After going over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Chicago Blackhawks and the L.A. Kings, it’s time to see how they can help us projecting the Sabres going forward. The Sabres are following the blueprint of drafting high caliber players early in the first round for several years. But that’s the easy part. To build a successful roster, a general manager must have a clear vision of the team identity he wants to build around and he must be savvy and opportunistic in his acquisition of complementary talent. The Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings all had a unique identity formed around the nucleus of their star players. The Penguins were able to sign a bunch of free agents at the tail end of their prime, made trades for a few good players and counted on their stars to raise the level of everyone’s game. The Blackhawks signed a few key free agents to long term deals to keep their cap hits down, traded for skill players near the beginning of their primes and committed to player development to maintain a solid pipeline of inexpensive young talent to eventually replace more complimentary veteran players. The Kings made a handful of savvy free agent signings and were aggressive in the trade market to acquire talent at reasonable cap hits in the peak of their primes. The Blackhawks targeted high skill, two way players in the draft, free agency and trades. The Kings looked for heavy forechecking, two way players with reasonable cap hits that mostly spanned the length of their success window and were able to take the time to develop good NHL players in the minors. The Sabres will have to apply some combination of the Blackhawks and Kings strategy if they are to achieve sustainable success. With free agency all but a wasteland due to teams locking up their good players, it is paramount that the Sabres not only draft well but develop that talent properly to maintain a healthy pipeline of inexpensive talent they can bring into the lineup in the future. Trades remain as important as ever but at this point in the Sabres rebuild, it makes sense to take a page out of the Blackhawks’ book and trade for younger players who can remain on the team for years to com or at least retain trade value over the course of their contracts.
The Current Roster
As of this moment, the Sabres NHL roster currently signed through next season looks like this:
Zemgus Girgensons – Girgensons performed about as well as any player could be expected to last season. He skates hard, hits hard and works harder and shows tremendous ability to use his body to protect the puck both on the rush and along the wall. Top that off with a reasonably soft pair of mitts and you’ve got an excellent young player with a grim determination to win. While his skill level may have a ceiling, his ambition could potentially shatter it and send him on a Wonkavator ride to becoming one of the Sabres best players going forward.
Tyler Ennis – Small, speedy and super creative, Ennis is a solid top six forward. He’s listed as a center but plays better on the wing. With improved players around him, Ennis’ scoring might go up but if his power play time is reduced because there are more players to take it up, it will likely remain about level with where it’s currently at. He played well for a terrible team last season and there’s no reason to think that will not continue.
Cody Hodgson – Well, Hodgson’s 2014-15 season was pretty brutal. It didn’t help that his quality of teammates took a nosedive and he was rarely given power play time but there’s no excusing it, Hodgson was bad last season. He’s not a player who can generate his own offense and his defensive awareness is just about nonexistent. On top of that, his skating is sub-par and he’s never going to be a physical player. Unfortunately, the Sabres are saddled with his contract for the next 3 seasons. At this point, he’s a buyout candidate unless he can miraculously turn his game around. Thanks, Darcy. One piece of good news on that front, because of Hodgson’s age, if the Sabres were to buy him out, the cap hit would only be one third of his current cap hit.
Cody McCormick – McCormick is a hard worker with good leadership qualities but he’s basically a grinding enforcer. On the upside, he has very entertaining fights, in which he throws reckless hay-makers with no regard for his own face. On the downside, he’s not particularly good at the whole hockey thing.
Evander Kane – After a low scoring, injury hampered season with Winnipeg and after many highly publicized but poorly reported incidents, Kane was traded to the Sabres, where he watched the remainder of the season from the LTIR list. So what do we have here? Kane is a highly skilled, fast skating, heavy hitting winger who generates a ton of shots and has an excellent pair of hands. In Winnipeg, one reason his scoring was down last season is that he was being used in a semi-shutdown role on the third line and was performing well in that role until the end of his season when he elected to undergo shoulder surgery. Not surprisingly, his best seasons were played with more skilled centermen; unfortunately, he rarely had that luxury in Winnipeg. Kane has the potential to score a lot of goals whether paired with Eichel or Reinhart and he’s still young enough that we can expect him to be a Sabre for many years to come.
Matt Moulson – Moulson put in a decent performance for the Sabres last season, finishing 2nd on the team in points and 1st in assists. The crafty veteran does not possess the greatest speed at this point in his career but he makes up for it in experience and leadership ability. Put him on a line with good top 6 forwards and he can potentially still score in the 30 goal neighborhood.
Marcus Foligno – Foligno is nearing the end of his development but it is not impossible for him to improve. At worst he will make a quality 4th line player. The rugged winger is not the fastest but he is an intelligent player who can score the odd goal, will always be a heavy hitter and is defensively responsible.
Brian Gionta – Gionta is here to teach the young players the right way to be a pro. He’s getting a little long in the tooth and likely will never score at the same rate he did in his younger years but he isn’t devoid of offense and with the right line combination and proper deployment still has a few goals in him.
Nicolas DesLauriers – DesLauriers holds the honor of being the only Sabres player to skate in all 82 games last season. His possession numbers were bad last season but the same can be said of nearly the entire roster. DesLauriers might make a good 4th line player going forward but with a more structured system, he will have to learn to be more selective in targeting opponents with his huge hits. He has a hard, if not accurate, shot and can chip in offensively on occasion.
