The uncertainty surrounding the salary cap has prevented Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill from engaging in substantive contract talks with his pending unrestricted and restricted free agents.
Botterill, though, told reporters during a Zoom conference call last week that he will maintain contact with "most" of those players' agents and will not take further action until a decision is made on whether the NHL can follow through with its 24-team return-to-play format this summer.
A lower salary-cap ceiling likely would have a significant impact on the Sabres' offseason plan. Regardless of the financial situation, Botterill expects to have some flexibility because of expiring contracts.
Which of his restricted and unrestricted free agents should return in 2020-21? What about defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and goalie Carter Hutton? The Buffalo News' Mike Harrington and Lance Lysowski weigh in:
Harrington: Stay. One of these years, a Sabres coach will figure out how to use this guy properly. The issue has been not having anyone else to take over those big minutes. That has to change, as Rasmus Dahlin should step into that role next season in year three of his career. Get Ristolainen on the second pair, limit him to 20-22 minutes a night and you'd see the mistakes that drive fans crazy at times cut back. If the Sabres trade him, what physicality would they have left on the back end?
Lysowski: Go. This wasn't an easy decision. Dahlin isn't ready to take over Ristolainen's role as the Sabres' workhorse defenseman and, as Mike pointed out, this team already lacks the physical element that Ristolainen brings most games. Ristolainen also has the intangibles, particularly a passion and desire to win in Buffalo, and the Sabres need from every player if they're going to create a winning culture.
It's time for a change, though. Ristolainen's play regressed in the season's second half, and he's better suited for a second or third pairing. A trade would help Botterill add scoring help, and the Sabres could use the cap savings to sign a free-agent defenseman such as Dylan DeMelo.
Harrington: Go. This is the guy I'm trading. Not because I don't like him, but because it would seem he would draw the most interest from teams and thus get the Sabres at least a top-nine forward and maybe a top-six. He's a better defenseman than he showed last season, as we saw when he played for Anaheim in the 2017 Western Conference final. He's just miscast in Ralph Krueger's system and other teams have to know that.
Lysowski: Go. There is an argument for keeping Montour, a pending restricted free agent. He's an outstanding skater and his offensive production took a hit this season because he was forced to play his off-side. Montour is only 26 years old and better usage could help him blossom.
That said, Montour isn't a fit for Krueger's system. He doesn't make enough of an impact on the power play or penalty kill to justify a price tag that could be around $5 million per season. There should be enough interest in Montour to help Botterill acquire an undervalued, talented forward for the top-nine.
Harrington: Stay. He's part of the core. But he better be realistic with his contract demands. The last negotiation was drawn out and ended at two years, $7.3 million. A pair of 22-goal seasons later, how much more will Reinhart demand and how much higher will the Sabres go? I'd love to see four years and $20 million but I doubt the Sabres get away that cheaply.
Lysowski: Stay. There isn't a valid argument to trade Reinhart. The Sabres need more goal scorers and Reinhart has 69 goals over the past three seasons. The 24-year-old also took significant steps defensively this season and emerged as a leader in the dressing room.
Botterill will likely wait to sign Reinhart to a long-term extension. Such a contract would not make sense for either side given the uncertainty surrounding the salary cap for next season.
Harrington: Stay. Only Jack Eichel took and won more faceoffs than Larsson (322/668/48.2%). It's not easy to plug that kind of hole. The players love the guy and particularly the "Angry Larry" persona he brings on the ice when he suddenly snaps on an opponent. You need that kind of bite. As a UFA, I'd see about two years, $4 million total.
Lysowski: Stay. The Sabres don't need to create another void at center. Larsson was outstanding this season, specifically without the puck, and he proved he can play with an elite winger such as Jeff Skinner. I agree with Mike that the Sabres should be willing to pay up to $2 million a season on a short-term deal. Larsson is the type of player you need if you're going to be a playoff team.
Harrington: Go, but with regret. Had a better season and has given a lot of time to this organization since 2013 but it's probably time to move on after seven years and nearly 500 games. That was a strong fourth line last season but I fear Kyle Okposo's big-ticket contract means the Sabres can keep only one of Girgensons and Larsson and, in that case, you have to keep the center who takes faceoffs. Girgensons has moved to Pittsburgh, where his wife is from and attended college, and works out summers at the Penguins' facility. Wonder if that might be a match.
