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Mock Offseason: Sabres Use Trade Market; Kane Comes Home

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Patrick Kane Buffalo Sabres trade free agency mock offseason

With the NHL Draft on Friday and free agency opening on Monday, it’s time to put on my general manager’s hat. By now you’ve probably seen a few “mock offseasons” and “GM for a day” pieces, with the difference in this one being the statistical work I’ve done. I’ve run the numbers to mimic Sam Ventura and the analytics team. I’m combining that with information gathered on trade news to give a realistic approach to forming a Buffalo Sabres roster for the 2024-2025 season.

First, let’s define the goal for next season. Without a doubt, the Sabres are thinking of playoffs. It’s been 13 seasons, and they’re sick of the losing stigma. The core is good, and they need to make the team great.

Norman Vincent Peale once said “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” That’s the approach I’m taking. Icing a team that finishes in a wild-card playoff spot shouldn’t be the target. Instead, let’s formulate a team that comfortably makes the playoffs, surpassing the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and even the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Skinner Buyout

The first order of business is buying out Jeff Skinner, which Chad DeDominicis of Expected Buffalo reported is likely to happen Thursday. The move has not been announced yet at the time of publishing, but let’s lock it in.

Skinner’s 92 goals over the past three seasons have been extremely valuable. The dropoff at the end of this past season is scary though, and at age 32 with three seasons left on his deal, it’s tough to justify allotting $9 million to him.

Buying out Skinner primes us for the offseason with a shade over $31 million in cap space. To use wisely, of course.

Related: Report: Sabres to Buyout Jeff Skinner

Re-sign RFAs

The Sabres hold the rights to five free agents with restricted status from their NHL roster at the end of last season. These RFAs are Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Henri Jokiharju, Peyton Krebs, Jacob Bryson, and Kale Clague.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Signing starting goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is priority number one, so let’s give him a two-year, $4 million average annual value contract based on Evolving-Hockey’s projections. With Devon Levi due for a contract next season, the Sabres have to be careful on a one-year wonder here. Luukkonen could be the better goalie, but a three-year deal pushes in the $4.7 million range. A four-year deal, according to Evolving-Hockey, projects north of $5.2 million per season.

It’s better to lock Luukkonen in on a bridge deal to minimize the risk. Goalies are highly volatile, as it is.

Henri Jokiharju

Henri Jokiharju has been the subject of some trade chatter, although he’s coming off his best season. Right-shot defensemen are at a premium, and the Sabres only have a few options in the organization.

Jokiharju fits the mold of players who have thrived under coach Lindy Ruff, so he’s re-signing at $4 million per season for three years. This saves us the hassle of going out and finding his replacement, while not hindering his value should we want to go in a different direction in a couple of seasons.

Peyton Krebs

Peyton Krebs is an example of an effort-first, defensively-responsible forward that Ruff also adores. He’s an easy bridge deal signing at two years, $1.8 million AAV to plug into the bottom six.

Jacob Bryson

Qualifying these RFAs by July 1st allows the Sabres to extend the negotiating period but in Jacob Bryson’s case, they’re better off not doing so. Bryson could sign for cheaper if they can agree to terms before qualifying.

The Sabres need depth defensemen and he performed well enough to stick around. A one-year, $1.2 AAV one-way contract should do it, with the intention of him bouncing between Buffalo and Rochester.

Kale Clague

The previous Sabres coaching staff showed more trust in Bryson than Kale Clague. We’re moving on from the former second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings by not extending an offer.

Others

Riley Stillman is an RFA who didn’t see any NHL action last season after looking like a savvy pickup by GM Kevyn Adams. Without the support of former coach Don Granato, there’s not much of a place for him anymore.

Calle Sjalin is a name you might recognize from the Kyle Okposo trade to the Florida Panthers. The RFA is rumored to be heading to play in Europe, so there’s no future here.

Draft Day Trades

Every Sabres fan is fixated on the 2024 NHL Draft, but not for the usual reason. Yes, there are a slew of prospects the Sabres could elect to take in the first and second rounds, but a trade for someone more established is in the works.

Adams traded down three spots in the first round on Thursday, acquiring the 14th and 42nd overall selections.