Rasmus Ristolainen – Ristolainen is still learning the ropes in the NHL and last season he was thrown to the wolves. His possession metrics are bad but that doesn’t show all the smart plays he made and how strong he was on the puck in his own end. It doesn’t show all the passes he made to the tape of teammates who hopelessly turned the puck over time and again. There’s a really good young defenseman in there, he just needs a little more time to adjust, more competent teammates and a structured defensive system and the numbers will follow. I have a tremendous amount of hope for Ristolainen who is a strong skater and puck mover and is extremely dedicated to his craft.
Zach Bogosian – Bogosian is the opposite of Tyler Myers in play style but he gets similar results. He’s not an offensive dynamo from the blueline but he can score the odd goal and gets his share off assists. Myers has more skill in the scoring department but Bogosian generates far more shots. Not an elite defenseman by any means, but a useful piece on a good team. He’s also got a mean streak that Myers never had and Buffalo fans love him already for it.
Nikita Zadorov – Speaking of mean streaks, Zadorov has a nasty edge to his game and he’s a big boy so when he hits you, you’re gonna feel it. On top of that, he’s a surprisingly strong skater for a player of his size and he has some even more surprising puck moving skills, complete with some deke, dangle and a hell of a slapshot. When he was paired with Ristolainen last season, the two were a hell of a lot of fun to watch and surprisingly effective for such a young D pairing. He has some maturity issues that may get him sent down to Rochester next season, but if he gets his act together, I think, he’s a wild card to eventually become a dynamic game breaking defenseman.
Josh Gorges – Gorges and the Corsis do not get along and for good reason. Gorges is the definition of a stay at home defenseman, excelling at shot blocking and clearing the front of the net, he does a competent job at shot suppression and not much else. To his credit, he is a tremendous leader which can go a long way in calming a young team down once the puck drops.
Mike Weber – I’m tempted to bring up a fictional review of the fictional band Spinal Tap’s fictional album Shark Sandwich, but that would be mean. Mike Weber works hard every night and blocks a lot of shots. He does reasonably well at shot suppression and I’d be comfortable with him as a 6th or 7th defenseman.
Chad Johnson – I can’t recall ever seeing him play. In the 2013-14 season, he was the Boston Bruins’ backup and he posted a 0.925 SV% in 27 games. Then he went to the Islanders last season and put up an 0.889 SV% in 19 games before he was traded to the Sabres. Once he got here, he got injured and never played a game. Nevertheless, he is under contract for next season. Let’s see if we can tell what went wrong last season. When we look at his play at 5v5 play during those seasons the trend is consistent. Johnson did not face fewer shots in Boston and he did not face fewer high quality shots in Boston, if anything the chances were more limited with the Islanders. His play simply dropped off significantly. Now even if we combine both seasons, we’re still talking about an extremely small sample size. There’s no way to tell, from this, how good he truly is. I suspect somewhere between the two but it could easily be one season or the other was a fluke. Either way, I wouldn’t be comfortable going into a season with him as my starter.
Pending RFA and UFA players
On one hand, the current roster has some gaping holes, on the other, the roster last season was historically bad and I’m sure nobody cares to repeat that. While it is more than likely that Eichel fills one of those holes, there’s still some formidable gaps that need filling. So let’s take a look at the Sabres pending RFA’s and UFA’s.
In most cases this is pretty easy and the only reason not to re-sign them is to get them off your books so you have more pro contracts available for new incoming players. This is not a desirable outcome, however, as you are basically throwing away a player for nothing. It’s bad enough to do that with UFA players, let alone players who can’t just opt to walk away because they don’t feel like signing with you. So here’s the list of pending RFA players in the Sabres system.
Mikhail Grigorenko – Grigorenko has not looked particularly promising at the NHL level up to this point, but the Sabres have a first round pick sunk into him and he does have talent. The fact is, he has been horribly mismanaged under the previous regime and his entry level contract should never have been activated when it was so clearly obvious that the kid wasn’t ready for the NHL. The Sabres organization is in an interesting situation with the young center. Unless he wows in training camp, he probably shouldn’t be on the NHL roster but once the Sabres re-sign him, Grigorenko cannot return to Rochester without clearing waivers. On top of that Grigorenko is now considering playing in the KHL instead of possibly being sent to the AHL. If he were to defect to the Russian league, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. If the Sabres re-sign him and he were to go to the KHL and improve, a return to the NHL would mean coming back to the Sabres as the team would retain his rights. The danger would be that he might never come back. This is still preferable to a team claiming him off of waivers and him turning into a quality NHL player for them. To avoid becoming a bust, Grigorenko must commit to getting more involved in the play and improving his skating.
Mark Pysyk – Pysyk was ready for the NHL last season, as his brief stints with the Sabres made clear. Sign him and let him never again set foot in Rochester. That is one seriously developed kid and he will play a huge role for the Sabres going forward. How good can he be? Best case scenario for him, see Anton Stralman.
Johann Larsson – Larsson showed that he can be a legitimate playmaking center in the NHL last season, though I would hesitate to keep him on the top 6. Last season, he outperformed all Sabres forwards in relative CF% and can play at both center and wing.
Tim Schaller – Schaller has been a strong player in Rochester, the Providence College product scored 43 points in 65 games for the Amerks last season and even provided a goal and an assist when he was called up to Buffalo last season. I don’t see him becoming much more than a 4th line player in the NHL but time will tell and he is at worst a smart, hardworking force on the ice, willing to pitch in for the Amerks. Re-sign.
