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Off-Season Game Plan: Buffalo Sabres

Scott Cullen
4/24/2014 11:38:28 PM
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The Buffalo Sabres just wrapped up an abysmal season in which they finished 14 points behind the second-worst team in the standings. The good news? As a clearly rebuilding team, they are prime candidates for next season's Connor McDavid Sweepstakes.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what new GM Tim Murray has at his disposal and what the Sabres roster may look like for next season.

The Sabres have already started adding assets, in terms of prospects and draft picks, that it's easy to see a bright future. The question is: how long will it take?

Murray has said he wants to rebuild properly, but sounds anxious.

"When you tear it down, it doesn't happen overnight," Murray said. "I want to rebuild here properly, which takes time. But it doesn't have to take years."

In an ideal world, best-case scenario, the Sabres would still seem to be three-to-four years -- yes, years -- away from being a playoff team, so patience is required. That includes from the new general manager.

It's one thing to have an aggressive plan, but if Murray is going to wait for his draft picks to mature as NHL players, there's no magical way to expedite that process. Sure, it's possible that the Sabres could move picks for young talent, but players develop on their own timeline and it's going to take time for 18-and-19-year-olds to become difference-makers in the NHL.

For next season, there are obviously openings for young players to make the jump. Last year's first-round picks, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, should challenge for spots, but a whole host of prospects will have a chance and there is the matter of this year's top picks. The Sabres have the second pick and could pick fifth as well if the New York Islanders elect to give up the pick this year instead of 2015 (a decision still to be made by the Islanders as part of the Thomas Vanek trade).

For all the theoretical promise that the Sabres have, they remain frontrunners for McDavid or Jack Eichel at the top of the 2015 Draft.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts).

GM/COACH
Tim Murray/Ted Nolan

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Cody Hodgson 68.46 72 20 24 44 42.5% $4.25M
Drew Stafford 66.49 70 16 18 34 42.8% $4.0M
Chris Stewart 63.71 63 15 11 26 47.5% $4.15M
Zemgus Girgensons 62.17 70 8 14 22 44.7% $894K
Torrey Mitchell 57.51 57 2 8 10 45.6% $1.9M
Ville Leino 57.37 58 0 15 15 43.5% $4.5M
Brian Flynn 57.35 79 6 7 13 41.6% $638K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Tyler Ennis 67.45 80 21 22 43 43.9% RFA $2.813M
Cory Conacher 61.15 79 7 19 26 49.6% RFA $871K
Marcus Foligno 60.12 74 7 12 19 42.9% RFA $827K
Matt D'Agostini 60.11 57 5 7 12 47.2% UFA $550K
Zenon Konopka 55.23 23 0 1 1 34.7% UFA $925K
John Scott 52.83 56 1 0 1 39.9% UFA $750K

It is evidence of just where the Sabres are in their rebuilding process when Cody Hodgson, with 44 points, is the team's top returning scorer. The 24-year-old has enough skill to be a good second-line scorer, but he gets fed tougher assignments because the Sabres don't have anyone else. He played some wing late in the year, but as this roster is constructed, Hodgson or Tyler Ennis will likely be the de facto No. 1 centre.

RW Drew Stafford is another Sabres veteran who is asked to do way too much. He played a career-high 19:38 per game last season and the return was a modest 16 goals and 34 points. A three-time 20-goal scorer with good size and some skill with the puck, he's also forced into a first-line role on a bad team when he could more reasonably fit as a second-line scoring winger. Going into the final year of his contract, Stafford could be a trade candidate leading up to the deadline.

Though he got into a handful of games for the Sabres after he was acquired from the Blues as part of the Ryan Miller trade, RW Chris Stewart is a prime candidate to move again, whether it's this summer or next season; in part, because he's entering the final year of his deal. He's big winger who can play the power forward game, at his best, but his career has been up and down, from two 28-goal seasons to leading the Blues in scoring in 2012-2013, to playing 14:41 per game this past season, his lowest time on ice since his rookie year.

