What a difference a couple years makes for the Buffalo Sabres.
Not three years ago, the Sabres were the highest-spending team in the National Hockey League. It makes sense that management blew that plan up, given the Sabres haven't made the playoffs in three season, but they'll have to hand out several good-sized contracts for the 2014-15 season just to hit the salary cap floor.
Next year's salary cap is expected to climb from $64.3 million to $71.1 million. The Sabres were near the bottom in league payroll this past season at $57.3 million. Having unloaded Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and nearly everyone else of consequence – and cost – the Sabres have plenty of cap flexibility moving forward.
That can be a good thing. And a bad thing.
The Sabres have about $38.5 million committed to 10 players next season, led by Tyler Myers' $5.5 million and Ville Leino's $4.5 million. They have five players set to hit unrestricted free agency, but none of them – Zenon Konopka, John Scott, Matt D'Agostini, Henrik Tallinder or Alexander Sulzer – would be missed should the Sabres let them leave town.
Buffalo also has numerous restricted free agents hitting the market. Included among them are Tyler Ennis, Cody Conacher, Marcus Foligno and Chad Ruhwedel, four players whom one would think Buffalo would be wise to retain. Even keeping them at their previous salaries would cost Buffalo a combined $5.5 million dollars, and one would have to assume at least Ennis is due for a decent-sized raise.
Also hitting RFA are Jamie McBain, Matthew Hackett and Connor Knapp. All three could have a place in the Sabres organization, but Buffalo proved itself so rich with goaltending talent with the emergence of Andrey Makarov and Nathan Lieuwen that the two goalies could easily be let go and not especially missed.
But assuming every RFA is retained, Buffalo would be on the hook for around $10 million (some of the players would probably get two-way deals and wouldn't be on the hook for all their contracts). But again assuming they would be, Buffalo would still have only around $49 million committed. They'd have to spend $3 million just to hit the new cap floor of $52 million. And, given the terrible season the Sabres are coming off of and the fact the Sabres just increased season ticket prices again, even fans as patient as Sabres fans would have a hard time turning out for a team that didn't make some sort of attempt to improve through at least some level of spending.
So Buffalo will have to shell out some money just to reach the league minimum, which will not only force it to bring in free agents – a tough task given the moribund 2013-14 campaign – but also possibly retain Leino, who earned his $4.5 million without scoring a goal last season. Conventional wisdom would have him being bought out, but that would only force the Sabres to spend that money on someone else.
Which is fine. As long as there's someone else worth spending on.
The Sabres could throw a lot of money around this offseason and try to get better. But as they showed when Terry Pegula first bought the team, more money can lead to more problems on the ice.
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