Since Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres back on February 22, Buffalo hockey fans have been in an uproar over the anticipation of the first offseason under the new regime. With Pegula’s seemingly bottomless pockets comes endless possibilities and wishful thinking for Sabres fans everywhere and everyone has their opinion on which direction the franchise should go this summer. Is this the year they finally reel in the big fish in the free-agent pond to lace up his skates in Hockey Heaven? Will Darcy Regier pull off a blockbuster deal that shakes up the entire NHL? Only time will tell. I’m simply here to lay out multiple options for you Sabres fans to ponder over the next few weeks as well as impose my personal opinion on the matter.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs have now run their course, signaling the official beginning to the NHL off-season. While Sabres fans sat and watched in disgust as the Bruins hoisted the Cup, many likely were left pondering exactly how soon it would be before they got to enjoy the same euphoria Bruins’ fans experienced.
Well, one thing is for certain Sabres fans, the beginning of the journey to parading the Cup through the Seymour H. Knox Plaza is about set to get underway.
A few weeks back I began dissecting various options the Buffalo Sabres will have before them during an off-season which is likely to be the most eventful in franchise history. This will be the third and final installment to wrap up my Sabres off-season preview.
In just a few weeks, all speculation will become a reality as hockey fans will be able to witness their team’s effort to improve through the draft, trades and free agency begin to unfold. Until then, I’ve composed a list of current standing restricted and unrestricted free agents from across the league who I feel will or should be strongly considered by the Sabres organization to improve the team and bringing the Stanley Cup that much closer to Buffalo.
Each free agent is ranked 1-10 based upon their potential fit with the Sabres both within the salary cap and the team’s current roster.
Brad Richards, C, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 72 G 28 A 49): We kick things off with the free agent everyone is talking about, Brad Richards. Richards will be without a doubt the most sought after free agent this off-season and will likely command a lengthy contract upwards of $8 million. Teams like the Rangers, Maple Leafs and Kings are said to be the front-runners in the Brad Richards sweepstakes, but could the Sabres be a dark horse to nab the former Conn Smythe winner? He would instantly give the Sabres the number one center they most desire at this point and would likely perfectly compliment Thomas Vanek’s goal-scoring with his ability to make plays. Not to mention, his leadership ability and playoff experience would go a long way in making the Sabres a serious Cup contender. But is Richards really the best guy for the Sabres? I don’t think he is. Richards is on the wrong side of 30 and suffered a nasty concussion that kept him out of the Stars’ run to make the playoffs at the end of this past season. Tying up a guy with those kinds of injury concerns at such a great amount of money is risky business. Although I obviously wouldn’t be upset if the Sabres swung a deal to bring Richards in, I feel the money could be much better spent on some other key need areas the Sabres must address this off-season. Fit: 10 Possibility for Sabres? Moderate
Kevin Bieksa, D, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 66 G 6 A 16 +32): No free agent’s stock has risen more since the conclusion of the regular season than Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa. The former fifth-round draft choice has earned himself quite a raise with his performance in this year’s playoffs and that could possibly mean Game 7 was his final game played in a Canuck’s uniform. The first-round series against the Flyers greatly exposed the Sabres’ glaring need for a veteran presence in their top-four, or even top-two defensive pairings and many believe Bieksa would be a great fit to compliment Tyler Myers. Myers won the Calder Trophy while playing alongside veteran Henrik Tallinder two years ago and Bieksa is somewhat of a similar player to Tallinder. Bieksa is lights-out in his own end and has a nice physical element to his game while proving very capable offensively as well. The addition of Bieksa would give the Sabres a very good veteran stay-at-home D-man to allow for Myers to jump up more into the offense more. The only downfall is the likelihood Bieksa will want about $5 million a year for his deal but the Sabres should have a good amount of money left over to pursue a guy like Bieksa. Fit: 10 Possibility for Sabres? High
Eric Brewer, D, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 76 G 9 A 7 +5): Brewer would prove to be a great consolation prize should the Sabres miss out on Bieksa whether he choses another team or re-signs with Vancouver. His 2010/11 numbers are a bit misleading as Brewer is said to be great in the locker room and is a big presence on D. Brewer will likely be a hot commodity though on July 1 and Tampa Bay will make a stong case to re-sign him. If he doesn’t re-sign, the St. Louis Blues are said to want him back and he would likely draw interest from the Red Wings as well, upping his price to around the $4-$5 million range. Like Bieksa, Brewer would provide the Sabres with a veteran companion for Tyler Myers and was invaluable to the Lighting during their playoff run. He would be a welcome addition for the Sabres in my mind and is probably the best UFA defenseman available that did not wear a Canucks uniform last season. Fit:9 Possibility for Sabres? High
