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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.

***

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

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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: Kucherov, DeBrincat each hit fivers; Thornton turns back the clock

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Three stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

I mean, what is there to say about Kucherov that hasn’t already been said?

Kucherov was in fine form again on Monday, scoring twice and adding three assists in a five-point effort that left him one-point shy of 100 on the season. He’s played 60 games now.

The point totals are insane. He seems to be a lock for the Art Ross, and likely the Hart, too. The only real question is what that final total will be in 22 games’ time? With assists like these…

2. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

DeBrincat match Kucherov’s five-point total with a hat trick and two assists in a wild 8-7 win for the Blackhawks against the Ottawa Senators.

In just his second year in the NHL, DeBrincat has 32 goals and 60 points in 60 games this season, surpassing his 28-goal, 52-point totals from his rookie season a year ago.

He has six goals and 12 points in his past six games now.

The Blackhawks are now just one point back of a playoff spot.

3. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

Semyon Varlamov had a shutout, but 39-year-old Thornton grabbed his first hat trick since 2010 so he gets here by default.

It was Oct. 27, 2010, against the New Jersey Devils, precisely, when Thornton last bludged the twine three times. There was no beard then, no gray hairs either. Just Jumbo Joe, only eight years younger.

Thornton turned back the clock in Monday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Bruins. It won’t be as sweet, especially after how the Sharks ended up losing, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Highlights of the night

Hands of Kucherov:

McAvoy’s winner:

Factoids

Scores

Flames 5, Coyotes 2
Lightning 5, Blue Jackets 1
Blackhawks 8, Senators 7
Avalanche 3, Golden Knights 0
Bruins 6, Sharks 5 (OT)
Capitals 3, Kings 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Bruins win after forcing overtime on controversial third-period goal

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Add the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks to Stanley Cup Final matchups that would be epic.

This game was great and ridiculous in so many ways.

The Bruins led 4-2 at one point, trailed 5-4 in the third after going over 20 minutes without a shot on goal, tied the game on a goal that shouldn’t have counted and then won 6-5 in overtime to rub it all in the faces of the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN on Monday.

Pete DeBoer coached his 800th game on Monday and it appeared he was headed for a nice win to cap it off. But he quickly turned incensed with 1:49 left in the third period when the Bruins tied the game 5-5.

The goal was a clear high stick from Chris Wagner but the referees chose not to review the play, effectively sending the game to overtime.

The goal flustered the Sharks.

In overtime, Evander Kane was heading for a clear cut breakaway when the net behind Tuukka Rask was found to be off its moorings. The play was halted, further frustrating San Jose (even though replays show it was Kane who dislodged it earlier in his shift).

And then Charlie McAvoy drove home the final dagger with 1:01 left on the OT clock.

The ending was so crazy that we haven’t even gotten to Joe Thornton and his hat trick.

Yes, one of the NHL’s elder statesmen potted his first treble since Oct. 27, 2010, when his beard was merely stubble and all one color.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Nope. Even at 39, Thornton continues to be a special player.

The Bruins rolled in SAP Center in San Jose riding a five-game winning streak and a 10-game point streak and looked like they were heading, easily at first, to a season-long sixth straight win.

They led 3-0 in the first period (and it could have been four if not for this save by Marc-Edouard Vlasic — which may have not actually been a save at all) before Thornton clawed one back with three seconds remaining in the frame.

Jumbo Joe’s first sparked the Sharks out of the intermission and Joe Pavelski reduced the deficit to one with his 32nd on the power play. The Bruins answered four minutes later through Jake DeBrusk. With a 4-2 lead, the Bruins’ sticks fell silent.

For the next 20-plus minutes, it was San Jose who dictated the play and all of the shots.

By the time the Bruins had their first shot on goal in the third period, the game was tied. A few moments later, Thornton tallied his hat trick and the Sharks led 5-4.

The Sharks dropped just their second game in their past nine, but the loss keeps them one point back of the Calgary Flames for the top spot in the Pacific Division.

The Bruins, meanwhile, tighten their grip on second place in the Atlantic Divison. They now lead the Toronto Maple Leafs by three points, although Toronto has two games in hand.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks, Senators combine for 15 goals in thriller

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Fifteen total goals.

Four goalies used.

Twenty-three skaters with at least a point.

No, this wasn’t the aftermath of a seven-game series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, it was a Monday night sizzler between the Chicago Blackhawks and visiting Ottawa Senators — a wild and wacky affair that, when the dust settled, saw the Blackhawks emerge with an 8-7 victory.

The game had five goals combined within the first 7:55 of the opening period. By the time the 17:46 mark came, there were nine goals scored, and there was 12 lamps lighted just after the halfway point of the game.

Here’s a quick summary:

1st period:

  • OTT – Ryan – 2:06
  • OTT – Balcers – 2:40
  • CHI – DeBrincat – 3:54
  • CHI – DeBrincat¬† – 5:07
  • OTT – White – 7:55
  • CHI – Kane – 12:36
  • CHI – Strome – 13:22
  • CHI – Saad – 14:53
  • OTT – Stone – 17:46

2nd period

  • OTT – White – 1:32
  • CHI – DeBrincat – 8:19
  • CHI – Forsling – 10:31

3rd period

  • CHI – Toews – 3:51
  • OTT – Chabot – 9:01
  • OTT – Chabot – 14:43

And here’s the full breakdown from the NHL game sheet.

Alex DeBrincat‘s night ended with a hat trick and five points while Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane each had three-point efforts for the Blackhawks.

Colin White had a three-point night for the Senators while Thomas Chabot scored twice as Ottawa nearly came back in the third.

Collin Delia lasted just 7:55 after allowing three goals on 10 shots. Cam Ward replaced him, allowing four on 28 for Chicago.

Anders Nilsson didn’t fare much better, lasting 13:22 after giving up four goals on 12 shots. Craig Anderson came off the bench and allowed four on 30 shots in relief.

Chicago shot at a 19 percent success rate, edging out Ottawa’s 18.4 shooting percentage in the game.

The puck dropped in the game at 7:38 CT and the final horn didn’t sound until 10:11.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sharks’ Vlasic makes wild goal-line save

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The difference between a goal and a save can come down to mere millimeters sometimes.

This one, however, came down to a razor’s edge.

The Boston Bruins came within less than of scoring a goal in the first period of their game against the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN on Monday when Charlie McAvoy‘s point shot flirted with the edge of the goal line at the 7:32 mark.

The puck appeared to teeter on the goal line before Marc-Edouard Vlasic swatted out of the net. You be the judge on the above video evidence. It’s so incredibly close.

To the referee’s credit, he immediately waved no goal, a testament to his hawkish eyesight. He was right. Video review determined that the puck, somehow, did not cross the line.

The game continued until the 10:13 mark before the play was reviewed.

The call didn’t seem to faze the Bruins, who scored three straight and led 3-1 after the first period.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck