Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-3-2017
Such was the question posed by our esteemed EK. Had he asked it right after the 5-2 debacle in Montreal, the answer would have been everything and if you posed this question to some of the fans, they'd say a new coach.
As of now the Sabres could use upgrades in three areas--defense, left wing and fourth-line center.
Since word is out via ESPN's Pierre LeBrun that the Sabres "are on the lookout around the league for a 4th-line center," that would be a good place to start and probably the easiest and most cost-effective position to fill. It was a problem that arose when third-line center Johan Larsson was lost for the season and it was compounded when Derek Grant was lost to Nashville on a waiver claim.
As chronicled in this piece last weekend, Buffalo had a number of things happen to the forward group that eventually forced the team to play defenseman-turned-winger Nicolas Deslauriers at center last night against the Rangers. A trade at some point would be nice, but that may not be necessary if they move on center Mike Ribeiro, who was just waived by the Dallas Stars.
Although a little long in the tooth, the soon to be 37 yr. old with a $1.05 million contract couldn't be any worse that what we've seen in that spot so far this year. In fact it might provide some fun as bot he and LW Will Carrier are pretty quick.
Speaking of left wings, Carrier at one point was playing in the top-six but the rookie was soon demoted and he's now on the fourth line. The left side wasn't all that problematic with Larsson playing as Zemgus Girgensons played there along with Evander Kane, Marcus Foligno and at times Matt Moulson. Tyler Ennis came back from injury and was inserted into the top-six but after scoring in his first game back, he went without a point and head coach Dan Bylsma dropped him to the fourth line last night.
With Ennis on the fourth line, Moulson was moved to the top line with Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo while Kane stayed on his line with Girgensons and Brian Gionta. Foligno has been playing with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
Kane has been playing extremely well on a line that's a bit below his talent-level and is seems as if Bylsma doesn't want to break that line up. But he needs to because Kane needs to be in the top-six on a skill line and one of Foligno (the preferred choice here) or Moulson need to be dropped down as they're not near the talent-level of the other players on their respective lines.
Adding a fourth-line center would help the club, but getting a talented left winger would be even better.
Of course the position of need right now would be defense.
Buffalo is off to a tough start heading towards the March 1 NHL trade deadline. The injuries that hit the forward group hard earlier in the year have now shifted to the defense-corps. As mentioned in a prior blog, the Sabres have used four AHL-designated players on defense this season who have appeared in, now, 67 man-games including two--Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun--who've been the Sabres third pairing since the beginning of the calendar year. Plus they called up Brendan Guhle on an emergency basis for three games.
With Josh Gorges out for the last 12 games, Jake McCabe, who was on the top pair with Rasmus Ristolainen, out for the last five games and Zach Bogosian suffering a mid-body injury last night, their defense-corps is uber-thin.
Good news for the Sabers is that Dmitry Kulikov is slowly getting healthier, although he will probably have lingering back issues the rest of the season. Kulikov was part of a deal with Florida at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo and was expected to play on the top pair but a preseason tumble into an open bench door messed up his back and tail bone. He had a horrible first half but we're starting to see what the big, mobile d-man has to offer.
The Sabres could use an upgrade on defense preferably a mobile, puck-moving, offensive defenseman. Then again, who wouldn't? Guhle could be that man as early as next season but for now adding a little speed from the back-end wouldn't hurt.
Outside of landing a bona fide top-pairing d-man Buffalo may be inclined to grab a top-four if one was to become available. However, I'm not sure GM Tim Murray will pony up what it would take to grab one or he might not have the assets or he may not have the cap space.
Having McCabe returning to the lineup in a couple weeks solidifies the top-four, especially if Kulikov continues on his upward trend. McCabe and Bogosian played well together last season and there's no reason to believe that they couldn't do the same this season. That is when both get healthy.
Thing is, upgrades at the deadline are great if you're playoff team. And there's the rub with Buffalo, as of right now it doesn't look as if they'll be in the post season which means players will be moving out for picks and prospects.
But if they go on a long run, defense, left wing and fourth-line center will be areas they'll look to address.