The Buffalo Sabres took a small step back last season and surprisingly cleaned house, firing their coach and general manager after just two seasons.
Off-Season Game Plan digs into a Sabres team that has potential, but has holes that need to be addressed if they are going to take the next step.
They’re also in a little bit of turmoil. After a disappointing season, and reports of discontent from second-year centre Jack Eichel, the Sabres suddenly fired general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma. They have recently hired Jason Botterill, the long-time assistant GM in Pittsburgh, to take over as general manager, and he’s still working on getting a head coach.
It’s not a bad situation to step into, though, because the Sabres have some talent around which to build, but if they are thinking about being a playoff team, then they will have to make moves to accelerate the process.
While making a jump to the playoffs next season wouldn’t be impossible, it’s a tall order, and will depend greatly on what can be done to change the Buffalo blueline. If they can significantly improve their defence, then it might be time to put some expectations on this team. That’s a big if, however.
Jack Eichel – Bettered his rookie point total even though he played 20 fewer games; already an elite offensive performer.
Ryan O’Reilly – A rare combination of a skilled forward who plays consistently sound away from the puck.
Robin Lehner – Finally took the reins as a starter and played well.
Dmitry Kulikov – It was immediately a questionable decision when the Sabres dealt Mark Pysyk to Florida for Kulikov, and after Kulikov’s terrible season, there were no questions remaining.
Rasmus Ristolainen – He may be wonderfully talented, but the Sabres’ rearguard has to generate better numbers when he’s on the ice, because if a player is really so talented then he shouldn’t be getting caved in on a regular basis.
Tyler Ennis – Coming back from injury, the small and skilled winger managed just five goals in 51 games.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
Buffalo’s season started on the wrong path early when Jack Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain in the preseason, and by the time he returned to action the Sabres had already dug themselves a big hole. To his credit, Eichel was a force when he played, putting up 57 points in 61 games.
Since 2000-2001, there are 10 player seasons in which a player has scored better than the 0.93 points per game that Eichel had last season in an age 20 or under season (and three of those seasons belong to Sidney Crosby, two to Steven Stamkos). Eichel was also the only player in the league to average more than four shots on goal per game, so his production was well earned.
A consistently strong two-way player, Ryan O’Reilly has had positive relative possession stats for seven consecutive seasons, even though he started more shifts in the defensive zone in six of those seasons, and he’s put up at least 55 points in five of those seasons. With Eichel ascending to the number one centre spot, O’Reilly gives Buffalo a good 1-2 combination down the middle of the ice.
Sam Reinhart is a skilled forward who can be a nice complementary piece in Buffalo and under most circumstances that would be fine. It’s a little different when Reinhart was the second pick in the 2014 Draft, taken one spot of Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl. That sticks out a bit as a missed opportunity because while Reinhart is a contributor, he does not appear to be a future star.
The Sabres made a good move to bring in Kyle Okposo last summer and Okposo had a decent first season with Buffalo, but it ended in scary fashion. A reaction to medication he was taking for a concussion had Okposo in ICU fighting for his life. He seems to be recovering and is expected to be ready for next season, but that could have been a disaster.
Percentages finally fell in Evander Kane’s favour last season and he scored 28 goals, the second-highest total of his career. He can’t seem to shake free of off-ice trouble, though, so it’s hard to know if the Sabres are interested in a long-term investment in Kane.
He has one year left on his deal, so Buffalo could try to move him this summer, especially if it might bring defensive help, but his reputation and the fact that he’s one year away from unrestricted free agency could limit any prospective return, which might mean that keeping Kane for one more year is the best plan of attack.
33-year-old Matt Moulson has become a power-play specialist, scoring 11 of his 14 goals with the man advantage last season. He’s still under contract for two more years, at a cap hit of $5-million, which is far more than his current value, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise for the Sabres to try to get out from under the deal, via trade, buyout or expansion draft.
Tyler Ennis is only 27 but he’s at a crossroads after returning from injury and struggling to regain his offensive form. He’s a three-time 20-goal scorer, but if he can’t produce more than he did last season, that’s a problem. Perhaps the new Sabres management would be open to seeing what Ennis can do next season before considering cutting ties.
A physical presence on the wing, William Carrier had solid possession numbers and minimal offensive impact in his first half of an NHL season, but that’s enough for the 22-year-old to be in consideration for a spot in the lineup next season, provided he’s not playing for Vegas.
