A closer look at RFAs

With the off-season quickly approaching, the Sabres’ front office will need to decide whether or not to qualify their restricted free agents. With 13 players in the organization set to become restricted free agents this summer, Tim Murray certainly has his work cut out for him.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the Sabres upcoming RFA’s:

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Rasmus Ristolainen, Defenseman – 21-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen made phenomenal strides and appears to be a marquee blueliner in the making.

In just his third season, Ristolainen posted 41 points (nine goals and 32 assists) in 82 games played. That’s more than double his point total from last season (20 points in 78 games).

He also lead the team in ice time (averaging over 25 minutes per game) and was the only player on the roster to appear in all 82 contests. His defensive partner, Josh Gorges had the following to say about Ristolainen’s role, “There’s very few players in the league that can do everything at a high level. He’s a guy that plays against the other team’s top lines. He’s first-unit power play, first-unit penalty kill, in at the end of games whether you’re up or down a goal.”

Murray must now try to work out a new deal with his franchise defenseman, but several factors come into play. Murray could either pursue a bridge deal (a short term deal for less money, which ultimately gives teams more evaluation time on younger players), or a long-term deal if he is convinced that Ristolainen’s high level of production was not a fluke, but an indication of continued progress. 

During his final press conference of the season, Murray stated that he has not yet commenced contract talks, and intends to gauge whether Ristolainen’s representatives are seeking a short term or long term contract. Murray also made mention that because young forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are still on entry-level deals, a short term deal with Ristolainen could allow the team more cap room to sign additional impact players in the near future.

It is a virtual certainty that the Sabres will reach a deal with their consensus number one defenseman and power-play quarterback (21 points with the man advantage this past season) prior to the start of free agency. Though it appears Murray would prefer a short-term deal (2-3 years), do not be surprised to see Ristolainen locked up long term.

Zemgus Girgensons, Center/Left Wing – “Enigmatic” is the word that best describes Zemgus Girgensons play this past season. The 22-year-old Latvian forward regressed in production with only 18 points in 71 games (he posted 30 points in 61 games in ’14-’15). In an interview last week with the Buffalo media, Girgensons took full responsibility for his struggles stating, “It’s definitely on me how I played. It’s just bearing down on chances I had, more focus, more drive, more passion for the goals and offense I should have.”

Some speculate that Girgensons fell out of favor with the coaching staff early on.  Others feel he is simply not a fit for Dan Bylsma’s scheme.  Girgensons averaged a surprisingly low 15:02 of ice time per game, a significant drop from the 19:04 he averaged in 14-15. The dip in ice time could also be attributed to the addition of centers Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, which allowed the organization to be less reliant on Girgensons to play top line minutes. Either way there is no denying that his latest campaign was disappointing.

The Sabres now need to decide if this once promising young forward can regain a level of play more indicative of his first-round pedigree (14th overall pick in 2012). If the Sabres were interested in retaining him, it would be a short-term deal. Girgensons made just over $894,000 last season and will require a minimum qualifying offer of 105% (just under $940,000) from the team per the CBA. Girgensons could attract an offer sheet from teams who believe that this past season was a fluke. This outcome would leave the Sabres with a difficult decision depending on the size of the offer.

As a restricted free agent, the Sabres would have the opportunity to match any offer made, but depending on the value of the offer, the Sabres could opt to receive draft pick compensation, but that seems unlikely. As previously mentioned, Girgensons was a first round pick just a few years ago. In order for the Sabres to get a first round pick back as compensation, an offer sheet would have to be worth just over $3,652,000 per season–in which case the Sabres would receive a first and third round pick from the team making the offer. No team will make that type of investment on a player coming off of his worst season.

There is speculation that Tim Murray could try to package Girgensons’ RFA rights in a trade, if in fact he does not factor into future plans. That may be the best decision, especially if there is truth to the theory that Girgensons simply does not fit in to the new scheme. This will be a situation to watch closely as the off-season approaches.

Marcus Foligno, Left Wing – After a slow start, Marcus Foligno displayed everything a team could want in a bottom six winger during the second half of the season. Foligno contributed on both offense and defense, and began to play a more physical, gritty game. With 23 points in 75 games, his output was roughly on par with his career average.

Foligno is never going to be the point-per-game player he showed flashes of becoming as a rookie, but he could be exactly what the Sabres need as far as quality depth at forward. If the team feels he can duplicate his level of play from the second half, then there is a good chance he will be offered a short term, low risk deal. There is no denying that the 24-year-old bleeds blue and gold, and will have his teammates’ backs when needed.

The question now becomes just how much Tim Murray thinks a player of Foligno’s caliber is worth. An argument can be made that his presence on the roster is somewhat redundant with Nic Deslauriers on the fourth line (who carries a smaller cap hit). Foligno made $2.2 million last season and would command a small increase if the team decided to qualify him. While Deslauriers isn’t as talented offensively, he is just as gritty and could likely be extended for less than half of Foligno’s salary. The team could opt to keep both depending on how ready young forwards like Hudson Fasching, Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey are to make the jump to the NHL full time. Forward spots will be tough to come by in the coming years, especially if Tim Murray plans to add to the top six this off-season, which many speculate that he will.

Only Tim Murray knows how he will handle depth on the wing for the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see if he feels Foligno’s year-end production was a sign of things to come.

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Nicolas Deslauriers, Left Wing – As previously mentioned, Nic Deslauriers (dubbed “D-Lo” by fans and teammates), is the closest thing to an enforcer currently on the roster.  Deslauriers led the team in hits this past season with 206.  While he does not contribute heavily on offense (12 points in 70 games), he certainly looks like a prototypical fourth liner in today’s NHL.

