Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-5-2018
It's a sure sing of spring lately. The Augusta, GA bloom fills the Masters with the joys of spring while the Buffalo Sabres are shining up their golf clubs for yet another early off season. It will be the seventh year in a row that the Sabres have missed the playoffs and it will be the third time in the last five years that Buffalo will finish dead last. Further ignominy lies in the fact, as someone pointed out, that the Sabres will be the first team ever to finish in 31st place as the Vegas Golden Knights entered the league this year.
Having said that, most here felt a sense of "Mission Accomplished" as Buffalo secured last place with a loss vs. the 30th place Ottawa Senators last night. With that loss the Sabres will have an 18.5% chance of winning the lottery and about a 50/50 chance of landing a pick in the top three. Buffalo, like every other team in the league, would have heart palpitations at the thought of landing the first overall pick and being able to draft a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin. Yet even if they drop to second or third, they'll still be able to land an impact player at a position of need as wingers Filip Zadina and Andrei Svechnikov.
At worst the Sabres will be drafting fourth overall meaning one of forward Brady Tkachuk or defenseman Adam Boqvist or Quntin Hughes will be there for the taking. So all is not lost.
However, what's been lost in this season, is a sense of winning and it has to be affecting the players. This is Jack Eichel's third season and the Sabres have regressed to where they were when they drafted him. Sam Reinhart and Ryan O'Reilly have been here three seasons, Zemgus Girgensons the last five. In his 31 Thoughts piece for Sportsnet.ca, writer Elliotte Friedman had plenty to say about Buffalo and wrote that he talked to some players with one of them saying, “Look at Rasmus Ristolainen. He’s a really good player. But he’s been here the longest. [Losing is] all he knows.”
Friedman also said he had a long chat with Sabres GM Jason Botterill concerning teams taking advantage of Eichel's on-ice frustrations, to which Botterill replied, “You just want see him have some success. We need to win games. It’s not just Jack’s team. We need to help him. Teammates need to help him. When he is challenged, he responds in a good way. You talk about changing culture. How do you do that? You can’t always just trade for it.
"That’s why it’s so important that Rochester made the playoffs. Those young players are going to understand what it is like to play meaningful games, what it takes to win them.”
The Rochester Americans were a major emphasis for Botterill and his AGM/Amerks GM, Randy Sexton. They basically rebuilt that team from scratch with only a handful of players from the previous season and got them to the playoffs. It's the first time in three seasons Rochester has made the AHL post season.
In building that team, Botterill brought in some veteran with proven track records in scoring and/or leadership. Keving Porter, Zach Redmond (whom Botterill traded for,) Seth Griffith, Sahir Gill and Kyle Criscuolo all have had individual and/or team success at the AHL-level and were brought in to carry much of the weight as the Sabres youngins get a feel for the way Botterill wants to see them play.
Porter is the Amerks' captain and was with Botterill when they were in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. "He's a player I'm very familiar with," said Botterill back on July 1 after signing Porter and a host of other players. "[He] was a strong leader for Wilkes-Barre over the past couple of years, but also was a player, especially two years ago, that (Penguins head coach) Mike Sullivan really trusted at the National Hockey League level."
Two years ago Sullivan took over as coach of the Penguins in mid-season and guided them to the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups.
The Sabres just called Porter up from Rochester on Tuesday but he did not dress for Buffalo's home finale', but the media caught up with him today at Key Bank Center. Porter was asked what it means to have a winning team AHL team coupled with a last place NHL team. "There's going to be four, five, six, seven guys from that team coming up here," Porter said in response. "If they're used to losing, it's going to continue up here. But if we can get down there and go on a long playoff run and hopefully win a Calder Cup, that experience for them is going to translate up here."
There will be changes for the Sabres this off season as Botterill fashions his team his way. He took over a Sabres club that seemed more geared towards a Western Conference style of player featuring big bodies and heavies. That didn't work out too well in Buffalo and we've seen first hand that there will need to be a lot of turnover for him to fashion a team based upon speed, quickness, and skill. "We’ll make some changes,” Botterill told Friedman, “because you can’t come back with the same group. We have talent, but we don’t have consistency."
With the off season just around the corner, it looks as if goalie Robin Lehner may have played his last game in Buffalo as he stayed back while his Sabres teammates boarded a plane for Florida where they'll play the last two games of the season. Although it's not official, the pending restricted free agent has not had a great season by any stretch of the imagination and it seems as if Botterill and Co. might be ready to hand the team over to Linus Ullmark.
Lehner played some solid hockey for the Sabres, albeit, rather inconsistent, especially this season. The thing about the 26 yr. old, who was traded for by former GM Tim Murray, is that the team traded the 21st pick in the 2015 NHL Draft for him and there would always be that cloud hanging over him because of it. In many, if not most, fan's minds, trading a first round pick for a goalie is taboo. For the record, the player taken in that spot by the Senators was forward Colin White who has spent most of the past two seasons with the Senators AHL affiliate and has played in 21 games for the big club.
The bottom line with Lehner it just didn't work out in Buffalo. His first year with the Sabres he was injured right off the bat, was resectable upon his return, but finished the season injured. He was the designated No. 1 goalie last season playing in a career most 59 games while putting up solid numbers despite a losing record. Last off season he was an RFA and signed a one-year deal stating that he proved everything he needed to prove in 2016-17.
But this season was a mess for him as he watched his goal-against average go to 3.01 and his save percentage fall to .908. Granted, Lehner didn't get much help, but he just looked awkward on way too many occasions and gave up way too many softies. It might be safe to say that he didn't trust his teammates on defense nor did his teammates really trust him in net.
It would be surprising if Lehner re-signed with Buffalo.
The Sabres have some really good prospects that are moving up the ranks. Center Casey Mittelstadt actually jumped the ranks going from college freshman to the NHL. Where the eighth-overall pick in 2017 lands next year is up in the air, but Botterill told Friedman that he likes Eichel, O'Reilly and Mittelstadt down the middle. I believe there are many in Sabreland, myself included, who like that trio of center.
Botterill also mentioned free agent signee C.J. Smith who leads the Amerks with 17 goals and West Seneca, NY native Sean Malone whom he thinks will “carve out a role here (in Buffalo,) the way he is going.” And, of note, was a quick mention of Victor Olofsson, a 2014 seventh round draft pick (181st) who led the Swedish Hockey League in goals with 27 this past year. Nothing has been heard concerning the signing of the 22 yr. old but Botterill told Friedman, “We’d like to give him a look, see if he can score here with our guys.”
Of those who've gained valuable NHL experience this season, Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson looked to have carved out a spot on the roster next season as did winger Nicolas Baptiste and forward Evan Rodrigues.
That's seven new, full-time faces for Buffalo next season, not including Ullmark, and possibly another should they land in the top-three of this year's draft and select any of three NHL-ready players.