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Ask Me Anything: which rebuilding team will return to glory fastest?

With the trade deadline gone, fans of seller teams want to know what to expect going forward. Is there reason for hope?

Hey everyone. Apologies for scrapping last week’s Ask Me Anything Mailbag! The flurry of trades buried me in analysis, so I ran out of time. At least this week, with all the big moves in the books, we can sort through the ashes of the arms race and assess what comes next for a number of teams. Based on the questions I’ve received, it’s clear that fans of the rebuilding teams want to better understand their GMs’ visions. Hopefully I can help explain or at least speculate.

Chris Rodman (@Rodster_93) asks…

Do you think the Buffalo Sabres need another few years of more rebuilding before being relevant again, or would you say the timetable could be less than that?

Hey Chris. This is an excellent and complicated question. I’ll start with the glass-half-empty perspective, the same viewpoint that made Ryan O’Reilly speak out with despair last year, wondering why the Sabres weren’t stride for stride with the Toronto Maple Leafs in their rebuild.

To me, a couple bad miscalculations by former GM Tim Murray put the Sabres’ entire rebuild out of whack:

1. Not that Murray was the one who drafted him – but once he arrived, the franchise bet big on Rasmus Ristolainen to essentially become the next Victor Hedman. They were evidently so confident in Ristolainen that they dealt away his fellow 2013 first-round teammate, Nikita Zadorov, in the O’Reilly deal. Not that it was a bad trade, but the point is the Sabres obviously felt they had a franchise pillar in Ristolainen. He has been tasked with monster minutes in his early 20s with pretty much no help, so he hasn’t been given the proper chance to blossom into an elite weapon. Hedman, meanwhile, developed alongside the defensively sturdy Anton Stralman for several seasons, right? Ristolainen’s analytics have been ugly over the years, though they’ve finally improved in 2017-18.

Possibly because the Sabres were so certain Ristolainen would be The Man, they stopped chasing elite defense prospects in the draft. Their top picks the ensuring four seasons were forward-forward-forward-forward. There was a huge drop-off after blueliner Aaron Ekblad went first in 2014, making Sam Reinhart an understandable No. 2 pick at the time, and they had to take Jack Eichel in 2015, of course. But they passed on Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy to grab Alexander Nylander in 2016. That mistake looks more horrible by the day and really set the franchise back.

Ristolainen can still have a great career, but if Murray had just acknowledged Ristolainen wasn’t future Norris Trophy material, he might not have ignored the position. Instead, Sabres fans continue to will themselves into believing Brendan Guhle is an A+ prospect. He isn’t.

2. The Kyle Okposo signing implied the Sabres expected to ascend in the standings. It was reasonable to believe that given they’d improved their points percentage from .329 to .494 in year 1 of Eichel and then-coach Dan Bylsma. But health problems derailed Okposo in 2016-17, and he’s not the same player anymore. He’s a $6-million albatross who isn’t finished his contract until 2022-23. With that much term left on his deal, he looks like future Seattle expansion draft fodder to me. He’s not a movable asset for GM Jason Botterill, and that’s part of the problem right now: Murray left Botterill with some impossible-to-move contracts, including Zach Bogosian’s. Whereas teams like the Rangers are diving into their rebuilds, the Sabres are stunted right now.

Glass half full time! The 2018 draft class is absolutely stacked with good defense prospects. The Sabres have a real shot to win the No. 1 pick in the lottery and draft Rasmus Dahlin, but there are other excellent blueline options if they don’t. The likes of Adam Boqvist, Quinn Hughes and Evan Bouchard all project to be difference makers. So ideally Botterill fortifies Buffalo’s blueline at the draft.

More good news: Buffalo has next year’s Mathew Barzal waiting in the wings, in my opinion. Casey Mittelstadt has a similarly fast, dazzling and creative set of scoring skills. We just finished our Future Watch edition of THN and, without giving away too much, Mittelstadt finished in the cream of the crop of our scouting panel’s individual prospect rankings. I spoke to Mittelstadt, his Minnesota Gophers coach Don Lucia and Botterill for a feature on Mittelstadt in the magazine. Botterill really thinks Mittelstadt can help solidify a ‘Pittsburgh’ roster blueprint.

