This is the second part in a two-part series to examine possible Buffalo Sabres free agent and trade targets who would add toughness and/or leadership while also adding value as suggested by advanced statistical metrics. We’ll assemble a few of the moves to create a partial Sabres roster at the end of this article.
The 2021 Sabres were abysmal both in record and in style-of-play. For vast swaths of time the team was virtually unwatchable as they were caved in terms of possession and at the same time they were out classed in terms of physicality and work ethic. The 2021 team was – in a word – brutal. Anyone who watched the Sabres this year understands that the team needs a massive personality overhaul to make the team something that casual Sabres fans would want to watch on a regular basis. To that end, the purpose of this series is three-fold:
1.) Recognize that the Sabres of 2021-2022 will not be competing for a post-season berth in a meaningful sense short of some incredible and unsustainable puck luck.
2.) Maximize the pending return for unhappy Sabres veterans who are seemingly on their way out of town.
3.) Create a short-term roster that is watchable by suggesting players who play with a physical edge and who also bring a positive attribute that is analytically based.
In short, the purpose of this series is to create an analytically based ‘90s Ted Nolan team that fans actually want to watch.
First up is New Jersey Devils forward and Buffalo native Miles Wood. This guy would certainly sell some jerseys and help fill the stands with his blend of speed and pugnacity. Offensively you’re looking at something similar to Jimmy Vesey when he was with the Rangers; a guy who can pot you 15ish goals and land around 30 points, although if you prorate points over the past truncated COVID-19 season, Wood looks a bit better than that. According to hockeyreference.com advanced metrics, this past season Wood had a Corsi-for of 52% while only receiving 40% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone. This suggests to some extent that he is capable of holding down a checking line role where he can “flip the ice” to create opportunities for the top-two lines. He also punches people in the face:
Now let’s get to the “why” of a trade after introducing the player himself. Wood has one year left on a 4-year deal with an average annual value of $2.75m at the end of which he will be a restricted free agent for the last time in the summer of 2022. The Devils certainly would not have any interest in moving the feisty winger for a package of mid-round draft picks and/or second-tier prospects. There was, however, a recent report from Lance Lysowski of The Buffalo News in which Lysowski suggested the Devils are hot and heavy for the services of one Rasmus Ristolainen:
“Another Sabres note for you all: the Devils have interest in defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, according to multiple sources. The Devils have the assets (picks and prospects) that would make a deal work for Buffalo. Glaring need at RHD with Carrick a UFA,” Lysowski tweeted.
Ristolainen only has one year left on his deal which makes the concept of a one-for-one trade with the Devils for Miles Wood almost completely implausible no matter how much the Devils may like the concept of Ristolainen. To facilitate a trade, the Devils would almost certainly want a forward to go their way in exchange which the Sabres could perhaps accommodate in the form of recently acquire forward Anders Bjork.
The trouble in lining up a deal is that both the Sabres and the Devils are in a similar organizational position whereby they’re really not in a position to trade futures for established players who may be beyond their peak when the time to compete comes. It’s also important to acknowledge that the Devils really have no incentive to move Miles Wood and would (no pun intended) need a substantial offer to encourage management to do so. A final deal between the Sabres and Devils could look something like Rasmus Ristolainen and Anders Bjork for Miles Wood, Tyce Thompson and the Oilers’ 2022 4th round pick though the incentive to do so for either side may not be there.
Ultimately a Sabres trade for Miles Wood seems unlikely because of the similar position between the Devils and the Sabres. It’s just tough to make the deal make sense for both parties. The Sabres may have better offers elsewhere for Ristolainen and the Devils have little-to-no-reason to move Wood.
Don’t focus too hard on the current NHL name involved here because he isn’t the main piece of a trade in this case. It recently came to light via Aaron Portzline that the Columbus Blue Jackets have withdrawn their interest in Sabres center Jack Eichel:
“After talking with numerous sources in recent days, it doesn’t appear that the Blue Jackets — at least as of today — are in hot pursuit of Eichel, one of the premier centers in the league,” Portzline tweeted.
