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Inside the Sabres: Predicting which unrestricted free agents return to Buffalo

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Jake McCabe underwent season-ending knee surgery in February.

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More change is on the horizon for the Buffalo Sabres.

The extent of that change won’t be determined until after General Manager Kevyn Adams completes his search for the team’s next coach. Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen might be on the trade block this summer.

Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju are among the young players reaching restricted free agency. It’s unclear how Adams plans to plot a course for a franchise that’s missed the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, tied for the longest drought in National Hockey League history.

“I think the simple answer to that is we have to be willing as an organization to look at any and all scenarios to help us improve,” Adams said. “And I think I've been pretty consistent in that message in speaking to you guys for almost a year now. We have to be open and willing to look at anything and everything.”

In addition to possible trades and the expansion draft, Adams has some important players reaching unrestricted free agency. Here’s a look at each player with a prediction of whether they stay or go.

Forwards

Drake Caggiula, winger: Acquired off waivers from Arizona in April, Caggiula was an effective bottom-six forward upon joining the Sabres following a mandatory weeklong quarantine. The 27-year-old was a perfect fit for interim coach Don Granato’s system and helped on the forecheck.

Caggiula had two goals, both in the same game, and one assist with a minus-2 rating while averaging 12:50 of ice time in eight games. During that span, Caggiula ranked first on the Sabres in generating on-ice quality and suppressing on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5, according to Evolving-Hockey.com. He also ranked first in on-ice shot quality share despite leading the team in defensive-zone starts and receiving the fewest in the offensive zone.

Caggiula was mired by bad puck luck in Arizona, resulting in only three goals and seven assists in 38 games this season, but he is a versatile forward with the speed to play anywhere in the lineup. He had 25 goals from 2017-19 with Edmonton and Chicago.

Prediction: Caggiula stays. He’s a cost-effective option for a team in need of more upside in the bottom six. 

Tobias Rieder, winger: A favorite of former coach Ralph Krueger, Rieder had a strong start to the season with four goals in the first 18 games. However, he was scratched in each of the Sabres' final four games under Granato and skated less than 10 minutes in each of his final four appearances. Rieder ranked fourth among Buffalo forwards in penalty-kill ice time, but he had only one assist in the final 17 games.

Prediction: Rieder goes.

Riley Sheahan, center/winger: The 29-year-old joined the Sabres on a professional tryout during training camp and emerged as one of Adams’ top offseason pickups. Sheahan, a first-round draft choice in 2010, finished the season with only four goals and nine assists for 13 points in 53 games. But Sheahan led the team in penalty-kill ice time, defensive-zone starts at 5-on-5 and defensive-zone faceoffs. He won 50.9% of his faceoffs while playing center and wing.

Prediction: Sheahan stays. A native of St. Catharines, Sheahan will likely be offered the chance to return, given that the Sabres will be searching for experienced veteran players to insulate the young talent on this team. 

Steven Fogarty, winger: The 28-year-old captain of the Rochester Americans was a competent fill-in when called on, as he chipped in one goal with two assists in nine games. He also had seven goals with three assists for 10 points in 16 games with the Amerks.

Prediction: Fogarty returns on a one-year, two-way contract.

C.J. Smith, winger: Signed as an undrafted college free agent following a 23-goal junior season at UMass-Lowell, Smith never received much of an NHL opportunity with Buffalo. He has appeared in only 14 games since joining in the organization in 2017.

Smith’s been outstanding during his time in Rochester, totaling 61 goals with 81 assists for 142 points in 184 regular-season games. 

Prediction: Smith goes.

Jean-Sebastien Dea, center/winger: An accomplished forward in the AHL, Dea was paid $1.4 million by the Sabres to score zero goals in five NHL games the past two seasons. He wasn’t even invited to training camp in January.  Dea contributed while with the Amerks, totaling 21 goals and 54 points in 72 games for the duration of his contract.

Prediction: Dea goes.

Defensemen

Jake McCabe: Arguably the most valuable player on this list, McCabe should be a priority for the Sabres. The 27-year-old appeared in only 13 games because of ACL, MCL and meniscus injuries to his right knee that required surgery. A second-round draft choice in 2012, McCabe has seemingly improved every season despite the coaching turnover in Buffalo.

Since McCabe became a regular with the Sabres in 2015-16, he ranks second on the team in penalty-kill ice time and first in blocked shots per 60 minutes. He led the team in suppressing on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5 this season. McCabe’s value can also be illustrated by how he helped elevate the play of Rasmus Ristolainen.

The pairing had an impressive 55.22% shot-attempt differential and 57.54% on-ice shot quality share with a plus-4 rating while skating 140:30 together at 5-on-5. When skating without McCabe, Ristolainen had a 41.26% shot-attempt differential and 41.29% on-ice shot quality share while posting a negative-26 goal differential at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

It’s unclear what the market will be for McCabe following the surgery, but he told reporters that he is on track to resume skating in July. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, McCabe is projected to receive a one-year, $1.55 million contract if he remains with the Sabres, a significant cut from the $2.85 million he made this season.

“I feel like now at 27 that I’m finally really entering the prime of my career so my sole focus is just getting this knee healthy and continuing my good play this year,” McCabe said. “I know I still have better play to come.”

Prediction: McCabe returns on a short-term contract.

Matt Irwin: The 33-year-old appeared in 24 games this season, totaling two assists and served as the team's seventh defenseman. 

Prediction: Irwin goes.

Brandon Davidson: Another player with connections to Krueger, Davidson spent much of the season on the taxi squad. He appeared in only six games, posting zero points and a minus- 4 rating. 

Prediction: Davidson goes.

Goalies

Linus Ullmark: Limited to only 20 games with separate lower-body injuries, Ullmark established himself as a reliable starting goaltender the past two seasons. The 27-year-old’s .937 save percentage at 5-on-5 ranked fifth among goalies with at least 20 appearances. Across the past two seasons, Ullmark has posted a .916 save percentage, but he has missed a combined 46 games because of injury during that span.

Prediction: Ullmark signs a short-term contract to return to Buffalo and will receive a raise from the $2.6 million he made this season.

Carter Hutton: It was a difficult three seasons in Buffalo for Hutton, who turns 36 in December. He was winless in 15 of his final 16 decisions, producing a .894 save percentage and 3.26 goals-against average the past two seasons. Hutton’s season ended March 22 when he suffered a lower-body injury.

His final stats for 2020-21: a 1-10-1 record, .886 save percentage and 3.47 goals-against average. To his credit, Hutton played through a vision problem in 2019-20 that has since been corrected. He also rarely received much help from his teammates, who backed him with a league-low average 1.69 goals per appearance.

Prediction: Hutton goes.

Michael Houser: A feel-good story in a tumultuous season, Houser won each of his first two NHL starts by delivering 79 saves in victories over the New York Islanders. He totaled a .901 save percentage in four starts, capped by his 22-save performance in a 1-0 loss to Pittsburgh in the season finale. The 28-year-old played 283 games between the ECHL and AHL before receiving his NHL opportunity. He was one of six goalies to play for the Sabres this season, tying a franchise record.

Prediction: Houser goes. The Sabres likely have top prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and 31-year-old Dustin Tokarski penciled in for Rochester next season. Houser has proved he can be a full-time competitive mentor to a prospect in the AHL.

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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