Sabres should approach UFA defensemen with caution
With several big name defensemen looking to cash-in on the open market this summer, the Sabres might be better suited pursuing more cost-effective options
Silly spending season is nearly upon us and the Buffalo Sabres are once again expected to make significant changes to their roster this summer. While most of the primary focus has been on the forward group, Jason Botterill will likely make alterations on defense as well.
As we all know, a potential trade of Rasmus Ristolainen (which I will absolutely not be getting into here) would have an effect on Botterill’s priorities, but regardless of what happens there, it’s time to assess the landscape and examine which options make the most sense for the organization.
Names to Avoid
Every summer, the unrestricted free agent market is a name game. What I mean by that is, historically, there’s always at least one general manager out there who is willing to shell out stupid amounts of cash to land a “name”.
Understandably, Sabres fans have already begun floating some of the more recognizable names out there as potential targets. While they’re not necessarily all bad, there are several that should be avoided, given their projected demands (among other things).
I’ll preface this by saying that Myers certainly isn’t a bad player, but when comparing his shortcomings and strengths, it would probably behoove Botterill to avoid bringing the 6-foot-8 blueliner back to Western New York.
After winning the Calder Trophy with the Sabres in 2009-10, fan enthusiasm surrounding the former first-round pick dwindled as it seemed more and more likely that his ceiling was much lower than it originally appeared. During his time in Winnipeg, he’s largely been the same player that Tim Murray traded away in 2014, though, over the past two seasons, he has shown some improvement as part of a talented blue line in Manitoba.
His underlying numbers tell us most of what we already know. He’s a solid offensive contributor and a general liability in his own end.
As with anything data-related however, context is important. When you realize that his most prominent partner last season was another former-Sabre in Dmitry Kulikov, you can see why maybe some of his defensive numbers weren’t exactly optimal. Away from Kulikov, Myers’ relative Corsi increased by three points.
So why should Myers be avoided? He’s certainly above-average as an offensive contributor and his defensive deficiencies can be partially attributed to lackluster partners, so what’s the problem? The answer can be found in his contract projection, courtesy of Evolving Wild.
According to EW, Myers is expected to command something in the neighborhood of seven years, $6.2 million as a UFA. At 29 years old, the Sabres need to stay far away from that term, and even further away from making him their highest-paid defenseman. Nice player, but the organization simply cannot entertain that contract for a second-pairing blueliner.
Leading up to the 2018-19 campaign, a lot of Sabres fans, myself included, had Stralman penciled-in as a potential target this summer. As a fantastic puck-mover and reliable defensive presence for virtually his entire career, he appeared to be the best all-around veteran addition for the Buffalo blue line. Sadly, career regressions come sooner for some than others.
At 32 years old, it seems as though father time is catching up to the Swedish stalwart. Not only did he struggle in all facets of the game in 2018-19, but he was outplayed by his primary defensive partner, Ryan McDonagh for a majority of the season. For the first time in his entire career he had a negative Corsi impact while being one of his team’s least effective players on the back end in terms of xG.
On a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that had its way with the entire league in 2018-19, there isn’t much of an argument to be made pertaining to circumstance. EW is projecting him to receive offers in the three-year, $4.5 million range. The Sabres shouldn’t gamble on the possibility that last year’s performance was an aberration, regardless of their apparent need for a reliable right-shot defenseman.
Edler’s situation is another case of a player being perfectly decent overall, while his age and projected cap hit make him someone to avoid.
Strangely enough, at 33 years old, his performance this past season improved pretty significantly from 2017-18. Not only did he average more points per-game, but his underlying numbers showed that he was actually a positive impact defensive player for the first time in years.
Part of that might have something to do with the fact that he spent a heavy portion of the season alongside Chris Tanev, who is an outstanding defensive defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks. Still, Edler excelled as a power-play quarterback and shot-blocker when healthy. Obviously, special teams have as much to do with scheme as they do with player talent, but his proficiency in that area is worth noting.
Along with his age, another factor that is important to consider here is his propensity to miss time due to injury. He hasn’t played a full season since 2011-12, and he’s missed 82 games over the past four years. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s exactly one quarter of a season, every year. Yikes.
With a projected UFA contract of three years at $5.8 million, that risk is simply to big to absorb.
On the surface, Chiarot doesn’t look like a terrible option, but contextually, he’s another name to steer clear of on the open market. Across the board, his offensive and defensive impacts are below-average which is somewhat surprising considering he spent most of the year alongside Dustin Byfuglien, who is an analytically sound presence in Winnipeg.
He doesn’t offer much on special teams, and his ice-time average of 18:37 isn’t totally representative of his role in the Jets’ top-four. Perhaps with a more sheltered role he could excel. His anticipated demand of three years at $2.8 million certainly isn’t terrible, but there are better, more cost-effective options to pursue if the Sabres wish to pursue a third-pairing defenseman via UFA. Speaking of which...
Here’s where the fun starts. At the top, this year’s free agent class is pretty uninspiring (save for a select two who we’ll get to later). Botterill will likely try to add a top-four presence via trade, if at all. The wisest course of action would involve the pursuit of value-add, depth options in free agency. That’s where these gentlemen come in.
Earlier this month, Chad DeDominicis wrote a pretty deep analysis on Benn as an option, so we won’t go too heavy into the data here, but in reviewing the best “bang for your buck” blueliners who are slated to be available, he’s one of the best.
Offensively, he doesn’t offer much, but at 31 years old, he did set a career-high last season with 22 points in 81 games for the Montreal Canadiens. Still, from an impact standpoint, his ability to control the blue line and work as an effective puck-mover was put on display last year after a rough outing in 2017-18.
