– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)
Last week, one of the most, if not the most, highly respected hockey journalists out there sent Sabres fans into a bit of a frenzy. When TSN’s Bob McKenzie said Buffalo could be the one of the best options for free agent-to-be Steven Stamkos, Sabres fans got very excited and understandably so. McKenzie has a reputation like no other, and even though the video clip that traveled around Twitter like wild fire was less of an official report and more of his opinion, his reputation in the hockey universe gave it a lot of weight. It’s been reported since the news of Stamkos’ disillusionment with the Tampa Bay organization that his ultimate goal would be to go to his hometown Maple Leafs, in a LeBron James-ish type maneuver, and lead them to championship glory. To hear that maybe the Sabres could be a monkey wrench in our rival’s plan made the McKenzie video clip that much more stirring. An opportunity to send the Sabres rebuild to light speed while slowing down the Leafs? Where do I sign up? I assumed this was a sentiment shared by most, if not all, of Sabres fans.
— SabresOptimist (@SabresOptimist) February 12, 2016
I was stunned to find out this wasn’t the case. A loud minority of the fan base have said GM Tim Murray should pass on the opportunity to pick up Stamkos should he waive his no-trade clause**, or decide to come here via free agency with the reasoning being that the Sabres have plenty of offensive talent up front and should instead spend the potential $12 million per year annual salary Stamkos could demand on defense and goaltending. Another common refrain is that the Sabres wouldn’t be able to retain one of their young stars Reinhart, Eichel or Ristolainen if you spend that much on Stamkos. Let’s break these points down.
1) While the Sabres are without a doubt in need of reinforcement on the blue line and in net, I find the idea that the Sabres are ‘all set’ up front a bit silly.
Look, it goes without saying what newcomers Eichel, Reinhart, O’Reilly and Kane have done for the Sabres offense. If you just watched the games and never saw a stat in your life, you could tell what they mean to the Sabres attack: there’s rarely a goal one of them isn’t a part of. The stats articulate that even further. The quartet of Eichel, Reinhart, O’Reilly and Kane has combined for 67 of the Sabres 135 goals, about 50%. If you throw in another newcomer, Jamie McGinn, these five account for nearly 60% of the Sabres scoring this year. There are two ways to views this. Number one: Great job on the new additions, Tim Murray. Number two: Holy crap, do the Sabres have a lack of scoring depth. Throw in the fact that the 135 goals this season and their 2.37 goals per game average ranks 25th in the league, and I think it’s safe to say the Sabres are in no means set up front. Given this, Stamkos, a player who’s tallied 43, 45, 51 and 60 goals in his career, is a player the Sabres have no business passing on. Even in a down year for him, his 22 goals so far this season is good for 14th in the league. To put his scoring dominance further into perspective, Stamkos career average of .545 goals per game ranks him 14th all-time between 4th line pluggers Cam Neely and Rocket Richard. Not only is Stamkos a great goal scorer in 2016, he’s one of the all-time greats.
2) Yes, the Sabres have a lot of talented young players to sign in the near future. Yes, Stamkos will cost A LOT, but that doesn’t mean you should pass on him.
Rumor has it that Stamkos could ask for up to $12 million AAV (Average Annual Value) in his next contract, whether that be in Tampa, Toronto, Buffalo or wherever he decides to ply his trade in the coming years. That’s a lot of money, $1.5 million more than the current top salaries in the league (Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews). You may argue that unlike those two, Stamkos doesn’t have three Cups and that he’s not even the best player in the league – both of which are probably true. But that’s the power of the open market. In an interview we did with ESPN and WGR550’s Matthew Coller, he said that Stamkos is probably the best player to reach free agency in recent memory, if not ever, creating a pretty unique circumstance. The feeding frenzy around Stamkos, should he reach the market, combined with his no-trade clause gives him all of the leverage. And if you didn’t know, leverage equals $$$.