20-year-old Zemgus Girgensons rode a lightning bolt, going from the USHL to an everyday spot in the NHL after one year in the AHL, and was a solid contributor as a rookie. He plays a physical game and could, with a better supporting cast, become a player that can handle tough checking assignments as he matures.

A couple years removed from his best years in San Jose, Torrey Mitchell can be used in a checking role, taking a heavier proportion of defensive zone starts, but he's also going into the last year of his contract, so he may not be around Buffalo for the long haul.

It seems a given that the Sabres will buy out the final three seasons, and $11-million, due to Ville Leino after he failed to score a goal in 58 games, a feat that put him in rather ignominious company. The contract was ill-conceived when it was signed three years ago and, after 10 goals and 46 points in 137 games, it is probably best for both parties to move on. Admittedly, it's easier to make that determination when it's someone else that has to pay a player $7-million to not play for their team, but Murray has said it is a "very good possibility" that Leino will be bought out.

Signed to an inexpensive one-way deal for next season, Brian Flynn has an opportunity to earn his spot as a checking forward. At the same time, he turns 26 this summer and has 24 points in 105 career NHL games, so he needs to establish that he can contribute enough in a checking role if he's going to have an NHL career that runs longer than next season. For a rebuilding team like Buffalo, it's not the worst thing in the world to have a player with some hunger to make an impression filling out one of the lower spots on the depth chart.

A tiny skilled forward who has a couple of 20-goal seasons under his belt, Tyler Ennis is a restricted free agent who is due a raise and, like Hodgson, is one of the Sabres that gets force-fed more minutes because there just aren't better alternatives. Also, like Hodgson, it's easy to see how Ennis could be a good complementary scorer on a more competitive team.

Since scoring five goals and 12 points in the first seven games of his career (with Tampa Bay in 2012-2013), Cory Conacher has managed 13 goals and 43 points in 119 games. He may not be a prolific scorer in the NHL (after scoring 114 points in 118 career AHL games), but Conacher is also an okay possession player who is skilled enough to overcome a lack of size. If nothing else, he can be a reasonably-priced top nine forward for the Sabres.

A sturdy winger who may have set unreasonable expectations when he burst into the NHL in 2011-2012, scoring 13 points in 14 games, LW Marcus Foligno hasn't scored anywhere near that rate since, but that's more in line with his track record coming into the NHL. Maybe he'll develop some scoring touch but, in the meantime, Foligno can be a contributor in a physical checking role.

The Sabres have, or will have, some pieces that they will be able to use to fill out their forward roster. Whomever they select with the second pick in the draft, if it ends up being Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett, might have an opportunity to stick, though an argument can easily be made that it's not worth burning an entry-level year for an 18-year-old to step into this lineup. Prospects Mikhail Grigorenko and Johan Larsson should have chances to compete for jobs, and Joel Armia may be ready to join the club at some point next season after further AHL seasoning.

Whether they decide to keep an enforcer, like John Scott, around or not, the Sabres should have some lineup flexibility next season.

When it comes to adding free agents, the Sabres may be able to nibble on the edges. Sure, it would be nice to add some with local ties, like Rochester-born Ryan Callahan, but if Callahan has other suitors, it doesn't make for the Sabres to shell out big long-term money for a 29-year-old winger.

At the right price (and term), a veteran like Milan Michalek or Buffalo native Lee Stempniak would probably add stability in what is likely to be a trying season.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Christian Ehrhoff 68.97 79 6 27 33 46.0% $4.0M
Tyler Myers 67.21 62 9 13 22 44.5% $5.5M
Mark Pysyk 60.14 44 1 6 7 45.9% $870K
Mike Weber 59.01 68 1 8 9 40.4% $1.667M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Jamie McBain 62.16 69 6 11 17 40.8% RFA $1.8M
Henrik Tallinder 57.23 64 2 6 8 42.5% UFA $3.375M
Alexander Sulzer 55.62 25 0 2 22 41.3% UFA $725K

He may not live up to his monster contract, but Christian Ehrhoff plays 25 minutes a night for the Sabres and does it well -- he's been a top relative possession player over the past five seasons and it tends to go unappreciated on a bottom-feeding team like the Sabres, but Ehrhoff is the type of defenceman that many other teams would come looking for in trade; of course, presuming that they could stomach the idea paying the soon-to-be 32-year-old for seven more seasons.

