There are three ways to build a hockey team. The Buffalo Sabres have done well in two of them.
The third? That hasn't been impressive. They get another crack at it Friday.
After constructing a solid core through the NHL Draft and trades, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray will wade back into free agency when the signing period opens at noon. He'll look to make a bigger impact this time.
"We do need to add, whether through a trade or free agency," Murray said. "We will add something, but I don't see any critical date or position. We'll find a way to get better, for sure."
Buffalo was hardly a free-agent destination the previous two summers. Improvement wasn't on the agenda in 2014, and the team wasn't in playoff-ready mode in 2015. Expectations were low heading into free agency, and the results lived down to that.
Aside from captain Brian Gionta, it can easily be argued that not one of Buffalo's 12 other moves the past two years has worked out. Among the notables, Matt Moulson's production has plummeted, Cody Franson had his worst year as a pro and Cody McCormick missed the season with blood clots. Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit were forgettable. Minor-leaguers Cal O'Reilly, Jason Akeson and Bobby Sanguinetti underperformed.
It shouldn't be tough to beat the likes of Zac Dalpe and Carlo Colaiacovo when the Sabres make calls Friday. The depth chart shows they should be active, though odds are good they'll go after their own players harder than guys on the free market.
They got two contracts done Thursday night, agreeing to a three-year, $4.8 million deal with defenseman Jake McCabe. The 22-year-old was set to become a restricted free agent. He will make $1.25 million next season and $1.775 million in each of the following two years.
McCabe, a second-round pick in 2012, emerged as a top-four defenseman last season playing alongside Zach Bogosian. In 77 games, McCabe recorded four goals, 14 points and a team-best plus-6 rating.
The Sabres also signed Williamsville native Cole Schneider, who made his NHL debut with Buffalo during the final two games of last season, to a one-year, two-way contract.
Buffalo still needs to sign RFA defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and forwards Marcus Foligno and Zemgus Girgensons. The Sabres really want to hand a contract to left wing Jimmy Vesey, the college standout acquired last month. The sides have until Aug. 15 to come to a deal or Vesey becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Vesey is the key to the left side. Evander Kane is capable of a top-six role, but Girgensons, Foligno, Nicolas Deslauriers and Moulson have shown they're better suited to the third or fourth line.
Tyler Ennis could move to the left if needed. As it stands, he is part of a respectable right side with Sam Reinhart, Brian Gionta and prospects Justin Bailey, Hudson Fasching and Evan Rodrigues.
No matter what, there's a hole at wing on the top two lines if Vesey doesn't sign. The available free agents are led by right wing Kyle Okposo. The Sabres have sincere interest in the 28-year-old who has recorded .88 points per game the last three seasons. Others include Milan Lucic, Jiri Hudler, Andrew Ladd, Loui Ericsson, Mikkel Boedker and David Perron, plus West Seneca native Lee Stempniak and former Sabres Jamie McGinn and Thomas Vanek.
"He's more motivated than I've ever heard him talking about coming back and showing everybody he's a 30-goal scorer and is not done," said Vanek's agent, Steve Bartlett.
The Sabres are also in need of a center. Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel hold down the top spots, and Johan Larsson is penciled in to anchor the third line. David Legwand won't be back, leaving the fourth line to Cal O'Reilly, Dan Catenacci or Jean Dupuy. Centers on the market include Frans Nielsen, Eric Staal, Sam Gagner and Darren Helm.
Murray solved his glaring need for a left-handed defenseman with Saturday's trade for Dmitry Kulikov. There's still room for another top-four defenseman if Buffalo wants to cut Josh Gorges' minutes. Left-hander Kris Russell is the top blue-liner thanks to his shot-blocking prowess and ability to provide points. Jason Demers, Dan Hamhuis, James Wisniewski and Brian Campbell are also available.
The Sabres have not contacted Campbell about a reunion, though he may be in line for one with Chicago.
"I'm hopeful," Campbell told the Chicago Tribune. "A lot of people know it's my No. 1 place I'd like to play, so I'll wait and see and hopefully it all works out."
Buffalo could certainly use a goaltender if it believes Linus Ullmark needs more minor-league seasoning. Chad Johnson has shown capable of relieving Robin Lehner. James Reimer, Anton Khudobin and Al Montoya have experience as well.
As Murray has shown, however, he has a fondness for trades. O'Reilly, Kane, Gorges and defenseman Zach Bogosian are among those obtained in big deals. The GM is just as likely to find help on the trade market as the free agent market.
So far, that's worked out better anyway.
"We want to get going here," Murray said. "We made up a big chunk last year and everybody says, 'Well, you had no choice,' and I kind of agree with that, to be truthful. But it's time to take another big jump.
"If you look at last year and we had won one more game a month from October to April, we're a playoff team. We played half the year without Robin and a whole lot of other things you guys might call excuses, but I would just call life. Life gets in the way sometimes. I'm optimistic. We could have been better last year if the suns and the moons aligned and they didn't. That's fine.
"Our goal here is to just keep improving."