Published by hockeybuzz.com, 6-28-2017
Yeah, I said it.
Although a top-four of Rasmus Ristolainen, Nathan Beaulieu, Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe isn't quite a Cup-contending core, with any kind of coaching, along with solid goaltending (and, of course, goal-scoring,) it should be enough for the team to make a big jump from their poor 2016-17 season.
The Sabres had about as bad a season as a team could've had last year and the brunt of the fan backlash fell on the shoulders of Buffalo's defense corps. If it were up to many, veteran players like Bogosian and Josh Gorges would've been on the first Greyhound Bus out of Buffalo mid-season. Some, like myself, acknowledge the poor play of the defense but also attribute the Sabres 78-point season to a number of other factors which includes a dismal start to the season after losing Jack Eichel and Evander Kane to injuries and a strict adherence to the system employed by head coach Dan Bylsma.
The former is easy to quantify while the latter, without revealing insight from the players, is almost impossible to prove. However, the fact that there indeed was a disconnect between player and coach, which ultimately lead to Bylsma's firing, does give credence to the belief that his systems didn't fit the personnel GM Tim Murray gave him. We can add in that the roster Murray build wasn't a Cup-contender either. It had plenty of holes and, according to some reports, he had no answers when owner Terry Pegula asked what he was going to do moving forward. Murray was fired along with Bylsma and the team is starting fresh.
New GM Jason Botterill inherited a team that has some definitive strengths up front, goaltending that looks solid and a defense corps that has a hole in the top-pairing. Many had hoped that he'd somehow be able to find a d-man to fill said hole, but pickin's are slim this off season. One player that may be considered for the top pair is free agent, Kevin Shattenkirk jowever, being the top free agent defenseman in a brutally thin market means the puck-mover will probably be asking for top dollar with some suggesting 7yrs./$7M per season. With his good, but not great, 2017 playoff performance, that seems quite high and is probably out of Buffalo's reach.
There are other FA d-men available but most would be considered top-four at best with Washington's Karl Alzner and the NY Rangers Brendan Smith maybe being able to hold down a top-pairing spot in Buffalo. After that there's aged vets like Chicago's Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, Montreal's Andrei Makarov and a pair of 33 yr. olds in Trevor Daley (PIT) and Dan Girardi (NYR) who wouldn't be a good fit for the Sabres.
What it comes down to at this juncture is basically, what you see on the back end right now, is pretty much what you're going to see next season. It's a proposition that have some in a tizzy. Yet most feel that with a new GM and head coach in Phil Housley, the Sabres are in a transitional period, especially on the back end where Housley is coming in with visions of an attacking group of puck movers. As dire as it might seem to some right now, with any decent coaching, this group of defensemen should be able to hold their own and help the Sabres progress.
Lindy Ruff has yet to win a Stanley Cup but he's been able to take flawed teams to the playoffs and talented teams deep into May and June. When he was in Buffalo he wanted his teams attacking when he had the talent, but he also leaned towards the defensive side of the equation when his team lacked firepower up front. In 2009-10 he had a Vezina Trophy winning goalie in Ryan Miller and Rookie of the Year in defenseman Tyler Myers. They made the playoffs. Although his defense was active he wasn't in full-bore attack mode for 60 minutes like when he coached his back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals teams.
Ruff went into the 2010-11 minus two of his top three defensemen as Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman were lost to free agency. They were replaced by Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn with Morrisonn starting out the season on the team's top-pairing with Myers. But as the two suffered early in the season, Morrisonn fell down (and even out of) the lineup while Myers was dropped to the second pairing and eventually landed with third-year pro Chris Butler. Leopold moved up top with gritty, veteran defenseman Steve Montador while the bottom-pairing was a mix of Andrej Sekera (who ended up with plenty of time in the top-four,) Mike Weber, the plummeting Craig Rivet (who was eventually waived by Buffalo) and Marc-Andre Gragnani.
There was a lot of mixing and matching by Ruff that season as players like Morrisonn and Rivet fell precipitously, Myers suffered through a sophomore slump, Sekera and Butler rose while Leopold and Montador held steady in their roles. It ended up being a defense by committee in that these were the top-four in even strength ice-time:
The same four were atop in average time on ice:
The Sabres made the playoffs that season with only one player in the top-50 in point production (Thomas Vanek, 73) but with scoring by committee that placed them ninth in the league. Miller had a 2.59 GAA and .916 Sv%, well off of his Vezina highs, and the Sabres fell from a fourth-best GAA in 2009-10 to 16th in 2010-11.
Buffalo started out the 2010-11 season with Derek Roy and Tim Connolly centering a top-six that featured Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis on the wings. It was the last time Buffalo made the playoffs and they did so with a lineup that was weaker as a whole and especially up front in the top-six at center than last year's Sabres.
Having said that, a top-four featuring Ristolainen, Beaulieu, Bogosian and McCabe isn't that far removed from the top-four that Ruff started with, or even finished with, in 2010-11.
On April 8, 2011, the Sabres clinched a playoff berth after Nathan Gerbe tied the score at 3-3 half-way through the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers. The defensemen in that overtime game ranked by TOI were:
You can relive the highlights from that Philly game and a raucous Buffalo crowd with this mcskyns YouTube video: