*This article was originally written during the 2021-22 season
The 2022-23 NHL season is still ongoing, but it’s never too early to start thinking about offseason additions. The Buffalo Sabres have to make a big splash in free agency after this season concludes, there are no two ways about it. After trading Jack Eichel and his $10 million per year contract to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sabres found themselves with so much salary cap space that the team had to acquire the rights to Johnny Boychuk from the New York Islanders just to be salary compliant. General manager (GM) Kevyn Adams won’t have any excuses to not pursue a big name this summer, even if it means writing some big checks.
However, the Sabres don’t have a great track record when it comes to free-agent signings since Terry Pegula bought the franchise in 2011. Their various GMs since then have handed out a number of contracts to marquee players, and while some have worked out, a majority have aged either poorly or outright disastrously. Adams will have to be aware of this when free agency opens on July 13. With that in mind, let’s review the biggest signings the Sabres have made in the past 11 years and give an honest judgment of their impact on the team.
Carter Hutton: July 1, 2018 – 3 Years, $8.25 Million
This wasn’t exactly a bombshell signing, but the Sabres had high hopes for Carter Hutton, even if he was seen as just a table-setter for Linus Ullmark. Buffalo needed a fresh start in net after Robin Lehner’s frustratingly inconsistent three seasons with the team and Hutton seemed like the solution.
The Sabres were the first team to give Hutton a true chance to be a number-one goaltender, as he was trapped behind the likes of Pekka Rinne in Nashville and Jake Allen in St. Louis. But the Thunder Bay, ON, native was never able to truly find his footing (partially because of a vision issue), forcing the Sabres to turn to Ullmark sooner than anticipated. Though Hutton was a positive locker room presence and well-liked by teammates, fans weren’t surprised when the team opted to let him walk away during the 2022 offseason.
Matt Moulson: July 1, 2014 – 5 years, $25 Million
After being acquired from the New York Islanders in Oct. 2013 and dealt to the Minnesota Wild later that same season, Matt Moulson opted to come back to the Sabres and be a part of their rebuild instead of signing with a more viable contender. That isn’t seen much in modern professional sports. Though he wasn’t re-signed to lead the Sabres in scoring, the three-time 30-goal scorer with the Islanders was a strong veteran presence to help the Sabres on their journey back to the top.
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Unfortunately, Moulson’s contributions on the ice didn’t match the numerous ones he made away from it, including giving the freshly-drafted Eichel a home during his rookie season. Although he posted a respectable 41 points in the dreaded 2014-15 “tank” season, Moulson’s production dipped in each of the next two. After recording zero points through 14 games to begin the 2017-18 campaign, he was waived to the American Hockey League (AHL) in December of 2017 and promptly loaned to the Ontario Reign. It was a very sad way for his tenure with the team to come to an end, especially when considering that he hasn’t returned to the NHL since. This one is difficult to cast aspersion on due to the loyalty he showed Buffalo, but he remains one of the team’s worst signings.
Kyle Okposo: July 1, 2016 – 7 Years, $42 Million
Rumors were abundant that the Sabres were in deep on Steven Stamkos before free agency began in 2016, but Tampa Bay re-signed its franchise cornerstone before he hit the open market. To compensate, then-GM Tim Murray went after the next biggest thing and they ended up adding arguably their biggest free-agent signing ever to that point. Bringing in Kyle Okposo sent waves through Western New York. With Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane already aboard, Okposo was tangible proof that the Sabres were done messing around and ready to compete immediately.
Okposo was named an NHL All-Star in that first season, but a head injury sustained in practice landed him on the injured list before its conclusion. It was later revealed that it had a drastic effect on his overall well-being and he now advocates for mental health awareness (from ‘Back from the abyss: Kyle Okposo opens up about the darkest days of his life’, The Athletic, 9/24/18). Additional concussions since have further hindered his output and the Sabres haven’t had much return for their investment in him in the points column. Though he has been invaluable to the Sabres through the intangibles he brings to the team. He’s emerged as a true leader and is recognized as captain even though he doesn’t have a “C” on his jersey.
The Sabres at the moment are filled with young players that have the potential to become stars, and Okposo is as ideal a presence as could be for them to learn from. Even though he hasn’t been the player on the ice the Sabres thought they were getting when they signed him, he has been worth every dollar.