Ryan Callahan, RW, RFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 60 G 23 A 25): Callahan was a monster for the Rangers after the All-Star break last season and was a huge reason why they found themselves in a playoff spot come April. However, a broken ankle kept Callahan out of the Rangers’ most crucial games at the end of the season, including their first round series against the Capitals in which his absence was a big reason why the Rangers lost. Callahan is an interesting topic of discussion as obviously he is an RFA and it is highly unlikely the Rangers don’t lock him up long-term before July 1. But the team has glaring cap concerns, especially now that the news broke that the team will not be able to buy Drury out due to his degenerative knee injury. The fact the Rangers have many other young RFA’s in need of a new contract this further complicates things. If the Rangers are serious about making a run at Brad Richards, they will likely have to cut ties with or trade one of their RFA’s and maybe Callahan will be that guy. If so, I think the Sabres could take a long look at the option even though they are already well equipped on the wing. Callahan looks like a star power-forward in the making and it would speak volumes if the Sabres are able to bring a guy like him in, even if the cost is steep. Fit: 6 Possibility for Sabres? Not likely
Christian Ehrhoff, D, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 79 G 14 A 36 +19): Ehrhoff has somehow become the less sexy option next to Kevin Bieksa for the Sabres and I wouldn’t be so fast to play him off so quickly. Many say that Bieksa and Sami Salo “aren’t money guys” and will look to take less in order to play together in Vancouver. But Ehrhoff may not feel the same way. Ehrhoff is without a doubt one of the best offensive-minded defenseman in the entire NHL and his numbers from last season show that. Although with those kinds of numbers often comes big pay raises and while he may not be as solid defensively as Bieksa, he will likely command more money to sign. Still, he would be a nice addition to the Sabres power play unit and should gel nicely with Tyler Myers in the first pairing. It will be interesting to see what the Canucks decide to do with all of their free agent defensemen and the Sabres would be wise to pursue the odd man out. Fit: 8 Possibility for Sabres? High
Brooks Laich, C, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 82 G 16 A 32): Brooks Laich has become everyone’s consolation prize in the Brad Richards sweepstakes and will almost certainly benefit from this year’s lack of serviceable centermen in the free agent pool. Laich won’t be re-signed by the Capitals as they have minimal cap space and other areas of greater need so of course he will be talked about often in Pegulaville over the next couple weeks. While Laich is a very good player, he is by no means the number one center the Sabres are looking for (he may not even be a good number two guy on a good team) and since the center crop is so thin this year, he will want a nice paycheck — somewhere in the $4-$5 million range. That is much too rich for the Sabres blood, especially for a borderline second-line pivot. Fit: 5 Possibility for Sabres? Not likely
Zach Parise, LW, RFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 13 G 3 A 3): Many Sabres fans have been making a strong case to yank Parise away from the Devils this summer, and I still am not 100% sure why. He is a very intriguing option and there is no doubt Parise is one of the best the NHL has to offer. He may even be the best American-born player in the league right now (sorry Ryan Kesler), but why spend a ton of money on something you already have plenty of? Parise plays the wing, not center. Essentially, he and Thomas Vanek are very similar players and Parise is said to want about the same amount of money as the Sabres’ star. The Sabres have other need areas the money could be better spent on. Now, Parise is an RFA and it may be very tough for the Devils to hand him the contract he is worth with the Kovalchuk handcuffs already around the wrists of New Jersey, so there’s a good chance the two sides won’t be able to agree on a deal. The Devils recently announced they will take Parise to arbitration, meaning the Sabres would not be able to offer Parise a deal but the possibility of a trade is still very real if he and the Devils don’t work things out, especially if the Devils feel they may lose him in a year or two after his new contract expires. The addition of Parise would appear to be very sexy, giving the Sabres three legitimate scoring lines. But seeing as there would be no more cap to spend on depth up the middle, there’s no way the Sabres can pursue this deal unless they’re able to unload the contracts of Brad Boyes or Jason Pominville in the process. Fit: 6 Possibility for Sabres? Moderate
