By John Barrett
It’s a very interesting time to be a Buffalo Sabres fan. With the NHL Draft in spitting distance, and perhaps the most interesting free agency period in two decades, the Sabres have positioned themselves well for both regards eleven picks and loads of cap space.
The biggest hole on the Sabres roster is, as Tim Murray puts it “a power play quarterback,” defenseman that can be paired with budding star Rasmus Ristolainen and be a big-time point producer with the man advantage. There have been a few defensemen around the NHL whose names have been linked to the Sabres, via restricted free agency, unrestricted free agency and cap motivated trades.
I examined the stats of a handful of these potential targets, that focus on two major areas; puck possession and power play production. I focused on these two areas because they were two key focus points that came right from the horses mouth when Murray discussed his blueline. I plotted the two year averages for players on a matrix of 5v5 Corsi For % Relative to the team and points per 60 minutes on the power play.
A couple of things pop out initially. The first being the that the only negative Relative Team Corsi taken in this exercise belonged to Cam Fowler. Fowler, who may be the player most linked to the Sabres, has not been a player to drive possession at full strength. On top of that, further investigation into his number’s show that Fowler’s most common partner, Kevin Bieksa, had a 52.4 CF% at even strength when not playing with Fowler, compared to a 49.3 CF% when playing with him.
Those numbers would be easier to swallow if Fowler was more efficient on the power play, but his numbers just don’t really show top level efficiency. Seeing a second line defenseman who doesn’t play top competition, and brings down both his team’s and his partner’s puck possession should raise red flags, or at least lower the price on a potential trade package.
Hampus Lindholm comes across as the best overall defenseman in this exercise. He’s also probably the most unlikely to be moved. Combine his stellar possession numbers, power play performance, and age (only 21 years of age), and Anaheim would be stupid to let him go. Any reasonable package to bring him to Buffalo might just be too expensive for Buffalo despite how many picks and prospects they have to offer.
Keith Yandle, despite his reputation for being insufficient as a defensive player, was a positive possession player relative to his team. Although this should be taken with a grain of salt considering how poor of a possession team the New York Rangers were last season. However, if the estimations of his price are in the $7M AAV range, I’m not sold on the feasibility of that contract.
The two players that I am most interested in are Kevin Shattenkirk and, as crazy as it sounds, Brian Campbell. The interesting part here is that the acquisition of both of these players indicate very different path’s in the eyes of Tim Murray. Shattenkirk would require big assets to move from St. Louis and big money committed next year. He would provide an instant boost of offensive prowess at the blue line and at only 27, is just entering his prime. Campbell however, as a lefty, would provide the handedness that Murray wants, better overall possession play, and a mentor for Ristolainen to play with and learn the intricacies of the NHL defensive game.
No organizational assets would be needed to sign Campbell as a UFA. If you can convince him, at age 37, to take a two-year contract and pay a slight premium per year it might provide the perfect bridge to allow other defensive prospects (looking at you Borgen and Guhle) to gain some pro-experience under their belt. Pursuing the Campbell path would indicate that Murray doesn’t believe the type of bold acquisitions were used to him making are not sustainable, and that a transition to a more prospect focused future is more feasible.
After looking at the numbers, I think that Tim Murray making an aggressive move for Brian Campbell would be the best option for the Sabres, now and with future considerations. I think a two year, $10M contract would be a fair and adequate offer for Campbell. If we’re lucky, he can do the same thing with Ristolainen that he did with another promising, right-handed youngster in Aaron Ekblad. Last season, the two created a strong chemistry, evidenced by the fact that both had a higher rate of possession when playing with each other rather than apart.
From a cost and possession perspective, Campbell seems to make the most sense. Inserting him into the top pair, plus the other acquisitions and moves this offseason should be enough to place the young Sabres, right in the thick of the playoff picture.