Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Despite acquiring forward help, Sabres still have gaping holes at LW

Published by, 7-3-2018

Buffalo Sabres fans should be somewhat happy about some of the moves GM Jason Botterill has made recently. Then again, shattered dreams of big returns for the likes of Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly may have soured their outlook as Botterill could only manage a pretty good combined return for the two. After all, he's no Darcy Regier. Right?

In all Botterill did well as he received two first round picks, a second, a conditional fourth rounder and two forward prospects--Danny O'Regan and Tage Thompson--in return for Kane and O'Reilly but those are futures Heading into this season, Botterill has a lot of work to do despite bringing in  some NHL forwards via trades.

The Sabres are center and right wing heavy right now and will need to rely on the notion that some of the centers they drafted and acquired can fill in at left wing. Jack Eichel is Buffalo's No. 1 center followed by Casey Mittelstadt who has top-six center written all over him but at 19 yrs. old is still raw. Despite having a high hockey IQ, upper-level skills and a determination to his game that should have him projected out as at least a No. 2 center, there's a lot to learn at the NHL-level and he may be in for a crash-course this season.

Behind those two are an array of centers both drafted and signed, homegrown and acquired, vets, young vets, rookies and prospects. Patrick Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka both came over in the O'Reilly trade and are centers by trade but can also play the wing. Undrafted Evan Rodrigues (2015) is also a versatile forward who can play wing and center. He's been in the Sabres organization for three full seasons and based upon last seasons results, he looks like he'll be a much better center than winger. The opposite could be said about Sam Reinhart. The 2014 second-overall pick was drafted as a center but in his three seasons in Buffalo he's proven to be more effective on the right side than at center.

Moving down the depth chart to the bottom-six and into the reserves, both Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons have been used in the Nos. 3 and 4 center slots with Larsson spending a good amount as a No. 3 and Girgensons being moved up and down the lineup bouncing back and forth from center to wing.

Some names also on the list of centers in the Sabres organization include Sean Malone who has been working his way up through the system. But with the logjam in front of him the second year pro will probably be slated for Rochester despite his impressive play as a rookie for the Amerks last season. Rookie centers Rasmus Asplund and Cliff Pu, as well as 2018 college free agent Andrew Oglevie (Notre Dame,) will be making their pro debuts this season and even if any of them had a monster camp, they're probably ticketed for Rochester for a year or more of seasoning.

Although Buffalo's right side isn't great, it's decent as Reinhart, Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville look to be locks with the lone open spot being filled by any number of players

However, the left side is a different story as necessity dictates that some of the aforementioned will be moved to the left wing. The trading of Kane sent away Buffalo's only legit top-six left winger and in his stead a myriad of players from the departed Benoit Pouliot to Girgensons, Scott Wilson and Rodrigues all logged big minutes on the left side with little production to show for it. It was an area of focus for Botterill to begin the off season and he tapped his old team to land a top-nine left winger in Conor Sheary.

Sheary was an undrafted free agent who worked his way up the Pittsburgh Penguins system to a spot in the top-six scoring 53 points (23+30) in 61 games before falling off last season. Botterill knows him well and told the gathered media after the trade, "We were looking to improve our even-strength scoring and we had to try to get a little bit in scoring from our wingers…especially at even strength. He creates a lot of chances out there."

Where Sheary ultimately succeeds on the left side is to be determined but as of right now, he's the team's top left winger and if things stay as they are, come opening night he might be on Eichel's left side.

Behind Sheary is a mish-mash of forwards/wingers who coach Phil Housley will use to fill in the holes and barring a trade, Berglund might be the leading candidate to land in the top-six on the left side. Which may not be a bad thing as the 30 yr. old vet could be placed on Mittelstadt's wing (with maybe Okposo on the right) offering some protection for the kid as he maneuvers his way through his first full pro season. A move like that could also put also Rodrigues back in a more favorable position as the team's No. 3 center.

The No. 3 left wing slot is a tough call with many different possibilities. The 'old guard' would constitute a group including Wilson, Girgensons, Larsson and even Sobotka with the possibility that Housley could drop any of  those three down a line to make room for a rookie like C.J. Smith should he have a strong camp.

Smith was an undrafted free agent signed out of UMass-Lowell in 2017 and just finished a very successful rookie campaign in Rochester scoring 44 points (17+27) in 57 games for the Amerks. Although Smith doesn't have ideal size, he's got plenty of skill and chutzpah, is a solid two-way player, has a strong work ethic and plays the game fast with plenty of determination.

2016 eighth-overall pick Alexander Nylander has been getting plenty of work on the left side but unfortunately for him and the organization, it hasn't gone swimmingly. Leeway should be given to the 20 yr. old as he went directly from Mississauga of the WHL to the pro ranks as one of the youngest players in the AHL his first year, and it didn't help that he was sidelined by an injury that cost him training camp and the first six weeks of the 2017-18 season. Although he did make solid progress once he got his footing last season, where once he was looked at as a possible top-line left-winger for the Amerks, now he's just being looked for heading into this year's training camp.

There was hope that 2013 second round pick Justin Bailey also could make the switch from right wing to left, but that hasn't progressed as well as he or the team would have liked. The big powerforward has the size and speed to play the NHL game but hasn't found the skill or consistency yet. The 23 yr. old, is a restricted free agent is out of waiver options so this off season and training camp represent a major crossroad in his career.

As laid out with Sheary, Berglund, Smith and the rest as possibilities for the top-nine, there's plenty of room for upgrades at left wing but as of now that probably won't come from within, unless Nylander can find the incredible skill that lies within him. The Sabres do have some talent and serious skill in the form of left-winger Victor Olofsson, but the soon to be 23 yr. old is just coming over from the SHL and is considered more of a powerplay specialist at this point in his career. Many have pointed to Thompson but he was drafted as a center and played mostly in the right side if not on the dot.

That's about it for the foreseeable future on the Sabres at left wing. With all that said, this might be what the Sabres are looking at right now:


One of Girgensons or Larsson might be headed for a reserve role (with the other one on the outs) while Nylander and Olofsson will probably start the season in Rochester.

Of note:  Restricted free agents Reinhart, Smith, Bailey, Malone and Baptiste were all qualified by the club.

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