What an encouraging end to the 2021/22 campaign it was for the Buffalo Sabres. Don Granato had the boys buzzing in April, winning 6 of their final 8 games in what was expected to be another dismal regular season.
The Sabres upcoming offseason is going to be an interesting one. This time last year, many thought the 2022/23 season would just be rebuild season #2 (or #3, I’ve lost track). Dare I say it’s looking like they may be able to put together a nice little competitive season?
Lots of cap space. Lots of fun names available in free agency. Lots of trade options. GM Kevyn Adams will certainly be having a busy summer ahead.
So let’s have some fun with a mock offseason roster. This article will attempt to find the balance between moves that I would make if I were in the GM’s shoes and moves that I expect the Buffalo Sabres to actually make.
Oh, cap space. The Sabres will have a ton of it this offseason. In fact, they had more cap space than cap hits for next season before they made the trade for Ben Bishop. After that trade? Well they still have a ton of cap space according to CapFriendly:
The cap floor (minimum amount of cap hits in order for an NHL team to have a legal roster) is yet to be officially announced for the 2022/23 NHL season, but let’s estimate it at $61.2 million for the purposes of this article.
So, the Buffalo Sabres will have to add a little over $14 million in cap hits just to have a compliant NHL roster. They have $35,554,166 in cap space, but I obviously do not expect them to use up anything close to that amount this summer.
Re-signing RFAs and pending UFAs
Let’s kick things off by re-signing some of the players who were on the Buffalo Sabres last season.
Below is a list of the players who fall under the unrestricted free agent category. These players are free to sign with any NHL team if Buffalo does not sign them by July 13th.
UFAs: Craig Anderson (G); Will Butcher (LHD); Drake Caggiula (LW); Aaron Dell (G); Cody Eakin (C); John Hayden (C); Vinnie Hinostroza (RW); Mark Jankowski (C); Colin Miller (RHD); Mark Pysyk (RHD); Malcolm Subban (G); Dustin Tokarski (G)
Call me crazy, but I think the Sabres let most of the names on this list walk this summer.
I think the three UFA defensemen have run their course in Buffalo. Will Butcher was never really able to establish himself in the lineup and any pathway to power play time is now gone. Mark Pysyk slowly fell off as the season went on. Colin Miller wouldn’t be a Sabre if they could have traded him at the deadline.
The forward room is very crowded in Buffalo next season. Not necessarily with quality, but with a large quantity of depth players and unproven youth. I could maybe see them ponder over Hinostroza a bit, but I just think the Sabres can do better with that roster spot and Hinostroza could do better than a potential 4th line/13th forward role.
I know there have been reports of mutual interest between the Sabres and Craig Anderson, but we have yet to see a new contract emerge so I think he finally hangs up his skates. Dustin Tokarski is a fine #3 goalie, but I would not want him to continue to be an NHL roadblock for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
I will sign exactly one pending UFA from the above list:
Re-sign Malcolm Subban (2-year deal / $775k per year)
I absolutely love how Malcolm Subban has given back to the Buffalo community after spending the majority of his time here on the IR. He truly fits the Kevyn Adams’ mold of guys who want to be here. So I offer him a virtual carbon copy of the Dustin Tokarski deal with the intention of Subban being the #3 goalie (#1 in Rochester) going forward.
He has a lot of NHL games under his belt, so he can easily fill an NHL backup role in a pinch. He is a good insurance policy to a young Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen if things don’t go well for him at the NHL level. I think this is just a great on-ice and off-ice deal for the Sabres and Amerks.
So let’s hop on over to the restricted free agents
RFAs: Brandon Biro (LW); Jacob Bryson (LHD); Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (G); Brett Murray (LW); Victor Olofsson (RW); Arttu Ruotsalainen (LW)
Re-sign Brandon Biro, Brett Murray, and Arttu Ruotsalainen
I view these three forwards as absolute must haves for Rochester. They are three players who are right on the cusp of an NHL spot. Who knows, maybe an injury or two and one of these names can establish themselves as a mainstay in the Sabres lineup.
I do believe that Arttu Ruotsalainen is a prime candidate to return to Europe, so if he is unwilling to settle for an AHL/NHL call-up role then we may not see him in North America next season. He is one of those players who has enough offense to create in the AHL, but not enough to be a contributor in an NHL top six. Rough spot to be in, but keep him around if you can.