Justin Bailey is trying to crack the Sabres lineup, but has managed just four points in 40 NHL games to this point. He scored 23 goals in 52 AHL games last season, so he has some idea what to do around the net, but it hasn’t translated to the NHL yet for the 21-year-old.
One of the worst possession forwards in the league, Nicolas Deslauriers will bang bodies and fight if need be, but his role was reduced pretty significantly last season and that trend will likely continue.
A physical checking winger, Marcus Foligno hits a lot and scored a career-high 13 goals last season. He doesn’t generate much offensively, but he’s a reliable player who can exact a physical toll on opponents.
A first-round pick in 2012, Zemgus Girgensons seems to be cast adrift a bit, because he’s managed 14 goals and 34 points over the past two seasons. He has good size, and can play centre and wing but, if his contributions remain this modest, he’s not making much of an impact.
Johan Larsson had been steadily increasing his role in Buffalo, at least until he suffered a dislocated elbow last season, ending his season prematurely. He doesn’t create much offence, scoring 22 goals in 177 games with the Sabres, but he could still fulfill a checking role.
The Sabres gave first-year pro Evan Rodrigues a taste of NHL action after a little more than half of a season in the AHL, and he was okay in a sheltered role, but could probably use more time to develop if he’s going to be a significant part of the team.
While the Sabres have decent offensive talent, improving their depth up front would make sense. Adding an experienced third-line forward, like Nick Bonino or Kris Versteeg, might be worthwhile.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
A 22-year-old defenceman who has put up 86 points over the past two seasons, Rasmus Ristolainen presents a complicated situation for the Sabres. The eighth pick in the 2013 Draft is supposed to be the franchise’s workhorse on the blueline, averaging 25:52 of ice time per game over the past two years, and yet the vast majority of Sabres have better shot differentials when they are playing with anyone but Ristolainen. (Seriously, what are you supposed to make of this?)
He’s young and being force-fed a ton of minutes, and he doesnt't have to play that much, but the challenge for the new Sabres regime is figuring out if Ristolainen can be the star of this blueline group rather than someone who is going to need to be sheltered, and soon, if this team is going to contend for a playoff spot.
One of those caught in Ristolainen’s orbit is Jake McCabe, a 23-year-old defenceman who has been solid in his first couple of NHL seasons, but his numbers got worse alongside Ristolainen. Quality of competition issues may be at play, sure, but if McCabe is taking on tough assignments, he’s not doing it alone. He should be able to fill a top-four role, but the results need to be better than they were last season.
Zach Bogosian is not going to live up to being the third pick in the 2008 Draft, is signed to a pricy contract, and he’s had trouble staying healthy – missing an average of 20.5 games per season over the past six years – but he was reasonably effective when he played last season, if you cut him a break for a .908 on-ice save percentage. It’s possible to upgrade on Bogosian, but given Buffalo’s defensive concerns, they would probably be better off augmenting a group that includes Bogosian.
A big, stay-at-home defenceman, Justin Falk is limited, but fine as a number seven or eight on the depth chart, at least he was last season, when he was reasonably successful in his limited role.
Veteran shot-blocker Josh Gorges (who I’ve probably labeled as a “shot-blocker” for most of his career) blocked fewer shots and saw his ice time decrease last season, to his lowest average since 2007-2008. He’s consistently on the wrong end of shot differentials, and his team struggles to score with him on the ice, but he also tends to do all right in terms of goal prevention, at least relatively. He’s probably best suited to a role on the third pair and penalty killing unit, so he’s a tad expensive for that, but next season will be the last year on his current contract.
Upgrading the blueline is an instant concern for GM Jason Botterill. The Sabres need upgrades wherever they can find them, and they’re already facing the prospect of losing Cody Franson (and, to be factual, Dmitry Kulikov) as a free agent.
Would they consider free agent Trevor Daley from Pittsburgh? Or maybe work out a trade for Brian Dumoulin or Derrick Pouliot, if Botterill is interested in players with whom he’s most familiar? How about giving Brian Campbell another shot in the city where he started his NHL career? Brendan Smith or Michael Del Zotto could be among other free agents worth a look too.
