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Breaking down the unrestricted free agent market

There are players the Sabres can explore in the unrestricted free agent market to improve their roster

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

We’re one week from free agency opening in the NHL. Teams around the league have begun to reach out to unrestricted free agents yesterday with “tamper” window opening. On Wednesday they’ll be able to do the same for restricted free agents.

Over the past two years under the guidance of Jason Botterill, the Buffalo Sabres haven’t been huge players in the free agent market. Last summer they signed Carter Hutton and Scott Wedgewood. The year prior they were a little more active, but nothing of significant by signing Chad Johnson, Adam Wilcox, Matt Tennyson, Benoit Pouliot, Jacob Josefson, and Seth Griffith.

We’ll see what approach Jason Botterill decides to take this year in free agency. The Sabres have some holes to fill on the roster and to this point, the trade market has not offered solutions to some areas of need. There are players that are available that could help them improve their team next season. Of course, like every free agent class, there are a few potential land mines that Botterill should steer clear of on the open market.

I broke down 14 unrestricted free agents into three different categories based on their fit for the Sabres and which players I believe they should explore on the open market.

Buyer Beware

1. Ryan Dzingel

Alright, let’s work our way from the bad ideas to the good ideas. My player at the top of the list in the buyer beware section is former Ottawa Senator and Columbus Blue Jacket, Ryan Dzingel. The 27-year-old offers the ability to play multiple forward positions, but he’s a one-dimensional player.

The former seventh-round pick is a good shooter and has a career shooting percentage of 15% in four seasons. What is concerning about that is his goals above expected metrics for the last two years. This past season he scored at 6.9 goals above expected and the year prior was 5.7 goals above expected at 5 on 5 according to Moneypuck. His relative xG% was also low in relation to his teams in the last two years.

His defensive game is not good, which means if his scoring drops off, he becomes a liability for his team. According to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model, his xGPM/60 was the 16th lowest among all forwards last season. His isolated impact data from Micah McCurdy grades him out as an average offensive player and 10% worse than the average player defensively.

Dzingel has some positives in his game, but if the shooting falls off the team that signs him is going to regret handing out the contract.

2. Wayne Simmonds

In the right situation, Simmonds can be a good short-term pickup. The Sabres are not a team that makes sense with their situation. He’ll be 31-years-old in August and is not the type of player he was during his good years with the Flyers.

He still offers some positive impact defensively, but at this point in his career is a negative impact player offensively. This past season his xGF/60 ranked as the 37th worst among all forwards according to the RAPM model.

There was talk that teams may consider Simmonds because of the playoff success of Patrick Maroon with the St. Louis Blues. It has bad news written all over it.

3. Tyler Myers

If the reports are accurate, it looks like the Vancouver Canucks are trying to sign the former Sabres defender to a long-term contract that is worth roughly $8 million a year. I’m not going to spend a lot of time here, but that move would be a terrible idea for Vancouver.

He played third pair minutes with the Winnipeg Jets last season and struggled to be successful in that role. If the Canucks or any other team are expecting to get top pair minutes out of Myers, then all the luck in the world to them.

4. Jason Spezza

The Sabres have a need at center to fill, but Spezza is not the player to fill that void. He’s 36-years-old and over the last three years, he’s been the shell of the player he was for the Dallas Stars. He’s a negative player offensively and defensively at 5 on 5.

At this point in his career, he’s no better than a bottom line player. Reports indicate that a return to the Ottawa Senators may be in the cards for him.

Catch 22’s

1. Anders Lee

Up next is the mid-tier list of free agents that would be a good idea, but there’s something that gives me some pause.

New York Islanders forward Anders Lee is at the top this list for me. Anthony Sciandra put together a nice write up on the forward last week. Lee is a solid 5 on 5 scorer and has been one of the better scoring wingers in the league over the last few years.

His isolated impact numbers rank him as 5% better than the average player offensively and he gives nothing back defensively. He also has an elite shooting rate and is a good power player forward.

The catch here is that he’s 29-years-old and will be seeking a long-term contract on the open market. Evolving Hockey’s contract projection has him at a seven-year deal with a $6.5 million annual average value. If Lee was two years younger, he’d be in the “good idea” category for me.

2. Gustav Nyquist

The next player on the list is a similar story to Lee. Nyquist is set to hit the open market and could be a nice addition on the right wing for the Sabres. I wrote about him a few weeks ago as an idea for Buffalo.

He’s consistently been one of the best even-strength goal scorers in the NHL the last few years. Nyquist fit in well playing on a better team with the San Jose Sharks the last few months.

