Building the Buffalo Sabres 2020-21
If you think where you were nine years ago...how much your life has changed...and how much you know now, that you didn’t know then...it really brings into question the actual sanity of those who have called themselves a fan of the Buffalo Sabres since before that time.
- 691 games
- 431 ending in defeat
- 7 different coaches
- 4 different GM’s
- dropped in the lottery 5 of the last 7 years, including two years where they dropped two places, and two years where they fell out of the top pick in the draft
- 0 playoff appearances
Needless to say, it's been a grueling nine years.
So, having said all that, it’s easy to see how the fanbase (which a surprisingly large number of are still hanging on) could be on edge. And that’s probably putting it lightly. Every bit of Sabres news is met with disgust, skepticism, anger, rage, contempt, mockery...and the list goes on and on.
This offseason the negativity is at an all-time high.
First, Jack Eichel said something true. Heads started to explode. People started to compare and contrast the words of our captain to the words of the one whose name is an offense to even utter (even though that whole situation was blown out of proportion more than this one). Whispers started to swirl…”he wants out!”. And even worse…”he wants out to go to Boston. Because he was born there. And he was a Bruins fan. And now he’s a grown man. But he still has dreams of his childhood. Playing hockey in his Bruins jersey. With his best friends. And he had Bruins pajamas. And we aren’t winning. So he’s sad. So he’s going to ask to be traded.” And...everyone else in the hockey world saw TRADE... and the super-cool, and realistic trade offers poured in. Because who wouldn’t trade Jack Eichel to the Montreal Canadians for Max Domi and a 2nd round pick?
Then came Tuesday, June 16th. RIP GMJB. The same fanbase that was screaming for the head of its most recent general manager, Jason Botterill...enjoyed his firing for mere seconds before lashing out at the man who was announced as his replacement. Kevyn Adams hadn’t even had a chance to introduce himself before it was generally agreed upon that he was merely a “yes man” with no brain of his own. The bloodbath of Sabre employee firings that followed later that afternoon (after the press conference where NOTHING of the sort was hinted at) only worked to feed the frenzy of anger for an irate Sabre-nation.
Finally, the NHL “Draft Lottery” Part I. Quite possibly the two words that when spoken, cause the most unsettling feeling amongst fans of the Buffalo Sabres.
Up until now, there had only really been two results from those two words. Disappointment...and I guess, relief. As mentioned above. Five separate times in the past seven years the Sabres have dropped down the draft board...meaning going the wrong way. Four of the nine playoff-drought years...they have remained where they started. NEVER have they gone up.
But this year there was a different twist. With 24 teams looking to take part in the “Play-in Round” of the NHL’s proposed return to play format, eight of the fifteen lottery teams were still undecided. So instead, the NHL decided to use placeholder spots lettered A to H to represent those teams.
So far...this sounds reasonable. But where the problem comes in is that instead of saying that once the remaining 8 teams for the lottery are decided, they'll just be placed in order based on their regular-season record, thus keeping their overall odds of winning fair...relative to team strength. No. The NHL decided that it would be necessary to conduct a second draw...and give each of the eight losing teams equal opportunity to become the placeholder.
What this does is...instead of, let’s say Team D (Wpg Jets), having a 3.0% chance of winning the lottery...team PLAY IN ROUND LOSERS had a combined 24.5% chance of winning. Detroit, the team that actually finished last, had an 18.5% chance of winning. And Ottawa, who held the 2nd and 3rd spots, had only a .5% better chance of winning than team PLAY IN ROUND LOSERS did. It’s mind-boggling to me that this was allowed to play out.
And of course, TEAM PLAY IN LOSERS did indeed win the right to pick first overall. So now, that’s opened the door and essentially given way better odds to teams that shouldn’t have individually had anywhere near those odds, to win the lottery.
I personally don’t understand the NHL’s thinking. Especially in a salary-cap league where drafting good players is essential for teams to get better. The league has the opportunity to become cyclical. Bad teams build up talent through the draft and become good teams as that talent matures. The good teams see their talent age out...and they then become the bad teams who start building their talent through the draft...and repeat. Fanbases can enjoy the good years, and see the light at the end of the tunnel during the lean years.
But allowing teams who just miss out on the playoffs, or in the case of this year...quite possibly team’s that would’ve made the playoffs, to win the top draft pick is counter-productive and ridiculous. I would be irate if I was an owner or a GM.
But back to the Sabres. They dropped from 7 to 8. Par for the course.
Alright, so with that out of the way...on to what I think the Sabres should do this super-long extended offseason (that hopefully does have an end in 2020).
To trade, or not to trade the #8 pick.
To me it’s easy. I would not do it. For a number of reasons.
