Published by hockeybuzz.com, 8-4-2018
There's a lot of excitement in Buffalo these days and there should be as Sabres GM Jason Botterill seems to be on a roll in building a team to his liking.
The 42 yr. old Botterill spent just about 10 yrs. in a very successful Pittsburgh Penguins organization that saw him climb from their director of hockey administration upon his hire July 17, 2007 to GM Jim Rutherford's right-hand man in 2014. Botterill was labeled by the Penguins 2016-17 media guide as the "key architect of the Penguins 2009 and 2016 Stanley Cup championship titles" and he left the Penguins for Buffalo in April, 2017 just before they celebrated another Stanley Cup. Rutherford and the team invited Botterill on the ice to celebrate with the team after their Cup-clinching victory.
No one outside of Botterill and his confidants know what kind of team he thought he had heading into the 2017-18 season in Buffalo but by his reactions throughout the season, especially during abysmal home games by his team, it might be safe to say that he thought his Sabres had a lot more to offer than a last place finish. Although it's not outside the realm of possibility that higher powers in the organization were intent upon another tank season, if that was their design it was a well kept secret.
Regardless of whether or not there was a design involved, the Buffalo Sabres finished last for the third time in five seasons. However, Lady Luck smiled upon them as the NHL Draft Lottery gave them the winning combination and the first overall pick in the NHL Draft. With that pick they selected a potential franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin.
That was a biggie for the organization as Dahlin will eventually be looked at as a true No. 1 defenseman in Buffalo. Having a player like that anchor the entire defense allows the rest, beginning with Rasmus Ristolainen, to fall into a better spot more attuned to where there talent-level and/or potential is.
Which is great, but it's probably not enough to move them much farther than the mid-upper reaches of the bottom-third in the league.
Botterill pressed on this summer with his desire to add more team speed, bolster an extremely deficient left wing position and add more 5v5 scoring. He started that journey by trading a conditional fourth round pick to his former team for left wing Connor Sheary. "We were looking to improve our even-strength scoring and we had to try to get a little bit in scoring from our wingers," said Botterill of the trade for Sheary, "He creates a lot of chances out there."
Sheary was an undrafted free agent who had a banner year in 2016-17 scoring 23 goals and 53 points in only 61 games but his production dropped significantly last season (79 games, 18 goals, 30 points) and he was deemed expendable by the Penguins. In Buffalo he'll be looked at as a top-nine winger and will get an opportunity to skate beside either Jack Eichel or rookie Casey Mittelstadt.
There are a lot of questions with Sheary and the trade for him didn't significantly move the needle on Buffalo's playoff hopes.
Nor did the trade of Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and rookie Tage Thompson. Berglund and Sobotka are 30 and 31 yrs. old, respectively, and will help solidify the forward group. From an offensive standpoint, Berglund has cracked the 20-goal mark only once in the past six seasons while Sobotka never has. However, they're both versatile and are well respected in the locker room.
Thompson is a rookie who may, because of his waiver-exempt status, end up starting the season in Rochester should not enough room be created for him this off season. The 20 yr. old right winger has all the tools of a future top-six player, and was promised a shot at that in Buffalo this year, but may end up being a numbers casualty as the Sabres may have their top-two spots locked up once Sam Reinhart is re-signed. The question then will be which is a better place for Thompson's development? In the bottom six in Buffalo or in the top-six in Rochester?
That trade with St. Louis seemed to be more about trading O'Reilly and his hefty contract while changing the locker room dynamics. Botterill probably maximized a return that focused more upon futures (Thompson, 2019 first round pick and a 2021 second rounder) than it was about moving the needle this season. But when you add the veteran presence, plus versatility, of Berglund and Sobotka along with Dahlin and Sheary to a young core featuring Eichel, Mittelstadt, Sam Reinhart and Ristolainen, it gives the look of a team that could make a strong push to rise up the lower third of the league.
The trade for Jeff Skinner, however, does have a significant impact for this upcoming season.
Skinner is that quick, top-six, even-strength scoring winger Botterill and the Sabres were looking for. The two-time 30-goal scorer and perennial 20-goal winger scored 89 goals the last three season tying him for 12th in the league over that span. And from Jonathan Willis, Skinner "tied with Connor McDavid for seventh in even-strength goals over that span, one back of Nikita Kucherov and two back of Sidney Crosby."
It would seem as if Skinner was in the doghouse in Carolina under two different coaches as they tried to get him more defensively focused. His coach the last four seasons was Bill Peters and during that time Skinner spent the majority of his time with centers Victor Rask and Derek Ryan. Most think that a spot on the wing with either Eichel or Mittelstadt will get him to that 30-goal level again. It's a situation that might place them firmly in the No. 20 or so range with playoff hopes if...
And there's the rub.
The Sabres are in "If-land" right now when it comes to the playoffs for a team that finished with 62 points. The 20th place team in the league last year was the Calgary Flames with 84 points. They finished 11 points out of a playoff spot in the western conference with two teams between them and the Colorado Avalanche who secured the second wild card spot.
Carolina, ironically, finished 21st in the eastern conference with 83 points. They finished sixth in the Atlantic division, 15 points behind the third place Philadelphia Flyers and 14 points behind the owners of the second wild card spot in the east, the New Jersey Devils.
For perspective, the Sabres probably would need to up their total from last season to 96 this year to make it into the playoffs as a wild card. That 34 points represents 17 more wins for the club.
Is it possible?
Recent history dictates that it can be done. The aforementioned Avalanche finished the 2016-17 season in last place with 48 points. This year they completed a remarkable turnaround with a 95 point season.
For the Sabres to do it we'll immerse ourselves in the land of if's--
--If 32 yr. old late-bloomer Carter Hutton and rookie Linus Ullmark can at the very least put up a mid-league goals-against average and move them from the league's third-worst goals-against team, that will help.
--If Dahlin can anchor that defense and the others can feel more comfortable in lesser but important roles and...
--if Zach Bogosian can stay healthy the majority of the time and...
--if Ristolainen can settle into a No. 2/3 role and...
--if Marco Scandella can continue, or up, his game from last season and...
--if Jake McCabe can stay healthy and Casey Nelson can fill that bottom-half role,
the defense will have improved immensely.
--If head coach Phil Housley can activate his defense with Dahlin, Ristolainen, Bogosian and, possibly, rookie Brendan Guhle contributing more on offense, the league's worst goal-scoring team will get a significant boost which will help the forward ranks.
--If Skinner can hit that 30 goal mark and Sheary can hit 20 and...
--if Kyle Okposo can shake off that injury-enveloped 2017-18 season and reach that 20+ goal mark and...
--if Eichel can stay healthy and play in more than 67 games while also taking on a leadership role while using all of his faculties to cover the entire ice surface while also scoring at that hear point/game pace he was on during the past two injury-shortened seasons and...
--if Reinhart can continue to progress in his game and production and...
--if Berglund and Sobotka and maximize their roles as versatile two-way players and...
--if they can cobble out a strong checking line that can contribute somewhat on offense..
that will help their scoring.
--If they can improve on a powerplay that dropped from first to 20th last season and if they can solidify a penalty kill that was 22nd in the league last season, that will help too.
Perhaps most important is Housley who will be entering his second season as head coach. If he can get all the parts moving in the proper direction...
the Sabres will be in playoff contention.
But that's a lot of if's.