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Sabres Analysis

Free Agency Center Fits for Sabres

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Steven Stamkos free agent Tampa Bay Lightning Buffalo Sabres

Without any major trades on draft weekend, the Buffalo Sabres may have to resort to free agency to upgrade the roster. The team needs a center, as Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, and Peyton Krebs are the only NHL centers under contract. There are a few different directions the Sabres can go, with one big name, Steven Stamkos, the center of discussion.

Some may argue the Sabres are set with Thompson and Cozens as the team’s top two centers. Some may even say Krebs is a sufficient third-line center. Still, it’s clear the Sabres need to add somebody, and the better the depth they create, the better off the team will be.

Here are the top center options for Buffalo in free agency:

Steven Stamkos

Steven Stamkos free agent Buffalo Sabres player comps

Steven Stamkos’s agent, Don Meehan, confirmed on Saturday that the star forward’s position hasn’t changed with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. In other words, he will become a free agent. This is despite the Lightning clearing cap space, which they’re expected to use to pay newly acquired Jake Guentzel.

The Sabres could use the skill and experience of the 34-year-old Stamkos. He’s bounced between playing center and the wing, but he still is one of the league’s best finishers. Buffalo is expected to make a run at him, as are the Nashville Predators, among other teams.

According to Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, Stamkos projects to make $8.443 million per season for three years.

Positives

Adding Stamkos immediately bolsters the top-six forward group. Stamkos could be used as the second-line center to form a scoring line and push Cozens into a shutdown role, which he embraced last season. Stamkos could also be a complementary player on the wing in the top six.

The line possibilities with Stamkos on the Sabres could look something like this:

JJ Peterka – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch

??? – Steven Stamkos – Jack Quinn

Zach Benson – Dylan Cozens – Jordan Greenway

Beck Malenstyn – Peyton Krebs – ???

As a winger, Stamkos can play the left side on a top line:

Steven Stamkos – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch

JJ Peterka – Dylan Cozens – Jack Quinn

Zach Benson – Peyton Krebs – Jordan Greenway

Beck Malenstyn – ??? – ???

The addition leaves room for another scoring option in the lineup. No matter how the Sabres’ lines shake out, Stamkos adds some much-needed offensive pop to the lineup. He also is a big asset to the locker room and adds veteran experience to the leadership group, as a former captain.

Negatives

Stamkos is an elite powerplay talent still, even into his mid-30s. So why is this a negative? He plays the same role as Buffalo’s top powerplay player, Tage Thompson.

Both star players are big right-shots that look for the one-timer from the left flank. It’s a redundant role that could force the Sabres to get more creative on the powerplay. It would more likely cause discomfort for two players who like to set up shop on the off-wing.

Also, the defensive component of Stamkos’ game has tailed off as he’s aged. He’s detrimental to the team at even strength defensively much like Jeff Skinner was. Head coach Lindy Ruff would have to harness the star signing and get him to buy into a more 200-foot game.

Conclusion

If nothing else, signing Stamkos would reassure the fanbase that the Sabres are trying to compete. He’s not the player he once was, but is still one of the NHL’s better offensive threats. Weighing the positives and negatives, Stamkos would be a “buckle up for the ride” signing that could set the new-look Sabres in the right direction.

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Chandler Stephenson

Chandler Stephenson free agent Buffalo Sabres player comps

Chandler Stephenson likely priced himself out of Vegas, as the center stepped up in a big supporting role to some of the team’s top talent. He’s 30 years old, but is still a speedy, versatile talent. His player comparisons are a bit all over the board, with some offensive playmakers, defensive specialists, and powerplay specialists in the top 10.

Evolving-Hockey has Stephenson projected for a four-year, $6.133 million average annual value contract. That’s a little pricey for an aging third-line center, but one that the Sabres would likely have to win in a bid in free agency.