First off, I don’t see any realistic trade options out there that would make it worthwhile. To trade a pick as valuable as #8 in a draft with at least 10 top-end players...the return just wouldn’t be there.
A player that you draft has a number of things going for them; you don’t have to overpay to get them, you have them under control for at minimum 6 years. But more than likely...if they are good...you’ll keep them for much longer.
When trying to complete a trade, you’re having to take into account the baggage that the player and team you are trading with has. The player has a current contract. How many years are left? What is he currently getting paid? Does it expire RFA or UFA? Is he gonna bolt the first chance he gets?
There are too many things that need to line up for this trade to work. And looking around the league...there just isn’t a viable option. Names that have been coming up most frequently are Anthony Cirelli (TB) and Tomas Hertl (SJ).
Cirelli...just stop. TB does not trade their good players. Every year there is a sexy player out of TB in the rumor mill. And every year the Lighting finds homes for their other anchors. This year, those guys are Palat, Johnson, Gourde, and Killorn. There is zero chance they trade Cirelli. Trust me.
Hertl...this is where the baggage comes in. He’ll be 27 when next season gets started. He’s had one very good year (74 pts in 77 gms), and two very major knee surgeries, the second of which ended his 2020 season. While he should be back for the start of next season, will he be the same? Add to that the fact that he has only the upcoming season and one more remaining on his current contract before hitting unrestricted free agency. That combination presents just too much uncertainty to stomach for an 8th overall pick.
What are the Sabres lacking right now? Well, a lot of things...but one of the biggest is the ability to put the puck in the net. If we don’t have enough of those players now...it would stand to reason...we need to find more. But another thing the Sabres are lacking...is a hometown that players want to actually go play in. The combination of a perpetually losing franchise and a city ranked 2nd-last amongst visiting NHL players means finding players outside of the draft is either going to be impossible, or downright expensive (see Okoposo, Kyle or Leino, Ville or Skinner, Jeff or….). The easiest way to solve this problem, is to draft the players and force them to come to Buffalo.
As it turns out, the majority of the players who wind up playing for the Buffalo Sabres, have nothing but good things to say about the city.
The biggest problem with the draft approach is that it takes time. And with 9 years of losing already in the rear-view mirror, the fans are adamant that there can be NO MORE!
I get that. I’m right there with you. But I don’t want a bandaid fix. I don’t want to sit here three years later, when the player we “desperately needed” to man our 2C, is broken down, verbally battered and kicked out of Buffalo by a fan-base who has long forgotten (or conveniently forgotten) that they wanted him there in the first place, while Mr. 2020 8th overall is rounding into form as a top 6 scoring forward on someone else’s team.
Winning a championship is not easy. Take into consideration that since our 9-year drought began...more than 77% of the league has NOT won a Stanley Cup. More than three-quarters of the league has failed right alongside us. Is it playoffs that matter? Or winning the Stanley Cup? We won’t win a Stanley Cup by giving away top-end talent to “fill-a-need”. Teams on the verge of winning, who need that one extra piece “fill-a-need”. Not the 24th place 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres. Make the pick.
Who would I draft?
Anton Lundell is gaining momentum amongst the twitter-folks. I’m sorry. I just don’t see it. Everything I’ve watched, read or heard about him just does nothing for me. It’s like one of those “under-rated sleeper” picks that has the feel of everyone over-analyzing to the point where it's become an overrated pick. Our redemption for Ryan O’Reilly.
Except I don’t see Ryan O’Reilly in there. Yes, they are both adequate skaters at best. Yes, they both play a responsible two-way game. But that’s where it ends for me. O’Reilly is one of the slickest, sneakiest skilled players around. His ability to get passes through crowds, stick handle in tight spaces, and get pucks up under the bar is elite. Lundell’s offensive skill looks fine, but I don’t want fine...not at pick 8.. The argument there has been that he’s an 18-year old playing against men. I’ve heard that before. Magnus Paajarvi had 29 pts in 49 games in the Swedish Elite League...good enough for third on that team. Lundell had 28 in 44...but with a much better supporting cast, as he finished 8th in ppg on his team. My other problem with him is the “he’s exactly what the team needs and could play in the NHL next year” argument. Is he exactly what we need? Do we think he’s a better 2C option than Dylan Cozens? You cannot convince me of that at all. Cozens will be our 2nd line center. And I think he will be that this year. So we would be drafting a 3rd line, two-way center for a team that is in desperate need of top-6 point producers in a draft that has been praised for having a plethora of top-6 point producers. No thanks.
Give me one of Marco Rossi, Lucas Raymond, Cole Perfetti or Alexander Holtz. If the draft falls how I see it, one of Rossi or Raymond (or both) will be there at 8. I would be ecstatic for the chance to draft either.
