The Buffalo Sabres are facing the biggest offseason for the organization in more than a decade. With over $34 million in salary-cap space available and only 10 players signed for next season, general manager Kevyn Adams has a tremendous opportunity to turn the organization around.
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Adams has already started to put his stamp on the team. With last week’s acquisition of former Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal, he was able to fill a hole in the lineup that was dug two seasons ago with the Ryan O’Reilly trade.
Another former Wild player recently became available. General manager Bill Guerin announced that the team would not be bringing back captain Mikko Koivu. The 37-year-old is now an unrestricted free agent and would be a perfect fit for the Sabres.
Koivu a Replacement For Larsson
The Sabres had the perfect third-line center in Johan Larsson. He never put up major offensive numbers but is a sound defender and an elite shot-against suppressor. He is an unrestricted free agent now and with no reports of there being any contract talks or mutual interest in a deal, it appears he will test the market. After seven seasons with the NHL’s worst organization, can you blame him?
So while Adams has his top two centers solidified, he has a gaping hole on his third line. Koivu would be an excellent replacement for Larsson in this capacity.
Using Evolving Hockey, we can see how Koivu and Larsson compared in various stats last season. Offensively they were very similar. The following chart compares various stats at a rate per 60 minutes including goals(G), individual shots for (iSF), individual shot attempts (iCF), individual expected goals (ixG), individual blocks (iBLK), giveaways (GIVE), takeaways (TAKE) and faceoff differential (FO+-).
Larsson had the strongest offensive season of his career and accumulated points at a higher rate than Koivu. They tend to generate quality chances at a similar rate according to their xG. Koivu showed a greater tendency to get in the way of pucks, blocking nearly an extra shot per hour. He also had a significantly better ratio of giveaways to takeaways. One of the most interesting wins for Koivu was in the faceoff dot as he averaged five more faceoff wins per hour compared to Larsson.
Koivu could seamlessly replace the defensive prowess that Larsson displayed for so many seasons. Although Larsson put up stronger numbers offensively last season, Koivu has been a much stronger contributor throughout his career. He has put up .69 points per game compared to Larsson’s .25. Granted, Koivu has certainly had better deployment as a top-six center compared to Larsson who has primarily spent time in a depth role on some of the worst teams in the history of the NHL. Still, adding his complete game would be a major boon for the Sabres.
Veteran Leadership and Depth For Young Sabres
Koivu’s best offensive days are certainly behind him at this point. While the Sabres would not be expecting him to score 50 points or more, he has the potential to put up 40 points while playing a major leadership role for a young team.
Much has been made about how Staal will be a mentor to the Sabres’ stable of young players in Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt and others. Adding Staal’s former teammate would only add to the leadership this team could have up the middle.
Koivu is the longest-serving captain in the history of the Wild. He has been through the ups and downs of a long career and maintained a leadership role throughout. Internationally, he has served as either an assistant or captain on numerous Finnish teams, including being the captain of the 2011 squad that won gold at the IIHF World Championship.
Koivu is the epitome of a responsible NHL center. When the game is on the line, he is one of those players that you want on the ice. When you need to win a faceoff, get the puck out or just grind out the last few seconds of a key game, he’s the man.
The lessons he can bring to the Sabres’ youth can help to form them for years to come. When Jack Eichel entered the league, he had the likes of Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson to rely on and learn from. They were not nearly as effective as they were earlier in their careers but their veteran examples helped develop Eichel into the player he is today.
Staal and Koivu could bring a similar presence to the Sabres. The depth added by acquiring Koivu would serve the team well. As of last season, if Eichel were to go down, the team would be essentially doomed up the middle of the ice. Now, they have Staal to fit in. However, if Staal were to go down, who would be the next to step in? At present, there are no options that the Sabres can feel confident in. If they were to add Koivu, they could then boast three top-six centers, something they haven’t had in some time.
Helping Koivu See the Fit With the Sabres
We’ve established why Koivu would be a great fit for the Sabres. Why would the Sabres be a good fit for Koivu? As an aging player in the twilight of his career who has never won the Cup, surely he would want to go to a situation that gives him the best opportunity to do that. The Sabres don’t exactly present that. They do have things they can sell him on though.
First and foremost is money. On the open market, Koivu would probably command a one-year deal in the $2 million to $2.5 million range. The Sabres would have to pay their Sabre Tax – the extra money they would have to spend to get free agents to sign with their struggling team – but could probably afford a $3 million offer. Additionally, they could provide a two-year contract as they have a great amount of flexibility in the forward ranks. This stability would be enticing to a veteran player with a family.
Secondly, he has contacts on the team. Staal is an obvious one. Having played with him the last few seasons, he would have a recent teammate already present. He could also speak with former teammate Jason Pominville about life in Buffalo and how nice the community is and how passionate the fanbase is. Fellow Fins Rasmus Ristolainen and Henri Jokiharju could also reach out to make a pitch.
Finally, his role on the team would be attractive. He would not be a forgotten veteran on a deep lineup. He would play a major leadership role, perhaps even serving as an assistant captain for a (hopefully) up and coming team. Playing along with young stars like Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is a big selling feature as well. No doubt coach Ralph Krueger could give Koivu a convincing case as to why he should believe in the team and join to be part of the solution.
Koivu Can Lead Sabres to Success
The fit for Koivu with the Sabres is ideal. They are not in the hunt for an expensive offensive juggernaut at this point. To continue filling out the lineup, they need a responsible defensive center who can slide up the lineup when necessary. They also need leadership and stronger voices in the locker room to help lead the youth in the organization.
Koivu would bring stability and a strong depth to the spine of the lineup. Convincing him to come to the Sabres will be difficult. They have the longest streak in the league without making the postseason, including missing a season in which 24 teams qualified. Their rebuild has been spinning its tires for years and the issues on and off the ice have been well documented throughout the league.
There is potential for things to start turning around with the fresh start provided to Adams. They may have to overpay and over-commit a bit, but the payoff for Koivu’s veteran leadership could pay dividends. His presence and leadership on the ice could help mold the careers of the next wave of Sabres’ contributors. At the very least, he is a phone call that Sabres’ brass absolutely has to make.