Positives

Stephenson could provide a spark in transition between Benson and Greenway on the team’s third line. He centered one of the league’s best defensive wingers in Vegas in Mark Stone, so his fit with a shutdown player like Greenway and a relentless forechecker in Benson could be seamless.

Stephenson has also found powerplay success in the bumper role, which is something the Sabres are missing with the buyout of Skinner.

Negatives

Besides the potential contract hindrance, Stephenson is below replacement level on the penalty kill and only a slightly above-replacement player at even strength. He’s had recent struggles defensively, which is not something that would appease Ruff in a third-line role.

He’s more of a player who counter-attacks with speed, which is good for creating quality scoring chances but means the opposing team will control the puck more often when he is on the ice.

Conclusion

A Stephenson signing could be a fallback option, but it’s not a recipe for the Sabres’ long-term success. They have near-NHL-ready prospects in the system who have more to offer, and a four-year deal north of $6 million will pinch the cap by the end of it.

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Sean Monahan

Sean Monahan free agent Buffalo Sabres player comps

Sean Monahan has seen a career resurgence since leaving Calgary, where he was relegated to the third line. Since then, he’s reestablished himself as a top-six forward and powerplay contributor. Unlike Stephenson, Monahan’s not going to blaze you with speed. Instead, he’ll work more tactically to create and drive offense.

Evolving-Hockey projects a cheaper cost for Monahan’s services, with a three-year, $5.276 million projected AAV.

Positives

Monahan would immediately step into a “2A” and “2B” center situation with Cozens. Monahan would center a line more apt to score, while Cozens is the more complete, two-way center. That opens up all kinds of options for the Sabres, depending on other additions to the forward group.

He would also instantly improve the powerplay, as Monahan has been one of the better bumper scorers in the NHL throughout his career.

Negatives

Since Monahan adds what the Sabres are missing, it’s hard to criticize a potential signing for his flaws. There are flaws, however. The Sabres are a young, fast team and Monahan is not a speedster. Notably, he did play well with speedy Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers though.

Then there’s the defensive aspect of his five-on-five game, which isn’t up to par. The Sabres might be able to shelter him with some of their better defensive wingers. Otherwise, they’d just turn loose a line offensively and try to avoid specific matchups.

Conclusion

Monahan would be a much more cost-effective signing than Stephenson, especially if he’s cheaper. He’s 29, so even if Buffalo adds an extra year to incentivize the signing they’d be in okay shape.

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Alex Wennberg

Alex Wennberg free agent Buffalo Sabres player comps

Alex Wennberg is more your traditional third-line center, with experience in a shutdown role. Some of his most similar players across the league have defensive tendencies with playmaking attributes, including Alex Kerfoot and J.T. Compher.

A projected contract of three years at $4.41 million per season is an affordable and justifiable price for a third-line center.

Positives

Wennberg’s an effective even-strength player, with the versatility to contribute on both special teams units as well. He won’t do anything to wow you, but he’s the kind of reliable forward that Ruff likes to put on the ice in important situations.

There’s a play-driving aspect of his game that suits a shutdown role. His passing ability can spring play out of the defensive zone and up the ice.

Negatives

Name recognition isn’t quite the same with Wennberg as with Stamkos, Monahan, or even Stephenson. He’s been stuck on mostly mediocre teams, although the Presidents Trophy-winning New York Rangers prioritized acquiring him at the trade deadline last season.

Wennberg is also a trusted penalty killer, but the underlying data doesn’t support him in the role. A lot of shorthanded performance is dictated by the team’s system, so perhaps he’d be better off killing penalties on the Sabres. Still, you’d prefer a player that is good shorthanded regardless of restrictions.

Conclusion

Wennberg would be a fine addition to the Sabres, but he will probably draw interest from a lot of teams in more cap-restrictive situations with a need at the center position. He’d form a clear-cut one-two-three with Thompson, Cozens, and him. Krebs could push Wennberg to the fourth line if he takes a step in development, making Wennberg an overpriced luxury.