When you go down the list of who spent what on whom in free agency, and what trades were made this summer, you can pretty easily start to pick out the winners and losers. Flexibility-strapped teams had to jettison players, and clubs with a wealth of cap space were, for the second or perhaps third summer in a row, able to bleed them of talent (look at Dallas, and so on).
The wild spending of previous off-seasons, mostly to retain current players rather than woo new ones, led a number of competitive clubs into tough situations. As a result, the talent wealth was spread around a little more evenly.
But when picking winners and losers, the two clubs that seem to have taken the biggest steps forward were the two of the three worst in the league in terms of wins and losses: Edmonton and Buffalo.
Of course, those teams making a ton of hay on the trade market and in free agency is going to give them the chance to take a big step forward, but that comes with the caveat that they were so far behind the pack last year (Edmonton obviously less so) that even a best-in-the-league leap might not be enough to get the job done and actually make a club competitive. However, when it comes to making the right choices in terms of which players to bring in, it's tough to argue that any general manager has done better in the last few months than Tim Murray.
Let's just get the obvious out of the way first: Edmonton added the single most important player that any team has added at least since Sidney Crosby, and perhaps since Mario Lemieux. And that goes a long way toward your “improving” metric right there. The Oilers, however, also brought in Andrej Sekera, Mark Letestu, Cam Talbot, Griffin Reinhart and a few other players who might be able to move the needle. They weirdly also dumped a helpful player or two, but the total gain was overwhelmingly positive.
It should be noted here that the Oilers weren't nearly as bad last season as the record indicates, and were supremely unlucky especially in terms of goaltending. So that they added McDavid and Sekera and Talbot in particular, then also brought in a very good coach and — for the first time in a while — deeply competent GM, all indicates that this is a team that could be borderline playoff-competitive, especially in their truly awful division. A lot of that depends upon just how good McDavid is, as you might imagine, but the fact that we're even having that conversation says plenty about the steps forward taken under Peter Chiarelli, in the Light of the 97.
But even those huge steps forward pale in comparison with what Buffalo has done this summer. Here are the more notable NHL players they are bringing in for 2015-16 in who didn't play for them last season — including Evander Kane, who was traded Feb. 11, but didn't play a game last season — versus those they lost or jettisoned (and I might be missing one or two here, but you get the picture):
This obviously doesn't include a few notable players who are likely to move into more significant roles next season (such as Rasmus Ristolainen), nor does it take into account that Ted Nolan, who wasn't a very good coach at this level, was replaced with Dan Bylsma, who is very good and was unfairly run out of Pittsburgh in the first place.
But again, as with Edmonton you have to take into account the starting point for these Sabres in terms of their overall quality. While they were not the worst team in hockey's modern era (that ignominy goes to the 2013-14 Sabres), they were downright rotten nonetheless. But look at that list of players brought in. That's 13 guys, many of whom have a pretty good chance of making the NHL roster or are guaranteed a spot. Let's put it this way: The inclusion of Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly alone puts Zemgus Girgensons, a very good young center, at the No. 3 pivot position unless they move him to wing. Reinhart, a No. 2 overall pick, is also likely to get time on the wing, and this is perhaps also true of Cal O'Reilly. David Legwand could be a decent No. 4, and while I'm not optimistic that Rodrigues makes the NHL roster out of camp, I think he at least has a shot given the high level of his actual hockey sense.
They also lost some decent players (they may one day rue the Zadorov portion of the O'Reilly trade) but when you're near-historically bad and you let guys go, you mostly don't care which of those previous guys you let walk. The thing that people are and were going to point to last year was that the Sabres went through a number of not-great goalies — three got at least 15 starts — and ended up with a team save percentage of .911, a little bit below the league average but not by much. For this reason, the addition of Lehner in and of himself (career .914), let alone the improvement of the D-corps through a few key additions and player growth, as well as the implementation of something that is likely to resemble a cogent NHL system, and the addition of competent backup Chad Johnson (also career .914), that's going to trim a lot of goals-against off the team's total.
Remember, their goalies faced an astonishing number of shots — 2,911! — and therefore any negative deviation from the league average was going to hit them very, very hard in terms of goals against. An improvement to the league average there alone saves the team almost 12 goals, or about four points in the standings (that, of course, costs them Jack Eichel because then they would have finished ahead of Arizona, but you see the point).
Of the 11 guys above Buffalo brought in who already have at least one season of NHL experience, they carry an average WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 0.53 per season from 2007-14. Last year, they averaged minus-0.14, meaning Buffalo pretty successfully bought low on some guys who seem to provide some decent cover throughout the lineup; obviously a guy like Jason Akeson is going to have a lower average WAR than Ryan O'Reilly, but they're on-boarding probably about six wins just among those players, and probably more. That doesn't include what Reinhart and Eichel provide, which is also likely to be substantial.
And it also doesn't include the dead weight they've offloaded this summer, either. The seven guys listed above have an average WAR per season of minus-0.28 since 2007-08. That's an almost unbelievable number, so the fact that they're gone might save the Sabres two wins in and of themselves. There are a lot of suppositions there, but these numbers also don't account for the many not-good players the Sabres retained who will be pushed down deeper into the lineup, and farther from high-leverage roles that led them to necessarily be so very bad last season.
Here's a rough guess at what the Sabres' roster looks like on opening night:
That's really not bad at all. You can work with that. It's not a great team by any means, and it probably doesn't get particularly close to a playoff spot, but what's that look like? Doesn't that feel like an 80-point roster, plus or minus five? Make no mistake, even 85 points puts you 23rd in the league last season, and 75 would have been good for 26th. But 80 would have been 25th in the NHL.
And given that the Sabres only had 54 points last year, getting 26 more would constitute a massive improvement of nearly 50 percent. I don't know that anyone else — through trades, drafting, and free agency — made a jump that big, even in terms of points. Certainly, no one did so proportionally.
The fact that they're only going to keep improving for the foreseeable future too? Well, that just doesn't seem fair.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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