The Buffalo Sabres have been a struggling hockey team since the 2010-2011 season, the last time they made the playoffs. The franchise went into rebuild mode and have done well at the draft. Players like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Alexander Nylander are young players full of potential and will be the future of the Buffalo Sabres.
General Manager Tim Murray has also managed to acquire great players through trade and free agency. Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane will provide stability and offence while the young stars develop. The team has skill and can beat even the best of teams on any given night.
However, this off-season Murray has a lot of decisions to make. There are 12 players on their roster with expiring contracts. Some of these players are vital to this teams success, and Murray will have to decide who will stay, and who will go.
Tough Decisions Ahead for Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray
Let’s start with the captain, 38-year-old Brian Gionta, who has provided much-needed veteran leadership for his squad. He is one of four players above 30 years old. A 48-goal scorer for the New Jersey Devils and many good years in Montreal have made him a respected man around the league. Gionta is on the final year of his three-year deal worth $4.25 million annually. This season he has 27 points in 56 games. Not bad numbers for a guy his age. He has flirted with 30 points per season in his time with the Sabres.
At his age and cap hit, it’s unlikely any team would be willing to trade for him as a rental player for a playoff push. If a team was interested, the return probably wouldn’t match his value to the Sabres anyways.
What happens in the off-season is pretty much up to Gionta. Players in their late 30s often try joining Stanley Cup contending teams in an effort to ride off into the sunset with one last taste of playoff glory. Or he may decide to sign a short-term, low-cap deal for comfort and convenience, instead of testing free agency. It would benefit the Sabres if they were able to sign their captain for around or less than $3 million annually.
Remember the 2015 All Star Game? Zemgus Girgensons was one of the fan-voted outliers there. The Latvian player received ridiculous amounts of votes from Sabres fans and mostly fans back in Latvia. The hype has since faded.
Girgensons was a 1st round draft choice, 14th overall at the 2012 draft. He has shown flashes of his potential, with a career high 15 goals and 15 assists in the 2014-2015 season. This season he is sitting at six goals and seven assists in 53 games.
Girgensons upside is he is only 23 years old and has a very manageable contract at $1.15 million. For that price, the numbers he is producing don’t seem like such a problem. However, it’s likely that he will want a raise for next year. The Sabres will have to decide whether to give the young forward more time to showcase himself, even if that means bumping up his salary. But with the amount of young talent this team has, if he doesn’t produce quickly his roster spot could easily be taken. Or they will decide to let another team take a chance on him. Possibly a player to expose for the Las Vegas draft even.
Dmitry Kulikov is another player that went 14th overall in the first round of the NHL entry draft. That was the 2009 draft, and it was the Florida Panthers pick. The Sabres acquired him through a trade involving picks and defenseman Mark Pysyk.
Kulikov’s role has really changed with his new team. In Florida he was more offensive, and a part of their power play. He averaged right around 20 points and 5-10 power play points per season. in 31 games with Buffalo this year he only has one goal and one assist. It seems he is more of a shutdown defenseman now.
The 26-year-old Russian defenseman comes at a $4.33-million cap hit. The Sabres clearly saw something they liked in this guy when they went and traded for him. So it is definitely possible that they work on negotiating a long-term deal. Especially since there isn’t a whole lot of potential in their defenseive prospects.
This is quite possibly the most important contract the Sabres will have to address. The NHL is trending towards goalies with size. That is one of Robin Lehner‘s best characteristics. The 25-year-old Swedish goalie stands at an impressive 6’4″ and weighs 239 pounds.
Murray comes from the Ottawa Senators, so he knew what Lehner’s potential was when he traded their first round pick for him in 2015. Lehner showed flashes of brilliance while with the Senators but was never able to stay consistent. Both seasons that he played 25+ games, his goals against average was above 3.00. He has managed to improve with the Sabres however. In 39 games this year, he has had some of the best stats of his career (15 wins, 2.55 goals against average, .924 save percentage).
His current salary is $2.25 million. That is a bargain for a starting goaltender of his size, age and ability. The question is, what will his asking price be for next year? That’s hard to gauge.
The problem is he hasn’t had a full season as a starter. His 39 games this year are the most he has played in one NHL season. After this season, Lehner and the Sabres may agree to a bridge deal, maybe something above $3 million for two years, just to allow more time for both parties to know his true value before jumping into a long-term commitment. The Sabres will likely do whatever they can to hold onto him, considering how important goaltending has become in the NHL.