Salary Cap Crap
With no games for the next 8 days, we have some time on our hands. So let's use some of this time to take a good hard look at Buffalo's salary cap of $80,395,913.00 and how it impacts their future.
First, starting at the top, is Sabres captain and coveted top line center Jack Eichel. Eichel is on a salary of $10 million per year through 2026. Come 2026 that draw will probably look like a bargain. At the moment and for the near future, it's a hefty sum at one eighth of the team cap. Is he worth it? The numbers he puts up, over a point a game for several seasons now and currently at 11 points in 10 games, indicate that yes, he's worth it.
Right behind Eichel is Jeff Skinner at $9 million annually on a contract that lasts until the end of time. He'll be 35 y/o when it expires. Between those two players, Eichel and Skinner, 23.75% of Buffalo's cap is wiped out. Six more players at such a price tag would leave Buffalo with only eight players on the roster. Eichel is a keeper though. Skinner is an issue. Without skating beside Jack, Skinner can't score. In his 10 games this season, Skinner has put up 1 point, a single lonely assist. That being said, he hasn't looked bad. Skins has had many scoring chances. He just can't finish. Unfortunately for him, when the $9mil deal was inked, it was with the expectation that he'd produce a steady stream of goals.
Taylor "Swift" Hall sits right behind Skinner at $8 million per year. He's a former league MVP and five time All-Star selection. He's at 9 points for the first 10 games. Looks like he is a keeper too providing he continues to produce. However, Sabres signed him for just one season. Although he's about to become a free agent, again, there are factors working against him such as a limited increased or unchanged salary cap for next season, his age, and his waning production, which is assuming he doesn't go on a tear in the next 46 games. There might not be a lot of competition to sign him at his current salary, leaving Buffalo as a the frontrunner to get him for another term.
The three players above account for one third of the Sabres cap. It's kind of a big deal but not a huge deal. There are other teams with high end talent who consume large chunks of the cap. It isn't uncommon. However, sometimes that high end talent doesn't perform and that's a problem. Buffalo is in the middle of a second season with that problem (Skinner) and it needs some solving.
Release the Kraken! The Seattle Kraken expansion draft is scheduled for July 21, 2021 followed by the NHL Entry Draft beginning two days later. In the most recent expansion draft which ushered the Las Vegas Golden Knights into the league, the wheeling and dealing was fast and furious. Just what you'd expect from a Vegas outfit, and by making it into the Stanley Cup finals in their expansion year, it's fair to say the house won.
Can Buffalo use the upcoming expansion draft to their advantage? Mos def! There are a few different directions Buffalo might go. Here's the one I'd most like to see. Leave Jeff Skinner unprotected. In case you don't know, in an Expansion Draft the new team is formed by taking one player from every team. However, each team can protect 7 of their forwards, 3 of their defensemen, and 1 goalie. Even with such protection, valuable players may still be exposed.
To prevent those players from being taken, General Managers will make deals with the expansion team, offering draft picks or players in exchange for regulating their pick.
The Sabres, by offering a pick or a player or cap relief by retaining some of Skinner's salary or some combination of those options in exchange for the Kraken taking Skinner with their pick could create a mutually beneficial arrangement. For an expansion team, putting up a true #1 line can be challenging. What normally happens is the expansion team ends up with a plethora of high performing 3rd and 4th line players and a good 2nd line as well, but no true #1 line (read: scoring line) to speak of. Vegas is an anomaly. They made it work with some relatively unknown and undervalued players. Traditionally, expansion teams don't come close to making the playoffs in their first season.
Everyone around the league knows Skinner's reputation. He's a streaky goal scorer but when paired with a top line center his chances of bagging 30 or more increase beyond the norm. With that knowledge along with the wealth of picks and players Seattle will receive plus incentives from the Sabres, Buffalo may be able to get away from that $9 million black hole. There is one catch however. Jeff Skinner is one of two Sabres who have a no-movement clause built in to their contract, the other being Taylor Hall. In order to make any of this happen, Skinner would have to agree to the deal and waive his no-movement clause. Cross your fingers Sabres fans.
Next up, Kyle Okposo and his $6 million fleecing. He gets $6mil this year. Next year too, another $6mil gone. The year after that, you guessed it, yet another $6mil out the window. I'm so over this. Please, make it stop. Okay, so there are a couple ways to end the madness. One of them is by doing the same thing I just described with Skinner. If the Skinner deal doesn't materialize, maybe an Okposo deal will. Having only 2 years remaining on his contract might make it a more palatable option to the Kraken. If that doesn't happen, which will likely be the case since a lot of competing Okposo type deals are going to be laid at Seattle's feet, it'll be time to take a serious look at doing a buyout.
Buyout has become somewhat of a dirty word around the NHL because it ties up valuable salary cap money for an extended period of time. It requires a team to pay a player two thirds of their remaining salary over a period twice as long as the length of time remaining on their contract. When this occurs, the player is no longer on the team but his buyout salary still counts against the cap. As per capfriendly.com, Okposo's buyout, after this season, would look like this:
2021/22 season: $5,000,000 cap hit
2022/23 season: $3,000,000 cap hit
2023/24 season: $1,000,000 cap hit
2024/25 season: $1,000,000 cap hit
Year one of the buyout is only a $1mil savings but the role Okposo has been playing is roughly that of a $1mil player. So that's a wash. For the next year it's a savings of $3mil and the two years which follow it amount to a $1mil per year loss. The aggregate savings against the cap is $2mil.
The upside is, if Kevyn Adams can negotiate a deal that sends Skinner to Seattle and he also executes an Okposo buyout, Buffalo will have $10mil plus any additional cap increase to re-sign Dahlin (RFA) and Reinhart (UFA). The upcoming UFAs on the team won't be making much more than they are already, if any. Cozens, hopefully, will assume second line center duties putting Staal's $3.25mil back in play as he probably won't be returning which should help Adams fill other holes.
Without the movement of Skinner, GMKA will need to be shrewd and creative. The Sabres are making progress but more work needs to be done.
Other upcoming free agents include forwards Tobias Rieder and Riley Sheehan, defensemen Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, and Matt Irwin, and both goalies Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. I don't anticipate any of those players getting much of a raise should Buffalo decide to re-sign them.
Some Sabres fans have been complaining about goaltending for several years now and this year is no different. With each of their goalies about to enter into free agency, Buffalo will be left with $5.35mil to spend on either re-signing one or both of them OR signing a new crease constable with a greater pedigree. Doing so will cost more than Ullmark's salary but a back up goalie should cost less than what Hutton makes, especially if Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen can handle the job at the league's rookie salary of $925k/yr.
Currently, the Sabres have just under $800k in dead money (buyout money) against the cap which goes to Cody Hodgson until the end of the 2022/23 season. Many teams have a good deal more than that. Signing a player is much like hiring an employee. No matter how thoroughly you review their qualifications, you don't really know what you'll get until they go to work for you. Wishing you good fortune managing the cap Mr. Adams. Sabres Mafia will be watching.