Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill has been rather active this off season and he continued in that vein with the trade for Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Henri Jokiharju. The 20 yr. old Jokiharju was selected in the first round (29th-overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft held in Chicago that year after the Hawks traded down from No. 26. In turn the Sabres sent forward Alexander Nylander to Chicago in the player-for-player swap. Nylander was a the eighth-overall selection in 2016, a draft that was held in Buffalo, NY.
For Sabres fans, and obviously for Botterill and the team, this is the end of a saga that started the almost the moment that Nylander's name was announced in front of the home crowd. Fans, as well as most media members, were pretty sure that then GM Tim Murray would start to bolster his defense corps which had been bludgeoned by the 2013-15 tank years. Prize d-prospect, Olli Joulevi, went off the board at No. 4 and when the Arizona Coyotes went with forward Clayton Keller at No. 7, it left two strong d-prospects sitting there for Buffalo--Mikhail Sergachev, who was picked by Montreal at No. 9 and Jakob Chychrun, who was eventually taken by the Coyotes with the second of their two first round picks.
As the draft unfolded many thought Sergachev would be the pick as it was said he may have been the most NHL-ready defensemen of the lot. When Nylander's name was announced it was a bit of a shock and all those rumors about Murray not being particularly fond of Russian players surfaced again, especially when they could've almost immediately bolstered their defense-corps. However, here's how he explained the pick to the media, “We were just going to go off our list," said Murray. "I’m not worried about position at all, best player available or best fit and the fit could be defense or it could be just like the player we took today."
The pick received luke-warm reviews with many saying that Nylander may have been the most highly skilled player in the draft but...he disappeared often and didn't seem to have the drive that others had. It's something we would see throughout his three years playing for Buffalo's AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, and in watching him play one got the feeling that Nylander skated with a sense of entitlement instead of purpose. It finally got to the point where he was moved.
Based upon how the 2016 NHL Draft is unfolding, the drafting of Nylander at that spot by the Sabres was a mistake and it was approaching bust-status in Buffalo. With each year of struggle on the ice, Nylander's value was declining and Botterill did well to maximize a return that was based solely on potential heading the other way. Nylander spent three seasons with the Amerks and in 165 games had 86 points (30+56.) He played in 19 NHL games for the Sabres scoring three goals and adding three assists.
Nylander is another player from the previous regime that either didn't fit what Botterill wants in a player or just didn't look as if he'd be able to make the jump and have an impact. Defenseman Brendan Guhle (2015, 51st) was sent to the Anaheim Ducks as part of the trade for defenseman Brandon Montour while center Cliff Pu (2016, 69th) was part of a deal that brought winger Jeff Skinner to Buffalo. It's not to say that none of those players will reach their potential, it's just that the team didn't feel they'd do so with the Sabres and were deemed expendable in a trade.
The player Buffalo got in return from Chicago spent 38 games in the NHL as a 19 yr. old and played on the top pairing along side future Hall-of-Famer Duncan Keith. The right-handed Jokiharju finished with 12 assists and a minus-7 rating while averaging 18:59 of ice-time per game. He averaged a minute on the powerplay and played the PK as well before being loaned do Finland for the 2019 World Juniors. After winning a gold medal with Team Finland, Jokiharju was sent to the Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL where he scored 17 points (2+15) in 30 regular games.
Jokiharju has excellent wheels on the back-end, has a high hockey IQ and can really move the puck. He's considered a definite NHLer and general projections have him as top-four d-man with some thinking he could possibly be a top-pairing d-man if his development continues. When asked this morning on a conference call about his game, Jokiharju called himself "a motoring defenseman."
"I like to be with the puck and make some good plays," he continued, "and I want to get the puck to better guys who can score some goals and make some plays."
Which is exactly what Botterill is looking for in his defensemen, especially with the talent he already has on the roster.
Adding yet another right-handed defenseman adds yet another layer of intrigue to rumors of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen being on the move. Ristolainen is a righty that's been with the Sabres since being taken eight-overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, save for a 34-game stint in Rochester his rookie season. He's struggled mightily in his six seasons with the club and his analytics have been disastrous. However, while the analytics community uses his advanced stats to paint him as a bottom-pairing defenseman, the general feeling amongst teams outside of Buffalo is that he has plenty of value and some rare traits that come together in one package--including size, skill, snarl and excellent skating for a big man--and is better than the analytics indicate.
The days of Ristolainen being considered a No. 1 or even top-pairing d-man might be over in Buffalo and the drafting of Rasmus Dahlin first-overall, as well as his play last year as an 18 yr. old rookie, means Ristolainen should be dropping down the depth chart. The two played briefly together last season but never seemed to mesh and with Botterill trading for right-handed defensemen like Montour, Colin Miller and now Jokiharju and adding them to a right side that already had Zach Bogosian, reserve d-man Casey Nelson as well as up-and-comer Will Borgen might indicate something's in the works.
Trades can take a long time as evidenced by the Nylander/Jokiharju trade which, according to Scott Powers of the Athletic, had been in the works for a while. Powers cites a source telling him "multiple times in recent weeks that the Blackhawks were shopping Jokiharju." Powers would write that "someone else explained that it wasn't necessarily shopping but the Blackhawks were receiving interest and were open to listening."
"A source said Tuesday said the Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres had actually been talking quite some time about this trade," Powers wrote.
Jokiharju said this morning that the trade "was kind of a shock at first, then I just realized it's a good opportunity for me coming to a great organization like the Sabres.
"I'm pumped to play for the Sabres.
And he should be. With players like Jack Eichel, whom he said "dominates" because of his skating, and Dahlin, as well as Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart, the Sabres are building a very strong nucleus of talented players to move forward with. Although there are still glaring holes in the lineup, what Botterill has done with his defense lately is impressive. Jokiharju fits right into what Botterill wants out of his d-man and by the looks of it, sometime within the next few seasons there will be a battle for a spot next to Dahlin on the top-pairing and it may not even require said d-partner to be a bona fide top-pairing defenseman.
As we move forward from today, Botterill rid himself of a player that was drafted by his predecessor and didn't look as if he'd fit into the Sabres plans moving forward. He also got a very solid return that many are already calling a steal for Buffalo (although it's way too early to place a judgement like that on the deal.) Botterill has yet another possible top-four option on defense and he has more choices on the back-end should a Ristolainen deal materialize.
All-in-all, a pretty good deal for the Sabres.