Sabres areas of need, Part II: Scoring Left Winger

July 3, 2018
by

July 1st came and went with the Toronto Maple Leafs making the biggest splash, signing star center John Tavares to a seven-year deal. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres made a splash of their own by moving Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a couple of draft picks, roster players and a prospect. They also addressed the goaltending vacancies by signing Carter Hutton and Scott Wedgewood for the NHL and AHL clubs respectively. Jason Botterill days before struck a deal with his former club, the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he traded a conditional fourth-round pick for forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick. It was purely a cap saving move for the Penguins, and Botterill was happy to oblige as it meant acquiring a fringe second-line winger for essentially 50 cents on the dollar.

However, there still remains quite a bit of uncertainty on the left side as Sheary is but one player and, let’s be honest, not anyone’s idea of a high-end scoring winger. With most of the big names off the market, and even with the acquisition of youngster Tage Thompson in the O’Reilly trade, Botterill and his management team will have to get creative to address the long term need of adding some high-end scoring to the left side.

You’ll notice I’ve been careful not to refer to the area of need as a sniper, and it goes beyond just the fact that we’d be limiting ourselves to a rather short list of capable left wingers. One of the biggest issues for the Sabres over the last few years has been team play at 5-on-5 and even strength. It’s something Botterill cited when he spoke about the Sheary trade. It’s not enough for the Sabres to simply find an elite shooter — they need to find left wingers capable of creating chances, moving the puck and, above all else, showing consistency. The latter is a key issue that likely played a hand in Botterill trading Evander Kane at the deadline. Kane’s scoring abilities were unquestionable, but you can’t pay seven million or more for players who are one month on/one month off type players. Those salaries are typically reserved for wingers who, even when they’re not scoring, are still generating meaningful offense in the form of primary playmaking or above average puck movement/zone entries.

So, without further ado, here are some candidates the Sabres should consider this off-season to help address their long term need at left wing.

Key Terms:

CF/60: Corsi For per 60 minutes

Rel CF/60: Relative Corsi For per 60 minutes

SCF/60: Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes 

HDCF/60: High Danger Shot Attempts For per 60 minutes 

P1/60: Primary Points (Goals + Primary Assists) per 60 minutes

 

Jason Zucker- Minnesota Wild

Age: 26

Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent

Key Even Strength Stats and Rank among LW with 1000 or more minutes played:

CF/60: 58.81 (34th)

Rel CF/60: 8.52 (7th)

SCF/60: 29.53 (14th)

HDCF/60: 13.48 (5th)

P1/60: 1.79 (5th)

Why he makes sense for the Sabres:

Zucker’s coming off of a career year that saw him put up an impressive 33 goals while maintaining a shooting percentage that’s just above his career normal at 14.8% (career average of 12.8%). At just 26 years old, it’s likely that Zucker could maintain this kind of production for at least several more years. A primary points rate of 1.79/60 shows he’s often the one driving production instead of just benefiting from someone else.

This is, in a word, unbelievable. The Wild were basically asleep when Zucker wasn’t on the ice. The excess shot rates with Zucker, particularly in the high danger areas, are astronomical especially relative to the rest of his team.

 

 

As I mentioned earlier, having another player who could consistently gain the opposing blue line cleanly would be extremely valuable for the Sabres. As it stands, it’s basically a one man show with Jack Eichel and the occasional guest star performance from Sam Reinhart. Zucker may not be on Eichel’s level, but having someone like him on the wing could ease the burden for the star centerman and make the line a difficult matchup for defenders.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Sabres

 Zucker hasn’t been the subject of too many trade rumors and, given his age and importance to the Wild, he will likely cost a lot. He may be a perfect fit for the team Botterill and Phil Housley are trying to build, but it’s hard to say if there’s a price tag that the Sabres are willing to live with.

It’s also important to keep in mind that this was sort of an anomaly as far as Zucker’s career goes. Sure, the shooting percentage isn’t too far off, but it’s hard to say with any certainty that Zucker can play at the kind of pace that makes him a first line caliber winger after one great season.

Estimated Cost:

With the Wild in a “win now” mode, new general manager Paul Fenton will likely be looking for NHL ready talent should he move Zucker this summer. This probably means that any deal for Zucker will have to include Reinhart and perhaps picks and prospects on either side. The value may be okay but the impact may not be as great, especially long term. That doesn’t even include Zucker’s new contract, likely coming in at five or six million dollars long term.

 

Andre Burakovsky – Washington Capitlas

Age: 23

Contract Status: 1 year, $3 million AAV

Key Even Strength Stats and Rank among LW with 700 or more minutes played:

CF/60: 60.00 (44th)

Rel CF/60: 3.85 (32nd)

SCF/60: 28.18 (43rd)

HDCF/60: 8.32 (86th)

P1/60: 1.29 (35th)

Why he makes sense for the Sabres:

Burakovsky has had somewhat of an up and down start to his career with the Capitals. At times he’s found himself a healthy scratch, other times a Game Seven hero. There’s never been any doubt as to Burakovsky’s talent, but now at 23 years old, the Capitals are still waiting for him to put it together and take that next step. Much like how Thompson spoke towards not being “pigeon-holed” the way he was on a veteran team like the Blues, Burakovsky may benefit from a change in scenery by moving to a team that will have more patience and opportunity for development.

