Sabres Free Agent Targets – Forwards

A quiet draft weekend from Tim Murray may leave the Sabres GM as a more active player in the free agent shopping spree this summer. He indicated as much after the draft, although even had Murray netted more than just Dmitri Kulikov over the weekend it seems as if he still would have been a player in free agency this summer.

There has been plenty of talk about Steven Stamkos and the Sabres’ role as a player for the star. However, Stamkos will come with a hefty cap hit that may actually be better spent elsewhere. The Sabres will and should still take a long, hard look at Stamkos given the skill he possesses and the resume he boasts. But there are plenty of other quality options available to explore. Here’s a list of some of the players I could see Murray extending offers to this year.

Kyle Okposo

6’ 0” – 217 lbs – 4/16/1988

GP          G             A             P
529         139         230         369         Fancy Stats

Fit: Top-Six RW

Breakdown: Okposo is likely the cheaper option to Stamkos for teams searching for offense this summer. He’s scored 37 fewer goals over the past three years but boasts 45 more assists than Stamkos over that period. Okposo will likely command somewhere north of $5.5 or $6m per season, slotting him firmly in the upper echelon of free agent scorers this season.

He’d fit very well with the Sabres who could use another top-six right winger to unite with Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. The potential for a set of top lines featuring Kane-O’Reilly-Okposo/Vesey-Eichel-Reinhart is going to be very enticing for Sabres fans.

He’ll get plenty of offers and any offer the Sabres send will likely eliminate any possibility of signing Stamkos, that’s something to keep in mind for hopeful fans.

Jamie McGinn

6’1” – 205 lbs – 8/5/1988

GP          G             A             P
450         91           76           167         Fancy Stats

Fit: Middle-Six LW

Breakdown: It would take some maneuvering to find a perfect fit for McGinn given how the depth chart looks heading into 2016-17. McGinn was a strong performer for the Sabres last year, playing up and down the lineup before settling nicely in a top-six role. If things go as planned, Jimmy Vesey would likely be filling one of the LW spots in the top-six, leaving Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Matt Moulson to vie for time elsewhere in the lineup. Adding McGinn would only complicate matters.

McGinn, however, not only performed well for the Sabres (hitting the 20 goal mark on the season) but it would appear he had a very good off-ice relationship with Jack Eichel. The same has been said for his friendship with Ryan O’Reilly and he certainly fits the mold of the type of player Tim Murray covets. Should Murray clear some space on the roster via a trade involving one or two of his current left wingers, McGinn would almost be a no brainer to slot back in somewhere on Buffalo’s second or third lines.

David Backes

6’3” – 221 lbs – 5/1/1984

GP          G             A             PTS
727         206         254         460         Fancy Stats

Fit: Top-Nine RW

Breakdown: There’s been all sorts of talk about finding a left winger to play in the top six but perhaps the bigger hole in Buffalo’s lineup can be found on the right side. After Sam Reinhart, the Sabres have Brian Gionta, Hudson Fasching and Justin Bailey capable of stepping in to fill a role. It seems that Fasching could wind up in Rochester this year to hone his skills in his first true professional season, leaving Gionta and Bailey to occupy a pair of fairly prominent roles depending on deployment.

Backes’s age, style of play and expected asking price will make him a somewhat questionable target for a young team on the rise. He does bring valuable leadership to the locker room along with plenty of playoff experience. If the term was right on the contract he could certainly be a good veteran to bridge the gap as some of Buffalo’s rising prospects ripen in the system. He’s also scored 20 goals each of the last three seasons, so he hasn’t hit the wall yet. The price tag may ultimately keep the Sabres away, but filling a second or third line role could give the Sabres a nice upgrade in the middle of their lineup.

Troy Brouwer

6’3” – 213 lbs – 8/17/1985

GP          G             A             PTS
613         150         144         294         Fancy Stats

Fit: Top-Nine RW

Breakdown: Brouwer would fill many of the same holes Backes would for the Sabres. He’d be a skilled, veteran RW who plays with some jam who can step into a spot in the middle of the lineup and perform well. He’s a year younger than Backes and plays a slightly lighter game than the St. Louis captain; meaning there could be a few fewer miles on those tires.

Brouwer likely comes with a slightly lower price tag both in terms of length and cost of a contract. His goal scoring over the past five years is a touch lower than Backes with a similar post season resume (Brouwer does boast a Cup).

Teddy Purcell

6’2” – 195 lbs – 9/8/1985

GP          G             A             PTS
559         101         204         305         Fancy Stats

Fit: Bottom-Six RW

Breakdown: In the event Backes and Brouwer prove too costly, or the team prefers to push one or two of their youngsters into a more prominent role, a player of Purcell’s ilk could provide some quality depth along the right side. His offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping and you might argue that his offensive peak in 2011-12 was a slight aberration. He enjoyed something of a bounce back last year and he found his way out of Edmonton in the process.

