Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Just prior to the new season, the Buffalo Sabres doled out an 8-year, $11 million annual average value (AAV) contract to star defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, as well as a seven-year, $8.35 million AAV contract to fellow defenseman Owen Power. While the duo obviously have an astronomical ceiling — Dahlin is widely regarded as a top-10 defenseman league-wide, and Power, despite being a new NHLer, has shown flashes of brilliance as an offensive dynamo — the contracts have the potential to be devastating for the Sabres on a long term scale.

The Cap Issue

Principally, the issue lies in long-term cap management. Yes, the cap is projected to rise by millions over the next couple seasons, but at the same time, $19.35 million for at least seven years is a lot of money for just two players. As of right now, the two make a combined $6.916 million thanks to Power’s entry-level contract, and the Sabres have just south of $9 million in cap space.

A good chunk of money will be coming off the books in 2024-25, with presumptive departures from Erik Johnson ($3.25 million), Zemgus Girgensons ($2.5 million), Victor Olofsson ($4.75 million), Tyson Jost ($2 million), and Eric Comrie ($1.8 million). I’m assuming that Sabres’ captain Kyle Okposo extends past this season, but if he doesn’t, that’s another $2.5 million that can be used next season and beyond. Considering that the NHL salary cap is projected to increase to $87.5 million, this leaves the Sabres with just over $25 million in cap space after the raises for Dahlin and Power come in.

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While that might sound like a lot of money, considering the Sabres only have 12 roster spots filled through 2024-25, it really isn’t. The Sabres have six restricted free agents (RFA) who will need contract extensions this offseason, including Casey Mittelstadt, Peyton Krebs, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who are all due for significant raises. Past that, Jack Quinn, Devon Levi, and J.J. Peterka will garner raises from their current ELCs in 2025-26. It might seem like it’s years away, but it’s absolutely sooner than it seems. The Sabres very well may find themselves in a significant cap crunch down the line because of these two contracts.

The “What-If’s”

Now, Dahlin is unequivocally an extraordinary defenseman, and one of the few in the league where an $11-million price tag isn’t necessarily an unreasonable number. He’s come into his own in the last couple years and proven that he is more than capable of handling big-time minutes in all situations. At the same time, though, there’s that looming thought in the back of my head that’s saying, “what if he needs to get moved at the end of that contract?”

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We all saw the pain that the Sharks went through to move Erik Karlsson and his $11.5 million, multi-year contract. Even after a 101-point campaign, the return was just a 2024 first-round pick and two cap dumps in Mikael Granlund and Jan Rutta — much more underwhelming than it should have been. I don’t necessarily think that it’ll come to that; Dahlin is a staple on the Sabres’ blue line and will be a perennial Norris candidate moving forward. At the same time, in the small chance that the contract needs to be moved, it’ll be nigh impossible to get a savory return.

Then, there’s Owen Power’s deal. The underlying metrics support paying a player of Power’s caliber the money that he got, to some extent. On an offensive level, there’s nothing to complain about. He’s been an incredibly effective defenseman in transition, setting up scoring chances in the slot, and facilitating the second power-play unit. At the same time, the defensive game needs a lot of work. He’s been among the league’s worst defensemen in preventing zone entries, and has struggled mightily in preventing high-danger chances.

Owen Power, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To pay a player with that profile $8.35 million per year, without really knowing if he’ll take a step forward in areas he needs to improve in, could be relatively disastrous. As much as I’m an advocate for locking up young talent for long-term contracts, it seems very bold to lock up that young a player for that long. A bridge deal, similar to the one Dahlin got (three years at $6 million per year), likely would have been the smarter move. For all we know, Power will never overcome his defensive liabilities. It’s also possible that he isn’t really the player he was in his rookie campaign. A short-term contract would have ironed out those possibilities and erased the potential question marks about the contract.

The Contracts Still Have Value

To be clear, these contracts are likely absolutely fine. As I previously mentioned, Dahlin is more than capable of earning that full $88 million and then some over the course of his contract. He’s still young, and aging curves shouldn’t impact him until the very tail end of the eight years — if at all. Locking him up to a lucrative contract is probably the best of both worlds.

The potential on Power’s contract is immense as well. If he irons out his issues in his own zone, and maintains the offensive prowess he’s shown in his young career, he’ll be worth well more than his $8.35 million AAV. Being that he’s only 20, the Sabres have control of an extraordinarily talented young defenseman throughout his best years. If it hits, it very well could be one of the better contracts in the NHL.

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