Phil Varone – Varone showed flickers of offense last season, in his time with the Sabres and was a good scoring forward in Rochester. He struggled to perform consistently at the NHL level but it’s not crazy to imagine him becoming a decent bottom six player in time. He plays a smart game and his positioning is good as long as he doesn’t try to do too much. Re-sign.
Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov will likely be re-signed, if for no other reason than the organization needs bodies to stand in between the pipes. Neither one appears ready for NHL action just yet but goalies are weird and it’s tough to say which one’s will work out. Until the Sabres correctly identify which goaltending prospect is going to succeed, the more the merrier. Lieuwen has a troubling concussion history but until concussions messed with his level of play, last season, he was putting up very solid numbers for the Amerks. Of his 32 starts in the 2013-14 regular season, Lieuwen had only 4 games which did not qualify as quality starts. Makarov, had a disappointing 2014-15 season by this metric; however, for both goaltenders, the sample size involved is small enough that we should avoid drawing any hard conclusions. These graphs are only convenient visualizations, neither tells us a great deal about how well either goalie is likely to play in the NHL. Kevin Sundher – Sundher has not shown any particular signs of growth and even took a step back last season. With new blood coming into the ranks in Rochester and more promising prospects looking for contracts, I don’t know if I would re-sign him. If the Sabres can fit him under the 50 contract limit, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to continue his development in Rochester but the probability of him making the NHL is not good.
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc – Gauthier-Leduc had an interesting 2014-15 season in Rochester. In November, the Amerks had an overabundance of defensemen and found themselves light at forward, causing the Amerks head coach to try something different. Leduc was moved to right wing and went on to have a moderately successful season, scoring 6 goals and 19 assists in 76 regular season games. His transition isn’t necessarily a good thing because it means he wasn’t good enough to play defense for the Amerks, but perhaps being flexible in his position is enough to warrant another look next season.
Jerry D’Amigo, Zac Dalpe and Jordan Samuels-Thomas were the definition of warm bodies last season, both for the Amerks and the Sabres. While none will be more than 26 years old come next season and all are hard workers, they are guys to fill out the Amerks lineup at best. I’m not confident that any of them will be back next season.
The Sabres have 8 players set to become unrestricted free-agents. 7 played for the Sabres and 1 played for the Amerks. Few of these players has much offensive upside and none were particularly good defensively last season. Nevertheless, let’s see if any of them are worth keeping. Here’s the list of Sabres unrestricted free-agents.
Patrick Kaleta – Kaleta has been with the Sabres since the 2007-08 season. On the negative side, the board-rattling winger has earned himself a reputation as a dirty player, after racking up multiple suspensions over the course of his career. Furthermore, his scoring has dropped off from minimal to practically nothing over the past 3 seasons with the Sabres and his physical style of play has also hurt his ability to remain healthy over the course of an NHL season. On the positive side, his agitating style makes opponents insane and has left him with a positive penalty differential in every season he has been in the league, despite his many infractions. This effect, however, has been diminished since his last suspension, and he seems to have been tabbed as a guy the refs won’t give calls to because of his reputation. I’m not whining about the refs, I feel his reputation is well earned, I’m just saying this is a factor that must be weighed. If Kaleta can no longer draw high amounts of penalties, his value as a player is severely diminished. The other defining aspect to Kaleta’s game is that he is a fearless penalty killer. Here too, his play in that aspect of the game has dropped off the past few seasons but this might be attributed to his poor health in that time. If the Sabres re-sign him, it will be his first season returning to play fully healthy since 2013-14 and that might help his play to a certain degree; however, if he continues to play his game the way he does, he will be hard pressed to remain healthy for the 2015-16 campaign. If Dan Bylsma feels he could use a player like Kaleta on the roster, he wouldn’t be expensive to sign and he definitely wants to remain in Buffalo.
Matt Ellis – Poor, Matt Ellis. He’s that grizzled vet who works his ass off always. The consummate pro. Very little skill, but he gets every last drop out of what he has. At worst, a great guy to keep around in Rochester to set an example for the next generation and he somehow ends up playing stretches with the Sabres at some point every season. I’d keep him, if only for the Amerks.
I’m just gonna lump Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit together here and say, let them fly away. They weren’t technically the worst Sabres defensemen last season, but my god did they struggle. Also, it’s confusing having that many Andre/js on the team and the variant spellings compounds the issue. Even as thin as the free agent market is likely to be, I think the Sabres can do better than this next season.
Tyson Strachan – Strachan is a poor man’s Mike Weber, though a decidedly better fighter. He can go too.
Anders Lindback – Lindback had a rough 2014-15 season with the Dallas Stars and was eventually traded to the Sabres with a 3rd round pick for the diminutive netminder, Jhonas Enroth on February 11. Once Tim Murray traded off the red hot Michal Neuvirth, Ted Nolan had no choice but to play Lindback and Lindback performed surprisingly well. I remember vividly. His quality starts for last season look like this. It is true that his play improved when he was played more frequently in Buffalo; however, we are dealing with an extremely small sample size in which it is entirely reasonable to expect any NHL goaltender to have a hot streak. I suppose the Sabres could sign him to a deal but I’d be a lot more optimistic if they were to trade for a guy. I’d say Lindback might be considered for a backup position, except (again extremely small sample here) his play seems to decline when he is played sporadically.