Lysowski: Go. Although the Sabres would be stronger with Girgensons, he likely priced himself out of Buffalo with an outstanding season under Krueger. It would not be wise to pay too much given the lack of offensive production. Girgensons, a former first-round draft pick, scored 12 goals, his highest total since 2014-15, and continued to be an effective player on the penalty kill.
Buffalo would benefit from having more skill and capable goal scorers in the bottom six, although it would be wise to fill the hole with a veteran, as opposed to a prospect such as Rasmus Asplund.
Harrington: Go, with a twist. It might be tough to get someone to bite on a trade, given Hutton's play and cap hit. I'd say Botterill should think long and hard about a buyout here. He abhors them but has to consider it this time. It would take Hutton's $2.75 million hit down to $916,667 in 2020-21. While he'd normally be off the books next summer, you'd be dealing with another Hutton cap hit of $916,667 in 2021-22. Botterill better realize he won't be around by then if Hutton is in net next season playing like he did for much of the time after October in this one. The GM should take the plunge.
Lysowski: Go. Botterill can find a team willing to acquire the final season of Hutton's contract. Hutton was outstanding at times, but he struggled in the second half of the past two seasons. The 34-year-old would do well on a team with more veterans and better defensive structure. The Sabres need insurance behind Linus Ullmark, who had a .839 save percentage on the penalty kill. Sign a veteran goalie who can push for the No. 1 job.
Harrington: Stay. One year, $1.5 million. Take it or leave it. We didn't see much on the ice in his seven games in terms of offense but he has jam to his game and the sense is that he can really help in the dressing room. And there's this: The Captain made it a point on his media Zoom call to say this team needs more veterans. The GM should listen.
Lysowski: Stay. The price tag will be low and Simmonds fits each of the criteria Eichel is looking for in an offseason addition: veteran, toughness and depth. Simmonds, 31, has scored 24 or more goals six times during his NHL career and demonstrated with Buffalo that he can still provide a valuable physical presence.
Give Simmonds a one-year deal and challenge him to prove he's still the player former teammates describe as "the ultimate warrior."
Harrington: Go. Lance and I have had analytics arguments about this guy. He's much ado about nothing. Went 20 games without a goal to start the season. Stone-handed too many good chances from in tight. This is the guy the hockey world spent two weeks in August breathlessly waiting on in 2016? Please.
Lysowski: Stay, if the price is low on a short-term deal. Vesey ranked fourth on the Sabres in 5-on-5 expected goals, a measure of shot quality, and individual high-danger scoring chances, while analytics also show he was among the team's better forwards without the puck.
Yes, the production wasn't great: nine goals, 11 assists and a plus-12 rating in 64 games. But it's not a fluke that Vesey scored 50 goals in three seasons with the New York Rangers. He is the type of player Botterill should try to sign at a low price, and Vesey would benefit from playing with a gifted center such as Dylan Cozens.
Harrington: Stay, especially since you shouldn't need to spend more than $1 million to keep him. Need more offense but you like having that designated faceoff man, especially at center ice to start overtime in one of Krueger's niftiest coaching tricks of the season. The former Canadian World Junior captain will become more of a locker room presence, too.
Lysowski: Stay. Lazar finally forged an identity as an effective NHL player this season, winning faceoffs in key moments and providing a physical presence. The Sabres need more from him offensively. Lazar shouldn't receive much of a raise as a restricted free agent, but he'll need to be better on the penalty kill if he's going to stick around.
Harrington: Go. He was much better at times in October than last season but Krueger still liked him far too much. And now he's coming off major knee surgery. But I'll admit there's no way the Sabres' penalty kill would have been so putrid had Sobotka stayed healthy.
Lysowski: Go. Sobotka is 32 years old and has scored only 18 goals in 167 regular-season games since returning to the NHL in 2016-17. He can bring value on the penalty kill and with his versatility, but the Sabres need more players who can score.
Harrington: Go. Shouldn't have even come. Still ridiculous that Botterill didn't bring back Jason Pominville but took on this guy -- whose game looks finished -- at a $4.3 million cap hit when he could have kept Marco Scandella for another month.
Lysowski: Go. Aside from absorbing a prorated amount of Frolik's absurd salary, the Sabres' trade for the 32-year old made sense in January. Frolik is a Stanley Cup champion with a resume that includes seven seasons of 15 or more goals and a history of success on the penalty kill.
The trade was a disaster. Frolik looked lost when he had the puck and scored only one empty-net goal in 19 games. He also struggled to contribute on the penalty kill, the one area he was supposed to help.
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