Friday, May 4, 2018

Does Rasmus Dahlin change the Sabres' off-season equation?

Published by 5-4-2018

Heading into last week's NHL Draft Lottery, hockey insider Elliotte Friedman had a definitive take on what the last place Buffalo Sabres would be doing this off season. Prior to the pingpong balls falling Buffalo's way, it was expected that second-year GM Jason Botterill would overhaul his roster and here's what Friedman had to say, “I think they’re looking at tearing that team down right to the studs. And you know what? If they get Dahlin that makes it easier for them to do.”

Unlike the previous off season when he overhauled mostly the bottom portion of the lineup to the tune of nine different faces in the opening night lineup, an angry Botterill indicated that a continued overhaul may include some core players. "When you finish where we were," he said to the gathered media at his end of season presser, "you have to look at everything. That means looking at even changing up some of our core players."

Speculation as to who he meant immediately began swirling around Sabreland with those waves rippling through much of the NHL.

First on the list was center Ryan O'Reilly. The veteran center was the team's highest paid player last season and continued to put up typical O'Reilly numbers when all was said and done. Many feel that he is somewhat the antithesis of what Botterill wants in his players as his skating is good but not great. In addition to that, when O'Reilly confessed at locker cleanout that "throughout the year I lost the love of the game multiple times," his honesty caught many off guard. A quote like has a way of sending shockwaves through the organization, as well as the NHL, and had some wondering whether it was his way of saying he wanted out of Buffalo.

Right-handed defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has had a rough go of it the last few years in Buffalo and has been hit from all sides. The team leader in average time on ice is getting hit from the analytics community for his poor advanced stats, the eye test will tell you that he's been struggling most of the time and lately he's being taken to task in the media. Ristolainen has been a part of this losing culture in Buffalo, perhaps not a cause but still a part of it, and many are wondering how it has affected his game.

Forward Sam Reinhart is the third player that's most talked about as a possible core change. The former second-overall pick had two solid seasons before slumping mightily in the 2017 portion of the schedule this year. From January 1 on, however, Reinhart put together a marvelous second half that saw him finish the season with career highs in goals (25) and points (50.)

Of note, Reinhart is 22 yrs. old, Ristolainen 23 and O'Reilly is 27.

Much of the anger and frustration reverberating through Sabreland came during the period directly after the season ended when there were dire remarks emanating from some sour faces as well as an agitated Botterill up at the podium clearly unhappy with his team and their performance.

Then the numbers 1-4-14 came up, followed by the No. 6 which, ironically, bumped out the No. 11 to give the Sabres the lotto win. The No. 11 was the Sabres winning number on the wheel back in 1970 when they and they and fellow expansion team the Vancouver Canucks were in the running for the first-overall pick and the opportunity to draft junior phenom, Gilbert Perreault. And, as pointed out by Let'sGoAmerks on twitter, the 6-ball knocked the 11-ball wide to the right before heading up the tube. The No. 11 was worn by Scott Norwood when his game-winning field goal in the Buffalo Bills first Super Bowl appearance sailed wide right. Is the curse finally over?

With the lottery win, the Sabres will be able to select Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick. Dahlin has been called "special," or some variation thereof, by everyone who's seen him play and his highlight's (some seen below via Kryptz on YouTube) are off the charts. He's looked at as a franchise defenseman, has been called the Connor McDavid of the blueline and his presence means that the Sabres defense will fall into place behind him.

That's important as the Sabres were a team with many holes, including the need for a true No. 1 or at the very least top-pairing defenseman. Dahlin is a plug-n-play in the top-four and it shouldn't take long for him to be moved into the top-pairing. Or so most of us think.

With that in mind, it was assumed that either O'Reilly or Reinhart would be traded for a top-four defenseman or that maybe the Sabres could put together a deal for a top-two d-man. With Dahlin, Buffalo can now focus upon a glaring weakness on the wing in the top-six, more specifically on the left side. 

Here's where it gets kind of dicey.

Reinhart plays right wing and most look at him as a top-six winger with possible top-line upside. Moving him for a winger doesn't make a lot of sense unless we're talking about a (hopefully) better player. But even if that happened, it would create a hole on the right side.

Ristolainen could possibly be moved for wing help and most think that he'd get a good return. Yet, that leaves a hole on the right side of the defense.

That leaves us with Ryan O'Reilly, who's become a polarizing figure amongst the fan-base. O'Reilly isn't the fleetest of foot, he really doesn't seem to make his linemates better, and it seems as if he may have plateaued in the scoring department. Yet, he falls into the top-two category for centers and as fans in Buffalo know, those are hard to come by.

It's expected that eventually Casey Mittelstadt will take over the No. 2 center role behind Eichel, but as of right now, he's still an unknown quantity having played in only six NHL games. He did well in those games, but there are plenty of players who look great then fall back. Trading O'Reilly at this point means that it's into the fire for Mittelstadt which might not be the best for his development.

Although Botterill did say the Sabres will "be involved" in free agency they're not expected to be big players and he quickly qualified his involvement by saying, "But I'm a believer that you just can't build a team just through free agency. It has to come from within our organization."

Past regimes have traded away good, talented players and the Sabres as of late haven't been able to accumulate enough of those to climb beyond a 23rd place finish. Last season they were forced to move Evander Kane for a number of reasons with most believing that ownership did not want him and his off-ice problems re-signed.

All of O'Reilly, Reinhart and Ristolainen are good players. All of them have their faults, especially when looked through the lens of these past few seasons, but they're also well regarded throughout the league.

What the draft lottery win does for Botterill is allow him to take a step back and have another look at his roster now that the dust has settled and the sun breaking through the clouds. It's still probable that one of those three will be moved, despite Dahlin, but there's no pressure to trade any of them. .

However, that the Sabres don't need to trade any of them at this juncture changes the equation and puts them in a better position to maximize the return should they choose to do so. In the very least, Dahlin is impacting the club already by putting the Sabres in a position of strength from in trade scenarios.

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