Jordan Deshane The Hockey Writers
Sabres’ Free Agents – Should They Stay or Should They Go?
With the 2019-20 season on hiatus, so much is up in the air. We don’t know if there will be a conclusion to the regular season, a shortened playoff format or really any semblance of playoffs to conclude the season.
What we do know is that there will be an offseason. For the Buffalo Sabres, there are decisions aplenty to be made. What happens over this offseason will shape this roster in a major way for the next decade.
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Let’s take a look at the decisions the Sabres need to make with players currently on the roster and decide who should stay and who should go among the unrestricted free agents (UFAs) and restricted free agents (RFAs).
Sabres’ Forward Core Poised For Big Changes
Wayne Simmonds – UFA
One of the “big fish” the Sabres acquired at the deadline, Simmonds was fairly unspectacular in his short stint before the pause. His shifts would start with a bang, with him often finishing an opponent with a solid check before ultimately losing his legs and finishing the shift in a lower gear.
The toll of his physical game on his body is very apparent. He struggles to keep up with play and drive possession. He may add value in front of the net on the power play and a veteran presence in the room, but unless he signs for one season at $1 million, he likely will be a bad investment. Expect another general manager to ante up in hopes of squeezing the last few ounces of juice out of Simmonds. Go.
Michael Frolik – UFA
The Frolik trade was an unmitigated disaster. Using the cap space gained from trading Marco Scandella to bring in arguably the worst forward on the team this season is a terrible error. Among players who have played at least 200 minutes, Frolik is dead-last in goals for percentage (GF%), shot attempt percentage (CF%), control of quality chances (xGF%) and goals for per 60 (GF/60). In short, it did not work out and he probably shouldn’t be in the league, nevermind with this team. Go.
Sam Reinhart – RFA
This hasn’t really been the dream season Reinhart was hoping for. Having steadily increased his production each season of his career, he’s taken a slight step back in this his most important season to date.
Reinhart has been an excellent play driver from the right side of the lineup. His skill set is essential to this forward group devoid of depth. Evolving-Hockey predicts that his salary will likely be eight seasons at just over $9 million per season. It’s a big commitment but not one that Sabres’ ownership is afraid to make. Reinhart should be a Sabre next season and for many to come. Stay.
Jimmy Vesey – UFA
Vesey was an addition of little consequence. Traded for a third-round pick, he’s amassed 9 goals and 11 assists in 64 games. Really, the only consequence of the trade to acquire him was that the Sabres now do not possess the picks required to make a big splash in the RFA market. With a contract projection of $3.4 million over four seasons, Vesey should be plying his trade somewhere else next season. Go.
Zemgus Girgensons – UFA
Girgensons is one of the longest-tenured Sabres on the roster. His entire career has been swallowed by the black hole that is the team’s last decade. Under Ralph Krueger, Girgensons has had one of the best seasons of his career and played a key role on a line with Kyle Okposo and Johan Larsson.
Whether he stays or goes is difficult to assess. He’s been largely ineffective throughout his career, but really seems to have found a home on the LOG line. Is this season’s success just the dreaded UFA boost that most players get or is he a solution going forward? Should the team move on simply to add some new blood and try to get a boost from some fresh faces? If he will come back for one season at less than $1 million, I’d say it’s worth the risk. Stay.
Johan Larsson – UFA
The third member of the LOG line, Larsson has been very effective this season. In terms of puck possession and driving play, he has been an absolute monster. While not physically dominant in stature, he finishes his checks along the walls and more often than not comes out with the puck.
Larsson is an excellent piece to retain. He’s projected to receive a deal for four seasons at just over $3 million. Retaining both him and Girgensons would give the Sabres their bonafide checking, puck-control line to go along with a top-tier top line. Larsson could also be used further up the lineup in case of injury and feels like a slam dunk to return. Stay.
Dominik Kahun – RFA
Kahun looks to be a nice bit of business for general manager Jason Botterill. Although not receiving major ice time since his trade to the Sabres, Kahun has made an impact. He adds speed and skill on the wing in the middle-six with the ability to move up the lineup if need be.
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He is projected to sign for two seasons at just a shade over $3 million. At only 24 years of age, this has the potential to be a tremendous value signing. Kahun wasn’t acquired to not be re-signed. He’ll be back. Stay.
Victor Olofsson – RFA
Olofsson exploded on the scene this season finding chemistry with Reinhart and Jack Eichel. He has shown prowess on the power play and looks to have found a permanent home there.