Not sure I buy that “a-tall” as Rob Ray would say. In any case, if they’re out on Jack Eichel then perhaps they would be interested in another Sabres center named Sam Reinhart. Reinhart has long established himself as a quality top-6 contributor in the NHL and thanks to interim Sabres coach Don Granato, Reinhart also established himself as a quality center this past year. The Blue Jackets need to find Patrik Laine a center and they could do much worse than pending restricted free agent Sam Reinhart whose passing and vision would facilitate Laine’s goalscoring. Let’s then consider a deal of the Blue Jackets’ 5th overall pick in this draft and LW/C Max Domi.
Remember: The focus of this trade is the player whom the Sabres could select at #5 (William Eklund, Kent Johnson, Jesper Wallstedt).
Domi could still add considerably as a secondary piece in a trade. The speedy hybrid center/winger has bounced around quite a bit during his short time in the league which has depressed his value as a trade chip considerably. Admittedly I have always liked Domi’s game going back to his time as an Arizona Coyote when his raw speed was first on display in 2015 and there still may be more underlying potential that could come out of him. Max Domi’s A1/60 (Primary assists per 60 minutes played) have always been a strong suit of his and it dropped quite a bit this year which lends itself to a potential buy-low situation for the Sabres.
Domi posted a career high of 1.9 primary assists-per-60 in 2018 with the Montreal Canadiens and posted a career low of 1.1 primary assists-per-60 this past year with the Columbus Blue Jackets. For reference, Sam Reinhart’s career high is 1.7 per 60 minutes played, and this year he posted .9 primary assists-per-60. In other words, Domi’s career high is higher than Sam Reinhart’s career high.
I know, I know, your eyes are probably glazing over with these dry numbers but there is a point here: The Sabres need someone to feed the puck to Jeff Skinner so he can earn his $9m per year. Max Domi can keep up with Skinner speed-wise and he has a proven pedigree of generating primary assists. If it doesn’t work out, then he can be flipped at the trade deadline next year. This is a potential buy-low scenario for the Sabres that could pay off in a pretty substantial way.
The last player on the docket is current New York Islander Casey Cizikas who probably isn’t going to be on many short lists of “must-have” players in the free agency market of 2021 which could work well to the Sabres’ benefit.
Cizikas is coming off a 5-year contract worth nearly $17m and it’s unlikely that he’s going to get that kind of money again. If you listen to the Instigators on WGR550 then you’ve no doubt heard Craig Rivet sing the praises of the Islanders’ checking line center and his compatriots who do an admirable job shutting down the top opposition of other teams’ top scorers. The underlying numbers back up the praise.
Anyone expecting offense from Cizikas is barking up the wrong tree, but he will offer quality defensive numbers in a similar vein to former Sabres center Johan Larsson who held down the fort in a bottom-6 role for years in Buffalo. Cizikas’s expected-goals-against-per-60 and Corsi-against-per-60 show high value in a shut-down role. If he can be had cheaply, it’s a solid add.
The Sabres would do well to add a few truculent players to their lineup if those players can also add analytic value somewhere in the roster. Let’s take a look at a combination of three moves from parts 1 and 2 of this series that could add value in the short and long term while providing a more watchable product in terms of toughness and underlying metrics:
All-in-all, that mix of future returns and currently watchable players would likely increase ticket sales and viewership assuming that those players continue their brand of physical hockey in Buffalo. With the 5th overall pick, the 12th overall pick and Connor Zary, the Sabres could solidify their ranks for years to come with the right selections while fans watch an exciting brand of hockey. It is possible to balance the needs of the future while creating a product fans want to watch now if the Sabres balance their priorities.
Miles Wood and Max Domi advanced stats via hockeyreference possession metrics.
Casey Cizikas advanced metrics via evolving-hockey.com