“I came from an organization in Pittsburgh that was very successful because of strength down the middle,” Botterill said over the phone a couple weeks ago. “It’s not just one or two. You have to have three or four. And that’s what really excites us. We’re excited about Casey’s versatility too, because we’ve seen him at center and on the wing playing different roles. It’s the same thing with his skill set. He has great hockey sense, great vision and can set up teammates, but he also demonstrated at the world juniors that ability to score in key situations. And that’s probably the biggest similarity I see between Jack and Casey. They’re both excellent playmakers, but both have the ability to score. And that dual threat makes them unique assets for our organization.”

It’s not unfathomable at all to picture the Sabres adding Dahlin and Mittelstadt to next year’s lineup. It’s not yet clear if he’ll leave the NCAA Gophers and turn pro – I pressed him as hard as I could for the answer, and he obviously wouldn’t bite – but it would be a shock if he doesn’t. He’s ready. He lit up the world juniors, winning tournament MVP. And while it still feels like the Sabres are a long way off from glory given how much Murray set them back – look at what the New Jersey Devils did this year and the Leafs the year before. Some team emerges earlier than expected from Rebuild Hell every season.

Bill8675309 (@bill86753901) asks…

Thomas Vanek: why so well travelled? Good fit for Columbus? Why trade value so low? Any “issues”?

Most of these questions tie together. Vanek has never been known for his win-at-all-costs intensity, to put it politely. His playoff struggles are well documented. Since he’s never been a coach’s pet and his speed is in decline, he’s never going to be a long-term investment again at this stage of his career. He’s 34 and in his “mercenary years.” Anything longer than a one-year deal would be foolish, and the perception around the league is that Vanek is the type of player you want to keep hungry anyway. He plays better when he’s constantly chasing his next contract.

As for the fit in Columbus, I assume you’ve seen some of John Tortorella’s quotes, fending off immediate questions about how the two will jive together. And it’s true – Vanek and Torts seem like a comically horrible fit personality wise – but it shouldn’t be a huge problem given Vanek has been brought in as a specialist. He still has soft hands and a good scoring touch, so he remains a useful power play contributor. On the day of the acquisition, Columbus had the NHL’s 30th-ranked power play, so to me it was very clear what Vanek’s assignment is with his new team. Vanek also is a good mentor for young scorers. I spoke to him in January when I was working on a Brock Boeser story, and it was remarkable just how well Vanek understood everything about Boeser’s game. He was teaching Boeser to know when to shoot and when to understand that his teammates had the better looks at the net. So maybe Vanek can have a similar effect on current linemate Alexander Wennberg or especially a budding goal scorer like Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The small return in the trade – no draft picks!? – had to be disappointing for Canucks fans but, given Vanek’s poor playoff track record, he simply wasn’t going to bring in what GM Jim Benning likely wanted. Tyler Motte would have to do.

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Jake Lahut (@JakeLahut) asks…

Are the Red Wings or Rangers better equipped for their so-called rebuilds out of all the Original Six teams?

Hey Jake. I know you had a cluster of questions, so I chose the one that fascinated me most.

It was great to see Red Wings GM Ken Holland, in pretty much just his second-ever deadline as a seller after 25 years as a buyer, hauling in a first-, second- and third-round pick for Tomas Tatar on Monday. Not dealing Mike Green was a failure but, given teams were afraid of his neck injury and one even asked for a medical report, it appears Holland’s hands were tied there.

That said, the Rangers are much better equipped for a rebuild in my opinion. First of all, while Detroit has started building a young group to get excited about in Dylan Larkin (no relation to me, by the way; Dylan and I and his uncle had a discussion about it at the 2016 All-Star Game and traced our lineage and there is no close family connection), Anthony Mantha, Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski. But none of those players is a Mittelstadt or an Eeli Tolvanen or an Elias Pettersson. In other words, the Red Wings don’t have any elite-ceiling prospects in my opinion. On top of that, they are saddled with just so many prohibitive contracts: Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley and so on.

It’s telling that Holland had to deal a pretty good player in Tatar to get what he wanted. No one is taking those other overpriced veterans since they all have so many darned years left on their deals. That’s why I’ve been saying for a long time that the Red Wings will try their fan base’s patience as much as any team over the next few years. They’re stuck with those contracts, and it’s not like they can buy out everyone. The Leafs, by comparison, have loaded up their farm system in part because they added so many veterans on one-year deals when they were struggling and could flip them for picks every year. At least Detroit has two picks in each of the first four rounds at the 2018 draft, though. That was a coup for Holland.