It's been quite an unusual career path for Tyler Myers, who was a star-in-waiting as a 19-year-old, but seems to have lost his way. Myers seemed to play better over his last dozen or so games before suffering some injuries late in the year. A 24-year-old signed through 2019, Myers has time to improve and it would probably be worthwhile for the Sabres to give him another year to see what they really have in hand.

There's nothing flashy about Mark Pysyk's game, but he's been steady on a bad team since first coming up in 2012-2013. Even so, he was still demoted to the AHL for a couple of months last season and while it might have allowed him to play a significant role and not be subject to losing night after night, it's not unreasonable to expect that 22-year-old Pysyk will be much more ready to handle NHL action next season than some of the Sabres' other defence prospects.

Mike Weber is a tough, stay-at-home defenceman but, as is often the case with stay-at-home defencemen, he gets crushed in terms of puck possession and it's difficult to make the case that he is going to improve in that regard. He can be place-filler, eating up some minutes while the prospects gain their NHL footing, but is more suited to a depth role.

Jamie McBain burst into the NHL, late in the 2009-2010 season, playing big minutes for Carolina, and lookedl ike he was well on his way to a long and fruitful career. Now, he's 26, and coming off a season in which he played more than 20 minutes per game, but also took some lumps in the possession game, so it's been a rather uneven ride to this point. The restricted free agent is capable enough to fill a spot on next season's blueline, but expectations are sufficiently modest.

Most of the holes on the Sabres defence can be filled by prospects -- Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Jake McCabe -- though that doesn't mean the holes will go away entirely. Those young defencemen are going to take some time to develop and if it means they learn on the job next season, there's value in gaining that experience, even if it hurts the short-term results.

In the name of immediate reliability, an inexpensive veteran like Mike Weaver or a reclamation project like Andrej Meszaros could be worth a look but, considering the expectations for next season, the Sabres could be fine to let their prospects play and see who is ready to sink or swim, knowing that there isn't huge downside to sinking.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Jhonas Enroth 73.26 28 4 17 5 2.82 .911 $1.25M
Michal Neuvirth 72.04 15 4 8 2 2.78 .921 $2.5M

Over the past three seasons, Jhonas Enroth has posted a .915 save percentage, which is about league average, but pretty decent for a goalie with a backup workload. While his overall numbers were mediocre in 2013-2014, Enroth did have a .929 save percentage at 5-on-5 and that should be enough to get consideration for a bigger role next season as the Sabres embark on life without Ryan Miller.

Enroth will battle for playing time with Michal Neuvirth, the 26-year-old who had fallen out of favour in Washington. Neuvirth played 48 games in 2010-2011, having handled a heavier workload in the NHL before, yet both goaltenders aren't really established at this point in their careers, so the Sabres aren't obligated to one or the other. They can alternate or let one of the goalies take the starting job with superior performance. No matter who is in the net, they're likely to be busy.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Rasmus Ristolainen D Rochester (AHL) 6-14-20, -2, 34 GP
Nikita Zadorov D London (OHL) 11-19-30, +30, 36 GP
Mikhail Grigorenko C Quebec (QMJHL) 15-24-39,+15, 23 GP
Joel Armia RW Rochester (AHL) 7-20-27, -6, 54 GP
J.T. Compher LW Michigan (Big 10) 11-20-31, +13, 35 GP
Jake McCabe D Wisconsin (Big 10) 8-17-25, -6, 36 GP
Johan Larsson LW Rochester (AHL) 15-26-41, +7, 51 GP
Nick Baptiste RW Sudbury (OHL) 45-44-89, +20, 65 GP
Hudson Fasching RW Minnesota (Big 10) 14-16-30, +17, 40 GP
Chad Ruhwedel D Rochester (AHL) 4-24-28, -1, 47 GP
Nicolas Deslauriers LW Rochester (AHL) 19-23-42, +3, 65 GP

Rasmus Ristolainen, the eighth overall pick last summer, got into 34 games with the Sabres as a rookie and got steamrolled early, posting a 38.9% Corsi% before he spent some time in the AHL. Ristolainen fared a little better late in the year, after he was recalled, posting a 43.4% Corsi%, and none of those struggles as a teen defenceman should take away from his status as a top prospect. He has size, can move the puck and ought to gain valuable experience next year.

