When the seven-round, two-day draft was complete Saturday, and General Manager Kevyn Adams had traded two former members of the Buffalo Sabres’ core, he and his staff began preparations for unrestricted free agency.
The Sabres’ top priority is to sign homegrown starting goalie Linus Ullmark before the market opens at noon Wednesday, and Adams will try to convince defenseman Jake McCabe to return for a ninth season.
There are significant holes to fill with Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen gone, and Jack Eichel soon to follow. However, you won’t see Adams try to replace their production and roles through free agency.
Though the Sabres will seek help in goal, and experienced players to help shepherd a young roster, Adams has no interest in adding forwards or defensemen who take away valuable ice time from Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin, among others.
“I think we’re going to do the work, we’re going to see where we’re at in terms of the players out there, what are the fits we need,” said Adams. “What I will say is I believe is critically important with our team makeup right now is not boxing young players on our roster right now out of crucial situations and crucial minutes. One of the best ways to learn in this league is by doing it, by experiencing it, being out there at the end of a game up a goal or down a goal, having that feeling of taking a faceoff when the game’s on the line. If you’re a Casey Mittelstadt or a Dylan Cozens, that’s important. So, we want to make sure we put the right pieces around the young core of players that we have, but you want to make sure they’re also getting out there and having the opportunity to grow and learn.”
The Sabres have plenty of money to spend, as CapFriendly.com projects that Buffalo has a league-high $37.95 million in cap space. The number could increase by $10 million when Eichel is traded, though the Sabres are expected to add salary in any deal.
It’s fair to wonder if any proven player will want to sign with Buffalo amid a rebuild. There’s more talent on the roster than the last time the Sabres started over, but most veterans will be more interested in chasing the Stanley Cup than participating in what could be the Sabres' 11th consecutive season without playoff hockey.
Though Adams won't pursue top-tier free agents, he can target players in need of an NHL opportunity or those who want to regain their value after struggling elsewhere.
Depending on the return in an Eichel trade, the Sabres need help at center, a right-shot defenseman and possibly two goalies. Not counting what could come back to Buffalo in an Eichel deal, the Sabres’ forward group is expected to include: Cozens, Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund, Anders Bjork, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Jeff Skinner, Victor Olofsson, Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons, Drake Caggiula and Cody Eakin.
Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Robert Hagg, Mattias Samuelsson, Jacob Bryson and Casey Fitzgerald are the Sabres’ top defensemen, at least for now. Oskari Laaksonen, a third-round draft choice in 2017, likely needs more time to develop in Rochester, and first overall draft choice Owen Power may return to the University of Michigan. The Sabres only have two goalies under contract for 2021-22: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Dustin Tokarski, both of whom are expected to play for the Amerks.
With defense less of a need, and the depth chart unclear until we learn about Hagg’s role, let’s focus on top buy-low candidates at forward and goalie:
Dominik Kahun, right wing
A familiar face for Sabres fans, Kahun was acquired by Buffalo in February 2019 and appeared in only six games with the team because of the Covid-19 pandemic. He did not receive a qualifying offer from the Sabres last October and had some struggles during his one season in Edmonton, totaling nine goals and 15 points in 48 games.
Kahun is only 26 years old, making him a fascinating buy-low candidate for the Sabres. He also excelled while working with Don Granato in Chicago during the 2018-19 season, finishing with 13 goals and 37 points in 82 games. Kahun never wanted to leave Buffalo and fits well with the youth movement here, if Granato is willing to provide him with ice time skating alongside a talented center.
Kahun’s issue is he plays on the perimeter too much and soft skill isn’t popular among NHL clubs these days. He also needs to improve defensively but would be a nice fit for Granato’s preferred style of play.
Tyler Ennis, left wing
You read that correctly. Ennis, a first-round draft choice of the Sabres in 2008, developed a friendship with Adams dating back to the general manager’s time as a development coach and scout for the agency that represents Ennis. Adams was also an assistant coach with the Sabres when Ennis was learning how to play center in the NHL. Ennis hasn’t been a full-time center in seven years, but Buffalo can add him on a one-year deal to play the wing in a bottom-six role and shift Girgensons to center, if necessary.
Ennis, now 31, totaled 16 goals during 2019-20 but had a diminished role with his hometown Edmonton Oilers last season. He understands the challenges in Buffalo and would be an ideal mentor to young players. This would be a low-risk move.
Derek Ryan, center
A 34-year-old with 345 games of NHL experience, Ryan had four consecutive double-digit goal seasons from 2016-20 before totaling only two goals during the 2020-21 season with the Calgary Flames. He’s outstanding in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill. Ryan also will check a lot of boxes when the Sabres examine the analytics, as he ranked first and third on the Flames, respectively, in generating and limiting on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5, according to Evolving-Hockey.com.
Vinnie Hinostroza, right wing
Hinostroza, 27, appeared in only 26 games between Chicago and Florida last season, totaling four goals and 12 points in 17 games with the Blackhawks. He had a career-high 16 goals with Arizona in 2018-19 and his speed would help a Sabres penalty kill that is expected to lose Tobias Rieder in free agency. Hinostroza ranked third on the Blackhawks in generating on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5 last season.
Derek Stepan, center
A 31-year-old with eight seasons of 15-plus goals, Stepan had one goal and six points in 20 games with the Ottawa Senators in 2020-21. He’s an effective two-way center with 106 games of playoff experience and could mentor the Sabres’ young forwards. Stepan’s had three consecutive unremarkable offensive seasons, but those struggles can be partially attributed to coaching, supporting cast and a difficult year in Ottawa in which he was forced to leave behind his family in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Nick Ritchie, left wing
A 25-year-old, Ritchie scored a career-high 15 goals for the Boston Bruins last season, yet he didn't receive a qualifying offer. He'll be highly sought after in free agency, making him a pie-in-the-sky dream for the Sabres unless they overpay for his services. According to Evolving-Hockey, Ritchie is projected to receive a four-year contract with a $4.412 average annual value.
Pius Suter, center
Suter and the Blackhawks weren't able to come to an agreement on a contract after the Swiss center had 14 goals and 27 points in 55 games as a rookie. The 25-year-old would be an excellent addition, but he would take ice time and opportunity away from the Sabres' young center.
Other forwards to watch: Danton Heinen, Dominik Simon, Colton Sceviour, Josh Leivo.
A Stanley Cup champion with Washington in 2018, Holtby is coming off back-to-back down seasons with the Capitals and Canucks. Vancouver bought out the final year of Holtby’s contract after he posted an .889 save percentage while playing behind a struggling team. The 31-year-old will have plenty of offers as a backup, but the Sabres can make him their starter if Ullmark leaves.
The market for Mrazek is much stronger than initially expected, as potential suitors include Carolina, Pittsburgh and Toronto. Mrazek, though, worked well with Sabres goalie coach Mike Bales when the two were with the Hurricanes.
A backup to Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg, Brossoit rates strong from an analytics perspective and may be overlooked in free agency because he’s viewed as more of a 1B option than a surefire starter. The 28-year-old has been mostly solid in limited action for Winnipeg the past three seasons.
Raanta, 32, and Jaroslav Halak would be higher on this list if they weren’t already reportedly linked to playoff contending teams. Perhaps the game of goalie musical chairs will leave Raanta seeking a starting job, as there are some concerns about his durability after he was limited to only 12 games last season. He has been strong when healthy, most notably a 2019-20 season in which he logged a .905 save percentage.
Other goalies to watch: David Rittich, Jonathan Bernier, Brian Elliott, James Reimer. If Ullmark leaves, and the Sabres miss out on top-tier goalies, they are likely to acquire one or two via trade.