The Rangers, meanwhile, moved two useful expiring assets in Michael Grabner and Rick Nash to haul in picks and prospects while also cashing in Ryan McDonagh while his value was still nice and high. General manager Jeff Gorton has added legitimately promising young players in Libor Hajek, Brett Howden and Ryan Lindgren, and the Rangers have three picks in the first round this year, plus two in the second and third rounds. On top of that, they have some higher-ceiling prospects ready to make an NHL impact as soon as next year in centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, plus they have one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey in Igor Shesterkin.

So the Rangers to me look like a team that could reverse course in a hurry and become competitive again in a season or two. The Wings will take longer.

Dave Harrison (@forestrydave) asks…

Which rental player is most likely to re-sign with his new club?

Ooh, good one Dave. To me, a rental player who re-signs needs the right combination of (a) making a clear, immediate impact on a team that should remain a contender beyond this season and (b) is young enough to justify a long, expensive deal OR is cheap enough to justify being brought back despite being past his prime.

I wonder about Paul Stastny, but the Jets have to re-sign RFAs Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Joel Armia and Adam Lowry. I don’t see them having cash left over for Stastny even though I think he’s going to be a real hit in Winnipeg. To me, Rick Nash is the guy to watch as a re-sign candidate. I know it’s only been a few games, but Boston’s eight-goal outburst Thursday was symbolic. The reason they acquired Nash was because they had weak secondary scoring, with no forward outside the Big Line having more than 12 goals. Nash slots in with David Krejci and, boom, the line blows up and the Bruins appear to have two deadly scoring units. Because Nash, unlike Vanek, has a strong two-way element to his game, Nash can remain useful into his mid-30s even if his physical skills start to erode. The Bruins should be contenders next year, too. If Nash continues to show such nice chemistry with the team, I could totally see them inking him to a medium-term extension of two or three years. The Bruins have no major contracts to take care of this off-season aside from re-upping Zdeno Chara. There would be more than enough money left over to bring Nash back. He won’t command anything close to his current cap hit of $7.8 million, either. I could see something in the range of three years and $15 million for him.

Tavares=Investor=New Arena=Cup (@CoyotesAvs12) asks…

Does Dylan Strome finally make the leap and become a solid NHL center, or does he get traded in the off-season? Does Max Domi get traded in the off-season?

You’ll be hard pressed to find a player under more pressure than Strome will be in 2018-19. After Connor McDavid and Eichel went before him in the 2015 draft, players picked after Strome include Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Barzal and Boeser. The draft class is shaping up to being one of the best in many years. It will be devastating for the Coyotes if Strome doesn’t pan out.

We know the knock on him: skating. He just can’t elevate it to the level necessary to dominate in the NHL. Strome is a ‘Quad-A’ player right now, clearly too good for the AHL but unable to stick in the NHL. As you’ll read (please!) in our upcoming Future Watch magazine, GM John Chayka and the Coyotes are taking the “tortoise” approach to developing Strome in a draft class full of hares. They think slow-cooking him will yield a mature player with good enough skating for the NHL, and they’ve tasked skating instructor Dawn Braid with helping Strome improve his stride. She worked wonders with John Tavares before. And if you want another prominent example of someone overcoming major skating problems, look at Mark Stone. He was criticized heavily for his skating to the point he fell to the sixth round of the 2010 draft, and it took him until age 22 to become a full-time NHLer. Now he’s arguably the Senators’ most untouchable commodity (it should be Erik Karlsson, of course, but you know what I mean).

So Strome still has time. He’s only 20. He’s younger than Boeser. Based on what Chayka told my colleague Ken Campbell for the upcoming Future Watch story, it’s clear Arizona has no plan to move Strome this year. If he still can’t make the leap in 2018-19, however, panic is highly justified, and pressure will suddenly mount on Chayka to cash out Strome before his value plummets any further.

Domi, on the other hand, seems like a logical trade candidate coming off-season. His situation reminds me of Alex Galchenyuk’s in Montreal in that both possess first-line offensive talent but need changes of scenery for whatever reason. If I were Chayka I would explore dealing Domi to a team that could offer a young defenseman of similar value in return.