Deslauriers only made $637,500 this past season, and will require a small increase now that he has completed two full seasons on the Sabres’ roster. It is also important to consider the fact that he was a player GM Tim Murray targeted specifically in a deal that sent defenseman Brayden McNabb to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. It seems unlikely that Murray will opt to move on from his young grinder so soon after acquiring him. It is likely that Deslauriers will be retained on a short term deal, however that could change if Murray feels one of his prospects (AHL or otherwise) would be better suited on the roster next year. Expect a one-year “prove it” contract for this 25-year-old fireball.

Johan Larsson, Center/Left Wing – Similar to teammate Marcus Foligno, Larsson started slow but finished very strong this season. While his point output was disappointing (17 points in 74 games), Larsson finally found his place on the third line, centering Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta. Six of Larsson’s points were recorded in his last five games. At just 23 years old, there is still room for growth.

The key for Larsson now is to become more consistent. While he was not alone in his struggle to acclimate to Dan Bylsma’s new system, Larsson’s production would disappear for stretches. In an interview with WGR 550, Tim Murray says that he has felt “every kind of emotion” regarding Larsson. There have been games where he looks like the ideal third line center, but it is unclear whether he can maintain this status long term, or if the veteran presence of Foligno and Gionta helped shield Larsson’s flaws.

It would come as quite a surprise to see the Sabres move on from Larsson this off-season. Their acquisition of Larsson from the Minnesota Wild (a trade which sent Jason Pominville and a fourth round pick to Minnesota for Larsson, Goaltender Matt Hackett and a second round pick) was prior to Tim Murray’s tenure as GM, but Murray likes what he saw from Larsson late in the season. He will likely return on a short term deal.

Jake McCabe, Defenseman – McCabe has developed exactly as the Sabres expected when he was selected with the 44th overall pick in 2012. At 22 years old, he surpassed most fan’s expectations this year (his rookie season). In 77 games, McCabe posted 14 points, but his value lies in his ability on defense.

McCabe led the team in plus/minus with a +6.  He spent most of the season on the second pairing with veteran Zach Bogosian and even surpassed fellow young blueliner, Mark Pysyk on the Sabres depth chart. There was speculation coming into this year that McCabe could spend the year with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate in Rochester, but after a strong start, he remained with the big club for the entire season.

McCabe figures to be part of the defensive core moving forward. His physical brand of hockey and efficiency in his own end is impressive considering his lack of experience. Because of his youth, he will more than likely get a bridge deal this off-season, but if he continues to develop at the rate we saw this year, it will come as no shock to see him in a Sabres uniform long term.

McCabe earned $925,000 in ’15-’16.  He stands to receive a significant pay raise after his expectation surpassing inaugural campaign.

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Casey Nelson, Defenseman – Nelson was a late season signing from Minnesota State of the NCAA. The 23-year-old registered four assists in seven games played for the Sabres at the tail end of the ’15-’16 campaign. Nelson spent time on the second power-play unit during his short tenure and impressed coaches with his hot start.

It would seem as though Nelson did enough to remain with the organization. Even if the Sabres decided to keep him in Rochester next season, he would certainly strengthen their overall defensive depth.

Tim Murray claimed the team had been interested in Nelson for a while, stating, “We’ve been consistently impressed with Casey’s play for the last two years. We identified him as one of the top college free agents available and we’re excited to have him join the organization.”

Nelson will almost certainly be retained.

Jason Kasdorf, Goaltender – Kasdorf played in 30 games for R.P.I. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), this past season, posting an impressive .931 save percentage. He did get a small taste of NHL action in the Sabres home finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but that performance left something to be desired (.867 save percentage in a 4-1 loss).

Kasdorf will turn 24 in May, so there is still time for him to develop his professional game. It is possible we see him backup Linus Ullmark next season in Rochester.

Daniel Catenacci, Center/Left Wing – Catenacci played a majority of this past season in Rochester, tallying 24 points in 50 games. He also played 11 games for the Sabres due to injuries, but registered zero points at the NHL level. Despite his lack of scoring production with the big club, Catenacci played with a high motor and his effort must be commended.

It is uncertain whether or not the organization will choose to retain the 24-year-old Ontario native. He could conceivably be signed to a 2-way contract and serve as a top call-up for when injuries inevitably occur, however with so many forward prospects in the system, the team could decide to move on.

Jack Nevins, Left Wing – Nevins was brought in at last year as part of a deal that sent Torrey Mitchell to the Montreal Canadiens. Nevins plays an enforcer role in Rochester, only registering four points in 54 games. It would not be a surprise to see the Sabres decline to qualify him, unless they feel there is a need for a body guard to protect their young players in the AHL.

Nathan Lieuwen, Goaltender – This 24-year-old net minder recently completed his third season with the Rochester Amerks. Lieuwen posted a lackluster .909 save percentage in 28 games for the Sabres AHL affiliate. It seems as though he could be odd man out, with superior goalie prospects, Linus Ullmark and Jason Kasdorf in the system.  The Sabres could decide to keep three goalies on rotation in Rochester, in which case Lieuwen could be retained.

Alexander Guptil, Left Wing – The Sabres acquired Guptil in a seven player AHL transaction with the Ottawa Senators. Guptil only played 23 AHL games this year, tallying nine points. He could be retained for depth in Rochester, but nothing more.

Colin Jacobs, Center – The Sabres fourth round pick from 2011 played a mere two games for the Amerks this past season, spending most of his time with the Sabres ECHL affiliate the Elmira Jackals. He is in a similar boat as Alex Guptil; if retained, he would serve as a depth player for the Amerks.

Anthony Sciandra
Staff Writer, BHC Podcast Host, and Website Admin. I'll never forget my first game at Marine Midland Arena in 1998. Sabres crushed the last place Lightning 4-1. Nearly spilled my Capri Sun. Bachelors in Communications from the University at Buffalo.

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