Matt Hackett – Hackett was acquired from the Minnesota Wild as part of the Jason Pominville trade in 2014. At one time, Hackett was Minnesota’s top goaltending prospect but he had fallen out of favor after his play dropped off significantly between 2011 and 2014. He was a throw in with upside in the trade but it was a gamble that ultimately never panned out. He could have been eligible for an RFA extension had he played a requisite number of games for the Sabres last season; unfortunately, his play never warranted that many starts and it seems the Sabres will not extend his contract this off-season.
Drew Bagnall – Bagnall is the final pending UFA and he’s the only one to never dress for the Sabres. While his chances of making the NHL at this point in his career is almost nil, he is an incredibly smart player and a great teacher for upcoming players. He has already influenced players like Pysyk, McCabe and Ristolainen, and was named captain of the Amerks last season. I would absolutely be in favor of re-signing him to play a leadership role in Rochester.
The Pipeline Now let’s take a look at who the Sabres have coming through the pipeline to see if they can’t fill any of those holes via promotion. There’s a good chance that a fair number of these prospects will be at training camp this fall and a few of them just might make the NHL roster. General Manager Tim Murray hinted that Sam Reinhart worked hard last season with his junior club to get stronger and there’s a good chance the young center makes the Sabres roster along with Jack Eichel. Other prospects are far less likely to make the roster but never rule out the possibility of someone impressing enough to stick. With that in mind let’s take a look at the prospects in the pipeline.
Sam Reinhart – C – The Sabres have not yet drafted Jack Eichel which makes Sam Reinhart the crown jewel of their prospect list until that happens. Reinhart had a strong season in junior and came back a stronger, more developed player. The much lauded center has elite hockey sense and he has soft hands and tremendous playmaking ability make him a huge part of the Sabres’ future and if he’s a little ahead of schedule in his development, all the better. If he has to spend a little more time in Rochester, that will only help him in the long run, but it seems he has a good chance to make the NHL roster outright.
Nick Baptiste – RW – The energetic right winger has played well in both the 2013 and 2014 Traverse City prospect tournament, and had a strong season with the Erie Otters. Chances are he lands in Rochester but it’s just possible he plays well enough to earn a spot on the Sabres roster. If he were to do so, it’s entirely possible he could score in the 30 point range.
Justin Bailey – RW – Bailey played well in the 2014 Traverse City prospect tournament and put up over a point per game last season in junior. Like Baptiste, he more than likely ends up in Rochester but could impress enough in training camp to warrant a tryout spot on the NHL roster. This will largely be dependent upon how aggressively Tim Murray fills out the roster through trades and free agency but it’s not crazy to imagine the youngster playing his way into an NHL position.
J.T. Compher – LW – There’s not a very good likelihood Compher makes the NHL this season. He’s been named the captain of his college team and that’s a good place for him to develop his game. The hard working, two-way winger plays an intense and gritty game reminiscent of Ryan Callahan who, incidentally, is also 5’11”.
Hudson Fasching – RW – The big power forward played well for his college team. He’s a strong skater for a big man, a good passer, has a decent shot and likes to park himself in front of opposing goaltenders. He probably isn’t ready for the NHL just yet but he plays a heavy brand of hockey.
Jean Dupuy – LW – Dupuy is a hard working grinder that will have to play a two-way checking role when he goes pro. He has size, skating and grit to his game and a decent offensive upside.
Eric Cornel – RW – Cornel is a playmaking winger with good vision. He needs to work on his positioning when he doesn’t have the puck and adding quick changes in his skating direction would improve his game. He’s still a way off from making the NHL but he shows good offensive upside.
Jake McCabe – D – McCabe struggled early last season for the Amerks but his play improved and became more consistent in the back half. Odds he makes the NHL out of training camp are slight but not nonexistent. He’s a strong skater and loves to hit people but if he remains disciplined, he could develop into an effective defenseman.
Linus Ullmark – G – Ullmark is still recovering from surgery but when he is ready he will join the Amerks where we will get a better idea of how likely he is to be the goaltender of the future. Hopes are high.
Sean Malone – LW/C – Malone is a local boy out of West Seneca, NY. He plays a no-quit style of hockey and has decent hands and vision. He’s not close to NHL ready yet but he certainly has the will to succeed and is someone to keep a close eye on.
Dan Catenacci – LW – The speedy winger is an excellent skater but he still has a lot to learn before he makes the NHL. He’ll be an interesting prospect to watch in Rochester next season.
Vaclav Karabacek – RW – Karabacek has good hands and is a strong skater but has to put forward a more consistent effort if he is going to succeed in the NHL. He’ll likely play in juniors again next season.
Brycen Martin – D – He’s a strong skater and good puck mover who plays a no flash, reliable, detail oriented game. Martin will likely play in juniors again next season.
William Carrier – LW – Acquired from the Kings, Carrier plays the game with a good balance between skill and grit. He’s a versatile player who could end up anywhere in the bottom 9 depending on how he develops. He will likely be with the Amerks again next season.
Anthony Florentino – D – Florentino plays for the NCAA Frozen Four champion, Providence Friars, you may have watched that game. He logs big minutes, skates well and plays a strong, physical game. He’s definitely a prospect with a good amount of promise.