Brian Gionta: July 1, 2014 – 3 Years, $4.25 Million
In a similar vein to Moulson, Brian Gionta made a statement by signing with the Sabres. The Rochester, NY native walked away from the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens to join the team he grew up down the road from. His best playing days were clearly behind him, but they didn’t sign the then-36-year-old to light up the score sheet. He was brought on board a team crawling from the abyss after a dismal 2013-14 season and instantly became the leader of the bunch. This was reflected when then-head coach Dan Bylsma named him the first New York native captain in Sabres history before the next season began.
When looking solely at his output, Gionta was a disappointment for the Sabres, as he never produced more than 35 points in each of his three seasons. Then again, the Rochester Rocket was brought in for his leadership, not his scoring and he delivered in that role by helping the likes of Eichel and Reinhart in their development. Perhaps his contributions flew under the radar because they were (and still are) a team stuck in transition, but Gionta deserved more credit than he received.
Taylor Hall: Oct. 11, 2020- 1 Year, $8 Million
Oh, man did the internet ever explode with this one. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought the Sabres had even the slightest chance of landing Taylor Hall, the top free agent of the 2020 offseason. However, the combined efforts of Adams and then-head coach Ralph Krueger proved to be enough, and when it was leaked on Twitter that the former NHL MVP had signed for one year in Buffalo, the hockey world went gaga. The thought of Hall playing alongside Eichel had Sabres fans bouncing off the walls and it was highly speculated that the team would offer him an extension down the line. However, as has been the case countless times over the years, that excitement soon turned to disappointment.
For whatever reason, Hall simply couldn’t shift out of first gear in the Sabres blue and gold. The former first-overall pick posted just two goals and 17 assists through 37 games, but it’s tough to blame him entirely for his lack of production. The COVID-shortened 2021 season was arguably the worst in franchise history, as the team endured an NHL-record 18-game losing streak and finished with just 15 wins in the 56-game schedule. A neck injury that ended Eichel’s time with the team didn’t help matters either. Eventually, Hall and Curtis Lazar were traded to the Boston Bruins for Anders Bjork and a second-round pick at the 2021 Trade Deadline. This was easily the biggest free-agent acquisition in Sabres history, but it ended up making the team even more of a laughing stock in the end.
Ville Leino: July 1, 2011 – 6 Years, $27 Million
This is easily as bad as it gets. Ville Leino has become the stuff of legend in the pantheon of the Sabres in the worst possible way. 2011 was their first offseason under Pegula after he purchased the franchise that February and the rookie owner set out to make as big of an impact as he could. On the first day of free agency, then-GM Darcy Reiger handed out two hefty contracts. The first was a whopping 10-year, $40 million deal to Christian Ehrhoff, and though that move proved to be a debacle as well, it doesn’t count towards this list as it was technically an extension since his rights had been acquired via trade two days earlier. The second was a six-year deal to Ville Leino, a familiar face to Sabres fans.
Leino scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to keep the Philadelphia Flyers alive against the Sabres and they went on to win the series in Game 7. He turned that supremely clutch goal into a $27 million payday and never came even remotely close to living up to it. In three seasons with the Sabres, the Finn never scored more than eight goals and 25 points and quickly became the preferred target for fans to direct their ire towards.
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After a 2013-14 campaign in which he posted just 15 points (all assists), Leino was waived and the Sabres exercised their first compliance buyout in team history. He was paid $7,333,333 over six years to not wear the team’s jersey and ended up never appearing in the NHL again. It can be argued that the fault lies with the Sabres for giving out such a big contract to a player that wasn’t worthy of it. But one thing remains certain, this was the worst transaction the team has ever made and it will forever be a microcosm of Pegula’s failures with the Sabres.
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Despite their struggles at times this season, the Sabres have improved considerably and could be in a position to take a further step forward if the team can bolster its roster over the summer. Adams has plenty of financial leeway to work with but needs to exercise heavy caution if the past is any indicator. A big free agent signing has the power to both propel and sink a team. Given the state of the Sabres for the entirety of the ongoing Pegula era, they can’t afford to be sunk any further.