Jamie Langenbrunner, RW, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 70 G 9 A 23): I happen to really like the thought of bringing Langenbrunner into Buffalo this off-season. He is without a doubt one of the best veteran forwards available in free agency and could be exactly what the Sabres need to take the next step. I see this move as being similar to the Neidermayer signing last year, only 10 times better. There is still a few good years left in the former Cup winner and he could provide much needed depth on the Sabres third or even second line next year. Not to mention he shouldn’t be too costly, probably somewhere in the $2-$3 million range. With Grier, Neidermayer and Connolly likely out, the Sabres will absolutely need to look for a few veterans to fill those holes on an otherwise relatively young team. Fit: 9 Possibility for Sabres? High
James Wisniewski, D, UFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 75 G 10 A 41 -14): Wisniewski seems to be the odd man out on the Montreal blue line these days and the Sabres may have an eye on him if he winds up hitting the open market July 1. Wisniewski is a small-ish defenseman but is scrappy and is an efficient power play quarterback, two things the Sabres should have on their blue line next season. The emergence of Marc-Andre Gragnani and likely re-signing of Andrej Sekera sort of reduces the need for an offsensive minded D-man like Wisniewski but as long as they don’t have to overpay (I’d say he’d be worth about $4 million), he could be a welcome addition for the Sabres. Fit: 7 Possibility for Sabres? Moderate
Brandon Dubinsky, C, RFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 77 G 24 A 30): Dubinsky is the other young stud the Rangers could lose this off-season. In my mind, they may have to choose between either him or Callahan if they wanted to make a move for Brad Richards and if I had to guess, they would choose Callahan. If this happens, I think the Sabres should really look into making the RFA an offer, especially if they fall short on obtaining a center via trade or what have you. Dubinsky is a bigger body forward who would be great on the PK and is also a capable 20+goal scorer. He would fit nicely on the Sabres second line if Derek Roy has to be the number one pivot. I don’t think it would take any more than Stafford money to get Dubinsky from the Rangers, $3-$3.5 million should suffice, and he is well worth that to me. Fit: 8 Possibility for Sabres? Moderate
Keith Yandle, D, RFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 82 G 11 A 48 +12): Everyone is talking about Shea Weber who is unlikely to depart from Nashville but they seem to forget about the Coyotes’ Yandle. Yandle just missed a Norris Trophy nomination after putting up gaudy numbers in Phoenix this season. Like Weber, he is an RFA and would cost a ton to pry him away from the desert. Although it is unlikely Phoenix won’t lock him up before July 1, if they don’t, do the Sabres make a serious offer the financially troubled ‘Yotes wouldn’t want to match? With his combined offensive skill and defensive talent, Yandle could be a force in the NHL for years to come, especially playing alongside Tyler Myers. Ultimately though, this deal doesn’t make much sense for me as the price is too steep, especially when you have to think about locking Myers up after next season. Fit: 8 Possibility for Sabres? Not likely
Tyler Kennedy, C, RFA (2010/11 Stats: GP 80 G 21 A 24): I’ve been a fan of Tyler Kennedy ever since he broke into the NHL with the Penguins. He is a gritty forward who honestly sort of reminds me of Chris Drury before his Buffalo days. Kennedy is a very good penalty killer and provides a good amount of offense as well. However, he is still just an RFA so the Sabres will need to make an offer the Penguins wouldn’t want to match, possibly causing them to overpay a bit. Pittsburgh wants to do all they can to get him locked up but they may not be willing to do so if they have to pay a ton of dough after an offer sheet is signed. Kennedy ultimately would be a great fit for the Sabres on the third or even second line at times and could continue to grow and likely succeed under Lindy Ruff. Fit: 9 Possibility for Sabres? Moderate
Anton Babchuk, D, UFA: Babchuk is a big body who is no slouch offensively. Could be a good discount signing.
Andrew Brunette, LW, UFA: Brunette is a good veteran player who can still contribute on the powerplay.
Michal Handzus, C, UFA: Handzus would fit nicely on the third line and special teams units with his ability to consistently win faceoffs.
Jason Arnott, C, UFA: Arnott is nearing the end of his career and is nowhere near the player he used to be but for the right price would be a great asset for the Sabres on the third line and PK unit.
Scott Hannan, D, UFA: Hannan is an under the radar D-man who played very well in Washington. He would be a nice addition towards to bottom of the defensive unit.
Drew Miller, RW, UFA: Adding Ryan Miller’s brother is an interesting move as he would provide some nice grit on the third or fourth lines as well as some PK duty. Miller is a very emotional player and would likely love to be re-united with his brother.
Erik Cole, LW, UFA: Cole would bring a bunch of playoff experience to the Sabres and can still produce offensively. Carolina is said to really want him back, however.
Brandon Schlager is the Buffalo Sabres correspondent for THW. You can follow him on Twitter for even more insightful Sabres coverage at @THWGoldSchlager.