Friday, June 30, 2017

Defense. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Plus, lookin' for another top-six LW

Published by, 6-29-2017

From Edmonton to Buffalo moves altering the course of the Buffalo Sabres upcoming season, but the big move new GM Jason Botterill needs to make to really get things rolling probably won't happen this off season.

Defense, defense, defense.

The Sabres don't exactly have a top-five defense-corps in the league which leaves them looking to upgrade, especially filling a top-pairing need next to RHD, Rasmus Ristolainen. Botterill was able to fortify his lower pairings a bit with the signings of Victor Antipin, the trade for Nathan Beaulieu and the re-signing of Taylor Fedun. That trio adds plenty of depth from for new head coach Phil Housley to work with, but a top-four of Ristolainen, Beaulieu, Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe isn't close to what he worked with in Nashville last season.

It will take time. And for those who are looking for a jolt this July 1, you can pretty much fuggedaboutit. The top two free agent d-men on the market are Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner both of whom will collect huge paychecks on long-term deals despite flaws in their games. Buffalo could be in the running if Botterill was willing to go above and beyond an expected overpayment for both, but despite plenty of room under the cap this year, it wouldn't seem as if it's in his blood to reach like that.

So the Sabres look to be headed into the off season, and possibly into training camp as well, with a defense corps as is. One possible addition, as mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, is that of soon to be free agent defenseman Will Butcher who's opting to go to free agency August 15 instead of signing with the team that drafted him. In a quick blurb I mentioned that having an opportunity in Buffalo to play under a coach like Housley who values puck-movers might pique his interest. Even if the Sabres were to land him, his impact, if any, wouldn't be felt for a few years as Butcher will probably need a couple years of seasoning for his development.


Speaking of development, Botterill released player development coach Randy Cunneyworth two days ago.

After leaving the Rochester Americans in 2008 to pursue an NHL coaching career, Cunneyworth was brought back in 2015 as player development coach. He spent the 2015-16 season coaching in Rochester before going back to his previous position.

From 2015 to 2017 the Amerks were near the bottom of the league although the players that were brought up to Buffalo seemed to be well prepared for the NHL game. Unfortunately none were able to have an impact for the Sabres.

Botterill also released pro scout Jon Christiano. The Buffalo native had been with the Sabres since 1997 and spent three years as Director of Pro Scouting under GM Darcy Regier.

Also dismissed was amateur scout Kevin Prendergast who came on board in 2013.

Owner Terry Pegula and Botterill have slowly been purging the hockey department to start anew. Cunneyworth, Christiano and Prendergast join scouting director Rob Murphy, director of amateur scouting Greg Royce, pro scout Jim Kovachik and amateur scouts Keith Hendrickson and Brandon Jay as those on the outs since Pegula fired GM Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma.


The hockey world just got a major jolt yesterday when word got out that Edmonton Oilers phenom Connor McDavid is looking at a contract extension that will have a cap-hit over $13 million. McDavid is entering the final year of his entry-level deal and the Oilers aren't messing around.

And they shouldn't.

McDavid just finished his sophomore season as the only 100-point player in the league and captained his Oilers team to Game-7 of the Western Conference Finals. He also backed up the truck at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas last week. He took home the Art Ross Trophy (leading scorer,) Hart Trophy (league MVP,) and the Ted Lindsay Award as the leagues top player voted by his peers.

The shockwaves rattled rinks all the way to Buffalo as the Sabres and Jack Eichel are said to be talking about a contract extension. Eichel was taken second-overall behind McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft and although he's had two real good seasons on a team that was in the 'build' stage of rebuild, his 113 points (48+65) in 142 games aren't on the same level as McDavid's 148 (46+102) in 127 games. However, there's still plenty of untapped upside for Eichel which is why his next contract could be in the $8-9 million/season range.

They're two different players with enormous talents who came into the leagued in two different situations. Both will forever be tied to the whole 2015 "McEichel" Draft and will be compared from a points, salary and impact perspective.

