Offseason Game Plan: Buffalo Sabres
Over the next couple of months, I will be taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the Buffalo Sabres.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
Rostered players signed for next season: 18
Available cap space: ~ $6.49M
The above cap space (taken from capgeek.com) consists of nine forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders. Of these, the only players that have two-way contracts are Cody Hodgson and Brayden McNabb. Additionally, there are four players that carry a NTC – Jason Pominville, Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, and Ryan Miller.
On offense, the Sabres seem to be content with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville as their top wingers. Although Derek Roy has one more year left on his contract, his name had been heavily circulated in the rumor mill near the trade deadline. With both parties appearing ready for a change and no NTC in place to prevent a move, Roy’s time in Buffalo may finally be coming to an end. If he were to be moved, there would be a massive void in the faceoff circle as Roy led the team in draws taken (1,329) followed by Paul Gaustad (871) who is no longer with the team. The next three Buffalo players in this category were Pominville (375), Ennis (316), and Hecht (300).
The Sabres may just have some succession planning in place after all though. Cody Hodgson, who was a member of the team for only 20 games, averaged 14.8 faceoffs per game. In contrast, Roy was taking 16.6 per game, while Hodgson won at a slightly higher 51.38% (as opposed to Roy’s 50.56%). By this measure, it appears Hodgson would be ready to assume a heavier workload in the faceoff circle, if he were called upon to do so. To add more fuel to the fire, Hodgson’s primary linemates in Buffalo were Vanek and Tropp, while Roy was paired with the underperforming Leino and the over-performing Pominville in a clear attempt at balancing the offense. The actual result was that the Roy line, despite featuring some great talent, was the third-best even strength scoring line for the Sabres in the last 10 games of the season (see below).
So what the heck does all of that mean? Buffalo’s top six next season could look a bit different, with Vanek and Pominville potentially lining up with Hodgson. The next line could be Ennis-Foligno-Stafford, but if Roy is moved for anything close to fair value, the Sabres will have a new top-six face that would bump Foligno down to the third line (if he’s not moved then Roy will likely take a top-six spot instead). This leaves Leino, Foligno, Gerbe, McCormick, Ellis, and Adam all under contract and fighting for third and fourth line minutes. This doesn’t even take into account pending free agents Boyes, Hecht, and Kaleta, all of which could potentially be let go with minimal impact.
Additionally, Buffalo has some interesting prospects to watch – specifically Daniel Catenacci and Phil Varone. Although Varone has a couple years on Catenacci, both are 5’10” third-round selections from the OHL who are solid set up men.
In a nutshell, Buffalo has quite a few options available to them at offense. They are also a team that appears to be trying to spread the offense across three lines, as opposed to centrally consolidating all of their talent on to the top line as they’ve done in the past. In systems like this, the top offense (Vanek/Pominville) can be marginally less valuable as top lines from other teams who are being used as a true top line (i.e. New Jersey or Boston). The upside is that with more talent in the lineup, the team is more likely to win, which translates to more fantasy relevant players. In a slump, any number of players could find themselves rotated into top minutes and provide worthwhile fantasy contributions.
The Sabres blue line is a little more clear, with Ehrhoff, Myers, and Leopold occupying the top three, then Weber, Regehr, and Sekera all signed as well. They also have Alexander Sulzer who played quite well toward the end of the season, and if re-signed, could bump one of Weber or Sekera to the seventh role or even out of town. At $4.02M, Regehr is the highest paid defenseman and also carries a NTC so it’s unlikely he is going anywhere. Some Buffalo fans would also argue that his defensive presence is worth every penny.
Depending on how the roles of those seven defensemen play out, the Sabres also have the luxury of two emerging defensemen from Rochester who are hungry for an NHL roster spot. T.J. Brennan is an RFA who still needs to be signed, but Brayden McNabb is under contract for two more seasons on a two-way contract. While Brennan is more of a goal scorer, McNabb adjusted much quicker to the NHL level and ended up playing more than double the amount of games as Brennan. He appears to have the inside edge on a job in Buffalo, if it were to become available.
In goal, Buffalo has one of the best goaltenders in the game in Ryan Miller, along with a very capable Jhonas Enroth under contract as back up. There have been rumors that Miller is unhappy in Buffalo ever since his teammates failed to stick up for him when Milan Lucic steamrolled him early in the season. If he were to request a trade, the Sabres might be in a bit of a tight spot. While Enroth could be a viable option, there were times were he was noticeably struggling in Miller’s absence. On the depth chart, the third string goaltender is 27-year-old David Leggio, who would likely make for an average backup at best.
While there is nothing to panic about now, the Sabres could have a long offseason ahead of them. It will be interesting to see how Ryan Miller and Derek Roy decide to move forward and whether or not either will be committed to playing in Buffalo next season and beyond.
Biggest holes to fill: The Sabres are in fairly good shape, with the right amount of depth or possibly excess bodies in just about every position, other than goaltending. As long as Miller doesn’t want out, the Sabres can be active in the trade market if they choose.
Priorities: The biggest priority in Buffalo should be morale. Two of their best players – Miller and Roy – were rumored to be unhappy last season which just can’t happen. Whether it be a coaching change or a trade or two, this organization needs to do what needs to be done to ensure the locker room is in good order.
A secondary priority would be the offense. Based on how the team finished the season, it appeared they wanted to adopt a three scoring line model, rather than two. If that is the direction they want to go, they need to do it right.
Overall, the Sabres are in a position of (relative) strength. They don’t have very many holes to fill and they actually have some extra bodies they can move around, with competition uprising from Rochester at both forward and defense. Their top forward line will be the most desirable fantasy assets, but their second and third lines could be worthwhile as well. The key thing to look for in a three line system is who is being rotated into a big role. There is so much talent available in a three line attack that the players are continuously moving between lines until the right chemistry is found, which can really boost a player’s value quickly. On defense, Myers and Ehrhoff are really the only two providing significant contributions, with Leopold being hit or miss, and Sulzer being a potential option if re-signed. The rest of the Sabres’ blue line consists of defensive defensemen. In goal, Miller is a stud and Enroth is a great backup, making both fantasy relevant. The depth after Enroth is relatively weak though, so they should focus on bringing in another goaltending prospect either at the draft or via trade.
Got anything to add? Feel free to add your opinion below.