Offseason checklist for the Buffalo Sabres

Offseason checklist for the Buffalo Sabres

The offseason has arrived for all but a handful of teams who are still taking part in the playoffs. Accordingly, it’s now time to examine what they will need to accomplish over the coming months. Next up is a look at Buffalo.

It looked like this could be the year for the Sabres were going to take a step forward and reach the playoffs. They were returning the bulk of one of the top-scoring groups in the league and with Devon Levi, they hoped they’d get some stability between the pipes.  Things didn’t go as planned, however.

Levi was overmatched early on and while he’s still part of their long-term future, he played more AHL games than NHL ones. Meanwhile, they dropped 50 goals off their 2022-23 total, going from the top three to outside the top 20 in that regard, resulting in them missing the playoffs again.

GM Kevyn Adams moved quickly, bringing back Lindy Ruff as head coach to replace Don Granato who was fired after the season. However, plenty of work needs to be done roster-wise in the coming months as well.

Extension talks

Before getting into the additions that need to be made, let’s look a little further out. The Sabres have a trio of key players that will become extension-eligible on July 1 as they enter the final year of their respective contracts.

Up front, J-J Peterka was one of the few players to take a step forward offensively this season, going from 12 goals in his rookie year to 28 while also reaching the 50-point mark. If the Sabres think he can get to another gear in 2024-25, it would be worth exploring what an early extension would cost. Forecasting further improvement into the offer, a long-term agreement should cost at least $5.5M and probably more.

Adams has been aggressive when it comes to getting some of these types of deals done and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him explore what a long-term pact with the 22-year-old would cost.

Jack Quinn is the other forward of note in this situation but his case is different.  Injuries limited him to just 27 games this season although he was productive in those, collecting 19 points while improving his per-game rates considerably. With just 104 games under his belt though, a long-term extension wouldn’t necessarily be viable.

However, they could look to work out an early bridge deal, one that gives Quinn some security after an injury-riddled campaign while also potentially giving Buffalo a team-friendly price tag if Quinn has a breakout year. It might take a price tag starting with a three to get Quinn to sign now.

Then there’s Bowen Byram. He was able to stay healthy this season for the most part and responded with a career year, notching 29 points in 73 games and logged nearly 22 minutes a night after being acquired from Colorado at the deadline for Casey Mittelstadt. Considering what they gave up to get him, it’s fair to say he’s in Buffalo’s long-term plans so he’s someone they’ll likely want to lock up sooner than later.

With his injury history, it shouldn’t come in as high as Owen Power’s new deal ($8.35M) but it should easily cross the $6M mark. Notably, he’s owed a qualifying offer of $4.62M next summer with arbitration rights so they’ll have to make an appealing offer to get him to put pen to paper early.

While it’s unlikely all three will ultimately sign new deals over the summer, Adams will want to at least get an idea of what each player will be looking for sooner than later as that information should help them when it comes to the rest of their planned spending this summer.

Re-Sign Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

While Levi wasn’t able to lock down the number one job, it wasn’t all bad news between the pipes for Buffalo this season. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen overcame a rough start to his season to become a true starter in the second half, posting a .919 SV% after January 1, a span of 36 games.

That performance helped keep the Sabres within striking distance of the playoffs longer than it looked like they were going to be early on.

The timing for his improvement was certainly good for Luukkonen as he’s eligible for restricted free agency this summer with arbitration eligibility. Midseason, it looked as if he wouldn’t be able to command any kind of significant deal as a backup with some question marks. Now, after the second half he had, the 25-year-old at least has some leverage heading into negotiations.

This negotiation could go a couple of different ways. Considering that he has just 100 games of NHL experience under his belt, it would be difficult to work out a satisfactory long-term agreement. And if Levi is still their intended starter of the future, they likely wouldn’t want to have Luukkonen locked up that long either. It’s also worth noting at this point that he is two years away from UFA eligibility.