If prospect Brendan Guhle is ready to make the leap from the WHL, all the better, but addressing the defence ought to be a major priority this summer.
FREE AGENT GOALTENDERS
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2016-17 CAP||STATUS|
It hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest development path for Robin Lehner, but the 25-year-old netminder really came into his own last season, playing a career-high 59 games and putting up numbers of an above-average starting goalie. If he can stay healthy and build on last season, the Sabres should have the starter they need.
That doesn’t mean that change won’t be coming though. The Sabres are at risk of losing Anders Nilsson as an unrestricted free agent and could lose Linus Ullmark to Vegas in the expansion draft. At the very least, if the Sabres can’t keep Nilsson, they had better grab a solid backup, who could handle a significant workload if need be. Chad Johnson, who played well for the Sabres in 2015-2016 would be one option; Darcy Kuemper, Ondrej Pavelec and Eddie Lack would be among other free agent and trade options to consider.
EXPANSION DRAFT TARGETS
Linus Ullmark – The 23-year-old goaltender has a .913 save percentage in 21 career NHL games, which is better than he’s fared in the AHL, but he would be worth picking in the hopes of further development.
William Carrier – A sturdy 22-year-old winger who didn’t score much in half a season with the Sabres, Carrier is inexpensive and had solid possession stats.
Tyler Ennis – Either Ennis or Matt Moulson would fit under the heading of not producing enough to justify their contract, but Ennis has some offensive upside and that might intrigue Vegas. It would be something of a surprise for the Sabres to leave him unprotected.
SABRES TOP PROSPECTS
|Alex Nylander||LW||65||10||18||28||-24||Rochester (AHL)|
|Rasmus Asplund||C||39||6||13||19||+3||Farjestads (SHL)|
|Brendan Guhle||D||32||13||16||29||+17||Prince Albert (WHL)|
|Cal Petersen||G||40||.926||Notre Dame (HE)|
|Cliff Pu||RW||63||35||51||86||+27||London (OHL)|
|Hudson Fasching||RW||37||8||4||12||-12||Rochester (AHL)|
|Will Borgen||D||33||2||10||12||+4||St. Cloud St. (NCHC)|
|Justin Bailey||RW||52||23||13||36||+4||Rochester (AHL)|
|Nick Baptiste||RW||59||25||16||41||+3||Rochester (AHL)|
|Linus Ullmark||G||55||.909||Rochester (AHL)|
|Brandon Hagel||LW||65||31||40||71||+2||Red Deer (WHL)|
|Sean Malone||C||36||18||24||42||+24||Harvard (ECAC)|
|Evan Rodrigues||C||48||9||21||30||-2||Rochester (AHL)|
|Giorgio Estephan||C||68||35||54||89||+3||Lethbridge (WHL)|
|C.J. Smith||LW||41||23||28||51||+22||UMass-Lowell (HE)|
The Sabres have some good talent in the pipeline, though most of the top prospects are a few years away. For immediate impact, the hope is that smooth-skating blueliner Brendan Guhle can make the jump from junior.
8th – Cale Makar, Timothy Liljegren, Owen Tippett
The Sabres have approximately $50.2M committed to the 2017-2018 salary cap for 16 players.
One top-nine forward, two top-four defencemen, depth defencemen, backup goaltender
WHAT I SAID THE SABRES NEEDED LAST YEAR
One top-six forward, another forward, one top-pair defenceman, backup goaltender
Kyle Okposo, Derek Grant, Hudson Fasching, Dmitry Kulikov, Anders Nilsson
Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons
MY PROJECTED 2017-18 SABRES LINEUP
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Evander Kane||Jack Eichel||Sam Reinhart|
|Tyler Ennis||Ryan O'Reilly||Kyle Okposo|
|Marcus Foligno||Nick Bonino *||Zemgus Girgensons|
|Matt Moulson||Johan Larsson||Justin Bailey|
|William Carrier||Evan Rodrigues||Hudson Fasching|
|Nicolas Deslauriers||Sean Malone||Nick Baptiste|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Jake McCabe||Rasmus Ristolainen||Robin Lehner|
|Trevor Daley *||Zach Bogosian||Chad Johnson *|
|Brendan Guhle||Josh Gorges||Casey DeSmith *|
|Justin Falk||Casey Nelson|
|Viktor Antipin *||Cameron Gaunce *|
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org