As a team, the Canadiens were pretty inefficient at breaking up zone-entries and zone-exits last season. As illustrated by the chart below, Benn was one of just two Montreal defenders who represented a net-positive in that respect.
It’s an area of strength that the Sabres sorely lacked last season. The next chart paints a similar (albeit slightly worse) team picture, as to why addressing this issue needs to be made a priority, especially on the third-pairing.
EW is projecting Benn to receive a contract offer close to four years at $3.55 million. The term is certainly a little bit ambitious, but if Buffalo can convince him to reduce the deal down to three years, the price tag isn’t too bad for what they’d be getting in return.
If you’re looking to shore things up defensively, then there might not be a better value addition on the FA market this summer than Hunt. That’s not to say he doesn’t add value offensively. In fact, he’s one of the most well-rounded defensemen considering his projected demand.
Splitting time last season between the Minnesota Wild and Vegas Golden Knights last season, he was able to produce a positive xG impact on both teams with several different defensive partners. That bodes well for his ability to adjust accordingly to whomever he is paired with.
It’s important to note here that, despite his strong campaign in 2018-19, Hunt is a career journeyman. In six NHL seasons, he’s spent time with five different organizations. He didn’t even reach 40 NHL games in a single season until he was 29 years old.
What we have here is a steady, seventh defenseman who would come on a cheap, short-term contract and serve as a reliable fill-in, especially when the Sabres start the 2019-20 season without Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut. He would also add another degree of separation, potentially sparing fans from the sight of Matt Hunwick in blue-and-gold next year, which we can all appreciate.
At a projected two years at $1.8 million, that’s a bargain for a really solid insurance policy on the back end.
Visions of that famous Connor McGregor press conference gif (you know the one) are probably playing in your mind right now. That’s understandable. Even die-hard fans probably don’t know much, if anything, about Heed, who spent a good portion of last season battling what was labeled as an “upper-body injury”.
When healthy, the 28-year-old served as the San Jose Sharks’ top reserve defenseman. Last season, he registered 13 points in 37 games. In that time, he was pretty average across the board.
So why would the Sabres be interested in a player who two years ago was and AHL regular? Part of the answer lies in who he skated alongside for a vast majority of the 2018-19 season. The chart below belongs to once revered defenseman (and Heed’s most prominent partner), Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
When paired with Vlasic, Heed posted a Corsi-for of 49.11 (only Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns were able to post better Corsi numbers beside Vlasic). Away from him, Heed’s numbers jumped to 51.14. It’s not earth-shattering, but the fact that he was able to post even average analytics with a virtual lead-anchor attached to his hip is pretty outstanding, in context.
In his time with the Sharks’ AHL affiliate (the San Jose Barracudas), Heed posted over a point-per-game on the back end. Like Hunt, he would serve as a top-reserve with the Sabres. Think of him as a Zach Redmond type player who could actually dress with the big club. Botterill could land him for virtually nothing as EW projects him to receive a two-year deal valued at just over $1 million AAV.
The Big Fish
At this point you’ve probably gathered that if the Sabres want to address their top-four this summer, they’d probably be better-suited to try and do that via trade. The available options are relatively sparse, not to mention expensive.
These next two players are the lone exceptions to that assessment, but their respective price tags, and perceived competition for their services, could dissuade the front office from pursuing them. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as potential viable options, despite the unlikelihood.
Not only is Karlsson the crown jewel of the 2019 free-agent class, but he may just be the best all-around defenseman in the NHL. The Sharks could obviously bring him back into the fold, but for now, he’s slated to become a UFA on July 1.
Some might hesitate when considering a player who will likely demand double-digit figures in terms of AAV, but it would be money well-spent on the Swedish cornerstone. Aside from his extended goal-scoring drought which became a talking point in the media, a more well-rounded defenseman does not exist in the NHL today.
So why would a player like Karlsson come to Buffalo (besides the metaphorical Brinks truck full of money the Pegulas would be sending him)? Perhaps there is some appeal in playing alongside his countrymen, of which the Sabres have many. Maybe he is intrigued at joining Rasmus Dahlin in his pursuit of greatness. Who knows?
Sure, it’s unlikely, but the Sabres’ blue line would be one of the most formidable in the entire league if Botterill and the gang were able to convince him to come here.
While Gardiner is certainly less of a pipe-dream, he’s definitely a much bigger risk. His back issues are well-documented, and he even considered surgery prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff campaign. Back injuries are a risky business. Who knows if he’ll ever get back to full strength? That reason alone could dissuade Buffalo from extending an offer that could reach the seven-year, $7 million mark.
If he’s healthy however, it would be tough to find another defenseman of his analytical magnitude either on the UFA market, or via trade.
Here we have another player (and I will stress again - if healthy) who would serve as an immediate upgrade and solidify the Sabres’ top-four. The only thing that might give them pause is the anticipated term, which would take Gardiner to age 35.
In all likelihood, the Sabres will steer clear, as they should, but back injury aside, Gardiner is an outstanding player who deserved to be mentioned here.
As stated above, Botterill will be probably be working the phones prior to free agency, in search of upgrades at the top of his defensive lineup. Those potential targets are a conversation for another article, but don’t be surprised if he goes looking for depth reinforcements in a free agent class that has more than a few solid options in that regard.
The biggest mistake that the franchise could make this summer is to overpay for a middle-pairing player. They must avoid that avenue for the sake of future flexibility and to ensure that Kyle Okposo’s contract is the lone albatross on the books in 2020 when Buffalo is slated to have a great deal of salary cap flexibility.
Corsi Metrics and Pairing Data, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick
xG and Zone-Entry Charts, courtesy of Charting Hockey
Player Salary Projections, courtesy of Evolving Wild