Doesn’t it suck to have to re-sign your best players and have your worst ones under contract? That’s Buffalo, summer 2016.
Fret not Sabres fans, hope is in fact springing eternal. BUF was by far our most improved team this season. The club went from over a negative 100 AB in 2014-15 to a respectable negative 15 in 2015-16. This was good for 10th in the east in AB, but an astounding 4th in AB adjusted for time on ice! While we measure AB in our assessment of playoff worthiness, the extended AB for Buffalo would suggest that the team is on the upsweep. To interpret for new readers, Buffalo was far less prone to making mistakes than 1) they were last year and 2) most of their opponents.
This is because the Sabres have/had two excellent lines with upper tier players such as Eichel, Foligno, Girgensons, Deslauriers and Reinhart (and note to league – BUF really should resign UFA Tim Schaller; even though he did not have many minutes, he was outstanding when he played at +4.82 AB in 17 games). The “veteran” players wildly outperformed their results from a year ago while Eichel’s decision making aided mightily in the improvement at +7.42, (among the best in the NHL). In fact, the six players mentioned added over 30 goals at the margin this season. In order to be successful, NHL teams require several players to generate points at the margin in order to balance the normally defensive liabilities on the club. Buffalo is no different – except that it is in the enviable position that their best AB players also produce the lowest salary cap hit (BUF has $21mm available).
Unfortunately, where the Sabres are woefully the same as many other clubs is on the blue line. For all the positive contributions of the aforementioned players, six of their defensemen were negative AB (all except McCabe and Ristolainen), and four of them were among the worst in the league (Bogosian, Pysyk, Franson and Gorges). These four players cost Buffalo according to our metric over 36 goals at the margin. This, in our opinion was the difference between BUF making the playoffs and missing it by 12 points in the standings.
This shortfall, while it can be accomplished, will not be done so easily. The largest defensive problems for the Sabres are all under contract for the upcoming season. They would be wise to either trade or buy out (if they can) Bogosian or Franson, and attempt to sign a free agent D man who is less prone to coughing up the puck and taking far more penalties than he draws. As we will be chronicling, there are a dearth of defensemen that fit this profile league wide. BUF could therefore struggle to improve in this area, if for no other reason that it is hamstrung by both contract and lack of availability of alternatives.
Bottom line – we are NOT going to make the same mistake we made last year and declare BUF the next surprise, up-and-coming-team (like we did with CGY, ugggh) quite yet. We will however, be duly impressed if they can upgrade at least two of their defensive problems, resign all the forwards mentioned above except Eichel and Reinhart (who are under contract) and still have at least $15mm available under the cap. We would imagine BUF would call that a successful offseason as well; one that might even get them back into the playoffs as soon as next season.