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Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

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This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Garland, Raanta help Coyotes roll; Capitals stay hot

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Three Stars

1. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

The Arizona goaltender earned his first shutout of the season and 12th of his career with a 31-save performance during a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Power play goals from Derek Stepan and Jakob Chychrun helped power the Coyotes to their fourth win in five games. The win puts them now one point behind the Oilers for the Pacific Division lead.

2. Braden Holtby, Capitals

The Capitals netminder was kept busy during a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. Holtby made 32 saves, which included 25 stops in the final 40 minutes. Washington has now won their last seven games that Holtby has started and 10 of their last 11 with him in net. He also passed the 25,000 career minute mark to join Olaf Kolzig as the only goalies in franchise history to hit that number. John Carlson picked up two assists and now has 11 multi-point games this season.

3. Conor Garland, Coyotes

Garland was one of three Coyotes with multi-point nights (Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz the others) as he netted a goal and an assist in the victory. He now has three goals in his last four games is up to 10 goals and 14 points through 22 games this season. In 47 games a year ago, Garland recorded 13 goals and 18 points.

Hathaway ejected for spitting

A late second period melee sparked by a Brendan Leipsic hit on Derek Grant saw several fights break out as Chandler Stephenson scored. Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway ended up tangled with Erik Gudbranson and was given a five-minute match penalty for spitting at the Ducks’ defenseman. Hathaway could face further punishment from the NHL in the form of a fine or suspension.

Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 inducted

Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, Sergei Zubov, Jerry York, and Jim Rutherford were inducted Monday night in Toronto.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin was left open in his favorite spot on a power play. Guess what happened next?

• Sweet spinning pass from Dvorak to set up Garland’s goal:

• With the game in Arizona, the Coyotes decided to troll the Kings by unveiling a Taylor Swift banner (backstory here). How did that go over with LA? Well…

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Capitals 5, Ducks 2
Coyotes 3, Kings 0

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Just as combatants were being separated in the aftermath of a heated brawl, Erik Gudbranson gave Garnet Hathaway another punch and received something he didn’t expect in return.

Hathaway spit on him and was thrown out of a feisty matchup Monday night he and the Washington Capitals won 5-2 against Gudbranson and the Anaheim Ducks. Hathaway said he regretted the loogie that could spark further punishment from the NHL in the form of a fine or suspension, and the Ducks were spitting mad about the entire incident.

“That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”

Hathaway was given a match penalty for spitting in the latter stages of the fracas late in the second period. Gudbranson got a 10-minute misconduct, Anaheim’s Nick Ritchie was also ejected for being the third man into a fight and a total of 50 penalty minutes were doled out.

“These games can get physical and they can get nasty,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “These guys’ll throw down, drop their gloves, that stuff goes on in the game, but what I saw there I haven’t seen – I think I’ve been in pro hockey 30 years maybe – and I’ve never seen that before. It’s just something you don’t see in the game.”

After some off-and-on hostilities in the first 39 minutes, Washington’s Brendan Leipsic incited the brawl by bulldozing Anaheim’s Derek Grant just before Chandler Stephenson scored to make it 3-0 Capitals with 33.4 seconds remaining in the second. Almost all 10 skaters on the ice got involved, and Hathaway fought Gudbranson, Grant and Ritchie in a matter of minutes.

Officials were attempting to separate players when Gudbranson rabbit-punched Hathaway, who then spit in his face with referee Peter MacDougall a few feet away. Officials checked the video before confirming a five-minute match penalty and game misconduct on Hathaway for spitting, which carries an automatic ejection.

“Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went onto him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”

Ducks defenseman Brendan Guhle had been agitating much of the night, almost dropping the gloves with Tom Wilson and tripping up Leipsic in various incidents. It all paved the way for the brawl.

“It just escalated,” Guhle said. “It for sure was in the works. There were scrums all night. Guys were going after each other. That’s how it goes sometimes.”

The fighting and Hathaway spitting overshadowed the NHL-leading Capitals winning their second in a row and picking up at least one point for the 14th time in 15 games. Alex Ovechkin scored his 254th career power-play goal, Richard Panik, Stephenson and Jakub Vrana also scored, Wilson sealed it with an empty netter and Braden Holtby made 32 saves for Washington.

“He’s tremendous,” Ovechkin said of Holtby. “He’s working hard. Of course, everybody has ups and down, but his game right now is definitely up.”

Ducks goaltender John Gibson made several spectacular saves to keep his team in the game. Gibson stopped 26 of the 30 shots he faced, losing for the 10th time in 17 starts despite third-period goals from Sam Steel and Nicolas Deslauriers.

“We need him,” Eakins said. “We’re a team in transition.”

Anaheim is also an angry team after seeing Hathaway spit on Gudbranson.

“At the end of the day, it’s probably the least respectful thing you can ever do to somebody,” Grant said. “We’re all competing out there and sometimes the game gets that way. As a group, I thought we did a good job sticking up for each other. That’s a tough one to swallow.”

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.