The top 3 will be a combination of Lafreniere, Byfield, and Stutzle. Perfetti is heavily rumored to be a lock for the Wings at 4. Drysdale, the first d-man off the board with the Sens second pick at 5. Ducks and Devils both are hurting for defensive prospects, so late-riser Jake Sanderson should find a home with one those two teams, leaving the other to take one of Rossi, Raymond, or Holtz.
My preference for the Sabres pick would be Marco Rossi. He’s a gamer who, by all accounts eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. His work ethic is unquestioned. His skill is elite (led the entire CHL in scoring). He’s a left-handed center, who could definitely transition to the wing. He only stands 5’9”, but in this day and age, if teams haven’t figured out that height is not a prerequisite to talent...then I don’t know what they’re doing. He’s tenacious on the ice...dogged. And an added bonus, Rossi could be assigned to Rochester next year.
Lucas Raymond also would be eligible for Roch next year. His numbers with Frolunda aren’t the most impressive (10 pts in 33 gms), but he played a limited role on a fairly veteran team. He too is relentless after the puck and has a good defensive stick. Raymond’s main strength is his playmaking. He’s an outstanding setup man with underrated goal-scoring abilities. Raymond is a right-hand shot who has the ability to play either wing.
Give me either of those guys, and I’m very happy.
The Sabres have 13 players in their organization that will be hitting the unrestricted free agent market.
At forward; Wayne Simmonds (31), Michael Frolik (32), Jimmy Vesey (27), Zemgus Girgensons (26), Johan Larsson (27), Vladimir Sobotka (33), Scott Wilson (28), Taylor Leier (26), and Dalton Smith (28).
On defense; Casey Nelson (27), John Gilmour (27) and Matt Hunwick (35).
And in goal Andrew Hammond (32).
For me, it’s...thanks for your service and best of luck in the future to all of them. I know there’s some noise for Johan Larsson (last year fans couldn’t get rid of him fast enough)...I do happen to like him, and I really wish they had tried him higher up the lineup because I think he does have underrated offensive abilities...but at this stage, the cost to keep him would probably be too much. He has the chance to see what’s out there and get a fresh start. Unless he feels Krueger will utilize him properly and that outweighs trying something new, the Sabres would probably have to overpay to keep him. I do think he’d be perfect slotting in as our 3C, and leaving Lazar to man the 4th line. But for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to say he’s moving on.
LD - Andrej Sekera - always loved how he played. Bring him back on the cheap for one final hurray.
1 year - $1.25 mill
RD - Dylan DeMelo - another solid d-man at a relatively cheap price on a short contract.
1 year - $1.25 mill
This is where things get interesting. Botterill set his roster up to give himself some options for this offseason. There’s a lot of crucial decisions to make here.
Sam Reinhart - 100% sign him. He’s a very sneaky superstar.
7 for $7 mill
Dominik Kahun - 100% sign him. Loved this trade. Botterill did leave us with a number of good things.
4 years - $3.25 mill
Victor Olofsson - 100% sign him. Sweet, sweet Goalofsson. What a shot.
5 years at $4.5 mill
Curis Lazar - 100% sign him. Cost effective player that can win key faceoffs, bring some jam, and play up and down the lineup.
2 years - $1.1 mill
Casey Mittelstadt - 100% sign him. Mittelstadt needs to seriously hit the gym this summer. If he can add some strength over the extended layoff (which could be an absolute blessing for his career)I believe his game will finally start to come around.
2 years - $1.5 mill
Tage Thompson - 100% sign him. I. Love. Tage. Thompson. Given the right opportunity, I think Tage could become a very nice player for the Sabres. We’ve had glimpses of him over the past couple of years. Last year’s injury in his first game up with the big club was devastating. But, he’s been given the gift of time to rehab and continue building onto that massive frame. We’ve seen the shot. We’ve seen the toe drags. The offensive skill set is tantalizing.
1 year - $1.25 mill
Brandon Montour - 50/50. I would explore the trade market. He came in at just under $5 million for his expiring contract. I would not want to pay him that much on his next contract. I would first see what kind of offers are out there for him...and wouldn’t hesitate to move him if the right one came along. But I also would not lose sleep over bringing him back if the price is right. I don’t expect it will be.
Linus Ullmark - 100% sign him. He should still come in at a very reasonable price, and provide solid goaltending while we wait to see what we have in UPL.
2 years - $2.5 mill
Of the remaining RFA’s I would resign Andrew Oglevie, Jonas Johansson and qualify Lawrence Pilut to keep his rights for the next three years.
So while I wouldn’t trade away the 8th pick for a second line center...I’m going to trade away the 8th pick for a second line center.
