Acquired and expected to be a middle-six center who offered some depth and stability to a team in need, it’s safe to say that this was never the way the Sabres wanted Patrik Berglund’s tenure in Buffalo to go. He had been a consistent producer, reliable two-way pivot and logged some decent minutes throughout his tenure with the St. Louis Blues, and that’s what Buffalo had hoped he would bring when he was acquired as one of five pieces in the summer’s blockbuster Ryan O’Reilly trade.
But after being placed on unconditional waivers Wednesday, the Sabres and Berglund officially went their separate ways Thursday afternoon. Following a team-imposed indefinite suspension, Berglund’s contract — this season and the remaining three years at $3.85 million — has been terminated.
In some ways, the entire situation is a mystery. It was reported over the weekend by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Berglund landed in Buffalo without much choice, that his former full no-trade clause had switched to a modified no-trade on July 1, the day he was traded, and that allowed him to be shipped to the Sabres without any say. But why it didn’t or couldn’t work out for Berglund in Buffalo beyond that, and what has prompted him to walk away from upwards of $10 million that would have been paid out across the remainder of his deal, is impossible to say right now.
What we do know is that Berglund, for whatever reason, hadn’t found his fit with the Sabres. That was evident almost immediately.
After a 16-minute average ice time through the opening games of the season, Berglund’s ice time fell dramatically. He skated upwards of 16 minutes just twice over his last 20 games in Buffalo and his average declined to 12:35 per outing over that span. His single-game playing time dipped into the single-digit minute totals on two occasions. He was scratched twice. Along with the precipitous decline in ice time came a drop in production, as well. A player who had scored at nearly one-quarter goal and half-point per game rates during a 10-year stay with the Blues managed less than one-tenth of a goal and .17 points per game in his brief time with Buffalo. Berglund’s two goals and four points put him on pace to have the worst season, bar none, of his career.
Where this leaves Berglund is to be seen. He has unexpectedly become a free agent with more than half the campaign remaining. He could wind up back in the NHL this season, much the same way Jake Dotchin did with the Anaheim Ducks after his deal was terminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Berglund could decide instead to head home to Sweden or elsewhere in Europe. He could even take the year off, recharge and get prepared to return to action come the 2019-20 campaign. Really, his options are wide open.
As for the Sabres, it’s clear-cut where this have left the franchise: in a much better financial position than they were mere days earlier, with one significant contract for a player who wasn’t working out in their system off the books.
Again, this was never the hope or expectation for Berglund upon his acquisition, but it’s certainly not an unwelcome fallout from this entire mess. Though there’s the possibility of some back-and-forth between the Sabres and the NHL Players’ Association, it seems likely that not much more will come of this entire ordeal. That means Buffalo, who short of trading or buying Berglund out were set to be on the hook for another three seasons at a $3.85-million cap hit for the veteran center, have now completely cleared the contract from their bottom line. The result? Additional cap space when cap space is at a premium.
It has become abundantly clear as the season has rolled on that the top priority for the Sabres in the coming weeks and months should be hammering out a contract with off-season acquisition and free agent-to-be Jeff Skinner. He’s been a focal point of the offense this season and there’s no other pure shooter in the Sabres’ lineup right now. In 35 games, he has positively flourished as a member of the Sabres, his 25 goals and 37 points the first and second-best totals in Buffalo, respectively. There was always going to be the money available to re-sign Skinner should he want to stick around, to be sure, but Buffalo is now looking at a cap situation that is nearly $4 million better than it was with Berglund on the books. Make no mistake, that’s not insignificant.
Having the additional spending room gives the Sabres the ability and flexibility, should they so choose, to go dollar-for-dollar with any other suitor for Skinner’s services. Sure, engaging in a bidding war could lead to potential overpayment, but having additional cap space lessens the immediate and likely the long-term cause for concern.
Consider that re-signing Skinner to a deal worth, say, $8-million annually would still leave Buffalo with upwards of $18-million in spending room without any other major unrestricted free agent concerns. The cap space above and beyond what’s set aside to retain Skinner can be used to add via the open market, re-sign restricted free agents and plan for a future when the likes of Sam Reinhart and Casey Mittelstadt will be due raises as RFAs. All of those things would have been impacted by Berglund’s contract, which was set to carry through to the 2021-22 season.
So, while Berglund was certainly part of the Sabres’ plans, at least in the short term, when he was brought over from the Blues, Buffalo won’t be sad to strike his contract from the books. It’s an unfortunate way to earn extra cap flexibility, but it’s one that sets the Sabres up to benefit from a bad situation.