Buffalo fans have been patient. Maybe a little too patient. But with a brutal start, the Sabres have put themselves in a bad position early on this season, loitering near the bottom of the standings once again. Rebuilds are supposed to be hard, but progress is supposed to be the reward and that progress hasn’t kicked in yet when it comes to Buffalo.
How can this franchise get back into the playoffs and, ultimately contender status? Obviously it’s going to take a few more years to get into contender territory, but the post-season should be an achievable goal by 2018-19 (yes, I’m already writing this year off; call me a pessimist).
What can the Sabres do to make this happen? Let’s take a look at some guidelines.
Don’t mess with the brass: The Sabres have gone through way too many GMs and coaches during the Terry Pegula era. Jason Botterill and Phil Housley just started their respective roles and both deserve at least three years to turn things around. Botterill has already assembled a great scouting staff and Housley’s days in Nashville are proof that he knows how to mould a defense for today’s NHL.
Overhaul the defense: The caveat with Housley’s Nashville success is that he had some of the best blueliners in the league at his disposal. But an upgrade in Buffalo is necessary nonetheless. Rasmus Ristolainen simply can’t play the amount of minutes he has been forced into with the Sabres. In an ideal world, the big Finn is playing 21 minutes a night with an emphasis on the power play. Despite his long reach, Ristolainen has been relied upon too much on the penalty-kill, which was one of the NHL’s worst last season.
I believe Marco Scandella was a great pick-up, but he can’t do this on his own. Perhaps Zach Bogosian moves the needle a bit once he comes off his lower-body injury, but it’s no silver bullet, to be sure.
If this season becomes lost quickly, I suggest bringing up the slick-skating Brendan Guhle from AHL Rochester and see what he can do with an extended try-out. Buffalo should still seek out another top-four defenseman in the summer, but that’s easier said that done. Another thing that would help…
Pray for Dahlin: Crossing your fingers isn’t a proper front-office strategy, but if the Sabres can wrangle the top pick in the draft lottery, then scintillating blueliner Rasmus Dahlin is the prize. Dahlin’s rushing ability and puck skills are tailor-made for today’s NHL and a veteran partner who can cover on the defensive end is much easier to find than a skill guy right now. I have no doubt that Dahlin could drive possession from the back end, while delivering enough minutes – even as a rookie – to even things out a bit more for Buffalo.
Make sacrifices: Buffalo has two pretty good forward lines (centered by Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly) and two disaster lines. Those on the disaster lines should not feel safe right now. Eichel’s $10 million cap hit kicks in next season, so Botterill needs to be prudent while simultaneously upgrading his forward corps. Can anything be done about Matt Moulson’s $5 million stipend? The veteran does have a modified no-trade clause, so there is some wiggle room, but realistically not much. And what becomes of Sam Reinhart? His entry-level deal ends this season and the picture so far is incomplete. Would a change of scenery be best for both parties, or is a prove-it bridge deal more prudent?
The big X-factor right now is Alexander Nylander, who got hurt during Buffalo’s first rookie game of the season (lower body) and has been week-to-week ever since. From folks I’ve talked to, the duration of the injury has been an ongoing mystery. When Nylander comes back, he still needs to prove he can hang in the AHL, let alone the NHL, but the potential is obviously there. Should he make big strides in Rochester this season, the future would look brighter for Buffalo.
On the positive side of the ledger, 2017 first-rounder Casey Mittelstadt has looked great so far with the University of Minnesota and it really feels like he’ll be one-and-done in the NCAA. Add Mittelstadt into the lineup and all of a sudden the Sabres get a lot more threatening offensively.
Keep in mind: Toronto’s offense didn’t take off exclusively because of Auston Matthews; William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Connor Brown all played important roles, too. Similarly, we’re seeing New Jersey off to a great start thanks to Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher. And as we speak, Edmonton’s offense has gone pop-gun with Leon Draisaitl injured, Jordan Eberle gone to the Islanders and Connor McDavid forced to do almost everything himself. And finally…
Get Lehner some help: I’ve written about this recently, but Robin Lehner has the potential to be a solid NHL goalie. The skaters in front of him have not helped, but we also have to consider that he faces too many shots and it would be more ideal to spell him more often. Jaroslav Halak is a free agent this summer and he seems like the ideal veteran to help out at this point. Halak could give you 35 games and steal a few victories by himself along the way. Lehner is still The Guy, but there’s a failsafe if things go pear-shaped.
I know that I’ve hit upon pretty much every major aspect of the game here, but the Sabres are in a tough spot. The fixes haven’t fixed anything, the losses are still mounting. For every successful rebuild (Toronto), there is a long, slog through the bottom (Arizona). Sometimes bad teams stay bad for a long time, and I know that Sabres fans do not have the appetite for that.