Buffalo - July 2, 2014 - Yesterday marked the opening of the free agency period in the NHL and a good chunk of the league was very busy.
Minnesota boy Thomas Vanek returned home, Brad Richards signed a bargain of a deal to chase a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Capitals spent out the wazoo to improve their defense.
As for the Sabres? Well they were pretty busy themselves, inking five players on the day and making a trade for another.
First, the in-house signing. Marcus Foligno returns after getting a new deal and will resume his role as a bottom-six power forward. He uses his size well and gives maximum effort, but his skating and hands will likely never be what management hoped for when he was drafted. Still, he does his job and fills a role on a Sabres team that will struggle.
Next: the trade. The Sabres sent a 2016 second-round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Josh Gorges. An alternate captain with the Habs, the 29-year-old defenseman will be one of the elder statesmen on the blueline. He plays in all situations and will bring leadership to one of the youngest teams in the league. He’ll give the Sabres a solid option on the back end so that they don’t feel the need to rush Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen into the lineup.
As for the signings, there are a couple of new faces and a couple of familiar ones as well. Matt Moulson, he of the brand new five-year/$25 million deal, is back in town. He was a fan favorite in his brief tenure with the Sabres last year; one of the few Sabres who seemed offensively capable before he was shipped to Minnesota at the trade deadline. He’ll be back to provide that offensive punch and add another veteran presence in a young locker room.
Joining him from Minnesota is the guy that went with him in that trade: Cody McCormick. McCormick is a no-nonsense, 110% effort player who provides a physical side as well. He will likely fill a fourth line roll as he did before his departure.
The newbies bring things the Sabres have lacked for quite some time: leadership and physicality. Andrej Meszaros will join Gorges on the blueline, providing little offensive punch but adding much-needed size and physical play. He’s perhaps someone who can also help the bigger, younger defensemen like Ristolainen, Zadorov and Tyler Myers find their physical play as well.
And the last signing of the day, but certainly not the least, is former Canadiens captain Brian Gionta. The diminutive winger is nearing the twilight of his career – he’ll be 36 in January – but he’s not quite done yet. He brings a little bit of offensive pop with him (18 goals, 40 points for the Habs last year), but his biggest attribute is the leadership he brings. The Sabres haven’t had a definitive captain in years. If you’ll remember, Steve Ott and Vanek shared the role last year and the Sabres have traded three captains in a row (Ott, Vanek and Jason Pominville). Having a steadying presence in the locker room will go a long way in the development of this youthful roster.
Overall, the Sabres improved, becoming a more competitive, steadier team. They’ve given themselves options so they aren’t in a position where they need to force prospects into the lineup. And to dispel the notions that the tank is off: this team didn’t get that much better. They added a couple of okay scorers to one of the worst offensive teams in NHL history and added two solid defensemen. They still lack depth on offense and have question marks at goalie. It’s going to take a helluva lot more than this to make this team a competitive playoff team.
At least this year, we’ll get to watch something resembling a hockey team.
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