BUFFALO, NY -- The Buffalo Sabres 2015-16 season is over, but the hockey talk isn't. While the Sabres took huge strides in becoming a competitive club again, there's still more work to be done.
Heading into the off-season, a lot of questions are swimming through the heads of fans about what lies ahead this summer. I decided to turn this article over to the fans. Well, kind of.
I asked arguably the best fans in the NHL what questions they had on the Sabres entering the off-season. I received some great questions and I'll do my best to answer them here:
Q: Is next year's backup goalie on the current roster either in Buffalo or Rochester? (@buffalo_storm)
A: Sabres GM Tim Murray indicated in his end-of-season press conference that he would love to have Chad Johnson back next season and beyond. He also went on to say, with all things equal, that Johnson would like to remain in Buffalo. With that being said, it's likely all things won't be equal come July.
The Sabres see Johnson as a backup to Robin Lehner, whom they invested a lot in already. Johnson proved to the League this season he can handle being a starting goaltender. In a thin free agent goaltending market, I believe someone gives Johnson the opportunity to fulfill his wish of being a No.1. A team to watch out for as a landing spot could be his hometown Calgary Flames, who'll be in the market for a goaltender
In the system, the Sabres do have Linus Ullmark, who made some NHL starts this season. In his brief NHL action, Ullmark, was decent. This was his first season playing on North American ice and against the best talent in the world. Watching him you can see Ullmark has potential to be a starting goalie in the NHL, but still has a ways to go. He's too frantic in the net and often over-commits. Opposing teams will pick up on this in scouting him and will look to capitalize on that. Ullmark needs to become calmer in the crease before he can be relied on at the NHL level. His 3.37 goals against average and .902 save percentage in the AHL are less than impressive. He needs at least another full season in the minors.
Long story short, the Sabres will likely look outside the organization for a backup to Lehner.
Q: Who are the realistic trade targets? (@PBRnSabres2)
A: Well, if you listen to Murray's comments from this week, he's made it fairly obvious he wants a top tier quarterback defenseman. One name that immediately comes to mind is Anaheim Ducks defender Cam Fowler. The 24-year-old has been a target of Murray's for some time now. The Ducks will need to give new contracts to Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, which could make Fowler the odd man out.
Another defenseman to watch that could be interesting is St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. His name was in the rumor mill early in the season and he's set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2017. The Blues have to hand out new deals to David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Dmitrij Jaskin and Jake Allen by the summer of 2017. Also, if the Blues have another early post-season exit, big changes could be in store for the organization. The Blues could look to get great value for Shattenkirk right now to change the make-up of their club. Shattenkirk will be an interesting name to watch in the off-season.
Lastly, to include a forward in this, the Sabres are going to be in the market for a top six winger to play with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Buffalo could target big names like any of the Edmonton Oilers forwards Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov or Jordan Eberle. Other players like Colorado's Matt Duchene and Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin could be available, as well.
My name to watch is New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider, who'll be a restricted free agent this summer. The Rangers need to sign RFAs Kevin Hayes, JT Miller and Jesper Fast next season. They'll also have to make a decision on UFA defenseman Keith Yandle. Kreider could be a cap casualty move for the Rangers and the Sabres would be wise to capitalize on that. Kreider's combination of size, skill and speed would fit well on the wing with Eichel and Reinhart.
Q: Is Vesey a realistic possibility for Buffalo? (@black_whiter)
A: Anything is possible. The only thing we know for sure is Jimmy Vesey won't be playing hockey in Nashville. A report came out of Boston that there are "whispers" that Vesey could be interested in playing in Buffalo to play with Eichel. Vesey and Eichel played together before and maintain a friendship. Also, the idea of playing with Eichel seems to be enticing a lot of free agents to consider Buffalo.
At the end of the day, I believe Vesey ends up in Boston or Toronto, but I wouldn't rule out the Sabres as a viable landing spot. Drake Caggiula may be the college free agent that ends up in Buffalo when the dust settles.
Q: Winning being the biggest factor, but how much do the Sabres core players and Pegula help in attracting free agents? (@JG_1611)
A: The short answer here is easy: huge factor. The full core of Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, Evander Kane and Jack Eichel is enticing. However, the main attraction is Eichel. Players around the League took notice of the type of player Eichel is after only one season in the NHL. We've already seen a few free agents put Buffalo in their potential landing spots because of the idea of playing with Eichel and we're only a few days into the off-season.
The big deal about getting Eichel wasn't just about having that elite player on your roster, but also about the other players he could attract to come to Buffalo. When the Sabres call the big free agents or available players they won't be hung up on anymore. The Sabres will bring in a big name in the next year or so and Eichel will be one of the primary reasons why.
Speaking of big name free agents...
Q: Will the Sabres go big after Stamkos? (@black_whiter)
A: I couldn't leave out a Steven Stamkos question. All signs still point to Stamkos becoming an unrestricted free agent come July 1. Unfortunately, for the Lightning fans, Stamkos may have played his last game in Tampa Bay due to blood clots in his arm. That's a scary injury and I hope Stamkos is back on the ice soon.
Now, to answer the question... I believe the Sabres will absolutely be in the Stamkos sweepstakes and are one of the top three destinations for him with Toronto and Montreal. I may be more optimistic than the average person, but I think the Sabres check all the boxes that Stamkos is looking for in a new team.
Buffalo is close to his home town of Markham, Ontario, they're a team on the rise, they have the cap space and they have Eichel. Signing him is probably going to cost the Sabres in the neighborhood of $77 million over the next seven years. Buffalo would need to be smart with the cap moving forward, but it can be done (see Chicago). Again, I'll show my optimism here, but I'll put the odds at 60/40 right now that Stamkos signs in Buffalo.
I don't want to turn this into a novel, so I'll end it here, even though I received some other good questions I wasn't able to include. I'll answer the ones I didn't include here on Twitter.
I personally really enjoy interacting with fans and talking hockey. That is one of the main reasons why I do this. Feel free anytime to reach out to me on Twitter to answer any questions you may have or just to talk about the game. Thank you to those who submitted questions.
Chad DeDominicis is the Buffalo Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.