The Buffalo Sabres will be over the NHL’s salary cap floor by the start of the season, that much is obvious. While CapFriendly currently has the club sitting $2.3MM below the $60.2MM benchmark, that is with a 22-man roster that does not include unsigned RFA defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. While the 2018 first overall pick is not quite yet proven himself worthy of the considerable long-term deals signed by other top defenseman this off-season, he will surely make more than $2.3MM AAV on his next contract.
Yet, that does not end the Sabres’ battle with the cap floor. Just because they begin the season over the floor, does not mean that they will remain as such all season – or at least not if they wish to have flexibility with their transactions. Buffalo is again expected to be among the NHL’s worst teams this season and will be open to selling current members of the roster. Of course, Jack Eichel is the biggest name who could be available. However, at $10MM AAV it has been brought up numerous times that an Eichel trade is not as easy as it may seem. A team may offer a plethora of top picks, prospects, and entry-level players, but the Sabres would not be able to make that deal alone, as it would leave the team well below the salary cap floor regardless of Dahlin’s contract. Buffalo would have to acquire a nearly equal amount of salary back in the deal or else be prepared to quickly turn and add that salary in another deal. As a rebuilding team, the Sabres also won’t eager to add high-priced veterans who serve little purpose to a team with no title hopes. It makes an already difficult situation with Eichel all that much more tricky.
Even if Eichel begins the season with Buffalo, which seems increasingly likely, and even plays out the year with the team, the cap floor will still come into play. As the trade deadline approaches, the Sabres want to be in position to take full advantage of their valuable trade assets. The team has four forwards, four defensemen, and two goalies who are impending UFA’s and whose expiring contracts would be worth far more to another team. Colin Miller ($3.875MM), Will Butcher ($2.823MM), Cody Eakin ($2.25MM) and Vinnie Hinostroza ($1.05MM) stand out as potentially popular trade candidates at the deadline. Depending on Dahlin’s contract, could they move Hinostroza or maybe even Eakin or Butcher without going below the floor? Probably. But Miller? Or multiple moves? Likely not. The deadline is also not a place that is likely to offer even salary swaps.
If GM Kevyn Adams and the Sabres want to enter the 2021-22 season with the confidence that they can make any move they want without limitation, they need to find a way to sensibly add salary to the roster. For a rebuilding team, it may be difficult to think about adding salary to a team that won’t contend, but it would be a short-term sacrifice to ensure their long-term plans are not affected. The team could explore the trade market for a veteran or two that can help to develop the young roster or perhaps a young, but overpaid reclamation project. Or maybe they could entertain adding a legitimate starting goalie. They could also explore the free agent market which, even late in the summer, still has some attractive names available. With the Sabres pegged to give roster spots to minimum-salary fourth-liners like Drake Caggiula and John Hayden, it might make more sense to give those slots and more importantly more salary to a high-upside project like Ryan Donato, Alex Galchenyuk, or Nikita Gusev or a veteran leader like Tyler Bozak, James Neal, or Jason Demers.
The Sabres have plenty of options to solve their salary cap floor conundrum beyond just re-signing Dahlin. However, those options could disappear if they don’t act quickly, and with it their transactional flexibility this season.