The contract negotiations for Olofsson will be interesting to monitor. Will the Sabres opt for a maximum eight-season contract to try and extract value before he becomes more expensive? Do they go the safer route and perhaps only go one or two seasons to get a better grip on what exactly his value is? At this point, he looks to be an elite shot and not much else. That has value, to be sure, but he should not cost an excessive amount of cap space. Projected to make just over $5 million over four seasons, that feels like the sweet spot to keep him in the fold. Stay.
Curtis Lazar – RFA
Lazar was brought in on July 1 with little fanfare. Overall, he has been a pleasant surprise for the Sabres. Although he hasn’t received massive amounts of ice time, he is top-10 in both points and goals per hour. He has a decent physical presence and is effective on the normally porous penalty kill unit.
His projected salary will be for one season and under $1 million. There is very little risk to a commitment like that. The question will be whether or not there will truly be a fit for him. If the Sabres were to follow this plan, they would have a first line, third line, fourth line and one-third of a second line. Does Lazar really bring enough to have him as an added depth piece or another body with the Rochester Americans? He seems like a great guy, but I just don’t think he’s worth using up another NHL contract. Go.
Defence Provides Great Stability
While things in the forward ranks look to change significantly, the situation on the back end has significantly fewer questions. Two in fact. Both can be answered quite easily.
Brandon Montour – RFA
Montour has been puzzling this season. After playing about a quarter of the 2018-19 season with the Sabres, he looked solid alongside Rasmus Dahlin. This season, things have been a little shakier. He has spent a significant amount of time on the left side and has yet to really find a stable partner where he can have success.
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He has shown well in the transition part of the game, routinely carrying the puck out of the zone when he gains possession. It’s every other part of the game that has been a struggle for him. If Montour doesn’t have the puck, he has a hard time retrieving it in his own end. And even though he can gain the zone effectively, he does little with those opportunities in terms of controlling the puck and creating chances.
At 26, we have a pretty good idea of what exactly Montour is. If he is able to return to playing solely on the right side, can he improve his game to the level it was at last season? Are we just looking at a defender who can skate like the wind but provide little else? Either way, he still has value and should be signed as either a second or third-pair defenceman or used in a trade to bring in a piece for the second line. Stay.
Lawrence Pilut – RFA
The situation for Pilut is very similar to Montour. Pilut showed very well last season but has yet to really gain traction this season. With the Americans, he played at an elite level, but couldn’t find consistent time with the Sabres.
He should certainly not just walk. He needs to be signed by the Sabres and either given a position on the roster or used as a trade chip to bring in forward help. Teams around the league could no doubt fit him in somewhere and will likely still value him. For one season at less than $1 million, it’s a no-brainer. Stay.
Linus Ullmark Deserves Another Shot
It feels like forever that we’ve been anticipating the emergence of Ullmark. Yet, here we are and he is already 26 years old. Although goalies tend to develop later than skaters, it feels like this season has provided us with a much better idea of what exactly we have here.
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Ullmark has been neither hot nor cold this season. His numbers appear stronger than past seasons and are stronger than Carter Hutton’s, but given the pucks that he saw, he just leaves you wanting a little bit more. Among goalies who have played at least 1,000 minutes, he sits 29th in delta save percentage (dFSv%), a stat measuring a goalie’s save percentage against his expected save percentage based on the quality of chances he faces. This puts him in the same realm as Thomas Greiss and Jonathan Quick. His goals saved above average (GSAA) ranked 19th in the league with the likes of Juuse Saros and Carter Hart.
So again, Ullmark hasn’t lit the world on fire, but he certainly hasn’t been a liability either. What has maybe helped him look a little better is the play of Hutton. Hutton ranks 46th in dFSv% along the same line as Alex Stalock and 43rd in GSAA, behind the likes of Brian Elliot. He has not been effective.
It would be good for the Sabres to try and bring Ullmark back on another short-term deal. He’s got game and can work well in a shared role with a stronger goalie than Hutton to platoon with. If they can sign him to something at two seasons or less for under $2 million, it would make sense to keep him and let him continue to prove himself.
A Massive Offseason Ahead
Indeed, there are many decisions that the Sabres need to make before the puck drops on the 2020-21 season. They have a tremendous amount of flexibility to shape this roster into something competitive.
When all is said and done, the bones are there for competent NHL roster. The top line and bottom-six can be set. The defence and goaltending can also be set. In reality, all this team could really need is a second-line centre and top-six right-winger. If Jason Botterill is at the helm, this could very well be the modus operandi.
However, if a change is made at the general manager position, the landscape could be much different. If a different hockey mind is put in charge, he would have carte blanche to enact something different and really put his stamp on things.
Both approaches have their pros and cons. One thing is for certain, though: this summer will be must-see for Sabres fans.
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