After a whirlwind draft weekend that saw major changes come to the organization, there's one more big opportunbity for the Buffalo Sabres to improve their roster, and it starts tomorrow.
NHL Free agency opens on July 1, and good-to-middling players everywhere will have the opportunity to be overpaid for their services. The Sabres are sitting pretty with about $16 million in cap space, but looking at their roster, there's actually not too many holes to fill with UFAs.
The Sabres have both their starting and backup goaltenders in Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, and they have 12 forwards currently signed to the main roster, 15 if you count the RFAs who were issued qualifying offers yesterday, and 17 if you want to add Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
Really the only place where Buffalo is expected to make a free agent signing is on defense, where the team currently has five players locked in to starting spots: Ristolainen, Bogosian, Gorges, Pysyk, and Weber. With Jake McCabe and Chad Ruwhedel's positions not locked in, the Sabres will almost certainly add a defenseman to their roster to give them the flexibility to let those two play down in Rochester for at least part of the season.
In fact, Tim Murray himself has said that he'll be looking to add a left-handed defenseman in free agency, so with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the likely candidates.
Martin is one of the top free agent defenseman available thanks to his experience, and his consistently good all-around game. At age 34, he still has a few pretty good years left before the tank is completely empty, and he would certainly help bring along the Sabres youth on the blue line as a steady second-pairing player. Personally, I doubt Martin would want to leave Pittsburgh for a team that's still a few years away from being a serous Cup contender, but we've all seen what happens when money talks. Martin's previous deal paid him $5 million, however, so he wouldn't come cheap.
Oduya is another older player, but another who would bring significant playoff and Stanley Cup-winning experience to a very green locker room. The 33-year old is coming off of a Cup winning team in Chicago, and while he won't put up many points (he only scored ten this year in over 70 games) he plays a steady, sturdy game in his own end, and skates as smoothly as any 30+ year old defenseman you'll find. Oduya is coming off of a three year, $10.125 million dollar deal with the Hawks.
The former Sabres has bounced around the league a bit over the past few years between the Hurricanes and Kings, but his smooth-skating, puck moving style fits in better with the current Sabres roster that it did three years ago, and at only 29 years old, has plenty of good years left. The Kings are rumored to be trying to re-sign Sekera to something in the $4.5 million per year range, for what that's worth.
At 35, Beauchemin is the oldest player on this list, but also one of the most productive, scoring 11 goals last season thanks to his big shot from the point and big minutes given to him by Anaheim. At his age, he's not getting any better (or faster) but can still be relied upon to play a steady, physical game in his own end and provides leadership from the back end. I wouldn't want Buffalo to sign him to any kind of serious term, but a one or two year deal while McCabe, Pysyk, and Ristolainen hone their games might not be bad, if the price is right. Beauchemin had a cap hit of $3.5 million last season.
At just 27 years old, Matt Irwin clocks in as the youngest player on our list. The 6'2'' defenseman has good size, even if he doesn't always use it to its fullest extent, and has the ability to produce offensively, scoring 19 points in just 53 games last season for San Jose. He's not the best in his own zone, and would likely be a third-pairing guy, but his cap hit last year was only $1 million, so the Sabres could find themselves a cheap, relatively young player with a bit of upside in Irwin.
Hey, this guy's not a defenseman! Yes, but he's been rumored as a free agent target for so long it wouldn have been odd not to include him here. While the Sabres do have a full slate of forwards, a guy like Cody McCormick could always go to Rochester (or the bench) to make room for the experienced Williams. At age 33 and with multiple deep playoff runs in Los Angeles, he'd provide experience and depth on the right wing, where the Sabres are still hurting a bit.
Let us know who you'd like to see the Sabres target in free agency below, and be sure to check back tomorrow for all the news as free agency opens.