The odds of Buffalo landing the best free agent to hit the market in recent memory are pretty slim. There are selling points in playing with players like Eichel, Dahlin, and Mittelstadt, but even if John Tavares has the best vision of what could be, convincing a player stuck in a mediocre at best situation through the first half of his career to join the first 31st place team in NHL history would take a major sell job by Jason Botterill.
That said, whenever the idea of Tavares in Buffalo is brought up, the first concern that is mentioned by many fans is how will the Sabres afford him under the cap with Eichel's massive contract kicking in this season and players like Mittelstadt and Dahlin expected to earn large contracts in a few years?
My response: Don't worry about it.
The Sabres do have some anchor contracts in Pominville, Moulson, Bogosian, and Okposo but there's little need to worry about the first three. Pominville and Moulson only have one year left on their deals freeing up $10,600,000 for the 2019/2020 season. When Bogosian is in the line up he's a serviceable enough player that fits well in Phil Housley's system. The issue is he's rarely in the line up. So were the Sabres to get close to the cap, a buyout of Zach Bogosian is very favorable to the Sabres.
If they buyout Bogosian by June 15, 2018, the cap hit will be as follows:
18/19 - $1,142,857
19/20 - $1,142,857
20/21 - $2,000,000
21/22 - $2,000,000
If they give Bogosian one more year to see if he can stay healthy and play well under Housley, the buyout cap hit will be as follows:
19/20 - $1,142,857
20/21 - $2,000,000
Even if the Sabres sign Tavares, I don't expect them to be up against the cap in 18/19, so if I were the GM I would give Bogosian another year to prove it and if it doesn't work I would buy him out in 2019 since the cap hit will only last 2 seasons.
The only worrisome anchor contract to me is Kyle Okposo. I'm firmly in the " his 17/18 season deserves a mulligan camp" given the health scare at the end of 16/17 which prevented him from having a full offseason. His lack of speed makes me nervous in a league that keeps getting faster, but he still has decent enough hands and showed he can still put the puck in the net toward the end of the season. I still expect the back half of the contract to be difficult to deal with, but he should be a good enough player for another year or two.
The other concern is having to pay the kids once they exit their ELCs. This is a worthy concern but I don't believe it'll be a huge deal. I expect Reinhart to sign a 2-3 year bridge deal in the $4-$5 million range. It's difficult to project Mittelstadt but I can't imagine he would earn more than Eichel so we know the ceiling would be around $10,000,000. If Dahlin is what people say he is then he could challenge that $10,000,000 ceiling, but that's not for three seasons when three of the four anchor contracts will already be expired.
How would the Sabres fit Tavares in?
First thing worth pointing out is that if your top 2 centers are legit top 2 centers, overpaying them is generally worth it because finding top 2 centers is very difficult. You get into trouble when you overpay wingers and secondary defensemen because it's generally not that difficult to find replacement players to fill in those roles.
It's tough to project what kind of money Tavares will earn but we can assume McDavid's $12,500,000 will be the league ceiling for a few seasons. So in my Armchair GM embed below I gave Tavares $11,000,000 for 7 seasons. It wouldn't shock me if he makes more, but 11 million sounds about right to me.
The Salary Cap for 2018/2019 hasn't been announced yet, but with the Vegas expansion money it's expected to fall between $78-$82 million. In my simulation I split the difference at $80,000,000. So that's $5,000,000 extra to play with out of the box.
If the Sabres were to sign Tavares, then O'Reilly would certainly be traded. There have been rumors of Calgary trading Dougie Hamilton so that's the trade I went with, adding a top pairing defenseman to eventually play with Dahlin.
With trading for Hamilton, I decided to trade Ristolainen for Galchenyuck to give Eichel a younger, faster winger on an affordable contract to play with after the departure of Evander Kane.
With that out of the way here is the proposed roster with Tavares signing and trading ROR for Hamilton, and Ristolainen for Galchenyuck. Disregard the line combinations as these were just put together to show the roster as a whole.
If you look at the long term outlook section you'll see all of the defenseman contracts will expire by the time they need to pay Dahlin which should provide some flexibility.
Finally, there are two things to consider regarding the future and having to pay players like Mittelstadt and Dahlin.
The cap is already going up ~$5,000,000 this year because of Vegas. It will continue to rise ~$2,000,000 in following years and will almost certainly make a major jump in the $5,000,000 range with the Seattle expansion.
Unfortunately there is another labor negotiation on the horizon in 20/21 which may once again result in a lockout of some kind. The positive is that I wouldn't be shocked if some sort of mechanism like the compliance buyouts from the previous lock out will be made available to teams to eliminate bad contracts like Okposo or any other mistakes that may happen in the next few years.
My armchair GM scenario above is far from perfect and may get roasted in the next @2ITB_Buffalo mailbag, but the point stands that it's possible to sign John Tavares without a major cap crunch this season or the seasons to come.
The thing fans need to remember is that if you can sign elite players, especially #1 caliber Centers and Defenseman, it's rare you'll get burned by slightly overpaying them given the scarcity of elite talent at those positions in a 31, soon to be 32, team league.