When Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton came to the Buffalo Sabres, it became clear the organization is becoming a free agent hotspot.
This time last year, we all knew the Buffalo Sabres weren’t going to make any glamor signings. The team, who finished the 2021-22 season with 75 points, got hot in March and April 2022, but it wasn’t enough to entice anyone noteworthy.
Not that it was part of Kevyn Adams’ plan, but it would have been great to at least see a few players interested. In the end, Buffalo brought Ilya Lyubushkin and Eric Comrie over, a pair of players who will never be remotely close to top-tier in this league. They also tried to trade for goaltender Matt Murray, but he wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause and he instead ended up with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But after ending the 2022-23 season with 91 points and as a much more talented hockey team than they were just 365 days before (under 365 days to be exact), it was easy to project the Sabres would at least garner serious consideration from free agents. And that’s exactly what happened this season.
Improved Buffalo Sabres have become the NHL’s latest hotspot
Need more convincing? Check out what made Erik Johnson decide to land in the Queen City as opposed to other destinations:
"“Buffalo’s a spot that is knocking on the door and we’re going to be really close. It’s a team that’s on the rise for years to come.” – via NHL.com/Sabres"
Sure, Buffalo is a cold weather city that’s prone to long winters and lake effect snow. And a player with Johnson’s experience could help warm weather teams in larger, more prominent markets take that next step and win the Cup. Several of them came close this past season, and all four Conference Finalists were located in warm weather cities. It’s also one of the NHL’s smallest markets.
But in all honesty, none of that matters once a team reaches a certain threshold. If there is an opening on the roster during the offseason and players believe that an organization can be a serious Cup contender for the season ahead, they will sign with them regardless of the location or market size.
It’s also clear that Connor Clifton, who played for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins this past season, chose the Buffalo Sabres because of the direction they’re headed in. Check out the short snippet below to see what Clifton had to say on the matter:
"“They’ve been building something special the past couple of years, and I’m excited to be part of it.” – via NHL.com/Sabres"
Expect more interest in the coming seasons
It’s true the Sabres are building through their core group which includes Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, Rasmus Dahlin, Mattias Samuelsson, Devon Levi, and Dylan Cozens. And there are others who can end up joining the group like Jack Quinn, Peyton Krebs, Casey Mittelstadt, J.J. Peterka, Jordan Greenway, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
However, it’s also true that you will see players prioritize the Blue and Gold over other would-be destinations. Weather and market size become less relevant when the team is winning, even if players will go out of their way to avoid such markets when the team is losing.
Therefore, the Johnson and Clifton signings show us that yes, the Buffalo Sabres are and will continue to be a preferred destination for free agents and even possible trade pieces, assuming they keep trending north. Winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal for any NHL player, and if they believe the small market, cold weather Sabres will put them in position to win the Cup, expect more interest in the coming seasons if there is room in the lineup.
Source: Clifton, Johnson believe Sabres are ready to take next step by Jourdon LaBarber, NHL.com/Sabres