While other teams made splashes in the first day of free agency, the Buffalo Sabres did not. The organization added four players–center Curtis Lazar, defenseman John Gilmour, goalie Andrew Hammond and forward Jean-Sebastien Dea. Not exactly household names.
They make the value acquisitions of Colin Miller and Jimmy Vesey seem earth-shattering.
Miller will likely be pencilled in as a top-four blueliner. Vesey, Jack Eichel’s friend, can expect second or third-line minutes on the left side. He’s entering the final year of his contract year that pays him $2.275 million.
These two NHL-caliber players arrived via draft picks, so in the scheme of things, the team added talent that can play now.
General manager Jason Botterill beamed that the depth signings, who saw limited NHL action last season, will create competition in September at training camp. What exactly does that say about his team? Where is the bar for competition to make a team that finished the season 22 points out of a wildcard spot? Continually acquiring third and fourth line players doesn’t move a team into contention.
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For a playoff-starved fan base, one that hasn’t won a postseason series in 12 straight years and hasn’t made the dance in eight years, it’s all a bit underwhelming. Especially when the list of unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents are deep with talent and have found new homes in the Sabres’ division and conference.
Gilmour, Lazar and Hammond signed one-year, one-way contracts worth $700,000, while Dea inked a two-year deal under the same terms. They’re guaranteed NHL money even if they play in Rochester, provided they pass waivers and go unclaimed.
With Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen recovering from double hip surgery in April, Hammond instantly becomes the organization’s No. 3 goalie. And with two Sabres blueliners–Zach Bogosian (hip surgery) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder surgery)–likely to miss the start of the season, Gilmour could temporarily fill in a roster spot. Dea is a depth signing unlikely to see anything but the bottom half of the lineup.
Lazar Looking to Crack Lineup
Lazar, 24 years old, is a 2013 first-round (17th overall) draft pick of the Ottawa Senators. “What we liked about Curtis is his ability to play both center and wing. You look at his track record and he hasn’t done it as a pro, but he was known as a scorer in junior,” said Botterill during a conference call Monday. “We’re looking for him to come in and challenge for a roster spot.”
Hmmm. In other words, he’s underperformed at the NHL level. Sign him!
Lazar did not receive a qualifying offer from the Calgary Flames. He played 65 games for the Flames in 2017-18, but was mostly a healthy scratch with the team of last season, seeing very limited action.
The former top prospect captained Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and was a teammate of Sam Reinhart. Sabres director of amateur scouting was a scout of Hockey Canada and selected him to play on the team. While in junior, he put up 99 goals in 169 games and hosted the Memorial Cup in 2014.
He has 246 games of NHL experience, most of them with the Senators. He’ll compete for a spot alongside C.J. Smith, Victor Olofsson, Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund and Alex Nylander.
Botterill has either shown tremendous patience in trying to turn the team around or was told to rummage around in the bargain by his bosses, Terry and Kim Pegula, to boost his roster.
His moves, while not completely head-scratching, are a reminder of the difficulty the Sabres have in landing talent via free agency. “As much as we want players to be a part of it, and help us with our immediate needs, there has to be a balance here, and there has to be a situation where we’re not making signings that are going to be detrimental to us in the future,” Botterill said. “It’s a difficult balance.”
Head coach Ralph Krueger has a history of rallying spare pieces to victory. Botterill had better hope he can work his magic again. This team is still very similar to the one that finished in lottery land after the 2018-19 season.
Recruiting in Silly Season
Botterill stressed that all of the organization’s pickups on Monday all play with a lot of pace, a key characteristic that he’s trying to build among his club. However, it’s ironic that Botterill himself is slowly–almost painstakingly slowly–making changes to overhaul the roster. He loathes chasing big names with massive contracts.
While overpaying for Jeff Skinner, they’re fortunate to have his services. The Sabres inked Kyle Okposo to a seven-year, $42 million contract three seasons ago. To say it hasn’t worked out as expected would be polite.
The brutal reality is recruiting is a tall task for Botterill. Veterans with a few years remaining in their tank–oops, wrong word–rather bodies want to play for a winner. And those that are about to enter their prime want to play on contending teams with strong leadership. The Sabres have lacked both.
It remains to be seen who will fill out the right side for the Sabres. Jason Pominville, a fan favorite who’s as versatile in the lineup as he is likeable, continues to be available. The number two center position is still vacant, unless there’s a drastic improvement from either Casey Mittelstadt or Sam Reinhart.
Botterill didn’t need to make all of his moves on July 1. “We’re always having trade discussions and discussions on improving our team,” Botterill said. “It’s probably going to continue to happen throughout the summer. … We’ll continue to evaluate and we’ll continue to have discussions with teams to see if there’s a way to improve our team.”
He’s definitely far from done. He’s just getting his feet wet.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”