Re-sign Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (1-year deal / $900k)
What do the Sabres have in UPL? I don’t know, but I do think it’s worth finding out. He struggled a bit in the AHL last season, but was solid when called up to the NHL. He has great physical traits that make it worth giving him a shot at a full-time NHL backup role.
Re-sign Jacob Bryson (1-year deal / $1.2 million)
Bryson was a good depth defenseman for the Sabres last season. He has an interesting skill set that can be useful at the NHL level, I just don’t believe he has fully maximized it yet. Give him another year
Re-sign Victor Olofsson (4-year deal / $5 million per)
Olofsson is obviously the biggest name on the Sabres’ restricted free agent list. He had a very interesting 2021/22 season to say the least. He went through a major dry spell that saw him produce only 6 points in 21 games. After he healed from a lingering injury, he went on to record 19 points over his final 16 games.
The Sabres have to pay a decent chunk of change to keep Olofsson around, but that’s the market rate and they have the short-term cap space to easily make this deal. His shot is worth that money alone and he appears to be adding some dimension to his overall game. A fully-healthy Olofsson can be one of the better depth point producers in the NHL.
Trades, trades, and more trades
I know, I know, some Sabres fans may still have PTSD from the last time their GM tried to “build out” their team via trades. Lots of shiny new assets came in and not so shiny results came out.
If you are NHL GM, I think you have to utilize the trade market if you truly want to take advantage of underutilized, undervalued assets. Just one quick look at the Colorado Avalanche and you will notice that nearly half of their team was built that way.
Sabres acquire: Rights to Jesse Puljujärvi
Oilers acquire: 2022 2nd round pick (41st overall) and Rights to Lawrence Pilut
This is the Sabres’ version of the Avalanche’s Valeri Nichushkin addition. Jesse Puljujärvi is coming off of a somewhat rough playoff performance and the Oilers will not be able to pay everyone in their forward group. I think this provides a great opportunity to buy low on a useful piece to any forward group.
The Oilers’ top forwards put up better expected and actual results when Jesse Puljujärvi was on the ice last season:
This is not just a coincidence, nor is this the first year that this has happened. Jesse Puljujärvi helps create more danger for his team and allows less danger against. It’s as simple as that.
So why would the Edmonton Oilers trade a guy like this? Are they idiots? Well no, players who profile like Puljujärvi are dealt in this league all of the time (and wrongfully so). The NHL is a very “what can you do for me now?” league, so players who profile like Puljujärvi are easily overlooked.
His individual stats or his “what can you do for me now?” stats were very mediocre. Despite playing a good chunk of his minutes alongside Connor McDavid, he only recorded 36 points in 65 games. Puljujärvi also struggled in finishing his chances, scoring only 14 goals on 21.7 expected goals. For comparison, Tage Thompson had 38 goals on 23.8 expected goals.
He obviously does not possess Tage’s finishing ability, but I also believe he suffered from a bit of puck unluck last season. In just the prior season, Puljujärvi scored 15 goals on 15.3 expected goals.
Outside of the counting stats that NHL GMs value so much, Jesse Puljujärvi brings an added forechecking/neutral zone disruptor dimension that the Sabres young forward group can absolutely use. It’s the primary reason why he’s on the ice for more danger for and less danger against:
Sabres acquire: John Marino
Penguins acquire: 2022 1st round pick (28th overall) and Casey Fitzgerald
The Sabres are absolutely in the market for a right-handed defenseman next season. The only NHL-caliber player they have on the right side is Henri Jokiharju. They are not afraid to start going after some high-priced assets here as they part ways with one of their 1st round picks in the 2022 NHL Draft.
John Marino is a 25 year-old defenseman who has five more years remaining on his deal with a $4.4 million cap hit. He’s a little bit pricey for what he brings to the table, but the Sabres are just looking for a complement to one of their two offensively-gifted defenseman on the left side. The RHD market is very thin this offseason, so the Sabres decide to lock up a young one who may be on the trading block.
Marino has yet to live up to his defensive impacts from his rookie season. However, he still has all of the same traits in his game and I think he can really be a solid defense partner for Rasmus Dahlin. Marino takes care of puck retrievals and defensive zone dirty work while Dahlin takes the reins in the transition game and in the offensive zone.
