Thursday, January 18, 2018

Buffalo's bye week is a good time to talk about the future

Published by, 1-17-2018

Sure, the Buffalo Sabres entered their bye week with a 3-1 win over a very good Columbus Blue Jackets team. As a refresher, the Sabres pumped 15 shots on net in the first period against the Jackets and headed into intermission with a 1-0 lead. Columbus gathered their druthers and began to right the ship peppering goalie Linus Ullmark with 34 shots on goal over the final two periods. Ullmark, an AHL All-Star who'd been called up the game before but didn't play, withstood the barrage allowing only one goal and left the ice with the win and the game's first star. Benoit Pouliot, Kyle Okposo and Jack Eichel (empty net) scored for the Sabres for their first win in 2018 (1-4-1.)

That performance coupled with the work he's been doing since coming to North America since 2015, has the 24 yr. old Ullmark looking like a big part of the future for the Sabres. As does rookie defenseman Brendan Guhle.

Guhle made his first Sabres appearance of the season and once again, did not look out of place. The Sabres have him on a development curve that should see him as a full-time fixture on the back-end beginning next season. As he's shown at every level, the 20 yr. old is an exceptional skater with great on-ice vision, a nose for open areas and the ability to finish. He's also pretty good in his own end while using his closing-speed, smarts and stickwork as well as his 6'3" 196 lb. frame (which still has plenty of room for growth.)

In 16:10 of ice-time against the Jackets, Guhle had an assist, his first-ever NHL point, and was a plus-2.

Buffalo is off until Thursday when they head to Madison Square Gardens to face off against the NY Rangers who are coming off of a pretty impressive 5-1 home win vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. During the last five days of their mandated bye week, the Sabres front office has had some time to look back on what's transpired this season as well as look forward to the February 26 trade deadline and beyond to the 2018 NHL Draft. They've had 44 games to evaluate the roster to see who will fit in moving forward and how GM Jason Botterill and company approach the future begins now.

Here are some of the things they've had plenty of time to discuss:

Where should Guhle play coming out of the bye?

Buffalo's defense-corps has been suspect at best but seemed to settle in a bit when Zach Bogosian came off of injury and was back in the lineup. However, Bogosian is once again injured and will be  out another month or so.

Guhle has all the tools to successfully play in the NHL and might be the best defenseman on the team other than Rasmus Ristolainen. There's an easy case for Guhle to be sent back to Rochester, which includes (unfortunately) helping the Sabres secure a low finish and increasing their odds of landing a top-three pick in the draft.

Then again, as part of his development a lengthy exposure to the NHL game, especially with teams upping the intensity in a playoff run, could really set him up for success next season. I don't buy that being exposed to this team will kill his development. He's got too much going for him to be dragged down by any pettiness and anger that might infect the locker room through the remaining 37 games.

Speaking of Bogosian

When former GM Tim Murray traded for Bogosian as part of the Evander Kane deal, there was reason for optimism. The fleet-footed bruiser of a d-man with a cannon for a shot and a willingness to stand up for his teammates added an edge to a team in desperate need of one. Bogosian had a good start to his career in Buffalo, but a multitude of injuries and inconsistent play have left many to believe he should be moved. However, the problem with trading him is his contract which has two years remaining after this season at a $5.14 million cap-hit.

As has been proven in the past, anything can be done and there may be an out from Buckeye country.

Recent reports have Jackets' defenseman Jack Johnson wanting out. The 31 yr. old isn't getting enough playing time heading into free agency this off season. Johnson was reportedly looking to cash-in this summer after most of his earnings up to this point were frittered away by his parents who made a number of highly questionable moves with his finances.

Although Buffalo isn't the ideal place for him and his $4.34 million cap-hit, there's no reason the left-handed defenseman couldn't be placed on the top-pairing for the Sabres for the rest of the season to prove what he's got. With a Columbus having such a young team and the cap-ceiling not much of a worry this season, taking on an extra $1 million in salary and eventually placing Bogosian on the third-pairing could very well work.

Other things might need to be added on one side or the other, but it's a situation where both teams could benefit from those two as the primary pieces in what could basically be a hockey trade.

The NY Islanders and Robin Lehner

Sabres goalie Robin Lehner will be a restricted free agent at season's end and he probably won't be back in Buffalo. Botterill gave him a one-year deal in the summer and Lehner has given him an uneven season up until this point.

That said, when Lehner's on, he's outstanding.

The NY Islanders have a huge problem on their hands when it comes to franchise center John Tavares who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. They've been building around him for years and only recently have they become playoff contenders.

The Isles have been an offensive juggernaut this season (3.39 goals/game) second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning (3.61) who have lit the league on fire. Tavares leads the charge with Josh Bailey and rookie Matthew Barzal lighting things up as well. But the problem with the team has been defense and goaltending as they're dead-last in the league with a 3.36 team goals-against average with the worst goaltending tandem in the league.

Jaroslav Halak is their starter and is only 13-13-2 on the second-highest scoring team in the league with a 3.22 goals against average and .906 save percentage. Back-up Thomas Greiss is even worse with a 3.89 GAA and .886 Sv%.

Lehner, who backstops the lowest scoring team in the league (2.25) has a 2.94 GAA and .910 Sv% that was only brought down recently.

Most people think there's a fit there and with the Islanders holding two first round picks and two second round picks in the upcoming draft, perhaps a second-rounder to Buffalo for Lehner is a small price to pay in helping convince Tavares they want him on the team moving forward.

Are they really going to get that much for Evander Kane.

Evander Kane is a pending UFA and word on the street is that the Sabres are looking for four pieces in a potential deal.

I'd be thrilled with a first-rounder and a mid-upper level prospect. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake. Perhaps the added pieces are an added pick or prospect to take on a dead-weight contract.

A decision needs to be made on Victor Oloffson

Kris Baker of opened up his weekly Prospects Report with Victor Oloffson, a seventh-round pick of Buffalo's (181st) in 2014. The 22 yr. old winger leads the Sweden's top professional hockey league with 21 goals and is 10th in the SHL with 32 points.

Baker called him a "mainstay on the Swedish scoresheets" while also pointing out that Oloffson's "lightning quick release" has him scoring his 21 goals on only 103 shots (20.3%.)

The Sabres need to make a decision on him this year or lose his rights. Methinks there should be a place for him in the organization next season.

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