Many options are rumored to be available, such as Mitch Marner, Martin Necas, Trevor Zegras, Pavel Buchnevich, and the latest – Leon Draisaitl.

Must Read: Sabres Trade Down From 11 Overall to 14 in Draft

Trade 1

One in particular has been a diamond in the rough for years now, and that’s Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers. Ehlers is a top-six forward whose even-strength minutes should be boosted more than they are. He’s an excellent playmaker, especially in transition, and shoots at an extremely high volume.

To fit what Ruff is looking for, Ehlers is also defensively responsible, ranking in the 80th percentile of expected goals against for forwards. The rumored asking price from the Jets is a high first-round pick plus a top prospect, which the Sabres are primed to do.

Ehlers has one season left at $6 million at age 28. His expected raise isn’t too significant, nor is his expected term. If the Sabres can dodge his modified 10-team no-trade clause, Ehlers can thrive under Ruff much like Jesper Bratt did in New Jersey.

The final terms of the deal are:

To Buffalo: Nikolaj Ehlers

To Winnipeg: Buffalo’s 2024 1st (14th overall) and Noah Ostlund

Trade 2

After trading down with the Sharks Thursday, the Sabres have a glutton of picks and prospects at their disposal. Instead of focusing on rebuilding through free agency, the trade market is open to exploitation.

By adding Bowen Byram to the mix on the blueline at the trade deadline and re-signing Jokiharju, there’s suddenly an overabundance of core pieces on defense. Assuming Byram, Jokiharju, Rasmus Dahlin, and Owen Power are the top four, Mattias Samuelsson is the odd man out.

Having him as depth is a luxury, and the truth is a defensive defenseman like him is replaceable. The Philadelphia Flyers have shown interest in Samuelsson, formulating the basis of what could be a trade to help balance out both rosters.

The Flyers need cap space and have too many forwards in the same skill range. Noah Cates, who I previously wrote about, is a player the Sabres like and should target. To help relieve the cap, Joel Farabee is an offensive contributor who could complement Buffalo’s forward group.

Here’s what a deal with the Flyers could look like:

To Buffalo: Noah Cates, Joel Farabee

To Philadelphia: Mattias Samuelsson, Buffalo’s 2024 2nd

2024 NHL Draft

Since we traded the Sabres’ first-round selection, the rest of the draft won’t affect next season’s roster. We’ll slide past the draft and head right into free agency.

NHL Free Agency

The additions of Ehlers, Cates, and Farabee are very useful, but that only fills three of five vacant spots at forward. There are a few different directions we can go, as this is how the forward group looks so far:

JJ Peterka – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch

Nikolaj Ehlers – Dylan Cozens – Jack Quinn

Zach Benson – Noah Cates – Joel Farabee

Jordan Greenway – Peyton Krebs – ?

Extra: ?

An argument can be had for one or two of Jiri Kulich, Matthew Savoie, Isak Rosen, or Lukas Rousek to round out the lineup. However, since I’m striving for more, I want the prospects to start in Rochester and force their way up instead of being handed anything.

That leads us to free agency to fill the void. With depth in consideration, it’s notable that there’s still a little over $10 million in cap space available. Which gives me an idea: Patrick Kane.

Patrick Kane

Sure, you could look at the top three lines as laid out and say that’s a solid nine. Again, we’re pushing to be contenders here, so adding the elite offensive traits of Kane makes the roster even deeper to account for inevitable injuries and slumps.

Kane defied all odds last season and scored 47 points in 50 games for the Detroit Red Wings. The New York Rangers reportedly have an interest in signing Kane, but they can’t match what the Sabres can offer. At age 35, he’s likely looking for somewhere to play out his career, and what better place than his hometown?

Looking at Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, a one-year deal is most likely. If Kane signs in Buffalo, he’ll probably want something with more term. A two-year deal for $5,5 million per year is a little above the projected cost and could be enough to get a deal done. If Kane wants three years, the AAV spikes to around $7 million, which is pretty steep for a 35+ contract.

Sam Carrick

After adding Kane, the Sabres need a defensive-minded grinder to add toughness and depth. Sam Carrick comes to mind, as he’s a big, physical, right-shot center. He can kill penalties and provide quality depth minutes. A one-year, $1.8 million deal should be more than enough to bring the Ontario native closer to home.