I know I will take heat for this trade because of the cost, but the market for RHD is wild and the Sabres are not the only team in competition for his services. Also, the odds are not in your favor to find a John Marino-caliber player with even the 28th overall pick.
Sign Jesse Puljujärvi (2-year deal / $3.5 million per)
The Sabres technically acquired the RFA rights to Jesse Puljujärvi in this mock offseason. He is in need of a new contract, so he gets a nice 2-year sample deal that expires while he is still an RFA.
Sign P.K. Subban (2-year deal / $3.5 million per)
Malcolm Subban has really established himself as a member of the Western New York community and I think the Sabres will bring along P.K. Subban to join him in the organization. He’s a right-handed shot, NHL veteran, and has been a positive impact on the offensive side of things for his entire career.
P.K. had a lot of experience playing in a rush-heavy offense in New Jersey, so I think he would be able to seamlessly transition into the Sabres’ defense corps. He will add a bit of offensive flair as he was an above average producer in nearly all offensive zone microstats last season:
I also think this signing goes a little bit beyond hockey as well. Buffalo brings in a player who truly values whatever community he is playing in. This is the perfect signing as it adds both a valued veteran in the locker room while also building up a bit of hype for the 2022/23 season by adding a familiar name.
Sign Jack Campbell (3-year deal / $4.5 million per)
If the Sabres want to add to the vibes, this is how you add to the vibes. Jack Campbell has always been a valued teammate who has been loved by many. I was not a believer in “vibes = wins” at first, but this current group in Buffalo is making me one.
There may not be an NHL goaltender who had a more interesting journey. Campbell burst onto the scene with a gold medal-winning performance at the 2010 World Juniors. He went on to be drafted 11th overall by the Dallas Stars just a few months later. He struggled in the AHL, saw time in the ECHL, and only appeared in 7 NHL games by the time he turned 26.
After a few backup stints, he established himself as the Leafs’ starter in 2021/22 and was named to the 2022 NHL All-Star Game. Despite a hot start to the season, his results fell off big time.
Before January 15th, Campbell’s .935 SV% trailed only Igor Shesterkin among NHL starters and he only allowed 53 goals against on 66.9 expected goals against. After January 15th, he posted a severely underwhelming .886 SV% and allowed 70 goals against on just 48.1 expected goals against. He went from one of the best to one of the worst within a season.
Is this signing risky? Probably. This deal is barely more than “worth it” in the best case scenario while the worst case scenario is a backup goalie making $4.5 million per year. However, this is a risk that the Sabres can take as they are not really paying anyone over the next two or three seasons. They will have more than enough room to eat a short-term goalie contract gone bad.
If the Sabres can get results somewhere in between the good Jack Campbell and the bad Jack Campbell, they will still be getting better goaltending than they did from anyone in their 2021/22 campaign (ok, Michael Houser was elite in his small sample).
Building the Lines
Ok, now let’s get into the fun part: building the lines for the 2022/23 Buffalo Sabres
Line #1: Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
I know I could have gotten more creative here, but the Sabres stick with the old faithful here. My reasoning for this is twofold: this line was really good and I think the team has the depth to keep this line together without destroying the rest of the lineup.
This line posted an impressive 54.2 xGF% last season and their on-ice results would have looked much better with average goaltending. Everything about this line works: elite rush creation, shooting lanes for Tage, puck battle wins for Tuch, and chaotic rebound chances for Skinner. Check out this chart from Corey Sznajder:
Line #2: Jesse Puljujärvi – Dylan Cozens – Jack Quinn
Dylan Cozens plays his best hockey when he plays with linemates that allow him to be Dylan Cozens. He is a player who carries the puck with a refreshing breath of fearlessness, just a 6’3” speedy center barrelling down the ice.
Puljujärvi is the perfect yin to Cozens’ yang. Active stick in the neutral zone, great defensive positioning, constantly pressuring the puck, and a willingness to engage in puck battles. It is a lot easier to play rush-based hockey with positive events when there is a guy like Puljujärvi on your side. Toss Jack Quinn on this line as he will get his offensive chances without getting eaten alive defensively and can finish.