Hard-hitting Nikita Zadorov could force his way onto the team next year too, as he showed promise in an early-season stint with the Sabres, before having a strong year in London. Zadorov is huge and can be a punishing hitter. He needs to pick his spots better as he climbs the ladder, but Zadorov's physical play combined with his skill gives him a high ceiling.

It could be said that Mikhail Grigorenko will have to succeed despite the development plan the Sabres had for him -- presuming there was one -- to this point. Since being drafted 12th overall in 2012, He's bounced between the Sabres (8 points in 43 games), Rochester (four points in 11 games) and Quebec of the QMJHL (116 points in 72 regular season plus playoff games). There's talent there, but he's been overwhelmed at the NHL level, so it could make sense to let him start next year in the AHL, establish his game as a pro scoring centre and go from there.

The 16th pick in 2011, Joel Armia didn't score much in his first North American pro season, but that's not unusual for a 20-year-old. Next season will be a big opportunity for Armia to take the next step and score like he did in Finland. A good season could set him up nicely for a future at right wing on a scoring line for the Sabres.

A second-round pick last year, J.T. Compher had an impressive freshman campaign at Michigan. He plays a two-way game and has time to develop an offensive game before he embarks on a pro career.

Taken in the second round in 2012, Jake McCabe is a two-way defenceman who can play the power play and play a physical game defensively. There will be some competition for jobs on the Sabres' blueline next year but, even though he played seven games for Buffalo late in the year, there's no need to rush McCabe into the lineup. Some heavy minutes in the AHL should be good for his development.

In industrious forward, Johan Larsson managed just four assists in 28 games with the Sabres, but his relative possession stats were promising enough that he could start in a depth role next season.

A winger with good size and speed, Nick Baptiste blossomed offensively after he was a third-round pick last summer, jumping from 21 goals and 48 points in his draft year to 45 goals and 89 points this season. As the Sabres stockpile young assets, Baptiste will have to remain productive to stay at the forefront, but he's one of their best offensive prospects at the moment.

A power forward who had a nice freshman season at the University of Minnesota, Hudson Fasching was picked up in a trade deadline trade with Los Angeles. He has upside, and the Sabres can afford to wait a few years to see if he develops into a pro scoring winger.

Smallish defenceman Chad Ruhwedel, soon to be 24, is more mature than the other Sabres defence prospects, and he was relatively effective in 21 games for Buffalo. He doesn't have the same kind of future with the franchise as the top picks, so he can be bypassed more easily, but if the young D prospects aren't ready, Ruhwedel could offer more immediate help.

A converted defenceman who was acquired with Fasching when Brayden McNabb was sent to Los Angeles, Nicolas Deslauriers got a good look with the Sabres at the end of the year. Though he managed just one goal in 17 games, Deslauriers is a sturdy forward who managed decent relative possession stats and the 23-year-old could make the club next season.

The Sabres have some other prospects of note including Swedish scoring winger Gustav Possler, goaltender Matt Hackett, who is coming off a down season, and Daniel Catenacci, who had 20 points in 76 games as a first-year pro.

Sabres advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
2nd - Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sabres have approximately $37.1M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 13 players.

Check out my possible Sabres lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Three top line forwards, two top-four defencemen, depth defencemen.

What I said the Sabres needed last year: Two top-six forwards, two top-four defencemen, another defenceman.

They added: Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko, Jamie McBain, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov.

TRADE MARKET
Chris Stewart, Drew Stafford, Jamie McBain, Mike Weber.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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