Potential Free Agent Targets
In the past, the Sabres have had trouble attracting the best free agent talent and while that may change once Jack Eichel establishes himself in the NHL and the Sabres become a winning destination, we’re not there yet. There is one advantage that the Sabres have over most NHL teams, however, and that is salary cap space. While the team still needs to be smart about allocating its funds, they do have a huge amount of cap space and they will have to spend some of it just to get to the cap floor. They are currently more than $8m below the cap floor and around $26m below the cap. Cap space is to free agents what blood in the water is to sharks. A word of warning, free agency is not what it used to be. With most teams locking up their good players long term, free agency is typically either a bunch of guys with flaws in their game or guys past their prime. The Sabres won’t and shouldn’t sign all the top free agents but they will be able to sign some of them. With that in mind, here’s a list of possible candidates. The non-goaltender player graphs were downloaded from ownthepuck.blogspot.ca. It’s a great site run by Dominic Galamini @MimicoHero.
Paul Martin – Age 34 – Position: D – Last cap hit: $5,000,000
While Martin is certainly getting up there in years and I wouldn’t sign him to a long contract, I think he’s still got something left in the tank. Last season, with Pittsburgh, Martin played top pairing minutes and excelled at shot suppression. He’s good and the Penguins are not likely going to be able to retain his services. Antti Niemi – Age 31 – Position: G – Last cap hit: $3,800,000
A career 0.916 SV% goalie, Niemi’s SV% has declined slightly over the past two seasons. He’s still a serviceable goaltender. I wouldn’t want to give him a ton of term and, frankly, I’m not crazy about going nuts with a huge contract for a goalie but he’s a viable option. One catch, he’s the only legit starter available in free agency and the Sabres will have competition in signing him. Another downside is that Niemi, last season, ping-ponged between monster games and horrible games. His quality starts were 33 to his 61 total starts. Justin Williams – Age 33 – Position: RW – Last cap hit: $3,650,000
The L.A. Kings aren’t in a great situation as far as the salary cap is concerned. On top of that they have to re-sign Tyler Toffoli and they want to sign Andrej Sekera. The 3 time Cup champion, Conn Smythe winning winger is not getting any younger. However, despite his years, Williams put up monstrous possession numbers for the Kings last season and he would definitely be a veteran I’d like Eichel and Reinhart to learn from. There’s likely to be competition for his services, but as badly as the Sabres need a right winger, this might be the guy to throw a large short term contract at. Johnny Oduya – Age 33 – Position: D – Last cap hit: $3,375,000
A year younger than Martin with his name twice etched on the Stanley Cup at least once, Oduya may be a cap casualty for Chicago. There are moves they could make to keep him but they are awfully close to the salary cap and Brandon Saad should command a healthy raise. Oduya is an excellent shot suppressing defenseman who can eat minutes although he’s not likely to score many points. He is a good candidate for a short term deal if available.Michael Frolik – Age 27 – Position: RW – Last cap hit: $3,300,000
For the Winnipeg Jets last season, Frolik put up huge possession numbers in both generating offense and shot suppression, and as free agents go, he’s relatively young. I’d love to have him on this team. Unfortunately, the Jets have plenty of cap space and even though they have a number of players they need to re-sign, it’s hard to imagine Frolik making it to free agency. If he does become a free agent, the Sabres will have heavy competition for his services. Cody Franson – Age 27 – Position: D – Last cap hit: $3,300,000
Franson played most of last season for the Toronto Maple Leafs before being dealt to the Nashville Predators for their playoff push. He played limited minutes but put up good possession numbers for both teams. The Preds have a more cap space than the Sabres but they also have Paul Gaustad as the only center signed through next season. Hard to predict whether they extend Franson. If he does make it to free agency, he will be highly sought after by other teams. Michal Neuvirth – Age 27 – Position: G – Last cap hit: $2,500,000
Okay, he’s not a proven starter but if you sat on the edge of your seat screaming because this guy was so good for the Sabres last season, you’ll remember that he was pretty good in his time here…or was he? In his 27 games played for the Sabres last season, Neuvirth had a 5v5 SV% of 0.932 and an all situations SV% of 0.918. Of his 33 total starts last season, he had 17 quality starts for a 51.5 QS%. Theoretically, it might be possible that he played better with more frequent games but it seems far more likely that he simply got hot in February. Michael Del Zotto – Age 24 – Position: D – Last cap hit $1,300,000
Del Zotto is not great at shot suppression, but he generated offense reasonably well last season. The Flyers will likely want to keep him but their cap situation is a train wreck and they may not be able to swing a deal. Paired with a defensively responsible, puck moving player like Mark Pysyk, I think Del Zotto might do well with the Sabres next season. Also, at 24 he fits the age profile better than any free agent on this list so far. I don’t know how much value any prospective team is likely to get out of him, but if signed to a reasonable contract and put in the right situation, he could be a useful piece. Like most free agents there will likely be competition to acquire him, but he’s an interesting idea. Jhonas Enroth – Age 26 – Position: G – Last cap hit: $1,250,000
He’s short but he was awesome last season, until he got to Dallas and was terrible. Well, not really. The Swedish netminder had a 5v5 SV% of 0.915 last season and an all situations SV% of 0.903. What’s interesting, in contrast to the narrative, is that Enroth performed slightly better for the Stars than he did for the Sabres. He had 18 quality starts out of 37 total starts with Buffalo and 8 out of 13 for Dallas. His QS% for Buffalo was 48.6% while for Dallas it was 61.5%. There’s not a ton of significance that can be taken from this as both are small sample sizes but it is interesting. Overall, he had a reasonably consistent season but it wasn’t good enough for me to be completely comfortable with him as a starter. I would consider signing him as a backup. Erik Condra – Age 28 – Position: RW – Last cap hit: $1,250,000
Condra played limited minutes for the Senators last season and was tasked with a heavy defensive work load but still managed to put up excellent shot suppression and possession numbers. He did not score at a high rate but was never in a good situation to do so. Tim Murray would already be familiar with this player which is another point in his favor. Ottawa has room to re-sign him but they typically operate with an internal salary cap and need to re-sign several RFA players, including center Mika Zibanejad.
