The blue line of the Buffalo Sabres could use some change going into next season. The free agent class this summer offers a few options as upgrades with high-end talent and some bottom-pair defenders to replace poor impact players that are currently on the roster.
In the past month, the news hasn’t been great for two defensemen that were expected to be in the lineup next season. Zach Bogosian will probably miss the beginning of the season and the news today about Lawrence Pilut’s shoulder surgery adds another blueliner that won’t be ready in October.
Focusing on Pilut, his injury leaves the left side of the defense thin in talent. Rasmus Dahlin is far and away the best left-shot defender. He’s then followed on the depth chart right now by Jake McCabe, Marco Scandella, and Matt Hunwick. McCabe will likely be back with a new deal since he’s a restricted free agent this summer. That would leave Scandella or Hunwick as the third pair left-shot defensemen. The Sabres could settle for that until Pilut returns.
The wiser decision, however, would be for Jason Botterill to continue to look to upgrade his defense. I wrote over the weekend how the negative impacts of Marco Scandella pulled the Sabres down when he was on the ice last season. It could be cheaper, as well as, improve the team for them to move on from Scandella and sign a free agent defenseman such as Jordie Benn.
The 31-year-old defender spent the last few years with the Montreal Canadiens and the Dallas Stars prior to that. Benn isn’t going to be a signing that’ll put the Sabres over the top by any means, but he’ll give them a better impact in the bottom of the lineup.
In the last two years, he’s been top four among Canadiens defensemen in on-ice expected goal differential at 5 on 5. This past season he ranked third with a 54.2 on-ice xG differential according to Moneypuck. Scandella, on the other hand, had the eighth worst 5 on 5 on-ice xG differential among all defensemen with at least 500 minutes at 42.1 percent.
On the Sabres, he and Hunwick were the two worst in xG differential on the blue line. They were also by far the worst in relative expected goals percentage. Next closest to Hunwick’s second-worst -8.9 percent relative expected goals percentage was McCabe at -1.1 percent.
Nearly every analytical category you look at, Benn, is the superior player. I know, that’s not a tall bar to clear, but his numbers are considerably better.
According to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM, Benn’s impacts are far better than Scandella in expected goals for, against, and overall expected goals plus-minus. The chart below shows the wide variation in impact. Ideally, the orange bars should be on the left of the chart and the other two bars on the right of the chart. That would indicate a positive offensive and defensive impact player.
The next chart below looks at data from Natural Stat Trick from last season between Benn, Scandella, and Hunwick. Benn had better 5 on 5 numbers in high-danger Corsi, scoring chances, goal differential, and Corsi percentage per 60. In almost every category he was significantly better.
Scandella is scheduled to make $4 million on the cap next season. It’s likely the Sabres could get Benn for a cheaper cap hit in the summer. Evolving Hockey’s free agent contract projection, he’s listed at a four-year deal, with roughly a $3.5 million AAV.
They shouldn’t go anywhere near a four-year deal with Benn, especially at his age. A one or two-year contract for him to be the club’s veteran sixth or seventh defenseman in the short term makes sense. The cap hit also feels a little bit high for him as a potential seventh defenseman on a deep blue line. A cap hit at about, $2.5 million may be a better fit for the Sabres. Botterill will have to evaluate his value on the open market in July.
Overall Benn isn’t going to be the type of player that drives offense. He’s a stay-at-home defenseman that is good in his own end. He can step in to take penalty kill minutes vacated by Scandella’s departure and the unit shouldn’t see any dip with that substitution.
While the injuries on defense are not ideal for Botterill, they shouldn’t deter him from looking at ways to improve. He doesn’t need to settle for what options he has on the roster just because they’re already here.