The Sabres had a relatively uneventful first day of free agency, but they still added some key pieces to their team. Heading into the day they had room to improve in all three phases of their roster, specifically in net and on the right side of their defense. General manager Kevyn Adams addressed those deficiencies by signing defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and goaltender Eric Comrie to two-year contracts. As a starting point for the free agency period, this was a slam dunk, as these acquisitions answered some of the major question marks facing the roster while leaving them with maneuverability to address the other needs on their roster.
Lyubushkin, Comrie Highlight Day One for the Sabres
The Sabres’ most glaring need was in the crease. Prior to Comrie’s signing, they were looking at a tandem of Craig Anderson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. They needed to add depth to the position and he was the right choice for them. He may be unproven having only played in 28 career games, but he had a strong season with the Winnipeg Jets last year and his .920 save percentage suggests he deserved more starts. Buffalo is a great place for him to gain NHL experience with players close to him in age, and get more appearances on a team that desperately needs stability in goal. This signing was a win-win for both the player and the organization.
Second on the list of needs was a right-handed defensemen. Prior to signing Ilya Lyubushkin, their only right-handed defensemen under contract were Henri Jokiharju and Casey Fitzgerald, with the latter only having played 36 career games. He will be a great addition to a Sabres defense core that could use a bit of physicality and snarl. Because of his strong defensive play, he could be a strong partner for Rasmus Dahlin or Owen Power. With Lyubushkin focusing on the defensive end of the ice, it would give those two the green light to jump up into the play.
Defensemen Cale Clague, Chase Priskie and Jeremy Davies were also signed by the Sabres on Wednesday. These signings give them organizational depth on the blue line as they will likely play for the Rochester Americans. They also re-signed a few players to round out their roster, as they brought back Victor Olofsson and Vinnie Hinostroza to help solidify their winger depth, and Malcolm Subban to give them an experienced goaltender capable of stepping in if something happens to their other three goalies.
The Sabres Still Have Holes to Fill
Subban and Comrie are likely the only moves they will make in goal. They still have needs on offense and defense, and there are still intriguing options on the market for them. They could use an impact winger who will sign for a shorter-term, higher salary deal, and Ondrej Palat is a name that sticks out right away, as he was a key piece for the Tampa Bay Lightning during their runs to the Stanley Cup the last three seasons. He would immediately upgrade their forward group and power play unit which ranked 16th in the NHL last season.
Dylan Strome is another player that could be a strong fit. He would add to their center depth and bring a touch of skill to a Sabres forward group that could use some more. They’ve shown a reluctance to hand out long-term contracts in recent seasons, so they could give him a short “prove it” deal to see if they want to commit to him as a piece of their future core.
They could also opt to leave their forward group alone and roll with some of their younger players to get them more minutes this season. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka seemed to have earned at least a look in the NHL and it is entirely possible that they both graduate from the American Hockey League this season.
Even after the addition of Lyubushkin, the Sabres can still afford to add another right-handed defenseman and going the trade route might be a viable option. It remains to be seen whether or not the Florida Panthers decide to move Mackenzie Weegar, but if they do, Buffalo should be first in line trying to get him. He would provide a tremendous presence on their blue line with his superb defensive play and physicality. He partnered well with an elite defenseman in Aaron Ekblad and it would likely be a seamless transition for him to play with either Dahlin or Power. Their penalty kill would improve with his addition, as he would immediately slot into their first unit. Having Henri Jokiharju, Lyubushkin and Weegar would be a strong right side to complement Mattias Samuelsson, Dahlin and Power.
The Sabres would likely have to come up with a substantial package to acquire Weegar but it would be worth the price. He will be an unrestricted free agent when this season ends, but they would have the salary cap room to extend him if he ends up fitting into their group.
The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have much cap space to work with and moving John Marino could be an option to give themselves some maneuverability. He is signed for five more seasons at a salary cap hit of $4.4 million, so it would be a substantial commitment if Buffalo did decide to acquire him.
Marino was deployed in a couple of different ways last season, as he led the team in penalty-killing minutes among defensemen and was second in power play minutes behind Kris Letang. He likely would find himself in a similar situation in Buffalo, not needed as much on the power play but a key piece of their penalty kill. He was paired with Marcus Petterson last season, so adjusting to partners who are more offensively-oriented would be an adjustment, but he should be able to do so.
Day 1 of free agency came without any flashy moves, but overall the Sabres did a nice job addressing their needs, as they gave themselves depth in places where they desperately needed it and didn’t overspend in the process. Now they can be patient in any further approach to improve the team. Having excess salary cap space will also give them the opportunity to absorb contracts teams can no longer afford, like Weegar or Marino. If something like that doesn’t come to fruition they are still in a good spot, as they can allow their young players to grasp more ice time and take on bigger roles. Whatever the direction they decide to go in, they are off to a good start after the first day of free agency.