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Biggest name in NHL free agency would help Sabres' defense

Buffalo could still use help on defense. The top free agent is a defenseman.

After signing the biggest name last summer, will the Sabres do it again?

An underwhelming crop of free agents hits the open market at noon Saturday. The majority are depth players or aging veterans, guys who can fill out the third forward line or skate on the bottom defense pair.

Kevin Shattenkirk is an exception.

The 28-year-old defenseman is a U.S. Olympian. He has topped 40 points in the last five full seasons, including a career-high 56 last year. No other free agent, including forwards, had more. A disappointing playoff with Washington dented his image, but Shattenkirk is as close to a sure thing as there is this summer.

He had a salary of $5.2 million and figures to remain in the same range. Buffalo doesn’t have a lot of cap room, but it can carve out enough for Shattenkirk.

The Sabres made a splash last July 1 by signing right wing Kyle Okposo to a seven-year, $42 million deal. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen later re-signed for six years at $5.4 million per season. Like Ristolainen, Shattenkirk is a right-handed shot. The Sabres could lessen Ristolainen’s workload and dress two formidable pairs with the addition.

Shattenkirk can play the fast-paced style that Buffalo’s new brass of Jason Botterill and Phil Housley wants. It makes sense, but there will be competition. There’s just not a lot out there.

Here’s a look at the unrestricted free agents, starting with the Sabres’ biggest need.

DEFENSE

Buffalo has six left-handed defensemen (Jake McCabe, Nathan Beaulieu, Victor Antipin, Josh Gorges, Justin Falk and Brendan Guhle) and four right-handed (Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson and Taylor Fedun).

Unless the Sabres are banking on a big rebound from Bogosian, they could use veteran help on the right side.

The free-agent list starts with Shattenkirk and continues with fellow righties Dan Girardi, Michael Stone, Cody Franson, Dennis Wideman and Paul Postma. The 27-year-old Stone had 30 assists and 36 points for Arizona two seasons ago.

Defenseman Trevor Daley knows what it takes to win. (Getty Images)

The left-handers include Andrei Markov, Mark Streit, Trevor Daley, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Kulikov, Matt Hunwick, Francois Beauchemin, Kyle Quincey, Michael Del Zotto, Ron Hainsey, Brian Campbell, Nikita Nesterov and Johnny Oduya.

The 28-year-old Alzer helped key the Capitals’ run to the Presidents’ Trophy as their shutdown defenseman. The Penguins’ Daley, 33, played 19:06 per night in the playoffs to win another Stanley Cup.

GOALTENDERS

Buffalo has two just two NHL-caliber goaltenders, Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark. The Sabres also have Jason Kasdorf, who struggled in the ECHL, and rookie Jonas Johansson.

They need at least one more netminder to provide a quality tandem for Buffalo and a No. 1 starter for Rochester. A familiar face could be coming.

Chad Johnson stepped in when Robin Lehner got hurt two seasons ago. (Getty Images)

Chad Johnson will likely sign with Buffalo, according to the Star-Tribune in Minnesota. The 31-year-old spent the 2015-16 season with the Sabres, going 22-16-4 with a .920 save percentage. He played for Calgary last season.

Ullmark recently signed a two-year deal that pays $750,000 whether he's in Buffalo or Rochester.

The list of available NHL goalies also includes former Sabres Ryan Miller and Anders Nilsson, plus Brian Elliott, Steve Mason and Jonathan Bernier.

Jhonas Enroth started last season with Toronto but finished with playoff time for Anaheim's farm team in San Diego. (Getty Images)

Depth goalies for the Sabres include Jhonas Enroth, Keith Kinkaid, Curtis McElhinney, Ondrej Pavelec, Darcy Kuemper, Jean-Francois Berube and Michael Leighton.

Enroth, who recalls his time in the Sabres’ organization fondly, had a .924 playoff save percentage for Anaheim’s minor-league team.

LEFT WINGERS

The Sabres have Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Justin Bailey, Matt Moulson and Nicolas Deslauriers. That’s a lot of question marks. Kane could be traded. Ennis has had two injury-filled, low-production seasons. Bailey has been inconsistent.

The available left wingers include Patrick Marleau, Thomas Vanek, Kris Versteeg, Chris Kunitz, Patrick Sharp and Scottie Upshall.

Thomas Vanek, left, could put a finishing touch on Jack Eichel's passes. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Marleau continues to shine at age 37, scoring 27 goals to lead all free agents. Vanek had the most points among left wingers with 48, including 17 goals. Versteeg is a consistent 15-goal scorer who has two Cups. Botterill is very familiar with the Penguins’ Kunitz.

CENTERS

The one-two punch of Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly is the Sabres’ strength. They’re followed by Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Evan Rodrigues.

Joe Thornton, Martin Hanzal, Mike Fisher and Sam Gagner are atop the free-agent list. Third- or fourth-liners include Brian Boyle, Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino. Cullen and Bonino played for the Penguins.

RIGHT WINGERS

Okposo leads the Sabres’ depth chart, followed by Sam Reinhart, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching and Alex Nylander. There’s talent but plenty of inexperience.

Experience abounds. Right wing is the most veteran lot of free agents out there. Players include elder statesmen Jaromir Jagr (45 years old), Brian Gionta (38), Jarome Iginla (39) and Justin Williams (35), plus Alexander Radulov, Radim Vrbata and Drew Stafford.

Brian Gionta was the only one in Buffalo to play in all 82 games last season. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Gionta wants to stay in Buffalo after scoring 15 goals and playing all 82 games as the captain. He just finished a three-year, $12.75 million deal.

NHL teams have been allowed to interview free agents since Sunday. They know who they want, and the players have a good idea where they’ll fit. Once the clock hits noon Saturday, the signings should come in a hurry.

Botterill will need creativity to improve Sabres' roster this week

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