Once again, the Buffalo Sabres are dragging themselves to the end of an NHL season, hopes of a playoff run dashed – if not mathematically, then at least spiritually. A team that held such hope early in the season has fallen apart and the fanbase has rightly been up in arms about the lack of progress during the Jack Eichel era.
So what can be done over the summer? A lot of fan ire has been directed at GM Jason Botterill, who took over the reins in 2017 and has yet to deliver any post-season berths in Buffalo. Will the Pegulas pull the plug on his tenure, or keep pitching forward? Either way, whoever is making the roster decisions this summer actually has a lot of room to work with. Let’s look at the landscape right now.
The Sabres have a bottom-10 offense in the NHL right now, despite employing an elite No. 1 center in Eichel. Victor Olofsson proved to be a great running mate for Eichel, but the rookie’s season was mercilessly interrupted by a lower-body injury. Jeff Skinner, Botterill’s marquee acquisition/re-signing, was a complete bust in his second season with the team, but Skinner has a history of down years and could very well rebound to 35-40 goal territory next season. So you’re potentially adding another 20 goals to the offense with him alone. Factor in growth and full health from Olofsson and you get at least 10 more goals from the Swedish left winger, too.
Now here’s where it gets interesting: the Sabres have a ton of free agent forwards this summer and I say you let the majority walk. Michael Frolik, Jimmy Vesey, even home-grown products Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson can all be replaced. None of them will be the secondary scorers the Sabres need. Maybe you re-sign Wayne Simmonds for leadership and toughness, but only if the price is right (ie inexpensive). Dominik Kahun, recently acquired from Pittsburgh? He could be a keeper. Potential rookies for 2020-21 include Dylan Cozens and Matej Pekar, but both would have to prove themselves and neither should be gifted a roster spot. And it’s OK if Casey Mittelstadt has to spend more time with AHL Rochester. I honestly don’t know what you do with Kyle Okposo’s contract, other than hope you can eventually get Seattle to take it by giving them a draft pick or two. A big-name free agent would be nice, but this is a bad summer for UFAs, outside of Taylor Hall – who will be in high demand elsewhere. Better to keep the mistakes to a minimum.
THE PENALTY KILL
Even more so than offense, special teams have been a disaster in Buffalo. The power play started the year as No. 1 in the NHL and has since fallen to mid-pack, at best. But the penalty-kill has been a black hole, worst in the league. This is where the Sabres can really make some impact moves that won’t break the bank. Two very good penalty-killers just so happen to be up for unrestricted free agency this summer: Derek Grant and Vlad Namestnikov. The fact both were traded to playoff teams at the deadline (Philadelphia and Colorado, respectively) gives you a sense of their worth league-wide, but if Buffalo could grab one or both on the open market, the Sabres’ PK woes would be helped dramatically.
Give the starter’s job to Linus Ullmark. Injury has him out of the mix right now, but in terms of Goals Saved Above Average, he was light years ahead of Carter Hutton this year. While Ullmark is a respectable 23rd in the NHL at 4.56, Hutton is way down at 57th at -10.05. Hutton’s contract isn’t too bad – he has one more year with a cap hit of $2.7 million left after this season – so maybe you find a taker for him and use Jonas Johansson as the backup while star prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen continues to develop in Rochester.
If all that makes you skittish, the other option is to go big with a UFA. Would Robin Lehner return to Buffalo? He’s certainly put in the work since he last wore a Sabres jersey. If the Canucks can’t re-sign Jacob Markstrom, he’d be another good one – though you have to think about term (which Markstrom can surely command) versus Luukkonen’s future, because you don’t want the kid sitting around for years waiting for his turn once he’s ready.
Defensively, continued growth from Rasmus Dahlin and internal help from a rookie such as Jacob Bryson will help the transition game and by extension, give the goalies more of a break too.
Are these new Sabres world-beaters? Not yet – but they’d at least be a playoff team with some hope.
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