Buffalo Sabres free-agent targets: Dakota Joshua, other forwards who could boost Buffalo’s toughness

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Buffalo Sabres free-agent targets: Dakota Joshua, other forwards who could boost Buffalo’s toughness

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams has spent the last two years grappling with the issue of whether his team is too easy to play against. Before the NHL trade deadline in 2023, Adams asked then-captain Kyle Okposo if he felt the team was getting pushed around. He traded for 6-foot-5 winger Jordan Greenway. In free agency that summer, Adams signed defenseman Connor Clifton, who led the team in hits.

But during the 2023-24 season, the Sabres’ lack of physicality was still a topic of conversation. Most notably, in December, Dylan Cozens said the team was “soft” and “too easy to play against.” At the end of the season, Adams acknowledged the forward group needs to change.

“I do think the bottom six of our lineup, our forward group, we can have a little more — be a little more abrasive, a little more identity,” Adams said.

The Sabres have four unrestricted free agents in their forward group: Zemgus Girgensons, Victor Olofsson, Eric Robinson and Tyson Jost. That gives them the roster spots to remake the bottom six. Third- and fourth-line role players are also the type of players you can usually find in free agency. Though the Sabres aren’t typically a free-agent destination for top-of-market talent, finding bargains who can boost Buffalo’s team toughness is a realistic goal on July 1.

“We know we’re a young team,” Cozens said at the end of the season. “We know we don’t have crazy experience, so just to have some guys with that kind of experience and (who) know what it takes to win and play kind of that more old-school game, I think, can kind of help and show us how to play that side of the game.”

So, who are some of those players the Sabres could target this summer? Here’s an early look at the available unrestricted free agents who could fill needed roles for Buffalo on the third and fourth lines.

Mantha checks a lot of boxes for what the Sabres should be looking for this summer. He’s 6 feet 5 and 234 pounds and plays to that size as a terrific net-front presence in the offensive zone. He has some playoff experience and is in the process of getting more of it with the Golden Knights. Mantha is also a plus player in the defensive zone. His on-ice expected goal share at five-on-five has been 52 percent or above in each of the past four seasons. He’d be an ideal middle-six winger.

Noesen has become a key player for Carolina over the past two seasons. He’s a consistent forechecking presence and loves getting to the front of the net in the offensive zone. For that reason, he can move up and down the lineup effectively. Noesen’s skill set also makes him a strong playoff performer. He had 8 points in 15 playoff games last season and has two goals in four games for the Hurricanes in this season’s playoffs. The 31-year-old has never gotten a big contract, so the Sabres might be able to entice him in free agency with some extra cash.

(HockeyViz)

Joshua opened the playoffs with a 3-point, six-hit game. With each game, Joshua is earning himself more money as an upcoming unrestricted free agent. The Canucks had 56 percent of the expected goals and 59 percent of the high-danger chances when Joshua was on the ice at five-on-five this season. He had 216 hits last season and 222 hits the season before. Connor Clifton led the Sabres with 180 hits last season. If you’re looking for a player who can play a different role in the bottom six, Joshua can be that guy. He’s 27 and has never had an annual salary north of $1 million, so the Sabres might be able to get him if they’re willing to give him the highest offer.

Lomberg might be my favorite Sabres fit this summer. The Panthers’ fourth-liner is a headache to play against given his speed and willingness to play a physical game. Among players with at least 600 minutes at five-on-five, Lomberg was 15th in the NHL with just over 13 hits per 60 minutes of ice time. He’s not much of an offensive threat, but when you watch the Panthers play, Lomberg is one of the tone-setters. He’s another player who has never received a big contract, so the Sabres might be able to sway him with a little extra money. He’s not a flashy add, but he’s the type of player who could change the way Buffalo plays nightly.

The Sabres lost Carrier to Vegas in the expansion draft, and you’d have to think they’d love to have that move back. Carrier has become an excellent fourth-line player for the Golden Knights. He’s never had a season with below a 50 percent on-ice expected goal share at five-on-five. His speed and defensive ability would be great assets to Buffalo’s bottom six. Vegas should be in a cap crunch this summer, so it won’t be able to keep everyone. Would Carrier want to return to Buffalo?

Foegele is coming off a career-best, 20-goal season playing a middle-six role for the Oilers. He’s a strong forechecker who is effective at getting to the front of the net. He’s also a reliable defensive player. The Oilers had 58 percent of the expected goals when Foegele was on the ice at five-on-five this season. He benefited from playing with Leon Draisaitl at times, but his on-ice expected goal share was slightly better when he wasn’t playing with Draisaitl. Foegele has likely earned a nice contract in unrestricted free agency, and he would be a solid fit with the Sabres.

Trenin is the type of player the Sabres should be targeting for a bottom-six center role. He has three straight seasons with at least 167 hits, but his impact goes beyond that. Look at this play Trenin made on a forecheck that led to a recent playoff game winner for the Avalanche:

That’s a play Buffalo could use more of.

Blueger makes sense as a bottom-six center target this offseason. He’s coming off a career high in points, and his underlying metrics were the best of his career, too. Blueger won 54 percent of his faceoffs at five-on-five this season and has been one of Vancouver’s top penalty killers.

At new head coach Lindy Ruff’s introductory news conference, he explained the importance of finding players who can fill different roles throughout the lineup. Motte has exemplified that during his NHL career, finding a way to contribute as a fourth-line winger with the speed and energy to be a handful on the forecheck. He’s an experienced penalty killer who has started to pile up some playoff experience in recent seasons.

Flip on a Predators game and it won’t be long before you notice Sherwood. He had 214 hits at five-on-five in the regular season, the 10th most among forwards in the NHL. He’s had to scratch and claw to carve out an NHL career, and he plays with that tenacity. He also played collegiately at Miami of Ohio, so you know that will pique the interest of Adams, a former Redhawk himself.

Fischer wouldn’t be the flashiest signing, but when targeting players for the fourth line or to be the 13th forward, he’s the type of low-cost acquisition who could be worth it. When Fischer is making plays, he’s doing so at the front of the net. It seems like a simple skill, but it’s one the Sabres struggled with in a big way last season. Fischer has also had at least 100 hits in six of his seven NHL seasons, with the lone exception being the 53-game 2021-22 season.

(HockeyViz)

Duhaime isn’t a flashy player, but he’s willing to hit on the forecheck and was known as a positive presence in the locker room when he played for the Wild. Not every offseason signing needs to be a blockbuster, and Duhaime, like Fisher, could be a low-cost acquisition worth exploring.

(Top photo of Dakota Joshua and Tage Thompson: Ben Ludeman / NHLI via Getty Images)