Adding Purcell on a short deal would at least give Dan Bylsma another veteran option to swap with Brian Gionta between the third and fourth lines. I wouldn’t expect him to be a day one signing in free agency but a player that gets added once the dust settles on Stamkos and any potential trade the Sabres may be involved with.

Darren Helm

6’0” – 196 lbs – 1/21/1987

GP          G             A             PTS
443         72           90           162         Fancy Stats

Fit: Fourth Line C

Breakdown: My personal favorite for a depth center was Trevor Lewis, but he was re-signed by the Kinds last week. Helm brings many of the same traits of Lewis in a similarly sized package. He’s a speedy center who is solid in his own zone and capable of chipping in on the penalty kill. He brings to mind the type of player the Sabres had in Torrey Mitchell in terms of speed and versatility in the bottom of the lineup.

Helm could easily shift to wing if necessary and wouldn’t come at a high pricepoint either. The lingering question here is whether or not the team would prefer to elevate Tim Schaller to save a bit towards the cap while promoting a player who has progressed nicely since signing as a college free agent.

Nick Spaling

6’1” – 201 lbs – 9/19/1988

GP          G             A             PTS
437         52           72           124         Fancy Stats

Fit: Fourth Line C

Breakdown: Rinse and repeat from above. Spaling isn’t as shifty as Helm nor are his fancy stats as impressive. But he’d certainly fill in the role vacated by David Legwand nicely. He’s not going to wow you in terms of goal scoring but would certainly hold value if the Sabres are indeed planning to bring in some experience over simply elevating a player from Rochester.

David Legwand

6’2” – 207 lbs – 8/17/1980

GP          G             A             PTS
1136       228         390         618         Fancy Stats

Fit: Fourth Line C

Breakdown: You know what you’re getting with Legwand. In my opinion, he played much better than many likely expected last year after coming over as a throw-in with Robin Lehner. He chipped in on the penalty kill, missed about 600 breakaways and scored the first ever goal from the other side of the red line (ed note: not really, but don’t tell the Sabres Social Media team).

Legwand not only knows the system, he knows the room. He offers veteran leadership and would certainly be an adequate addition on a one-year deal. Maybe he and Tim Schaller split time this time around, but he’s certainly a good choice for the role he would be filling once again.

***

You may be wondering why I didn’t bother to list Steven Stamkos in this post. The easy answer is because we all know he is going to be targeted hard by the Sabres. He may even wind up in Blue and Gold come next week. However, I’m not sure he’s the ideal target for this team at this time.

Should Tim Murray ink Stamkos I’ll hardly be heartbroken. He’s a bona-fide star with a bona-fide resume. He instantly upgrades the team’s offense and top-six. Stamkos is truly an elite talent. However, the likely asking price may not align with the best course of action for the Sabres as they move forward beyond this rebuild.

A cap hit of even $10m eats half of Buffalo’s available cap for this summer. Deals can and will come off the books along the way (Gionta next summer, potentially Kane the summer after that) but a contract for Stamkos will serve as a cap anchor for the next seven seasons. The hope has to be a continually rising cap which would elevate the league-wide ceiling to $80m or higher. That sort of increase would make it much easier to fit the big deals for Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen when the time comes.

The pitfalls to signing Stamkos are fairly well played out. His recent injury history complicates matters as the questions surrounding his play after his broken leg have only been compounded this year. Blood clots are nothing to scoff at, just as Cody McCormick or Pascal Dupuis. The last thing any team needs is to award Stamkos a max deal only for the blood clot issue to force him from the game just a year or two later.

Beyond that, there has been documented concern over his goal scoring decline. Even this year’s 36 goals would’ve been the most Sabres fans have seen this side of Thomas Vanek. But Stamkos has hit 40 goals just once in the last three years although he was pushing a 60-goal pace in the lockout shortened season of 2013.

The balance point of the argument lies in what makes the Sabres better today versus what makes the Sabres better long term. Stamkos absolutely makes this team a competitor in 2016-17. So long as his health cooperates he likely makes the Sabres a competitor for the next five-to-seven seasons. Couple that latter point with an increasing salary cap and Tim Murray may be dealing with a very advantageous scenario in just a few seasons.

My personal opinion on the matter comes down to the money. While Stamkos is truly a star, I think the Sabres are far better suited applying the 10-12 million they would likely offer him to a handful of players via free agency or trades. A perfect example could be applied using a pair of players Sabres fans were eyeing prior to the draft; would you prefer to spend $10m on Steven Stamkos or $10m on Kyle Okposo and Cam Fowler? When I look at the holes in Buffalo’s lineup, I feel the latter course of action winds up as the more pragmatic choice for building the team.

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