Assuming the Sabres don’t want to sign him to a contract that walks him right to the open market, that means the options are a one-year deal or a medium-term pact that buys an extra year or two of club control. If it’s the former, the contract should check in around the $3.5M mark.

On the latter, it’s likely that Minnesota’s Filip Gustavsson’s three-year, $3.75M pact would be used as a starter in negotiations with a price point creeping into the $4M range. Even when Levi gets more expensive in 2025-26 when he needs a new contract, they should be able to afford both netminders in this price range with their salary structure.

While we’re on the topic of goaltending, the Sabres will also need to add a veteran goalie this summer. With Levi still having waiver exemption, there may come a time when they decide to give him a run of starts with AHL Rochester, necessitating the need to have a quality third option in the fold. There will be several of those players available in free agency but bringing in someone who they can play in a pinch with some confidence would be beneficial.

Add a top-six winger

While there’s a case to be made for not doing any sort of panic move due to the considerable drop-off in scoring this season and hoping that Ruff can help re-spark their attack, there is still a definite need to add, particularly on the wing.

Yes, players like Jiri Kulich, Matthew Savoie and Isak Rosen are on the rise and aren’t too far away but they can still benefit from time in the minors or being eased into things at the NHL level.

At the moment, they have around $65.5M in commitments for next season, per CapFriendly, assuming Levi is back up full-time. With the remaining funds, they need to sign upwards of six forwards, a couple of defensemen (including Henri Jokiharju who’s owed a $2.6M qualifying offer) and Luukkonen.

As far as cap situations go, that’s one of the more optimal ones around the league and Adams will have enough room to make a splash if he wants to.

Knowing some of the contracts that are coming down the road — this is where the knowledge from the early extension talks comes in — a move at the top end of the market might not make the most sense as when their 2025 RFAs get a lot more expensive in a hurry, it could cause a bit of a cap crunch.

However, there are plenty of options a tier down, including shorter-term veterans like Jonathan Marchessault if he doesn’t re-sign in Vegas, Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyler Toffoli, or even Patrick Kane who has been a speculative Buffalo target for a while now. If they want a longer-term piece, someone like Teuvo Teravainen, Tyler Bertuzzi, or Jake DeBrusk makes sense.

All of those players should fit within their long-term salary structure while also giving their forward group a boost. That, coupled with at least some internal improvement offensively, could give the Sabres a big lift next season.

Add center depth

For the first three quarters of this season, Buffalo had strong center depth with Mittelstadt joining Tage Thompson and Dylan Cozens. They were comfortable enough to deal from that by using Mittelstadt to get Byram but now they need to back-fill that spot.

Peyton Krebs got an extended look down the middle following the trade but didn’t exactly make the most of it while scoring just four goals all season. A pending RFA, he’s worth keeping around to see if Ruff can help get that part of his game going once again after being an impactful scorer in junior.

Meanwhile, long-time Sabre Zemgus Girgensons is unlikely to return as is Tyson Jost; both players spent some time down the middle this season. So did Kyle Okposo before being moved to Florida at the trade deadline. Internally, there aren’t any centers from Rochester that are likely to be pushing for a roster spot in training camp either (assuming Savoie needs some time in the minors to start). Accordingly, there’s at least one spot to fill and likely two.

Again, ample cap space will give them plenty of options.  Depending on what they do on the wing, they could have enough money to take a run at someone like Sean Monahan to give them that quality third option that they had when Mittelstadt was still there.

Chandler Stephenson would cost a bit more but the same idea would apply to him. Alexander Wennberg could also fit nicely in that third role as someone who could move up in a pinch when injuries arise.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Sabres target a veteran fourth liner. As a result of a long-term rebuild and playoff drought, there aren’t many veterans on this team. Adding some experienced players seems like something they’ll try to do, even on the wing if they opt to dip into free agency or the trade market to add a shorter-term piece or two.

But at a minimum, there’s a need to replenish their center depth so expect them to be aggressive on that front over the next couple of months.

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