It’s that time of year.
The sun is hot. The days are long. Many are enjoying holidays. Even those in charge of the on-ice product of their respective NHL teams are taking things a little easier.
Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has had a solid summer even though it is, at best, incomplete. Having brought in Ralph Kruger as the next head coach, signed Jeff Skinner, drafted Dylan Cozens and Ryan Johnson and added the likes of Arttu Ruotsalainen, Colin Miller, Jimmy Vesey, Marcus Johansson and Henri Jokiharju, Botterill is poised to launch a revamped Sabres lineup in October.
He still has work to do. Speculation is rampant that given their current depth on the blue line and the overall need for change in the lineup, Rasmus Ristolainen may be on his way out of town in return for help in the forward ranks.
An avenue of player acquisition that has gained popularity in recent years is that of handing out professional tryout (PTO) contracts. The PTO is a great option on many fronts. The player gets an opportunity to prove himself one last time to the team that signed him as well as to the rest of the league. The team gets a motivated veteran on their squad, and if it doesn’t work out, you can simply move on without penalty.
Are there PTO options that could work for the Sabres this season? Let’s take a look at some players who could be worth the low-risk commitment. While none of these players would necessarily be a major difference-maker, they could help to effectively fill holes currently in the lineup.
While there is currently a logjam on the Sabres’ blue line, the left side in particular could use an upgrade. Behind Rasmus Dahlin, the depth chart consists of Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick, and Jake McCabe. McCabe fits in nicely as a puck-mover on the third pairing, the injured Lawrence Pilut is poised to enter his sophomore season on the second pairing once healthy, and Scandella and Hunwick have both shown deficiencies in their overall games.
While waiting for Pilut to regain health, the Sabres could build their depth of quality on the left side of the defence by bringing in Fredrik Claesson. As a depth piece, Claesson could fit in nicely.
Claesson’s style is one that could be considered solid in general. While never putting up gaudy point totals at any level during his career, he plays a sound defensive game, controlling entries into his zone and playing the puck out to his forwards.
Last season, he had a goals above replacement (GAR) of 3.0 playing in 37 games for the New York Rangers. That may not sound very significant, but it would have ranked him third on the Sabres’ blue line behind only Dahlin and Pilut. Scandella and Hunwick, on the other hand, finished dead last on the Sabres with GARs of negative-5.5 and negative-2.8, respectively.
It could be argued that regardless of whether or not there are other replacements, the Sabres would be better off by simply not playing Scandella and Hunwick. By fielding a replacement who would positively impact the defensive game so significantly compared to those he would be replacing while costing the Sabres under $1 million, they could drastically increase their cap flexibility. Find new homes for Scandella and Hunwick and you find yourself opening up over $5 million. While that may be easier said than done, adding Claesson could provide enough depth to give the Sabres some wiggle room to pursue other moves.
The Sabres have an abundance of depth forwards currently on the roster. The depth up front, like on the defence, lacks effectiveness in ability.
One particular forward that is the cause of much consternation among the Sabres faithful is Vladimir Sobotka. One of the main pieces coming back in the Ryan O’Reilly trade last summer, the hope was that Sobotka could provide depth and leadership for Buffalo’s bottom-six.
To the contrary, Sobotka was a significant anchor to the Sabres – and not in a good way. Among 574 players that were tracked by Natural Stat Trick, he finished 569th with a goals for percentage (GF%) of 32.73. On top of that, he finished 573rd with an expected GF% of 38.88. On the season, he finished with a GAR of negative 6.80. Suffice to say, his initial season in Buffalo was an abomination.
Matt Read could present a cheap option to improve the quality of depth for the Sabres. In terms of GAR, Read finished last season at 0.5. That may not sound very impressive, but he finished above the likes of Sobotka (as did over 99 percent of the league), Tage Thompson, Remi Elie, Scott Wilson, C.J. Smith, Alex Nylander and Zemgus Girgensons.
Although not doing so recently, Read has shown a penchant for scoring goals in the past. In eight seasons in the NHL, he has averaged over 16 goals per 82-game season. An overall average player may not be very sexy, but if he can adequately replace over half of your lineup and cost under $1 million, the move would absolutely make sense. If such a move made it easier to trade Sobotka, demote him to the AHL, hire him as a popcorn hawker etc, it should be done.
Chris Kunitz is certainly the most recognizable name on this list. The three-time Stanley Cup winner has spent his entire career surrounded by star-power with the Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Chicago Blackhawks. He has also represented Canada at the Olympic level.
He is not simply the beneficiary of his teammates. He has contributed pivotal goals in the playoffs and Olympics, cementing himself as a clutch veteran performer.
Some may feel that Kunitz would not be worth the time. The 39-year-old has scored 27 goals over his last 209 NHL games. Last season, he only appeared in 56 games for the Blackhawks.
Looking into his underlying numbers helps us get a fuller understanding of his current overall game. Before eventually falling off the cliff that all players do, Kunitz’s game appears to be aging like a fine wine. Since leaving the Penguins in 2017, Kunitz has seen his GAR increase each of the last two seasons. His wins above replacement (WAR) have also increased since that time and remained at a pace he played at over a decade ago.
Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM charts shows the effectiveness that Kunitz is still able to play with. While his offensive impacts are minimal, his defensive game is very solid. Kunitz is extremely effective in his own zone. He is able to control play and get the puck out of his zone to not face a barrage of pucks.
In addition to that, his style of play may be just the fit the Sabres need. Ryan Stimson has done work on analyzing playing styles and how players with different playing styles play with each other. These findings can help to optimize a lineup.
According to the data presented by Sean Tierney, Kunitz is listed with a designation of “Balanced.” In regard to the Balanced player type, Stimson wrote, “1) Notice that three Balanced player types are a few notches higher than three Shooter types; 2) The ideal bottom six reveals itself with the line of three Balanced types directly above line with two Balanced types and one Shooter; 3) a Balanced player can play with two Shooters and still perform exceptionally well, freeing up the team’s Playmaker to anchor another line.”
A player with a Balanced style of play is statistically more valuable than a Shooter. Kunitz having a strong defensive game to go along with his style of play could make him an ideal fit for the Sabres. Will this season be the one where he falls off the cliff? For $1 million it’s worth the risk.
Finding a PTO Fit
There are options available that could significantly improve the Sabres. Some, like Kunitz, could positively impact the overall game. Others, like Claesson and Read, are more average but would still be a massive improvement if they lead to the departure of negative assets on the roster.
Things are still in flux. Moves need to be made and the lineup come October could look much different than it does now. While fans clamor for a blockbuster, the quiet moves cannot be forgotten. Can Botterill make the quiet move that helps pull the Sabres out of the hole? It’s that time of year.
I’m a die-hard Buffalo Sabres fan living in the heart of Maple Leaf, Canadien and Senator Country. While I don’t get to make it to many Sabres home games, I follow all things Buffalo at a distance. I eat, sleep and breathe hockey (just ask my sons, Bauer and Calder). I look forward to sharing my thoughts and opinions and maybe cheering for a winner one day.