Saturday, July 1, 2017

The 2017 NHL Free Agent Checklist. Who fits in Buffalo?

Published by, 6-30-2017

It's a pretty thin market for impact free agents this summer, which is typical as of late as teams are locking up their top players on long-term deals to keep them in the fold. It's good for the team and definitely very good for the player. However, for those looking to bolster their team via free agency, those long-term deals to upper echelon players suppresses supply, and with demand usually high, it creates a windfall for the top free agents hitting the open market.

Teams need to fill holes and cost be damned, they're gonna do it.

The Buffalo Sabres have one big need right now. It happens to be on defense in a top-pairing role. They also could use help on the wing in a top-six role on the left side. Depth at the right price is never a bad thing so they also could be in the market for a bottom-six forward as well.

With that in mind, what the Sabres really need is in very short supply and there are a number of other teams who need or want the same thing. And the price goes up, which is something that hasn't phased new owner Terry Pegula. He jumped into his first off season as owner of the Sabres by reportedly going after the best free agent on the market to fill a gaping hole at top-line center. It never really went far with Brad Richards as he signed with the NY Rangers so the Sabres focused upon filling that hole with Ville Leino whom they signed to a 6 yr./$27 million contract.

That was an utter disaster and shows the pitfalls of supply and demand in free agency. The Sabres used a compliance buyout on Leino in 2014 and will continue to pay him $1.2 million/year not to play for them through 2019/20.

This year there are two defensemen who could fit what Buffalo needs--Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner.

Shattenkirk is the prime free agent on the market this year meaning he and his agent will be commanding top dollar. The 28 yr. old native of New Rochelle, NY is a mobile puck-moving, offensive defenseman with a scoring touch who fits right in with the way defensemen are expected to play in today's game. Amongst the teams mentioned to be pursuing him are Buffalo, the New Jersey Devils, the NY Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The front-runner in the "Shatty Sweepstakes" is said to be the Devils. GM Ray Shero has $25 million in cap space with NHL insider Pierre LeBrun being quoted as saying the Devils will make the biggest bid for Shattenkirk. By the looks of it, a seven-year contract in the $50 million range is not that far-fetched.

Word on the street is that Buffalo is in the mix and is willing to pony up that kind of cash and term. No doubt the Sabres could use his acumen on defense, despite his less than stellar playoff performance, and as proven by last year's signing of Kyle Okposo, who was the best free agent on the market, they have the chutzpah to do so.

If Shattenkirk were a left-handed shot it would be a no-brainer for the Sabres as he'd fit right along side the right handed Rasmus Ristolainen on the top pair. Shattenkirk's a righty, however which means one of the two would be playing their off side or they'd be anchoring the right side of the defense in the top-four. Which isn't a bad scenario save for the fact that they just paid big bucks for a player and still have the exact same hole they had before hand.

It's never a bad idea to add talent, but when you're getting into free agent contracts like that, a truer fit would seem to be more sensible.

Alzner, on the other hand, is a lefty and he played the left side in a top-pairing shutdown role for many years in Washington. The 28 yr. old has proven to be durable as he's played in ever Capitals regular season games over the past seven seasons.

On the plus side, putting Alzner on the top pair next to a more mobile and offensive-minded defenseman like Ristolainen seems like a great fit. He's a defense-first guy who can hold the fort in his own zone and has a good outlet pass to help get the transition game going. However,don't expect much out of him to go end-to-end or produce much offensively. Alzner's best season was 21 points (5+16) three years ago.

Amongst the teams said to be interested in Alzner are the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto.

Alzner's coming off of a four-year, $11.2 million contract with Washington and very little has come out concerning contract demands. At his age and with how he plays the game along with the number of games he's played it might be a buyer beware situation. Alzner will be looking to max out this contract which could place him in the $4-5 million range for five to seven years.

Not sure the Sabres would want to do anything like that, especially with a new coach like Phil Housley who coached an up-tempo, offensive minded defense-corps in Nashville.

There's not much happening at left wing either this off season.

As mentioned in the last blog, while the right side of the forward group is stable in the top-six thanks to Okposo's long-term contract and 21 yr. old Sam Reinhart's versatility, the left side has plenty of question marks.

Evander Kane is a top-six left winger, but will be entering the final year of his contract and no one knows exactly where it's all headed with him. Other than that the Sabres had bottom-sixer Marcus Foligno playing a good chunk in the top-six with mediocre results and players like Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons given shots there. Ennis has had two dismal seasons fraught with injuries and should he ever return to form he has top-six talents. But we're not sure Buffalo can bet on that happening at this juncture.

The best free agent left wing out there is Patrick Marleau but it's suspected he'll either remain with the Sharks or stay on the West Coast if he leaves San Jose. Other than that, the next best player available is former Sabre Thomas Vanek. At 33 yrs. old he ain't exactly a spring chicken but his passing skills and sniping ability remain as does his shootout acumen which was best in the league--5/5.

Is Vanek a top-six left wing? Probably not. He never was fleet of foot and his skating looked as if he didn't really care. Conceivably he could keep up with Ryan O'Reilly and Okposo on a line just by virtue of his hockey sense and passing ability, but that might be a stretch. However, the big thing with Vanek would be signing him to a reasonably priced short-term deal (say, 1yr./$3 million) to not only help bolster the forward ranks, but also to help give the youngins one more season of development.

New Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill could also bring in a vet like Beau Bennett short-term to help ease the youngsters into the NHL game. Bennett was a Pittsburgh Penguins first round pick when Botterill was in the front office there. As of now he looks like a bottom-six winger but he has the speed and creativity to contribute plus the versatility to play either side of center.

Botterill was thrown into the fire when he accepted the GM spot in Buffalo. After being hired on May 11 he had to prep for the expansion draft as well as the NHL Entry Draft while also looking ahead to the July 1 opening of free agency. All the while he's had to think about extensions for Jack Eichel and Reinhart, as well as starting goalie Robin Lehner, while also navigating the choppy waters of the Kane situation.

It would take some big kahunas for him to go all-in for Shattenkirk and Alzner might not be what they're looking for when looking through the eyes of Housley. Vanek is a gamble, that might prove worth it while Bennett might end up being a decent depth signing at a reasonable price.

One thing he does have going for him is the prospects of bringing in UFA goalie Chad Johnson as a back up to Lehner. Another thing Botterill has had to deal with in his short tenure was the Cal Petersen situation where the Sabres 2013 draft pick looks to be headed to Los Angeles as a King via free agency. Botterill took it all in stride and if rumors that Johnson will be coming back to Buffalo are true, he just stabilized his goalie situation this season with that move.

Rumors will be coming hard and fast leading up to tomorrow's 12 Noon start to NHL free agency. How much Buffalo is involved remains to be seen, but I'm not expecting too much.

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