The Buffalo Sabres are heading into their bye week just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Kevyn Adams’ rebuild is ahead of schedule, as Don Granato has led the Sabres through a period of consistent growth since the midway point of last season.
With the playoffs in sight, there are plenty of short and long-term questions about what’s to come for Buffalo. Here’s part one of our bye-week mailbag.
Any updates with KeyBank arena renovations? Scope of work and timeliness when it would be completed? Late 2020s? – Aaron H.
No new updates at this point. Last I heard, the Pegulas were waiting until the football stadium business was behind them before addressing the arena. This is one of the top issues I hear about from fans when we do these mailbags and it is certainly warranted. The building has become dated, and that’s part of the obstacle to getting the building consistently full again.
What is the balance between “make the playoffs” and “develop this young team” in the Sabres’ front office right now? — Harold K.
For most of the season, the balance has seemed to skew toward “develop this young team.” Making the playoffs, they believe, will be a byproduct of the work they do to develop their rising talent. And they will consider the development of their young players in any deal they make. For instance, if you trade for Timo Meier, who is coming off the top power-play unit? Is he replacing JJ Peterka or Jack Quinn on the second line? If he is being paid as part of the core, who may not be paid that way when the time comes? That’s not to say Meier is an automatic “no” for them, but they have to figure out how he fits into their short- and long-term plans. Eventually, Adams will need to be aggressive in acquiring outside talent, but they want to build the foundation through homegrown players. That’s the way the best teams have done it in the NHL for years. Their chemistry is strong, and most of their young players are trending in the right direction. Adding some depth on defense would be smart. Expensive rentals don’t make a lot of sense. And any blockbuster move needs to fit the long-term vision Adams and Granato have for this team. Adams can afford to wait a bit longer and see how the team looks closer to the deadline. There is something to be said about how much this group would benefit from some playoff experience. Adams needs to be weighing that as well.
Which prospect that is signed but hasn’t played any (significant) NHL minutes yet are you most excited about? I would think Kulich and Savoie are at the top of most fans’ lists, but curious about your take. Also, are there any other prospects more under the radar we should know about? — Dan C.
Jiri Kulich and Matt Savoie are certainly the easy answers to this question. Kulich, in particular, has been ahead of schedule from where you might expect a No. 28 pick to be in his draft-plus-one season. I liked what I saw from Isak Rosen over the summer and think his shot will be a real asset at the NHL level. The player I might be most intrigued to see develop, though, is Aleksandr Kisakov. He definitely needs to get a lot stronger to be able to handle the NHL game, but his offensive instincts and stick work are impressive. I love his attitude, too. He has a ton of confidence on the ice, especially when the puck is on his stick. As far as under-the-radar prospects, this year’s sixth-round pick Jake Richard has put together a nice season in the USHL. He’s already matched his goal total from a year ago with 18 and has 35 points in 30 games. He just got traded to the Tri-City Storm and is heading to the University of Connecticut next season.
With Thompson and Samuelson locked up long-term, who are the next core players that need deals and at what length and term? Also, would you bring Okposo and Girgenson back next year? I like the idea to be able to leave the prospects in Rochester for another year to develop. — William S.
Dylan Cozens, Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin could all get new contracts this summer. I would expect the Sabres to try to get each player locked up in the same seven-year range that they did with Tage Thompson and Mattias Samuelsson. The Sabres have very little doubt about all three of those players being a part of their core. Cozens is a restricted free agent after this season, so he should take priority. Power will have one year left on his entry-level deal after this year, and if he’s willing, the Sabres would be wise to lock him up long-term early. Dahlin isn’t a restricted free agent until 2024-25, so the urgency isn’t significant, but that’s one the Sabres would like to get done sooner rather than later, too. The way Power and Dahlin are playing, their price will only go up. Those three could end up being worth upwards of $25 million combined per season.
Right now, I think bringing back Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons would be a good move provided the rate is reasonable. Their leadership and reliable play style are valuable on a young, growing team. Having one more season to allow prospects to develop and to allow current players on the roster to grow into leadership roles would be a nice situation.
Thanks for what you do Matt. There is a great deal of discussion around GMKA making a big move before the deadline given where the team is at and the amount of cap space available. That said, this roster will become very expensive in the near future. It would be interesting for you to project where you think they will be cap-wise over the next few years and how that might influence moves that GMKA may be willing to do now. — Keith M.
With the contracts noted above, the Sabres won’t be swimming in cap space like they have been the last few seasons. Things will get a bit tighter when you add the Cozens, Power and Dahlin contracts to the books. Quinn and Peterka could earn new deals of their own in a few years. Depending on the timing and structure of those contracts, the Sabres could still have a nice cushion under the salary cap next season. When we have a full picture of what the NHL salary cap will be, it will be easier to know where the Sabres stand. But I would expect them to have at least $20 million to play with even after those extensions.
That could impact Adams’ thinking in a few ways. For one, he won’t want to make a move that will prevent him from signing one of those core players to their next contract. But he may also recognize the opportunity the team has in the next few seasons before the cap situation gets tighter and want to add some veterans to the mix to round out the lineup. They’re about to enter a fascinating stage of their rebuild.
What is Eric Comrie’s spirit these days having lost the net to a rookie? — Claude G.
Someone who knows Eric Comrie fairly well recently described him by saying, “I don’t think that guy has ever had a bad day at the rink.” That’s a fitting description from my dealings with him. The guy loves hockey like few people I’ve ever encountered and brings a positive, upbeat attitude to the rink on a consistent basis. I’m sure he’s frustrated with how this season has played out. It’s not what he planned. But his comments after the Winnipeg game were the latest indication to me that he’s in a good frame of mind. I also think he could still be an important piece of the puzzle here. If there’s an injury to Craig Andersonor Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the Sabres will need him to be ready. He’s also on a two-year contract, so when Anderson retires, he’ll have a chance to back up Luukkonen.
If Patrick Kane agreed to waive his no-move clause for the Sabres, what would they do? — Dan. S
They would pass. Trading for Patrick Kane doesn’t make sense for a handful of reasons. One is that he’s a somewhat expensive rental both in terms of cost to acquire and cost to retain after the season. The fact that he’s a free agent after the season means if the Sabres really wanted him they could try to acquire him then. I’m also not entirely sure he fits the current timeline of the team. He’s bumping someone out of the lineup, and it’s unclear how many top-end seasons he has left. He also sold his home in Buffalo a few years ago, so how much would he want to come here and what would the interest on Buffalo’s end be? That’s a bit unclear