Lee Stempniak – Age 32 – Position: RW – Last cap hit: $900,000
Stempniak is getting older but he performed well by scoring and possession metrics while playing a more defensive role for Winnipeg last season. If a team could sign him to a similar contract to his previous one, it could be a low risk, high reward sort of signing. It’s not clear if the Jets will let him reach free agency, as they have plenty of cap space to renew his contract, but he could be a solid pick up for a team in need of a right winger. Adam Pardy – Age 31 – Position: D – Last cap hit: $700,000
Pardy is probably at best a bottom pairing defenseman. He offers minimal offense and might have trouble cracking even the Sabres roster. My argument for him, I think he’s an upgrade to Mike Weber. While Pardy doesn’t offer much by way of the Corsis, he excels at shot suppression and is a solid option for a stay at home defenseman. Also, his name is fun for social media on game night. Potential Trade Targets
Yeah, so free agency isn’t all that appealing. Most of those players I just listed are either old, flawed, likely to be re-signed or likely to be swarmed with suitors from all corners of the NHL. This places an even greater emphasis on drafting well and making smart trades. I’m not going to get into a bunch of hypothetical trade packages because, while they’re fun to think about, they don’t mean much. Instead, here’s a list of players who make interesting trade targets and fit the profile of players the Sabres are probably interested in.
Jordan Staal – Age 26 – Position: C – Cap hit: $5,725,000
Okay, this one’s not likely as the Canes probably have little desire to move this possession driving center. However, they are interested in trading his brother and since that was the whole reason he wanted to join the Canes anyway, there might not be a lot of incentive for him to stay. The Sabres would have to move quite a bit to get Staal and I don’t think Murray is in a rush to move his prospects but players of Staal’s caliber aren’t available very often. Why would Buffalo be a good landing spot for him? Well, he did win a Cup with Bylsma on his last team. His contract has its pros and cons. The good thing is that it’s a very reasonable cap hit for a player that good in his prime. The bad part is that there’s 8 more years of it. Staal would be 34 by the time his contract expired. Ryan O’Reilly – Age 24 – Position: C – Cap hit: $6,000,000
It’s been a rocky road between O’Reilly and the Avalanche and they will likely look to move him. He is an exceptional two way center who can score, has positive numbers by possession metrics, and rarely takes penalties. He also fits in nicely with the Sabres timeline for their rebuild and would certainly accelerate the process. It would take a huge package to land O’Reilly so be prepared to part with some pieces you’d rather not give up if the Sabres were to acquire him. He will also be a UFA after next season and the team that trades for him would have to offer him a large contract to retain his services. Frederik Andersen – Age 25 – Position: G – Cap hit: $1,150,000
Andersen was a solid starting goaltender for most of the year for Anaheim, so why would they want to move him? Well they probably don’t want to but bear in mind, their backup, John Gibson, is considered their starter of the future and he’s on the cusp of being ready for full-time starting duty. This might make parting with Andersen slightly more agreeable to them. I think the Sabres would have to give up a lot to get him and I don’t think Murray is in a hurry to do that but Andersen is a bonafide starter and given the Sabres current situation in net, nothing is off the table. Anthony Mantha – Age 20 – Position: RW – Cap hit: $863,333
The highly touted Detroit prospect had a very, very, very disappointing season for the Grand Rapids Griffins, at least according to Red Wings executive, Jim Devellano. The winger had a monster final year in junior and hopes were tremendous for his first season in the AHL. So when the rookie scored 33 points in 62 games, along with 4 points in 16 playoff games, it’s understandable why Detroit was underwhelmed. If the trade price were low, it could be a good gamble; however, Detroit will probably be seeking a large return for their unproven prospect.
Jaden Schwartz – Age 22 – Position: LW – Cap hit: $2,350,000
The St. Louis Blues probably don’t want to move Schwartz but they have to sign Vladimir Tarasenko and he is going to get paid a lot. Also, the Blues only have 10 forwards and 5 defensemen from last season under contract through next season so they may need to clear up some cap space. Schwartz put up excellent possession numbers last season and for the right price, it might be possible to get him away from St. Louis. Nikita Nesterov – Age 22 – Position: D – Cap hit: $742,500
The Lightning will be in a bit of a cap crunch next season and they might want to move a more expensive defenseman and promote Nesterov; however, if they decide to keep their defensive roster together, they might be convinced to move Nesterov. He is a young defenseman who moves the puck extremely well and uses his vision to make plays in the offensive zone. It’s probably a good idea to keep him away from the other side of the ice but the Sabres have plenty of guys to play stay at home D. I don’t think it’s particularly likely the Sabres would be able to swing a trade for Nesterov but he fits the profile and put up good numbers this season for Tampa Bay.
Martin Jones – Age 25 – Position: G – Cap hit: RFA
Jones is an RFA so a trade would be for his rights and not a player under contract but he has been a good goaltender in his limited time with the Kings. Whether or not he is ready for full-time starting duty remains to be seen. Last season, Jones had a 0.915 5v5 SV% and a 46.6 QS% through 15 regular season games. One red flag on Jones is that he plays for a great defensive team which might slightly inflate his numbers. Also his quality starts trended downward throughout the season. However, since he only played in 15 games, the significance of this trend is not a reliable indicator of his talent.
