Sabres add new fourth line and Jason Zucker in NHL free agency, but is that enough?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Kevyn Adams’ stated goal this offseason was making the Buffalo Sabres a more difficult team to play against. He started by firing Don Granato and hiring Lindy Ruff, a 64-year-old coach with a pedigree that Adams believes will help him bring the accountability and structure the team needs. He then said Ruff would have a “big voice” in what the Sabres’ roster looks like. And every move the Sabres have made has been done with the purpose of making the Sabres a more physical team.

They started over the weekend at the NHL Draft by trading a second-round pick to Washington for Beck Malenstyn, a fourth-line forward who led the Capitals in hits with 222 last season. He’s a fast, penalty-killing, shot-blocking grinder with room to develop further.

On Monday, as free agency opened, Adams signed three more forwards who he thinks will make the Sabres a tougher team. One was Sam Lafferty, who signed for two years at $2 million per season. He’s a 29-year-old center who set career highs with 174 hits and 24 points last season. The Sabres also added winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Aube-Kubel had 146 hits last season. The Sabres had three forwards reach 100 hits last season. Each of the three fourth-liners they added would have led the team’s forwards in hits last season.

“We wanted to be a team that wears teams out, that can be relentless on the forecheck and hard, and we want to be a team that’s more responsible defensively,” Adams said.

Malenstyn, Lafferty and Aube-Kubel should help the Sabres accomplish that. They are additions you could argue the Sabres should have pursued last summer when they sat on their hands and brought back the same forward group. Over the last two seasons, Buffalo has been a team that is too easy to push around. That problem looks like it could be solved with these additions.

The Sabres did have other problems last season, though. They were 23rd in the NHL in goals for starts. The high-flying offense from 2022-23 took a major step back as Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch and Dylan Cozens all fought through injuries and regressed. The Sabres also bought out Jeff Skinner, who had 59 goals in the last two seasons combined. Adding to the top six and finding a third-line center were also on the summer to-do list.

Adams said leading up to the draft the Sabres were open to trading their first-rounder and were “aggressive” in pursuing trades. Nothing materialized, and at the end of the day on Monday, he was left with Jason Zucker as his big-ticket addition. Zucker, a 32-year-old who had 32 points last season and 48 points the season before, signed for one year and $5 million. The Sabres view him as a player who can move up and down the lineup and play as high as the top line. Zucker is a fine player who brings needed experience and a willingness to get to the front of the net. But he’s not the top-six addition Buffalo needs.

While Adams noted that there is “no hard stop” on when the Sabres can make trades and add to the roster, his answer about the possibility of adding to the top six didn’t sound particularly urgent.

“Um, I’m open to it,” Adams said. “It’s not like the offseason stops. There’s ongoing conversations, plus I think the dust settles a little bit and you see where different teams are, but I really like where our groups are right now. I like it a lot. I like the look of our team. We had goals coming into this offseason, what we’re trying to achieve and I think we’re a much better team today than we were a couple days ago.”

To recap, here’s what the Sabres did:

In: Zucker, Malenstyn, Aube-Kubel, Lafferty, defenseman Dennis Gilbert (one year, $825,000)
Out: Jeff Skinner (Edmonton), Zemgus Girgensons (Tampa Bay), Tyson Jost (Carolina), Eric Robinson (Carolina), Eric Comrie (Winnipeg), Victor Olofsson (unsigned)
Retained: Jacob Bryson ($900,000)

Swapping out the fourth line was a necessary start. The Sabres had to add physicality the way they did on Monday. But this also felt like the minimum the Sabres needed to accomplish. They’re again banking on growth from within to get their scoring back to where it was in 2022-23. Maybe Jack Quinn, Thompson and Tuch can all stay healthy. Maybe JJ Peterka can take another step and Cozens can find his way offensively. Maybe Peyton Krebs can emerge as a third-line center.

Adams said he isn’t concerned about the team’s skill level or ability to score goals. He thinks the Sabres have that in the room. He took another jab at Granato, saying the team will be faster and more direct under Ruff.

“We have talent on that roster,” Adams said. “We need to play sharper. We need to play more consistent. We need to play more competitive, and I’m not concerned on the offensive part.”

All of that said, the Sabres still have $19 million in cap space before you account for signing restricted free agents Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Henri Jokiharju, Peyton Krebs and Malenstyn. Even if those four cost $11 million, that still leaves the Sabres with $8 million in cap space. That’s a little more than what they saved by buying out Skinner. If the $7.55 million in immediate savings from buying out Skinner goes unspent, what was the purpose of buying him out?

Maybe Adams still has a big move up his sleeve, but he also said he doesn’t feel like he needs to spend to the salary cap. As he left the office on July 1, in an offseason that could define his tenure as general manager, Adams sounded content with the roster as it stands.

“I really like the steps we took today,” Adams said. “I think we took a big step towards being the type of team that we need to be.”

(Photo of Jason Zucker: Steve Roberts / USA Today)

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