BUFFALO trades - 2020 1st round (8th overall), 2020 5th round (131st overall) and RD Rasmus Ristolainen
ANAHEIM trades - 2020 1st round (6th overall), 2020 5th round (129th overall) and C Adam Henrique
The Rasmus Ristolainen era is finally over. The negativity has built up to insurmountable levels for poor Rasmus. The trade, as much as anything, relieves that pressure. Adam Henrique quietly continues to have a very productive career. The 30-year old led the Ducks with 43 points, including 26 goals, as the team’s second line center. He was on pace for 50 points...which would’ve been his second 50-point season. He’s been a fairly consistent 40-50 point player throughout his career. The downside to this trade is that Henrique brings with him a $5.825 mill cap hit with three-years remaining. He will turn 34 in February of the final year of the contract...which, while not ideal, isn’t terrible. The upside is the addition by subtraction of Risto on the backend, while also jumping ahead of both Anaheim and New Jersey in the draft...all but guaranteeing the Marco Rossi pick.
BUFFALO trades - RD Brandon Montour
CALGARY trades - 2020 2nd round
The Brandon Montour experiment kind of just fizzled out. His skating was outstanding. But he often just seemed like an afterthought. You knew he was there...but he never really made his presence felt. The Sabres will have big contracts to worry about next year (Dahlin, Jokiharju), so taking on unnecessary money this year was...well...unnecessary. Take the pick (a 3rd would be fine too) and move on. It’s time to see what Will Borgen can bring to the line-up.
I feel like there’s another move to be made. And it would involve Marcus Johansson. But his no-trade-clause has me deciding to just leave him to play out the year and ride off into the sunset. We got him for nothing. We can lose him for nothing.
So here’s what I’m left with.
Jack Eichel, Adam Henrique, Dylan Cozens, Curtis Lazar (Arttu Ruotsalainen, Casey Mittelstadt)
Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner, Casey Mittelstadt, Arttu Ruotsalainen (Marcus Johansson)
Sam Reinhart, Dominik Kahun, Tage Thompson, Kyle Okposo (Marcus Johansson)
Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe, Jacob Bryson, Andrej Sekera
Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Will Borgen, Dylan DeMelo
Linus Ullmark, Carter Hutton
This is the fun part. So many options. Krueger has proven to be a coach that sticks to his guns once he’s decided. But I really think Reinhart and Eichel need to be split for the benefit of the entire team.
L1: Olofsson/Eichel/Thompson - I really want to see what Thompson (and his shot) can do opposite Olofsson (and his shot)
L2: Skinner/Cozens/Reinhart - I think Cozens is going to pick the pro game up quicker than people expect. Giving him two high-end players will help move him along.
L3: Mittelstadt/Henrique/Kahun - This line has a nice balance to it. All three have offense to them, while Henrique and Kahun have proven to be effective in their own end as well. Hopefully, Mittelstadt can grow with them.
L4: Ruotsalainen/Lazar/Okposo - I feel like I’m undervaluing Ruotsalainen by putting him here...but I don’t know where else to throw him. Lazar does have a bit of offense to his game, as does Okposo. It could wind up being that Arttu benefits from having linemates that can grind along the boards before eventually getting it to him to finish it off.
D1: Dahlin/Miller - these two worked well together last year (when Miller was free from the press box). This is Dahlin’s defense now.
D2: Bryson/Jokiharju - I wanna see how these two work together. Both are strong skaters with great positioning. Bryson could prove to have more offensive capabilities...but both are capable of jumping up in the play.
D3: McCabe/Borgen - Meh. Not sold on this. But I really want to see what Borgen brings night in and night out.
The Looming Expansion Draft
It is surprisingly hard to cut ties with some of these players. They are still very young, and the skill is there. It just hasn’t been realized yet. If Thompson, Cozens, and Mittelstadt can take a few steps forward the outlook of the Buffalo Sabres changes dramatically. There are weapons all over this line-up...and Marco Rossi is marinating in the AHL. The Seattle expansion draft is coming, and this team would be set up nice to endure it.
Exempt: Cozens, Ruotsalainen, Rossi
Exposed: Okposo, Henrique
Miller or Borgen
Exposed: Miller or Borgen
Ideally, Seattle takes one of Henrique or Okposo and the Sabres have a spot open up for Rossi...and now they enjoy the benefit of additional cap space.
The Bottom Line
Patience continues to be the key. This team has the opportunity to become very good...and sustainably good beginning in a couple of years. The team offers a nice blend of youth and experience that, entering their second year under the guidance of Ralph Krueger and his staff, could make some serious noise.
While their record didn’t quite show it, the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres were very competitive. There weren’t many games where they looked outmatched. I think this team has something...and if it starts to click...watch out.