ramsey good with end of career
Many of the alums who attended the Sabres Fan Fest either live in Buffalo or are seen at many alumni events. One who really hasn't been around Western New York much since leaving in 2000 is longtime Buffalo defenseman and former captain Mike Ramsey.
Ramsey, now 58, said he has been out of hockey since leaving his job as an assistant with Minnesota in 2010. He played with the Sabres from 1980-93 and coached for three years under Lindy Ruff, including the 1999 Stanley Cup finalists.
"It was time to go. I'm good with it. I never won a Stanley Cup. That's the only thing that bothers me about not being in the game and I'm not going to win one," Ramsey said. "I was done. I wasn't burned out. The coaches now really put in hours. If you have a family and want to see your kids go to school and come home from school, you don't and it was time. That was all. I still love the game."
What's Ramsey doing these days?
"I tell people I'm writing a book because it stops them," he joked. "But I've watched the kids play, I hunt, fish, go to Canada quite a bit, snowmobile, I'm busy. I left hockey in 2010 and stopped coaching and I kind of walked away. I watched probably two NHL games last year.
"People may not want to hear that but after 31 years of hockey-hockey-hockey, I've kind of checked out."
Ramsey's son, Jack, played four years at the University of Minnesota and was a seventh-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014. After finishing his college career last season, he played with Indianapolis of the ECHL and has signed an AHL deal this year in Rockford, where he would be a teammate of former Canisius College star and Lancaster native Dylan McLaughlin.
Mike Ramsey said he will be busy with a few events his year marking the 40th anniversary of the USA Miracle On Ice team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. The view from this corner is he should come back to town to have his No. 5 retired. It's a big omission to have a guy who played 911 games and is the best defenseman in franchise history not in the rafters.
"I'm not back here enough to look whose numbers are in the rafters. I don't worry about those things," he said. "I enjoyed my time here. It was awesome, a great ride. I was proud to be part of the Sabres. I guess that would surprise me that people would be talking about that."
Mike Ramsey is at peace being out of the game after 31 years. Has great memories of the Aud, very impressed by CanalSide development. Hunts and fishes back home in Minnesota. (Aside: I think his number should be in the rafters). #Sabres pic.twitter.com/JKl34yocx1
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) August 17, 2019
Botterill, new Minny GM have a past
A big development that could have ramifications for the Sabres was Wednesday's hiring of longtime NHL winger Bill Guerin as the new general manager in Minnesota after the surprise summer firing of Paul Fenton by owner Craig Leipold.
Guerin worked the last eight years in Pittsburgh, three in player development and five as assistant general manager. Another Penguins AGM for the first two years of Guerin's stint in that role? Jason Botterill.
The hiring of Guerin suddenly thrusts the Wild high on the list of potential trade partners for Buffalo. Minnesota has nearly $8 million in cap space and the Sabres have long been interested in forward Jason Zucker, who is signed through 2023 at $5.5 million per season and has a modified no-trade clause. While a deal for Zucker seems unrealistic given the Sabres' current cap crunch, it's fair to assume Botterill and Guerin will likely talk a lot on multiple topics. Certainly bears watching.
Even with rain, Fan Fest a success
You had to feel bad for the Sabres, who were trying to roll out a quality summer show and had a morning monsoon dash their hopes of a lively Fan Fest party on Alumni Plaza last Saturday. By 4 p.m., everything was bright and sunny outside. Such a shame.
But credit the team for improvising on the fly to relocate all of its programming inside KeyBank Center and still have a smooth presentation. The panel discussions were fun – loved defenseman's Jason Woolley's sarcastic description of the Dominik Hasek-led '99 finalists as "a real good team with a decent goalie" – and the autograph sessions got fans back in touch with players they had not seen in many years.
Fans seemed to love the retired number banners being dropped to the arena floor for a great photo op. Would have loved the same treatment for the team's division and conference championship banners, too.
A tip of the stick to John Boutet, exhibit chairman of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, for an incredible memorabilia display that even stretched back into AHL Bisons history with the old Pepsi bottle cap jerseys. Here's hoping the Sabres continue to make use of Boutet in an official role during their 50th anniversary season.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) August 17, 2019
Around the boards
• Former Sabres defenseman Alexander Sulzer had cervical spine surgery last week and a benign tumor was discovered in his back. His new German team in Dusseldorf announced the tumor was removed.
"I am incredibly relieved and can now focus fully on the healing process," Sulzer said in a statement through the team. "I would like to once again thank all people for the overwhelming sympathy and support."
Sulzer, 35, played 57 games for the Sabres from 2012-2014 after stints with Nashville, Florida and Vancouver. He had spent the last five years playing for the Cologne Sharks.
• Botterill hates buyouts and we all better get used to that. If he's not using one this year to get rid of Vladimir Sobotka, he may never use one. And as Botterill pointed out at Fan Fest, he already has dead money on his cap – $791,667 for the next four years for Cody Hodgson's buyout in 2015 by Tim Murray. That has to drive Botterill crazy. Perspective? Evan Rodrigues played the last two years at a cap hit of just $650,000.
• Botterill recalled sitting as an NHL intern in arbitration hearings when the Sabres had around a dozen, including former teammates, in 2006. Who was Botterill across the table from this year for the Sabres' four cases? Former Cornell forward, current Toronto lawyer and NHL intern Andrea Skinner – as in sister of Sabres winger Jeff Skinner.
• The NHL will put tickets on sale Monday for open practices by the Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning in Stockholm on Nov. 7, the day before their two-game series opens in Ericsson Globe. Tickets will be available at LiveNation.se at 9 a.m. in Sweden (3 a.m. EST) and are being sold at 150 Swedish krona (about $15.50 USD). Both games sold out weeks ago.