 

The shot rates tell a bizarre story. As a whole the Caps seem better with Burakovsky on the ice, but the left side of the ice (where he would be playing) is ice cold.

 

A deeper look into his shot locations reveals that his shot distribution is fairly even, so perhaps the first map shouldn’t be as worrisome.

 

Burakovsky did well here and, like Zucker, would do wonders for the top line in terms of puck movement. His speed and skill give him the potential to be a very good top-six winger and, with competition likely for a spot on Eichel’s left wing, the Sabres would present the perfect opportunity for Burakovsky to take his game to the next level.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Sabres

In a year where the Sabres had a lot of issues arise with regards to work ethic and locker room chemistry, there may be some concern bringing in a player who spent quite a bit of time in the coaches’ doghouse. Growing pains are normal for young players, but it seemed to go even further with Burakovsky in Washington. Most notably, he was the subject of a lot of criticism throughout the playoffs, in particular the third-round series versus the Tampa Bay Lightning, right up until he scored two big goals in the 4-0 Game Seven win for the Capitals. It’s possible that at this point Botterill doesn’t see a Burakovsky type player as a good fit for the team.

Estimated Cost:

The Capitals finally brought home a Stanley Cup, and now have a new coach in Todd Reirden, so that may afford Burakovsky more time to grow and become a long-term option in Washington. That likely means he is no longer a buy low option like he may have been last summer, but a fair market deal isn’t out of the question. The price tag will come down to how management still feels about him and his future with the organization. It’s possible a collection of draft picks or prospects is enough to land him, but if the Capitals are looking for more NHL-ready talent then the Sabres may be better off passing.

 

Jeff Skinner – Carolina Hurricanes

Age: 26

Contract Status: 1 year, $5.25 Million AAV

Key Even Strength Stats and Rank among LW with 1000 or more minutes played:

CF/60: 67.95 (4th)

Rel CF/60: 5.93 (16th)

SCF/60: 32.67 (6th)

HDCF/60: 13.48 (4th)

P1/60:  1.42 (10th)

Why he makes sense for the Sabres:

There are many reasons why Skinner would be a great fit for the Sabres but here is one stat that should peak your interest: Skinner is fourth in 5v5 goal scoring over the last three years. Only Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko have more goals than him. Now imagine that prolific scoring next to Eichel on the first line. Skinner has consistently been one of the league’s best even-strength scorers and, at just 26 years of age, there’s little doubt that he’ll be able to keep that up at least until his thirties.

 

If only the Hurricanes could’ve cloned Skinner, they may have been a playoff team. They look like two different teams with and without him and the location of the excess shot attempts with Skinner are right where you want them to be.

 

What’s better than having a puck carrying machine on your team? Having two of them. Skinner’s zone entry data rivals that of Eichel’s and would make up one of the most lethal offensive duos in the NHL.

Why he doesn’t make sense for the Sabres:

 The truth is there’s very little to suggest Skinner doesn’t make a ton of sense for the Sabres going forward, but he does have a full no move clause and has reportedly turned down a deal to two teams thus far. It’ll take some convincing and maybe even a visit from the Pegulas, but they did recently convince Patrik Berglund (who would only accept a trade to 11 teams) to accept a trade to the Sabres so anything is possible.

There may also be a timeline issue. Skinner is currently in the prime of his career but the Sabres are a long way away from really competing. It’s certainly possible that with the right amount of player growth and stable goaltending the Sabres could make a Leafs-like run, but odds are the team is at least a year away from contention. It’s probable that not everything will break right, and the competitive window for the Sabres opens at a time when Skinner’s production starts to dip. Essentially, it comes down to whether Botterill thinks the Sabres can make a quick jump or he thinks, like myself, that Skinner’s production will hold up through his late twenties/early thirties. If he doesn’t think either will happen he’ll likely stay away from most big names.

Estimated Cost:

There was a rumor not long ago from Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic that the asking price for Skinner was a first-round pick and a prospect. Fortunately for the Sabres, they have three now, so not exactly a back breaker as far as assets are concerned. As for the prospect, it really comes down to personal preference, but perhaps the Hurricanes would be interested in taking a calculated risk on Alex Nylander. The former 8th overall pick has struggled in the AHL, but he’s only 20 years old and still has two years left on his entry level deal. It’s the type of cost effective investment that the new ownership in Carolina seems to want.

Michael Ghofrani
About Michael Ghofrani

Michael Ghofrani has been working on finding hockey statistics that can break down and explain certain game events. He's also a Sabres follower from Toronto doing his best to fend off Leafs Nation.

Browse more articles by Michael Ghofrani.

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