Line #3: Rasmus Asplund – Peyton Krebs – Victor Olofsson
Rasmus Asplund was the Sabres best defensive forward last season and Peyton Krebs was their worst defensive forward. Peyton Krebs has high-end passing skill while Victor Olofsson has high-end shooting skill. This is a very elementary way to assemble a line, but I think it could work.
Olofsson adds a very fun offensive dimension to this line and Asplund may be the only player in the lineup who can make Krebs above a 50 xGF% player:
Line #4: JJ Peterka – Casey Mittelstadt – Kyle Okposo
This is not your typical NHL fourth line by any means because it is far from a defensive matchup line, nor is it a “grinder” line. I tried doing a “four lines, but no real fourth line” type of deal with this Sabres lineup. I just don’t think they have the depth for it yet, but they might as well try it out.
The team also has the personnel to make a mid-game adjustment to add a defensive line into the mix when necessary.
Extra Forwards: Zemgus Girgensons, Anders Bjork
It is extremely difficult to do a mock offseason where the Sabres add a forward, put all of their young guns in the NHL, and avoid putting a solid NHLer in the press box. Zemgus Girgensons is the casualty here, but I think he will absolutely get games when another defensive forward is needed.
I think the odds are slim that both Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka transition into 82-game NHLers without any bumps in the road. Also, injuries always happen in hockey. So this crowded forward group will seem a lot less crowded at points throughout the season.
Anders Bjork has one year left on his deal and I think he is an ideal press box guy. He is actually a decent NHLer and he no longer has to worry about being served his minutes alongside Cody Eakin. He’s a very versatile 14th forward who can forecheck.
D Pair #1: Rasmus Dahlin – John Marino
I touched upon this combo earlier in the John Marino section, but I just think that this pair will work. Dahlin really struggled with puck retrievals last season while Marino strived in that area. Dahlin allowed a lot of zone entries leading to chances against while Marino didn’t.
Marino is an adept player in transition but really struggles when creating in the offensive zone. I think Dahlin has more than enough talent to be an elite offensive impact guy, he just has to hit that level of consistency. I think these two young blueliners can form a mutually beneficial relationship.
D Pair #2: Owen Power – P.K. Subban
This is the pure offensive creation pair. Owen Power was a stud in his small 8-game sample with the Sabres. One noticeable thing about Power’s game is how his movement in the offensive zone also forces his defense partner to move. By creating new lanes for himself, he creates new lanes for his teammates.
I think a player like Power can make an aging offensive defenseman like P.K. Subban feel young again. Another interesting tidbit: Subban and Hamilton had a 67.2 xGF% in 48 5v5 minutes together last season. I get a lot of Dougie Hamilton vibes from Owen Power.
D Pair #3: Mattias Samuelsson – Henri Jokiharju
Henri Jokiharju had a very rough last season, ranking in the 2nd percentile among NHL skaters in Goals Above Replacement according to Evolving-Hockey. A lot of his issues stemmed from the defensive side of things where he would bleed chances against.
Mattias Samuelsson gets bumped off of the top pair with the addition of John Marino, but he finds a useful home alongside Henri Jokiharju. The Samuelsson-Jokiharju pair posted a 44.9 xGF% and 51.8 GF% at 5v5. Not great, but maybe the two will develop chemistry as a more consistent pair. Samuelsson will provide support on the defensive side of things.
Extra Defenseman: Jacob Bryson
I think a team is doing pretty well for themselves when Jacob Bryson is their 7th defenseman. He had a pretty decent season in 2021/22 and will certainly get his fair share of games despite being listed as the 7th defenseman.
Starting Goalie: Jack Campbell
The big free agent signing. The vibes guy. Jack Campbell gets the nod as the starting goalie in net for the 2022/23 Buffalo Sabres. The hope is that he can regain his early season form and provide the Sabres with some positive results in net for the first time in forever.
Backup Goalie: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
Am I crazy for putting a goalie who was mediocre in the AHL in a backup goalie spot? Yes, yes I am. It’s worth noting that UPL was pretty solid in his 9-game NHL stint, putting up better Goals Saved Above Expected per 60 numbers than all three of Craig Anderson, Dustin Tokarski, and Aaron Dell via MoneyPuck.
It’s time to see what the 23 year-old netminder can do. It’s time to live on the edge.
Data in this article is from Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, MoneyPuck, All Three Zones and CapFriendly