The NHL free agency period opened yesterday and with it Sabres fans saw long-time defensive stalwart Jake McCabe and the oft-injured Linus Ullmark leave in free agency. It’s a tough blow to see two players groomed by the Sabres leave for nothing in free agency, but that’s the way their contracts had been structured. Former GM Jason Botterill had given McCabe a contract that walked him directly to free agency and current Sabres GM Kevyn Adams did the same with Ullmark.
McCabe has lived in Chicago during the offseason for years so that move was hardly surprising. Seeing Ullmark leave for the division-rival Bruins was a bit of a tougher pill to swallow considering the time and development the Sabres have poured into the Swede since he was drafted almost a decade ago in 2012. With the state of the Sabres being what it is, it’s not a shock that those two chose to ply their trade in greener pastures. Best of luck to them both.
Back on the homefront, the Sabres chose to spend their money judiciously and largely selected some analytic darlings to round out their roster. The talent coming in does not register as household name talent but there seems to be a theme among the players chosen – they all have shown value in the advanced statistics arena. While analytics are surely not the end-all-be-all in terms of determining value, it’s clear that Sabres have placed increased value on these metrics following the hire of VP of Hockey Strategy Sam Ventura.
The Sabres started their day by signing 27-year-old Vinnie Hinostroza who was most recently employed by the Chicago Blackhawks. Hinostroza, a versatile forward who can play any forward position, is unlikely to blow anyone away based on his offensive production in past season, although he did put up a solid 12 points in 26 games this past year. The Chicago native has posted favorable analytics in most of his seasons going back to his time with the Arizona Coyotes and his first stint with the Blackhawks several years back. 2018-19 was perhaps his most favorable year in terms of advanced metrics. Sabres fans may not find this selection a particularly inspiring signing but it is rooted in moneyball logic.
The Sabres also acquired defenseman Will Butcher – formerly of the New Jersey Devils – along with a 5th round pick for nothing in return, while the Devils also retained $1m of his $3.7m salary. The Sabres likely had looked at his underlying numbers from the 2018-19 season which made Butcher look like an extremely capable player on both sides of the puck. His numbers have dipped in recent seasons but getting a player who has shown some positive value in the past in return for no assets is a solid gamble. It’s a no-lose situation. The 5’10” left-shot defenseman will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year.
Before going any further on the Sabres signings, let’s talk for a minute about what the Sabres plan is in net. Or rather: is there any plan in net? With Ullmark and Carter Hutton gone (and let’s be clear – the latter is not a meaningful departure), the Sabres had to fill two starting places in the crease this coming season. Ukko-Pekka Luukonnen (UPL) cannot be forced into meaningful service on what could very well be a bad team this year. UPL needs to continue his development in the American Hockey League this season rather than being forced into either a starting role for which he’s ill prepared or into a backup role which will only see him play a few games a month.
It appears Adams decided to sign two sacrificial goalies to fill the crease for a young Buffalo squad that will likely give up a lot of quality chances against in coach Don Granato’s offensively oriented scheme. The names on the market were less than stellar by the end of the night so the Sabres turned to 40-year-old Craig Anderson and journeyman Aaron Dell to fill the crease vacancies with the lion’s share of quality starters are off the table. Perhaps there is still a deal to be made with the Columbus Blue Jackets even though some of the Sabres prime trade chips have been spent elsewhere.
The Sabres also opted to bring back the right-shot defenseman/forward Mark Pysyk. Pysyk has long been a favorite among the analytic crowd and in the infancy of the adaptation of advanced metrics it was seen as a net loss when the Sabres traded Pysyk for Dmitry Kulikov under former GM Tim Murray. Under Joel Quenneville in Florida, Pysyk found a home as player that coach Q could trust in any number of positions. He somewhat notoriously potted a hattrick as a forward a couple seasons back which deserves a look:
Pysyk isn’t going to save this franchise from a terrible season although I am always partial to “Swiss Army Knife” style players and Pysyk surely offers that positional versatility while also supplying strong underlying numbers. It’s pretty nice to have a player who can occupy a dual role as a 7th defenseman or a 13th forward and put up decent numbers at the same time. For $900k, that’s a solid one year contract.
Elsewhere the Sabres signed West Seneca native Sean Malone to a one-way deal worth $750,000. Malone fits squarely into Adams’s “people who want to be here” mantra and could be a candidate to bump Cody Eakin down to the minors. Another low-risk gamble here.
The saga of Jack Eichel and the Sabres continues.
Many assumed that the Sabres captain would be traded at the draft but that didn’t happen. Many assumed that the Sabres captain would be traded prior to the start of free agency but that didn’t happen.
With teams spending money on the open market now, it’s possible that the Sabres will have to roll the situation back and keep the disgruntled forward for the foreseeable future. How long exactly remains to be determined but it’s conceivable that Adams may need to run this all the way to the draft in 2022. If Adams isn’t getting the value that he needs then it’s imperative that the GM holds on to Eichel for as long as it takes to get the assets in return that the Sabres captain deserves.
Eichel may not want to be in Buffalo anymore, and the situation may very well be awkward, but the Sabres simply cannot trade Eichel for anything less than a king’s ransom. That means that Eichel may need to show up next season and play for the Sabres if his back is feeling better as his agent Peter Fish has hinted. It’s pretty obvious that both sides are looking for a divorce at this point but if Eichel truly wants to get out of Western New York then his best course of action is probably to don the blue and gold next season and produce like the superstar he is.