So, how do the Sabres fit into all of this? I think the worry is if you spend too much at the top of your roster, you’ll have trouble filling out the rest of the team with enough talent to win, a fear I think is pretty well founded. Of course, I’m not a salary cap expert, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.* Re-signing Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen to long term deals are the top priority, as we all know. Risto comes first, as his entry level deal ends after this season, and with Florida’s Aleksander Barkov being the first of Ristolainen’s draft class to cash in, I think it’s fair to expect Risto to command a similar salary ($5.9 million AAV over six years). It’s harder to put a number on what type of money Eichel and Reinhart could command, as their deals don’t come due for another two seasons, but let’s estimate them for a combined $16 million AAV when that time comes. $22 million combined AAV added with O’Reilly’s about $7 million AAV and Stamkos potential $12 million AAV gets the Sabres to $41 million committed to five guys before filling out the rest of the roster, which could certainly be a problem. However, there are several other factors to think about. For one, the Salary Cap has increased every year since its implementation, and while that growth is slowing down, it is still growing from year to year, which would give Tim Murray more room to maneuver. Also, not having to sign Eichel and Reinhart for two more years potentially gives the Sabres flexibility and time to prepare for it. Time to decide who to buy out or make trades to free up more space. If your worry is that the Sabres will have to let one of our talented young trio go to get Stamkos, you can stop that now; Murray will not let that happen. However, given that I just mentioned the Sabres lack of scoring depth, committing that much money to a few guys is a valid concern that has be considered. In order to get as much roster and cap flexibility to fill out a championship roster, there may have to be some hard choices that have to be made, which leads me to my next point:
3) As much we all love O’Reilly, we have to acknowledge that Stamkos, even at a $12 million AAV, is an upgrade.
Who hasn’t fallen in love with Ryan O’Reilly during his short time in Buffalo? After a turbulent start, O’Reilly has settled in quickly as the new heart of Buffalo hockey. I love his playmaking, his smart play, his willingness to back check, his quick hands, his ability to make others around him better, and perhaps most impressively, his ability to suck up minutes. O’Reilly leads the league for forwards at 21:54 minutes on ice per game. All of these traits combine to make O’Reilly the easy choice to be the Sabres next captain. With all of that being said, if it comes down to a situation where the Sabres can only spend $7+ million AAV on three forwards, I would choose Reinhart, Eichel and Stamkos over Reinhart, Eichel and O’Reilly. You might ask, “Why would I rather spend five million per year more on Stamkos than O’Reilly? O’Reilly is younger, and is actually producing more this year (0.86 points per game to Stamkos’ 0.76).” Well, I said it was a hard choice for a reason. Look, I’m fairly confident that O’Reilly’s contract will end up being a steal – he’s 25 years old and on pace to break his own scoring record of 64 points. He’ll continue to get better as the Sabres get better pieces around him. I also acknowledge that a $5 million difference in salary may not justify the marginal improvement between Stamkos and O’Reilly. However, that marginal improvement between these two players is the biggest gulf to cross in all of sports: the margin of difference between star players and superstar players. At 26, Stamkos is a point a game player through 540 games played, O’Reilly is at 0.6 points per game after playing 484 games. Simply put, Stamkos has proven himself to be a superstar, while O’Reilly hopes to one day reach that point. And perhaps he will. But I’m willing to pay a premium for a sure thing.
I’m certainly not advocating getting rid of Ryan O’Reilly by any means. Of course if this dream scenario happens and Stamkos does decide to come here, you’d like to be able to keep as many great players as you can. I didn’t even mention what could potentially happen with the contracts of Matt Moulson, Zack Bogosian, Evander Kane and others to create more cap flexibility. However, if it did come down to it, none of the reasons listed above should preclude Sabres fans from getting excited about the possibility of Stamkos in a Sabres sweater. I know it’s still unlikely, but idea of Stamkos and Eichel on the same team for years to come should be enough to make any Sabres fan salivate.
*Did not stay in a Holiday Inn last night
**UPDATE: Tampa GM Steve Yzerman has said Stamkos will not be traded before the trade deadline. If the Sabres are to acquire Stamkos it will have to be via free agency.
(All stats courtesy of ESPN.com, NHL.com and HockeyDB.com. All salaries courtesy of Sportrac.com.)
– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)