Every summer, general managers across the league spend outrageous amounts of money on highly regarded unrestricted free-agents. More often than not, teams that make substantial investments in the UFA market experience varying degrees of buyer’s remorse at some point. There’s a reason it’s appropriately referred to as “silly season”.
With recent history in mind, and a pre-existing free agent over-payment already on the books in Kyle Okposo (and until this summer, Matt Moulson), fans of the Buffalo Sabres are understandably uneasy about filling needs via free agency, especially at the top of the lineup. We’ve already posted articles cautioning fans from this year’s crop of defensive options, and that same sentiment can be applied (albeit to a lesser extent) to the forward group.
That being said, there are a couple of high-level free agents who could make sense for Buffalo on July 1. If Jason Botterill does decide to address the top-six via free agency, Anders Lee (formerly of the New York Islanders) might be one of the few big-name targets worth considering.
We’ll start with the concerns associated with aggressively pursuing him on the open market. Coming off a career-year where with the New York Islanders where he posted 28 goals and 23 assists in 82 games, he won’t come cheap. At age 28, he’ll also be looking for a long-term contract. According to Evolving Wild’s contract projections, his deal will likely resemble something in the seven-year, $6.5-7 million AAV range.
That price tag and overall commitment is certainly significant. Add that to the stigma associated with the Sabres signing former Islanders’ forwards to long-term deals, and there could be immediate apprehension on the part of the fan base. Past organizational mistakes aside, Lee is simply on a different level than Okposo and Moulson. If Botterill does indeed intend to spend significant money in free agency, there are very few (if any) other options who have provided more of a consistent, positive on-ice impact over the past three seasons.
That’s the key. Consistency.
A few of Islanders forwards experienced an analytical revival of sorts under Barry Trotz. Previously negative impact players like Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey fall into that category. Lee’s case is different in this regard. In fact, under three separate coaches (Jack Capuano, Doug Weight and of course, Trotz), his RAPM impact numbers have remained remarkably consistent.
As with anything, context is important here. While the Islanders’ captain has served under three different coaching staffs since 2016, he was deployed similarly by all of them. Since 2016-17, his OZS rate has varied only slightly, ranging from 54.73 to 55.95. One thing that was not at all consistent between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons were his most prominent linemates.
Two seasons ago, Lee spent a vast majority of his time with John Tavares and Bailey. This past season however, he was able to find just as much success with two new linemates in Nelson and Jordan Eberle. These are all talented players of course, but it still bodes well for his ability to come to a new organization and experience immediate success.
A historical precedent has been set for how to get the most out of him. If he were to join the Sabres (or any other team for that matter) the onus would then fall onto his new coach to recognize this and deploy him in a similar fashion, which is of course easier said than done.
One of the reasons Lee is so effective offensively is his elite positional awareness, particularly as a shooter. As if the fact that he’s scored 68 goals over the past two seasons wasn’t indicative enough, when looking at his shooting metrics, one can’t help but be impressed with how he got there.
I mean, just look at it. Virtually every one of his goals came in a high-danger area last season. The fact that he was able to have a relatively even placement distribution while playing on the wing is also worth noting. That’s exactly what you hope for from a 6-foot-3, 231-pound forward, and the Sabres desperately need players who excel in this area.
His average shot distance of 23.13-feet would have been the best mark on the Sabres roster last season. In fact, that distance is a full three-feet closer than Jeff Skinner’s average, and a whopping 11-feet closer than Jack Eichel’s. It’s not a stretch to say that he would instantly become the Sabres’ most effective net-front scoring threat, were they to sign him. As an added bonus to all of his positive marks as an even-strength player, it almost goes without saying that he would also provide a major boost to the power-play. In 2018-19 he led the Islanders in power-play goals with 10 on the year.
Let’s slow down for a second because there is a bit of an elephant in the room that we haven’t addressed yet. For a player in his late 20’s, isn’t it a bit concerning that he regressed down to 28 goals last season after tallying 40 in 2017-18? In short, not really.
As a whole, New York “regressed” significantly from a goal-scoring standpoint after Trotz implemented a much more defensively responsible, conservative system. In Weight’s last season behind the bench, they scored 264 goals as a team, while allowing 296 (the most in the NHL). This past season, they registered just 228 goals, but only allowed 196 (the fewest in the NHL). Pair that with the fact that his shooting-percentage of 13.7 (which is still quite high) was down roughly 5.5-percent from the gaudy numbers he put up in 2017-18, and it starts to make sense. People hate the term “puck luck” but very few players in today’s NHL can consistently post shot-conversion rates nearing 20-percent.
Circling back to his contractual expectations, there is some room for debate. As a 40-goal scorer, Skinner just signed for eight years at $9 million AAV. Granted, Lee is a full year removed from his 40-goal campaign, but just how much has his price tag dropped as a result?
The aforementioned estimated total from Evolving Wild seems a little light, all things considered. Big, mobile, goal-scoring forwards with a strong leadership background will always be in high demand. If we assume that Lee’s market allows him to command something closer to $7.5 million AAV for seven years, perhaps it ends up being more than the Sabres are willing to invest.
Either way, if Botterill cannot address the top-six via trade this summer, Lee is quite possibly the most reliable, big ticket player he can land in free agency.
Salary Projections courtesy of Evolving Wild
RAPM Charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey
Shot Maps courtesy of Charting Hockey