Offer sheets are a tool available to NHL general managers, they are rare because they are considered dishonorable, because the compensation is steep and teams generally match them anyway. To qualify for an offer sheet, a player must be tendered a qualifying offer by their team. The draft picks for compensation must belong to the team issuing the offer sheet and they must be from the next year’s draft. Here are the required draft pick compensation a team must give up depending on the tier of salary offered to a player.
$1,110,249 or below = None
Over $1,110,249 to $1,682,194 = third round draft pick
Over $1,682,194 to $3,364,391 = second round draft pick
Over $3,364,391 to $5,046,585 = first and third round draft pick
Over $5,046,585 to $6,728,781 = first, second, and third round draft pick
Over $6,728,781 to $8,410,976 = 2 firsts, a second and a third round draft pick
Over $8,410,976 = 4 first round draft picks
In the case of multiple firsts, the picks must belong to the team issuing the offer sheet and they must be in consecutive years, beginning with the next draft.
Those are some pretty steep compensations and the player you offer sheet better be worth it. Given the price of admission to this poker game, it would be nearly impossible to offer sheet more than one player. Also, if you’re willing to give up the price of an offer sheet, you better be positive that the player is going to be amazing for you. With that in mind, here are some potential targets the Sabres might consider.
Dougie Hamilton – Age 21 – Position: D
Hamilton is young and blossoming into an elite defenseman in the NHL. Boston will likely move heaven and earth to get him re-signed and would probably move any current roster player outside of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to match the offer but if there’s a player worth the steep compensation required to get him, this is the guy. An offer for Hamilton would likely have to be in the second to last tier in terms of salary, but he’s young and will be a tremendous defensive force going forward. Brandon Saad – Age 22 – Position: LW
Saad is awesome, the young winger can score, plays well defensively, has explosive skating ability and is an absolute bull on the puck. Chicago isn’t in the greatest way cap-wise right now, but they have a number of pieces they could spin off in trades to clear the necessary cap space to match an offer. Nevertheless, a team might still find him a tempting enough player to try. Tyler Toffoli – Age 23 – Position: LRC
Toffoli is an absolute stud, capable of playing every forward position and the Kings are working hard to get him re-signed; however, they don’t have a huge amount of cap space and they don’t have a ton of contracts they can easily trade away without hurting the team. An offer sheet for Toffoli might be a way to pry him out of Los Angeles. It would be expensive but he’s probably worth it. Mark Stone – Age 23 – Position: RW
Stone had a big year for the Ottawa Senators last season and was a big part of their final push to make it into the playoffs. The Senators are definitely going to try to re-sign him but with an internal salary cap, they might not be overly eager to match a larger offer sheet. Stone isn’t a rock solid, guaranteed to be great player and issuing him an offer sheet might be a bit of a gamble, but he’s trending in the right direction and it has the potential to pay off in a big way. Vladimir Tarasenko – Age 23 – Position: RW
The premier forward of the St. Louis Blues last season, Tarasenko is an absolute monster in every aspect of the game. The only problem with offer sheeting him is that even if a team offered the max salary, St. Louis would likely find a way to match it. Tarasenko is already a bonafide superstar in the league and still has room to get better. Draft
So, draft day rolls around, Tim Murray walks up to the mic and selects Jack Eichel with the second overall pick, now what? The Sabres have 4 other picks in the top 100 of the draft. I’m not going to do a mock draft, but I looked through a few draft rankings for 2015 and I looked up some numbers on the players slotted in at picks number 21, 31, 51 and 92 overall. There were a ton of mock drafts for the first round but I could only find 4 decent lists that go the rest of the way. I used draft rankings from CSS, ISS, Craig Button, Ryan Wagman and thedraftanalyst.com. I didn’t feel like buying the ISS draft book so I only have access to their top 30 list. Sans ISS rankings, the other 3 picks only have 4 prospects that might hypothetically be available at those spots, assuming the 30 NHL teams have similar rankings as these draft experts. Scouting reports usually give us a window into what type of player we’re looking at and are fun but give us little useful information in regards to projecting a players likelihood of success and current level of play. To give us a little better picture of how these guys project, I ran their names on theprojectionproject.com, an excellent website and resource run by Lochlin Broatch @thelocker and Arthur Wheeler @ProjProjAW. Their website uses the methodology laid out in Rob Vollman’s “Hockey Abstract” for translating scoring rates from other leagues to the NHL by comparing changes in scoring rates of players who have transitioned from one league to another. It then compares that data to a cohort of players, similar in projected point production and height, to get a percentage chance of whether that player will become an NHL player, what level of NHL player or a bust. It is not a perfect system, and in the case of defensemen can be misleading, but it is accurate enough, often enough to be respected as a reasonable means of player projection. The metric used for translating a player’s numbers from their respective league to the NHL is called NHLe, short for NHL equivalencies. It is useful as a means of comparing players across leagues with the players’ projected NHL point production as the baseline. For these comparisons and to get larger cohorts, I have looked for comparable players within 2 inches of height to the player selected. Here’s the projected numbers for players slotted at the Sabres draft positions by some of the experts.
