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Analyzing the Sabres' 7-year 'investment' in defenseman Mattias Samuelsson

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Sabres Hurricanes Hockey

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson clears Carolina Hurricanes player Stelio Mattheos from the front of the net during the first period at the KeyBank Center on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. 

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Surrounded by a scrum of reporters inside the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room, Mattias Samuelsson cracked a smile as, admittedly, the 6-foot-4 defenseman tried to find the proper words to describe his gratitude for the franchise showing faith in his NHL future.

“It’s a lot to process,” said Samuelsson, who, at 22 years old, signed a seven-year, $30 million contract extension Wednesday with only 54 NHL games on his résumé. “I don’t know if I’ve fully taken it in yet.”

First, Samuelsson credited the coaching staff in Rochester, which prepared him for the 20 minutes per game he played with the Sabres from January through April last season. Then, Samuelsson thanked ownership, Terry and Kim Pegula, and General Manager Kevyn Adams, the latter of whom described the long-term commitment as an “investment.”

There’s risk involved in any contract but particularly those given to athletes with shorter track records of success, like the seven-year, $50 million deal the club gave Tage Thompson in August following his breakout 38-goal season while playing center in the NHL for the first time. The Sabres weighed past performance when preparing offers for both players, but the final numbers were determined by projecting what they will accomplish in the future.

Though Samuelsson has yet to score an NHL goal, he proved in the final weeks of last season that he can excel while skating next to Rasmus Dahlin on the club’s top defense pair. Samuelsson, who was selected 32nd overall during the same draft in which Dahlin went No. 1, frustrates opponents with his physical play around the net. He’s an athletic 231-pound menace who can play on the left or right side and sparks the Sabres’ fast-paced offensive attack with his ability to cleanly break the puck out of the offensive zone.

And Samuelsson's role on the ice will expand, beginning with the season opener Thursday night in KeyBank Center against the Ottawa Senators.

“He is the antidote,” beamed coach Don Granato. “So, if you think of a star player on the other team, he’s the antidote. He is an athletic beast. His mobility, agility, his size, his strength. He has a great feel for his position, a great feel for the game.”

Samuelsson’s contract, which begins with the 2023-24 season and carries a $4.285 annual cap hit, raised some eyebrows around the league given his lack of NHL experience. He wasn’t due to become a restricted free agent until the summer of 2023. But these types of contracts are becoming the norm around the NHL.

Teams don’t want to risk losing a promising young player in the latter stages of restricted free agency when he has reached his prime, like the doomsday scenario in Calgary this summer when Matthew Tkachuk informed management he didn’t plan to sign long-term and influenced a trade to Florida.

Bridge contracts are falling by the wayside, and general managers are more willing to take long-term bets on young players with NHL success, albeit in a smaller sample size, because the salary cap is expected to rise steeply over the next three seasons. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the ceiling for 2025-26 is projected to be approximately $92 million, an increase of nearly $10 million from this season.

Samuelsson’s deal isn’t the first of its kind. The closest comparable, according to CapFriendly.com, is the six-year contract with a $4.4 million annual cap hit the Pittsburgh Penguins gave to defenseman John Marino in January 2021 when the then-24-year-old had totaled 26 points in 56 career NHL games. In September 2015, the Edmonton Oilers gave then-23-year-old defenseman Oscar Klefbom a seven-year contract with a $4.167 million cap hit when he had 23 points through 77 NHL games.

Marino was traded by Pittsburgh to the New Jersey Devils this summer, while Klefbom hasn’t appeared in an NHL game since 2019-20 because of an injury that’s expected to end his playing career. Other similar gambles have paid off big, including early long-term contracts given to John Klingberg, Roman Josi and Samuel Girard, though those three are point-producing defensemen with a different skill set than Samuelsson.

“We wanted to be really disciplined and smart with how we put our roster together and the reason for that is we can do things like this and make sure that we identify the people that we’re gonna move forward with long-term and we know there’s more coming,” said Adams. “What I would say about Sammy is he’s an unbelievable teammate. He’s loved in the locker room. He brings a unique element to blue line that we think is really critical for us moving forward. Just feel like he’s the type of person that’s gonna keep working to get better and better. You guys hear me talk about that all the time, and he wants to be here. He’s made it clear this is a place I want to play and we’re excited.”

Samuelsson’s contract won’t be judged by offensive production. He has the potential to become a fixture on the top pair and the defensive stalwart the franchise has been missing across the 11-year playoff drought. His versatility allowed him to thrive alongside Dahlin, a fellow left-shot defenseman. Their rapidly developing chemistry helped spawn the club’s resurgence over the final weeks of last season. A defenseman with Samuelsson’s skill set and workload can cost far more than $4 million.

During Samuelsson’s time with the Sabres last season, from Jan. 17 through April, he ranked third on the team in average time on ice per game (20 minutes), first in hits (100), first in blocked shots (60) and first in penalty-kill ice time in 42 games. 

The cost certainty gives the Sabres a clearer picture on how much they will have to spend in future seasons when other core players will need to be signed. Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Asplund are prominent restricted free agents in the summer of 2023. Dahlin’s three-year, $18 million contract expires following the 2023-24 season. His price tag is expected to rise significantly from his $6 million average annual value. The Sabres also need to prepare to pay defenseman Owen Power and other young forwards who earn a spot in the club’s long-term plans. Peyton Krebs and Casey Mittelstadt are restricted free agents in 2024.

When the Sabres targeted Samuelsson as a player they want to be a long-term lineup fixture, Adams approached his agents, including Pat Brisson, to explore an extension. Both sides wanted a long-term commitment, and a deal was completed shortly thereafter. Now, Samuelsson is one of four players signed beyond 2024-25, joining Thompson, Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner.

“When you really feel that you have someone that you kind of project down the road as part of something special, then let’s work toward getting that long-term deal done,” said Adams. "And we know there’s more coming. That’s what’s exciting for me. But the only way you can do that is be really sharp and diligent the way you put these deals together and make sure you’re not just thinking about this one deal, you’re thinking about the next two, four, five deals that come down the road, and that’s what we talk about every day."

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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