With the re-signings of G, Jason Kasdorf and F, Daniel Catenacci Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray only has two of his own free agents left to sign--D, Rasmus Ristolainen and F, Zemgus Girgensons--both of whom are restricted free agents.
Although both are first round picks and started their NHL careers the same year, the Sabres approach to re-signing them is decidedly different.
Ristolainen is a cornerstone top-pairing/No. 1 d-man that will anchor the Sabres defense corps for years to come. Murray and Company--most notably Mark Jakubowski his main contract negotiator--are focusing on extending Ristolainen and whether it's a bridge contract or long-term is a question that will go a long way in determining his cap-hit. Regardless, as of right now Ristolainen seems to be Priority-1 for Buffalo.
The Sabres went long-term on 2009 Calder Trophy winning defenseman Tyler Myers a few years back, going with a 7 yr./$38.5M contract for the lengthy defenseman with a scoring touch. It was a departure from the old way of doing business for that regime as they transitioned to a new era under new owner Terry Pegula. The 2011 off-season saw the team break free from the financial chains of former owner Tom Golisano and strike anew with a commitment to acquiring and keeping players deemed important foundational pieces.
Ristolainen is in that vein. He was the 8th-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and hit the ice with the Sabres beginning that very same year. When the front office and coaching staff were dismissed, Ristolainen would eventually be sent to the "safe-haven" that was Rochester as Buffalo was about to embark on an ugly drop to the bottom of the league.
Last season Ristolainen had career highs in goals (9,) assists (32) and points (41) over 82 games. He also logged a career-high, team-leading 25:16 average TOI which was 10th in the league. Although his -21 plus/minus rating left a little to be desired, he was on the ice for most of the empty net goals scored against the Sabres last year wich contributed considerably to the negative ratine. Ristolainen's a workhorse with broad shoulders to carry a heavy load and not get bogged down under the weight of it.
Some comparable contracts for the 21 yr. old Ristolainen:
25 yr. old Victor Hedman, TBL--8yrs./$63M
20 yr. old Aaron Ekblad, FLA--8yrs/$60M
21 yr. old Seth Jones, CBJ--6yrs./$32.3M
22 yr. old Morgan Reilly, TOR--6yrs./$30M
22 yr. old Oscar Klefblom, EDM--7yrs./$29.1M
21 yr. old Olli Maatta, PIT--6yrs./$24.5M
25 yr. old Sami Vatanen, ANA--4yrs./$19.5M
With the Sabres focusing on Ristolainen, Girgensons is almost an afterthought at this point in time, kinda like his game this past season for us fans.
The RFA did not sign his 1 yr./$874,125 qualifying offer, which was a league mandated minimum 5% raise over his salary last year. And Girgensons had every right to do so. As we look back at his short career, this last season seems to be how he's now being defined.
In a tribute to the thick skin of the former 14th-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Girgensons was the only youngin on the Sabres to be on the roster through both 30th-place finishes (2013-15) and he did that mostly before is 20th birthday. During those two seasons of turmoil with two different coaches, two general managers and a team that was built to fail, Girgensons scored 23 goals and had 29 assists in 131 games which averages out to 14 goals and 18 assists per 82 games.
Last season was a down year as he had trouble acclimating to another coaching change--his third coach before his 21st birthday. Girgensons played in the top-nine all season, mostly top-six but was only able to produce 18 points (7+1) in 71 games. Whether it was a failure on his part to comprehend Dan Bylsma's new system, a failure on Bylsma's part to find a home for him, or a combination of both, the Sabres aren't sure what to do with him. Is he a center or a winger? Is he top-six or top-nine?
One thing we do know is that Girgensons is a two-way player who's game last season ended up revolving around the defensive side of things as he finished with and even plus/minus rating. Another thing we know is that his ice-time was cut by Bylsma from an average of 19:04/game in 2014-15 to 15:02/game last season. That's roughly a 25% reduction in average ice-time with half of that reduction coming on special teams. In 2014-15 Girgensons averaged 2:03/game on the powerplay and 2:04 on the penalty kill. Last season those numbers were slashed to :51 on the PP and 1:02 on the PK.
Numbers are numbers, but anyone suggesting that Girgensons is now a fourth-liner based upon last season are off-base. Is he less of a player than recently re-signed winger Marcus Foligno or center Johan Larsson? Both of those players came off of career years while Girgensons had his worst season.
Foligno re-upped for the same salary he had last season, $2.25M. Statistically speaking, in Foligno's first three years with the Sabres he played in 135 games scoring 18 goals and adding 32 assists--the exact number of points Girgensons had in 131 games.
As for Larsson, he has 142 NHL games under his belt. His stat-line reads 16 goals and 21 assists over those three seasons. Larsson was re-signed to a one year, $950K contract.
Those are probably two of the reasons why Girgensons didn't sign his qualifying offer.
With only two RFA's to re-sign heading into the dog-days of summer, and a pole in the water waiting for Jimmy Vesey to bite, Buffalo's roster is taking shape as most of their core players are signed and they have the youngsters and depth players in the fold. The three remaining cogs are Ristolainen, Girgensons and Vesey, who is still Sabres property despite imminent free agency on the horizon.
Most have Girgensons' fate resting on Vesey's decision. Personally, I think they should bring Girgensons back on a bridge contract that's commensurate with his overall body of work slotted into an area between Foligno and Larsson regardless of what Vesey does.
That said, according to GeneralFanager the Sabres have 41 of 50 pro contracts on the books. Adding those three would make it 44 with six to spare and plenty of room to add to Rochester or even Buffalo.