The Buffalo Sabres’ forward group seems to be largely set in stone heading into this season. However, there are a few spots where the team can improve, and with an abundance of salary cap space, they have a plethora of options to bolster their offense. There are some intriguing forwards hitting the free agent market this summer, and the Sabres have some excellent internal candidates who could make an impact this season as well. General manager Kevyn Adams has options, the question becomes what should he do?
Free Agent Forwards the Sabres Can Pursue
Tampa Bay may well find a way to get Ondrej Palat re-signed, but for now he is an unrestricted free agent and one of the best ones on the market. He is somewhat underrated, but that is expected on a team with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. He has been one of the key cogs for the Lightning during their runs to the Stanley Cup Final the last three seasons. He scored key goals for the Lightning and can play anywhere he is placed in the lineup, including the power play. He would bring versatility to a Sabres lineup that could desperately use some.
At this stage of his career, he would likely sign a short-term deal at a higher price point. This could be beneficial to the Sabres, who have shown reluctance in recent seasons to give players long term deals. They have the salary cap space needed to make it happen, but Palat may opt to sign with a team closer to competing for the Stanley Cup.
The Edmonton Oilers have a very interesting offseason ahead of them, and one of the players they have to make a decision on is Jesse Puljujarvi. He is a restricted free agent, and should the Oilers decide to move on from the former fourth overall pick, the Sabres should make the call to acquire him.
He is a solid two-way forward that emerged as a strong defensive winger this season. While his stats were not necessarily eye-popping, he definitely had bad luck in terms of finishing his opportunities to score. Having a player with his skillset in the lineup for the Sabres would be a huge benefit. The defensive responsibility he brings to the table would be a tremendous addition, and the string of bad luck he had will surely turn in his favor.
The Oilers have a lot of holes to fill this offseason, and making a commitment to Puljujarvi may not be something they want to do. If they chose to deal him, the Sabres should be able to acquire the rights to negotiate with him for a draft pick or two. Buffalo has been stockpiling draft picks for a while now, and taking a flier on him for one of those picks would be a wise move for Adams.
Gritty is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Nick Paul. He was a difference maker throughout the postseason for the Lightning during last season’s run, scoring five goals and nine points in his 23 postseason games. Beyond points, Paul can be an effective player in the bottom six of a lineup with his physicality and strong defensive play.
Paul would be an excellent fit playing with Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo, essentially replacing Cody Eakin on that line. That trio would be able to grind opponents for offensive chances while also playing a shutdown role in the defensive end. He led all Lightning forwards in penalty killing minutes during the postseason, and would be a massive upgrade to the Sabres penalty kill that ranked 23rd in the NHL last season.
Signing Paul may be a bit on the unrealistic side, as he is likely in line for a big payday based on his performance in the playoffs, but Buffalo could make it happen if they chose to commit to him as a big piece of their core moving forward.
Another player who may be an unrealistic target for the Sabres, Andrew Copp is a solid two-way center who emerged as a key player during the playoffs. He is great in the faceoff circle and can play on the penalty kill, but he is also an effective player in the offensive zone, specifically in front of the net.
He would be an immediate upgrade to the Sabres’ top-six forward group, giving them the center depth they’re lacking. He played on a line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome during the playoffs, and fit in exceptionally well. Transitioning into the Sabres forward group would be a smooth one for him, and he would fit in well with the skill players they already have.
Similar to Paul, he is likely in line for a considerable payday and would require a substantial commitment for the team. Should they make that decision it would be a very beneficial one, and it would be a massive step for the team towards competing for a playoff spot.
Internal Candidates the Sabres Can Consider
Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka
Both of these players are likely going to graduate to the NHL next season, which would be a tremendous success for the Sabres in terms of their ability to draft and develop talent. Expectations would surely be limited when considering it would be Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka’s rookie seasons, but adding two pure goal scorers to the lineup would be a huge benefit. They would be beneficial to the teams power play unit which ranked 16th in the NHL this season and could use an upgrade.
However, the limited expectations and performance early on could also be a detriment to the Sabres. They are both NHL ready, but there will certainly be an adjustment period for them. With the team looking to take a step closer to the playoffs next season, the learning curve could be a con for the team when weighing signing a veteran player or having these players in Buffalo to start the year.
A lesser known commodity in the Sabres organization, Brett Murray is a big player who uses his size for physicality and to get to the front of the net. He played in 19 games for the team last season and managed to score two goals and six points. He also racked up 23 penalty minutes and showed a willingness to drop the gloves both in Buffalo and with the Rochester Americans. The Sabres don’t have many players with that ability, and with the team likely moving on from John Hayden this offseason, Murray could step into the role Hayden held with the team.
After starting the year with the Sabres, Arttu Ruotsalainen played in only 18 games before being sent down to Rochester. He scored only two goals and four points with the Sabres, but emerged as a core piece for the Americans with 18 goals and 51 points in 57 games.
Ruotsalainen has yet to catch on as a full-time member with the Sabres, but his emergence with the Americans should be enough to give him another shot in the NHL. He is an undersized forward but he uses his speed to his advantage in the offensive zone and in transition. He is a restricted free agent but the Sabres would be wise to re-sign him. Whether he plays in the NHL or not, he would provide organizational depth on the wing, something the Sabres lack, and he would likely be one of the first call-ups the Sabres make if they have a rash of injuries.
Whether they choose to test the free agent market for a forward, or fill their voids with internal candidates, the Sabres have options. They have a tremendous opportunity to take a leap towards the playoffs, it all comes down to what Adams decides is best for the team.
Zach Rohde is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW. Growing up in the Buffalo area during the late 2000s, the Sabres success fueled his passion for hockey. He has written about the Sabres for another site in Buffalo previously, and covered Buffalo Sports for a brief time as a freelance sports assistant for Spectrum News Buffalo before moving to a full time position in general news. Twitter: @ZachRohde