Pick #2 overall (round 1) average success of this pick: ~100%
Jack Eichel – position: C, cohort size: 4, 100% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 48
Pick #21 overall (round 1) average success of this pick: 70%
CSS – Jeremy Roy – position: D, cohort size: 52, 58% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 20
Ryan Wagman – Jakub Zboril – position: D, cohort size: 64, 42% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 16
Craig Button – Jake DeBrusk – position: LW, cohort size: 141, 38% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 24
thedraftanalyst.com – Jeremy Bracco – position: RW, cohort size: 26, 46% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 30
ISS – Brandon Carlo – position: D, cohort size: 101, 29% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 8
Pick #31 overall (round 2) average success of this pick: 34%
CSS – Jacob Forsbacka-Karlsson – position: C, cohort size: 222, 42% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 23
Ryan Wagman – Mitchell Vande Sompel* – position: D, cohort size: 4, 75% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 27
Craig Button – Rasmus Andersson – position: D, cohort size: 21, 71% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 23
thedraftanalyst.com – Jakub Zboril – position: D, cohort size: 64, 42% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 16
Pick #51 overall (round 2) average success of this pick: 33%
CSS – Erik Foley – position: LW, cohort size: 166, 34% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 22
Ryan Wagman – Rasmus Andersson – position: D, cohort size: 21, 71% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 23
Craig Button – Ryan Pilon – position: D, cohort size: 67, 39% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 16
thedraftanalyst.com – Conor Garland – position: RW, cohort size: 30, 23% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 41
Pick #92 overall (round 4) average success of this pick: 24.5%
CSS – Dmytro Timashov – position: LW, cohort size: 32, 41% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 29
Ryan Wagman – Connor Hobbs – position: D, cohort size: 151, 19% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 9
Craig Button – Ryan Gropp – position: LW, cohort size: 193, 24% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 18
thedraftanalyst.com – Yakov Trenin – position: LC, cohort size: 111, 52% NHL, 2015 NHLe: 25
*Vande Sompel was number 32 on Wagman’s list but the player at 31 had not played enough games for a reasonable projection via theprojectionproject.com. It should also be noted that his cohort size is extremely small, which makes his 75% NHL projection a little dubious.
The Sabres may draft some or none of these players. Trades, player stock, individual team player rankings and over drafting all effect the draft order and these variables make it nearly impossible to predict accurately. Mock drafts are fun and can give insight into how a player is perceived to stack up against his peers but they become essentially meaningless as soon as a team goes off the board. In this year’s draft the first and second pick seem locked in, but after that the draft order is anyone’s guess. NHLe and cohorts of comparably projected players get interesting when we compare them with draft pick value rankings like this one by TSN columnist, Scott Cullen. For example, Cullen has the probability of a player selected 21st overall playing at least 100 games in the NHL at 70% historically, yet of the players slotted in at 21 by all 5 prospect rankings has the highest success probability of those players at 58% probability based on the cohort of comparably projected players. Both rankings have pros and cons. Cullen’s methodology is useful in assessing the general value of a given draft pick in a trade scenario, whereas the projection project’s methodology is more useful in assessing the projected value of actual players a team is considering for selection. Both can be used in concert by comparing the two to determine an acceptable level of risk for each player drafted. So if 58% of Jeremy Roy’s cohort were successful in the NHL yet 70% of all players drafted at that spot in Cullen’s 10 year window were successful, then a team could maximize the value of that draft pick by looking at all remaining undrafted players to see if any of them have a percentage chance of success, based on their own cohort, that is closer to or higher than the historical 70%.
None of this is meant to discredit or displace scouting. A good scouting staff is essential for success in the acquisition of players, whether through the draft, free agency or trades. NHLe and cohort comparisons are simply another tool that can provide more information to bolster scouting reports or raise red flags where scouting reports might not. If the scout says a player is going to be good and the numbers back it up, a team can feel that much better about their selection. If they disagree this may indicate that a team should dig deeper. Tim Murray has indicated on several occasions that this is exactly how they use analytics and scouting and I feel good that the Sabres are in the right hands.
How it all shapes up
With Eichel, Reinhart and Pysyk all likely to join the roster the Sabres need a top 6 quality right winger, a left winger, probably another quality defenseman and a goaltender. How Tim Murray decides to fill those holes remains to be seen. It’s possible he gets really aggressive and makes a ton of trades for quality players in which case the Sabres might be contenders within a couple of seasons. It’s also possible Murray waits for some of the players in the system to develop and signs free agent stop gaps in the mean time. If he goes that rout, it might take 2-3 years before the team becomes a contender. Based on the other teams I’ve examined, I’d project 2-3 years before the Sabres are a contender and they could get into the playoffs in the next season or two. Sam Reinhart called the Tampa Bay Lightning inspirational for what young players can do in the playoffs and he’s right to do so but the Lightning weren’t ready right out of the box. They were swept last season by the Montreal Canadiens. The Penguins lost in round 1 before going to the Cup Finals two years in a row and winning in the second trip, the Blackhawks lost to Vancouver before winning the Cup, the Kings lost in round 1 twice before they won the Cup. This season is all about development and progress. The organization wants to win but they’re not yet in the position to trade away assets for the finishing pieces to an already good roster. First they have to assemble a roster and let it grow into a team. Just for fun, here’s how I project the roster following the draft:
Fill in those question marks with, say, Justin Williams, Mark Stone, Cody Franson and Antti Niemi and that’s a significantly improved roster, ready to take a big step forward.