July 1 will never be what it used to be.
Yes, it will always be Canada’s birthday, but the “Free Agent Frenzy” often leads to too many F’s down the road – if you know what I mean.
The beauty of this day for Sabres fans, in wake of the team’s recent acquisitions, is that July 1 is no longer about finding a savior, but rather finding some complimentary pieces.
General manager Tim Murray noted at the draft that his team will probably require the addition of a left shot defenseman, after Nikita Zadorov was dealt to Colorado as part of the trade that brought Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn to Buffalo.
Josh Gorges, Jake McCabe, and Mike Weber are currently on the left side of the depth chart while Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk and Chad Ruhwedel roam the right.
With that in mind, let’s focus on areas of “need” to begin with and some potential targets that – in my opinion – could help:
PAUL MARTIN – Defenseman – Age: 34 – Shoots: Left – UFA
He’s not a sizzle player, but he has been remarkably consistent through nearly 700 NHL regular season games. The 2014 U.S. Olympian had a very slight dip in his numbers in the fifth and final season of his deal with the Penguins.
The fact he was in Pittsburgh and played for now-Sabres coach Dan Bylsma might be more noteworthy than any stat – especially when you consider that an upswing for this team has to begin with a more structured defensive game.
JOHNNY ODUYA – Defenseman – Age: 33 – Shoots: Left – UFA
Like Martin, Oduya is a former New Jersey Devil. But unlike Martin, he has loads of playoff mileage on his body, including 65 games the past three springs, and two Stanley Cup rings with Chicago to show for it. An excellent skater, his points per game in the playoffs have also been superior to that which he posted in the regular seasons.
BARRET JACKMAN – Defenseman – Age: 34 – Shoots: Left – UFA
Jackman is more similar to Martin when it comes to lack of playoff success, but definitely more rugged than either player listed above.
This former Calder Trophy-winner will play his next NHL game for someone other than the Blues for the first time in his career. Stronger Corsi numbers at 5-on-5 over the last two seasons could mean there’s still a little more in the tank.
BRENDAN SMITH – Defenseman – Age: 26 – Shoots: Left – RFA (Detroit) – RE-SIGNED JUNE 30
A five-year pro with three full seasons in the NHL, the former Wisconsin teammate of Ryan McDonagh may still have a bit more to offer offensively but has been a positive player when considering being on the ice for more shots for than shots against.
Smith is coming off a deal that had a salary cap hit of $1.26 million and is susceptible to an offer sheet.
And despite the re-tooling up front, some still believe the Sabres need to find themselves another top-six forward, preferably a right winger.
Here’s a look at the best options free agency has to offer:
JUSTIN WILLIAMS – Right Wing – Age: 33 years old – Shoots: Right – UFA
Mr. Game 7 has been able to pile up 115 games on his post-season resume. And should he play all 82 regular-season games this year, he’ll finish with exactly 1,000 for his career. Williams is one of the best when it comes to helping his team play a puck possession game, and his three Stanley Cup rings (one with Carolina and two with the Kings) have been well-earned.
MICHAEL FROLIK – Right Wing – Age: 27 – Shoots: Left – UFA
Because of his age, Frolik stands to get possibly the longest – and maybe the most lucrative deal – among those entering free agency at his position. He’s yet to complete three full seasons with one team, but did manage to contribute well in limited playoff time for the Blackhawks in their Cup year of 2013.
JOEL WARD – Right Wing – Age: 34 – Shoots: Right – UFA
A late bloomer, Ward was 28 when he completed his first full season in the NHL. Averaging more than 21 goals the past two seasons in Washington, Ward has also shown to be a more effective player points-wise in the playoffs.
JIMMY HAYES – Right Wing – Age: 25 – Shoots: Right – RFA (Florida)
He’s 6-foot-6 and scored 19 goals in his first full NHL season. Jimmy was overshadowed somewhat by his younger brother Kevin, who had an excellent rookie season with the Rangers. But the Panthers may want to lock this guy up before trouble comes calling. Hayes made $925,000 last season.
It’s a youthful NHL these days – something we are reminded of every July 1 as the best players in their mid-to-late 20s are already locked up on long-term deals.
So your best options are either ones similar to those listed above or via trade – both of which seem to be comfortable routes for Tim Murray.