Should the Sabres chase Callahan?

When a report from Larry Brooks of the New York Post hit Twitter saying that the Buffalo Sabres would be willing to match New York Rangers’ free agent forward Ryan Callahan’s asking price of seven years, $42 million, Sabres fans’ reactions varied between overjoyed, skeptical and hesitant.

The team’s loyal following is currently gutting it out through a brutal rebuilding process – one that has seen them drop from a Cup contender several years ago to a middling club to the runaway worst team in the NHL. They are in a dog fight for last place with the Edmonton Oilers, but are a much worse team. Buffalo has scored more than 20 fewer goals than the next worst producing team, but has gotten game-stealing goaltending from Ryan Miller and added a few shootout wins to put lipstick on a sad looking roster.

The Callahan Question strikes deep into the philosophy of new General Manager Tim Murry’s plans for rebuilding. Does he believe the Sabres can be a competitor next season? Does he believe bringing Callahan to Buffalo will help the Sabres keep Ryan Miller? What about their (very good) chances to land super-prospects Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in 2015? Would they sacrifice young assets to get Callahan?

Trading young players or picks for the 28-year-old Western New York native would send a clear message that Murray plans to swing the ship around fast and be aggressive in doing so. He and Director of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine have said publicly multiple times they would like to keep goalie Ryan Miller and are willing to shell out major cash to do so. The Sabres have the cap room to afford any free agent on the market and still easily re-sign UFA’s Steve Ott and Matt Moulson if possible and all of their RFA’s.

Since the Sabres have the cap room and have the prospects to get Callahan to Buffalo, the question becomes: Is signing Callahan a good choice? Keep following the Make Your Own Adventure and you run into two more questions: 1) Is Callahan the right player to spent $42 million on? 2) Would Callahan’s presence ruin Buffalo’s chances at McDavid or Eichel?

The answer to question No. 1 is yes and no. The Rangers’ captain has intangibles that provide great value to a team. He is an all-effort player who sacrifices his body to win. If Steve Ott left, he would take over the captaincy or get an “A” if Ott remained. Sometimes we under-value leadership as stats friendly folks because we tire of hearing it overstated by old timey hockey folk but it has value.

In terms of production, Callahan has scored at a second-tier 0.66 points per game over his last three seasons while getting favorable offensive minutes and power play time. Although his power play time has dropped significantly from 60.8% last season to just 35.2%, which has likely played a role in his scoring dip.

His puck possession statistics are average with Relative Corsi’s of -1.2% in 2011-12, -0.1% in 2012-13 and +0.3% this year. You would expect his Corsi% to be much higher this season with an Offensive Zone Start % of 60.5%, more than 10% higher than in 2011-12.

As an even-strength scorer, Callahan has provided his team with decent, but not overly impressive numbers over the last three seasons. Points per 60 minutes rates of 1.56, 1.65 and 1.42 would put him in the range of 30-35 or so 5v5 points in a full season. In terms of physical play, the Rochester-born winger is one of the bigger hitters in the league with 11.5 hits per 60 minutes despite lacking in size.

Overall, his statistics suggest Callahan is a solid second line winger in his prime. Going forward, with the salary cap on the rise, second line wingers in their prime will make $6 million per year. The biggest concern, however, is the 28-year-old’s injury history. Not all primes are created equal. Matt Moulson, for example, will be turning 30 next season, but you could reasonably project his best years to last past 35. With a hard-nosed player like Callahan, who has had a sprained MCL, broken thumb and shoulder surgery within the last year, it’s hard to see his best years lasting past 32 or 33.

The answer to No. 2 is no. Signing Callahan may mean the Sabres are going for a worst-to-playoffs type jump. They could wheel and deal their way to being a post-season team, but it would be a mega stretch to predict them going anywhere in the playoffs even if by some wacky chance they kept Miller, Moulson, Ott, got Callahan and the No. 1 overall pick. They would still be lacking the elite talent it takes to win the Stanley Cup.

Free agents other than the Sabres’ current UFA’s are a wild card in the conversation. If Buffalo brings in Callahan, will his friend defenseman Dan Girardi follow? Could they bring in another top six player like Paul Stastny or fill the roster with solid players such as Tom Gilbert, Radim Vrbata, David Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Mikhail Grabovski  or Daniel Winnik? Add three or four of these solid players and you’re much closer to contending.

Still, the only way to get that elite talent is through the draft. Players like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty – they are drafted high and very, very rarely moved. If the Sabres got Callahan and lost several of their UFA’s, they could still make a push for the worst record and McDavid, but it is hard to see the Rangers’ captain being OK with one of the final years of his prime going to waste.

So does it make more sense to sign Callahan and go for it next year or keep a similar roster to this season and have a great shot at McDavid? Both options involve risk. Callahan could decline quickly, McDavid could be a bust. But how often are No.1 overall picks busts? Rarely. And the best case scenario for the Sabres drafting No. 1 or 2 in 2015 is they get the next Crosby, Toews or Kane to go along with their No. 1 overall pick this year. As much as we all like Callahan, it is probably the smarter play to be patient, gut it out and reap the rewards down the road.

Matthew Coller is Managing Editor of Hockey Prospectus. He is the long-time host of Hockey Prospectus Radio, producer of the Howard Simon Show on Buffalo’s WGR550 and their Rochester Amerks reporter, and a multi-sport play-by-play announcer.

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Follow Matthew on Twitter at @matthewWGR.

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