Troy Stecher

A cheap, right-shot defenseman could not only give Bryson competition for the seventh defenseman spot but also challenge Connor Clifton. Troy Stecher is the perfect example of a quality, cost-effective, veteran option. He’s a defensively-responsible complementary player who could fit well with up-and-comer Ryan Johnson.

Chris Driedger

The Sabres need a third goalie who can shuffle between Rochester and Buffalo on an “as-needed” basis. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Devon Levi are etched in as the NHL duo, but injuries across the league in recent seasons have demonstrated the importance of finding a quality third goaltender on the depth chart.

Driedger was the Seattle Kraken’s original plan at starting goalie as an expansion team until injury interrupted the idea. Last season he was mostly relegated to the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the AHL and responded by going 24-7-7 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average.

Everyone is trying to find this year’s version of Alex Lyon. Of the cost-effective options willing to accept a hybrid role, Driedger is the most appealing. A two-year, $1.3 million NHL deal should get it done for the 30-year-old.

Projected Lineup

Forwards

JJ Peterka – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch

Zach Benson – Dylan Cozens – Nikolaj Ehlers

Jack Quinn – Noah Cates – Patrick Kane

Jordan Greenway – Peyton Krebs – Joel Farabee

Defense

Bowen Byram – Rasmus Dahlin

Owen Power – Henri Jokiharju

Ryan Johnson – Connor Clifton

Goaltending

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen

Devon Levi

Extras

Sam Carrick, Troy Stecher, Jacob Bryson

The options at forward leave a variety of line combination potential. Peterka, Thompson, and Tuch are an elite scoring threesome in the NHL. Cozens and Benson were great defensively together last season, and adding in a speedy transition player like Ehlers opens up a lot of offensive potential.

Kane has historically been his best with a defensively responsible center, such as Michal Handzus, Artem Anisimov, and J.T. Compher. Noah Cates fits a similar mold. His best success was with right-handed, elite shooting left-wingers like Patrick Sharp, Artemi Panarin, and Alex DeBrincat. Jack Quinn can play both wings and has the shooting talent to rival those players.

The defense is mostly unchanged, with Johnson ready to be a full-time NHLer. Clifton holds the last right defense spot, to start.

Luukkonen and Levi are the tandem for the foreseeable future, as two rising stars at the position.

Powerplay 1

Alex Tuch

Tage Thompson – Dylan Cozens – Patrick Kane

Rasmus Dahlin

Powerplay 2

Zach Benson

Nikolaj Ehlers – JJ Peterka – Jack Quinn

Bowen Byram

Adding Kane should have the biggest effect on the powerplay. He immediately slots in on the right flank opposing Thompson, opening up plenty of options for the top unit. Cozens gets the first crack at the bumper role being a right-shot facing Kane, but Ehlers, Quinn, and Peterka are also in consideration.

Penalty Kill 1

Dylan Cozens – Jordan Greenway

Owen Power – Connor Clifton

Penalty Kill 2

Noah Cates – Alex Tuch

Rasmus Dahlin – Henri Jokiharju

The penalty kill picked it up in the second half of last season, led by Cozens and Greenway. Cates is a good penalty killer as well and likes to counterattack shorthanded. Carrick adds depth to the PK when he’s in the lineup, as do Benson and Thompson.

Summary

My focus in building the Sabres for next season was to push Buffalo’s existing talent down the depth chart. This encourages competition, allows teammates to pick up each others’ slack, and allows for more appropriate injury replacements. The Sabres cannot afford a Jack Quinn situation like last season, with no capable replacement available in case of injury.

Cates is a better player than given credit for, but ideally, there’d be a better upgrade at center to challenge Cozens for the second-center role. Adams acknowledged it’s tough to find quality at the position outside of the organization, as the premium players are retained by their teams.

I considered a John Tavares cap bailout move of some sort, but the $11 million cap hit was difficult to fit. Even as a short-term solution with retained salary, it would’ve hindered a move for Ehlers or Kane, if not both.

Running this team through PuckLuck’s model, this version of the Sabres would be projected for 98 points. That’s enough to make the playoffs, but not comfortably. The model is weary of Buffalo’s performance under Don Granato last season, so, if you’re a believer in Ruff, then perhaps the Sabres can be a 100-point team after all.