The Sabres are lucky to have Eichel and it might be in everyone's best interest to get him signed long-term. They could fool around with a three-year bridge contract that could possibly extend his stay in Buffalo to 11 years if they went max contract thereafter. Or they could just come together on an eight-year deal and save everyone the worry.


Word on the street is that the Sabres are losing a goalie prospect but gaining a veteran backup in net.

To no one's surprise, Sabres prospect Cal Petersen (2013, 129th-overall) is not signing in Buffalo but instead will be headed to Los Angeles. Although nothing can be announced until Saturday, July 1, reports have Petersen and the Kings agreeing to a contract.

Petersen opted to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame to turn pro and the Sabres had nearly all of June to sign him but he elected to become a free agent.

The loss of Petersen effectively jumbled the goalie depth-chart as Buffalo was missing a piece. The two givens were that Robin Lehner is the Sabres starter and Jonas Johansson will be starting his first full North American pro season in Rochester. Linus Ullmark, whom Botterill effectively kept from Las Vegas in the expansion draft, could have been Lehner's backup had Petersen signed with Buffalo.

But our very own Buffalo 39 mentioned a couple days ago that the Sabres and former goalie Chad Johnson were in talks and word on the street is that Johnson will be back in Buffalo next season. Having him behind Lehner means that Ullmark goes back to Rochester as their starter for the second consecutive season.

Which is a good thing.

Goalies need reps and Ullmark will get a lot of them with the Amerks. The move also bodes well for Johansson who can get eased into the North American pro game.

Losing Petersen is a downer as he has legit No. 1 potential, but the Sabres will need to make lemonade.


The Sabres, as mentioned above, could use a top-pairing defenseman but the could also use help on the wing in the top-six. And, as luck would have it, this isn't a particularly strong free agent class at LW.

The list at left wing is topped by veteran forward Patrick Marleau. However reports have him not wanting to leave San Jose and if he does, he wants to stay on the West Coast as to not disrupt his family.

After that the Sabres could, and should, have of some interest in Thomas Vanek.

Since being traded by Buffalo in October, 2013, Vanek has been wandering around the league. Vanek was traded by the NY Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens that same season then signed a two-year deal with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent. He signed a one-year, $2.6 million deal with the Detroit Red Wings last off season and was traded to Florida at the trade deadline March 1.

During this sojourn, word came out that Vanek's name appeared on a list in a Rochester, NY gambling sting and he apparently lost millions of dollars. With Pegula touting virtues like character and his Murray-firing presser, Vanek might not fit into what he wants moving forward. Yet you can't deny that Vanek still has the chops. Last season he scored 17 goals and added 31 assists in 68 games for Detroit and Florida. Those 48 points would have placed him third on the Sabres in scoring behind only Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly. He also lead the league in the shootout going a perfect 5 for 5.

Speaking of gambling, the Sabres could also look into signing former first-overall pick Nail Yakupov to a "show me" contract. Yakupov has been set adrift after four years with the Oilers and one season in St. Louis. It would be a low-risk/high-reward scenario for the Sabres but most feel that the upside just isn't there as there's a disconnect with him and the NHL game.

Finally, maybe we should keep an eye on winger Beau Bennett who was the 20th-overall pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010 when Botterill was in the front office.

The 6'2" 207 lb. Bennett is listed as a right-winger but can play either side.

Of course if Buffalo's own Tyler Ennis could return to form, it would eliminate the need for a top-six left-winger. Ennis' last two seasons have been dismal as he's had injury problems and just could never get into the flow of things. The Edmonton, Alberta native has only eight goals and 16 assist while playing in only 84 games the last two seasons.

As of right now the Sabres have only one legit top-six left wing in Evander Kane. He'll be entering the final year of his contract with questions as to whether or not there will be an extension for him this off season. There's been speculation that the Sabres would be trading him, but Pierre LeBrun told the WGR afternoon guys yesterday that Botterill is listening but not actively shopping Kane.

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