Like Lee, his age is a bit of a concern. He’ll turn 30-years-old prior to the beginning of next season. If the Sabres can get him on a short-term contract it could make sense, but anything beyond three or four years has the potential to be a tough deal at the end of it. However, he may get more term on the market. Evolving Hockey projects him at a six-year contract with a $5.6 million cap hit.

3. Jake Gardiner

The Leafs defender was a scapegoat throughout last season. He’s still a top-four defenseman in the NHL. He ranked 10th in xGF/60 in Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model among all defensemen last season and was the eighth best in xGPM/60.

He’s an excellent puck mover that can help drive offense from the blue line. He has all the signs of being a solid free agent signing for a team that needs help on defense. There are two big problems that keep him out of the good ideas category. One, he’s going to turn 29-years-old next week and will very likely get a long-term deal in free agency. The other problem is that he has concerns about a back injury that has plagued him. A player of his age with a concern of long-term back injuries is too big of a risk for the Sabres to take.

4. Matt Duchene

Duchene is arguably the top player on the free agent market, along with Artemi Panarin. A few NHL insiders believe that he’s destined to sign with the Nashville Predators when free agency opens.

While he fills absolutely fills a need and is a good player, it would feel like a counter-productive exercise for the Sabres. They essentially traded the same player that was better defensively last summer in Ryan O’Reilly. Paying a 28-year-old Duchene close to $10 million a year is trying to overcompensate for a bad trade.

5. Anton Stralman

Pierre LeBrun tweeted yesterday that a “number of teams” reached out to the former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman, Stralman. He was an important part of the Lightning over the last few years, but last season he began to shown signs of serious decline. He’ll be 33-years-old in August and you have to wonder how many good years he has left.

Stralman could be a good partner for Rasmus Dahlin on a short-term deal, but with a lot of clubs interested, he’s likely looking at a multi-year contract. The Swedish defender would only make sense for the Sabres on a one-year contract.

There are better options in the trade market for the Sabres to explore than an aging defender showing definite signs of decline.

Good Ideas

1. Joonas Donskoi

Now, it’s time for the fun part. There are a handful of players that could fit the needs of the Sabres. At the top of the list is San Jose Sharks winger, Joonas Donskoi. He makes a lot of sense for the Sabres to improve the scoring on the wing. Donskoi plays up and down the lineup. He’s an impactful player at both ends of the ice and could fit in well on a line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. You can read a more in-depth analysis of Donskoi from a piece I put together a few weeks ago, here.

The other good part is that he’s likely not going to cost the Sabres a lot. Evolving Wild projects him to receive a three-year contract with a $2.79 annual average value. The Sabres may need to overpay to get him to come to Buffalo, but it still won’t hurt their salary cap moving forward.

2. Richard Panik

Another winger that could provide an upgrade for the Sabres is veteran, Richard Panik. I posted an article yesterday about how he’s been undervalued the last few years. He’s another player that won’t break the bank with his next contract and would be a nice value signing.

He’s only 28-years-old and has experience playing different roles in the last few years with the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes. Panik is difficult to play against and will satisfy the need of fans that are looking for a player with some edge in his game.

3. Brandon Tanev

I’ve talked up the 27-year-old winger a lot in the last year. He was part of that excellent fourth line for the Jets along with Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry. Tanev would be a nice addition to the bottom six of the Sabres lineup that in desperate need of talent.

He plays a quick game and strong on the fore-check. Tanev has the ability to add 10 to 15 goals from the bottom of the lineup. The Canadian-born winger is an above-average shooter, strong defensively and is one of the better forwards in the league in terms of penalty differential. Evolving Hockey projects his contract to be around four years in term with a $2.7 million cap hit.

4. Joe Pavelski

The Sabres need a second-line center and Pavelski would fill that need in the short-term. This is another player I’m not going to spend a lot of time on since it’s likely he agrees to come to the Sabres. However, Pierre LeBrun indicated that the Sabres are one of the teams that reached out to him when the tampering window opened on Sunday. At this point though, there’s no visit scheduled between the two sides.

On a short-term deal, Pavelski would be an ideal addition for the Sabres to fill their need at center, add veteran leadership, and help groom Casey Mittelstadt.

5. Jordie Benn

Last but not least is a defenseman in Jordie Benn. He’s another player that I’ve written about in the past. He’s not a flashy player but is a strong defensively in a third pair role. Benn could also fit in on the penalty kill if the Sabres move on from players like Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella this offseason.

Realistically signing Benn only makes sense if the Sabres clear out some players on the left side of their defense. In the short term, he would be a nice way to improve the club defensively with some veteran experience.

We’ll see what the next week or so holds for the Jason Botterill. There are players in the open market that can improve his team in big areas of need and he needs to do his best to attract them to Buffalo.