The free agent period is now less than one month away from opening up and there are several prominent players set to hit the open market while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign. Here is a breakdown of Buffalo’s free agent situation.
Key Restricted Free Agents:
F Marcus Foligno – At just 25 years old, Foligno will enter his seventh season with the Sabres organization in 2017-18. While his development has been slow, it’s also been steady, finishing each passing season with more points than the year before. Foligno isn’t the player who showed flashes of as a rookie in 2011-12, scoring 13 points in 14 games, but he’s carved out an important role in Buffalo as a reliable top-nine winger. 2016-17 marked a career-high 13 goals for Foligno, helped along by a team-best 13.4% shooting percentage, as well as his first 80+ game season. As always though, Foligno’s true value comes in his physical two-way game, where he had a career-best and team-leading 279 hits, career-high 57 blocked shots, which led all Buffalo forwards, and was a vital member of the penalty kill. Las year, the Sabres signed Foligno to just a one-year, $2.25MM contract, but after again proving his worth as a defensive forward and top-nine contributor, new Buffalo GM Jason Botterill should have no problem giving the homegrown product a multi-year deal worth $2.5-$3MM annually. Even with fellow priority RFA’s Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson in need of raises, the Sabres have plenty of cap space and will give Foligno what he’s worth.
G Robin Lehner – The Sabres have no interest in letting Lehner go, but this off-season they need to either commit to the 25-year-old as their surefire starter or establish that they feel he is just a timeshare goalie at this point. Just two years ago, Buffalo traded a first-round pick to acquire Lehner from the Ottawa Senators. In his first year with the Sabres, he was excellent, posting a .924 save percentage and 2.47 GAA… but in only 21 games. Injuries limited Lehner to only a brief showing in 2015-16, but this past season he was able to see action in 59 games and again played well with a .920 save percentage and 2.68 GAA. With Chad Johnson gone, many expected that Lehner would play more this past season though. However, trade acquisition Anders Nilsson routinely outplayed Lehner all season long. The margin between the two wasn’t wide, but enough so that Nilsson managed to make 26 appearances, including 23 starts. The team has nonetheless stated that Lehner is their guy, but actions speak louder than words. The value and more so the term of Lehner’s contract this summer, as well as their negotiations with Nilsson, will speak volumes about their commitment to their supposed #1.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents:
F Brian Gionta – The Buffalo captain may be 38 years old and have over 1000 NHL games under his belt, but he also just completed a full 82-game season and seventh on the team in scoring. At this point in his career, Gionta is not looking to re-locate and perhaps no team could use his veteran leadership and hockey intelligence more than the Sabres, who have few forwards over 30 and certain players in need of mentoring (i.e. Evander Kane). The Sabres have plenty of cap space to play with and are expected to fill holes throughout the roster via free agency, but they’ll have room to bring back their captain who is still capable of scoring 30-40 points and can play in all situations. He probably won’t get another three-year, $12.75MM contract, but if Gionta wants to be back, he will be.
G Anders Nilsson – The flip side of the situation with Lehner is that of Nilsson. Just a little over a year older than Lehner, Nilsson was finally given legitimate responsibility for the first time in his NHL career in 2016-17 and he flourished. His .923 save percentage and .267 GAA were just marginally better than Lehner, but a major step up from his previous performances. Perhaps the Sabres, who truly do need to commit to Lehner or not, are afraid that re-signing Nilsson would send the wrong message, but he has definitely earned that consideration. If the Sabres don’t bring back Nilsson, they’ll have to search for a veteran backup to the oft-injured Lehner anyway. It’s not a simple problem and how Boterill solves it will impact his start with the organization.
Projected Cap Space: The Sabres currently have only $50.2MM committed to 2017-18 contracts by way of 11 forwards and five defensemen. (CapFriendly) The extensions for RFA’s Lehner, Foligno, Girgensons, and Larsson, all of whom will be safe from expansion, as well as roster hopefuls Alexander Nylander and Brady Austin will eat up some of that space. However, even if the cap ceiling remains at $73MM, Buffalo has nearly $23MM of space to work with and if Matt Moulson is an expansion casualty, as has been rumored, there’s another $5MM in relief. That should give them more than enough space to accommodate those young players, re-sign Gionta, extend or replace Nilsson, and still have the flexibility to explore the free agent market for better fits on the blue line than Franson or Kulikov and a game-changer up front.