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O’Reilly: Sabres adopted mindset of ‘being OK with losing’

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Ryan O'Reilly was unable to hide his dejection as he acknowledged that the Sabres’ latest last-place finish led him to question his love for hockey.

If that wasn’t enough, the high-priced center accused the Sabres of adopting a mindset of “being OK with losing.”

“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said Monday, two days after Buffalo closed one of its worst seasons in franchise history. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”

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Losing is all O’Reilly knows in the three seasons since being acquired in a trade with Colorado, after which the Sabres signed him to a seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension.

Rather than being part of a rebuilding plan, which included Buffalo selecting Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, O’Reilly and company find themselves back at square one. They became the NHL’s first team to finish 31st – following this year’s addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – after back-to-back 30th-place finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-’15.

This year’s collapse is considerably worse given that Buffalo’s trajectory was supposed to be trending upward under the new regime of general manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley. They took over last spring after the Sabres underachieved in finishing 26th under GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma

“We have to evaluate everything, coaching staff, the players. What are they willing to change?” Housley said. “There comes a point in your career where you have to realize what’s important. Obviously, winning, what it takes to win, the commitment to win in this league. And that’s what we talk about change.”

Very little went right in a season Buffalo opened 1-5-2 and closed 2-9, extending the franchise’s longest playoff drought to a seventh straight year.

Buffalo matched a franchise low for home wins by going 11-25-5, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers in the Winter Classic at New York City. The Sabres finished last in the NHL with 199 goals scored, 91 goals at home and in being outscored by 81 goals.

Their best run was a three-game win streak, all on the road, while the Sabres went winless over four or more games seven times, including an 0-5-2 skid from Nov. 10-22.

The reality of how bad the Sabres were, set in at the midpoint of the season for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

“It was around Christmas and we were done, and we still had 40 games to play,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone wants to make the playoffs so bad, and we weren’t even close.”

LIKING EICH

Eichel led Buffalo with a career-best 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games, despite missing 15 games with a sprained right ankle. Much more is expected next season when Eichel’s eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in.

“Things will get better and it starts with me,” Eichel said. “Everybody needs to look at themselves and figure out what they’re doing. Obviously, whatever I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. What we’ve been doing as a team hasn’t been working.”

DOWN ON THE FARM

While the Sabres are done, their AHL Rochester Americans affiliate qualified for the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Americans feature several Sabres prospects being counted upon to play in Buffalo full-time next season including forward Alexander Nylander, defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark.

FREE AGENTS

The Sabres have a decision to make in goal with starter Robin Lehner set to become a restricted free agent and backup Chad Johnson eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The team’s other pending unrestricted free agents include forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Nolan, and defenseman Josh Gorges.

Forward Sam Reinhart, who scored a career-best 25 goals, completed his three-year entry level contract and eligible to be a restricted free agent.

OFF TO THE WORLDS

Rookie first-round draft pick Casey Mittelstadt accepted Hockey USA’s invitation to compete at the world championships in Denmark next month. Mittelstadt signed with Buffalo last month after completing his freshman season at Minnesota. The center won a bronze medal representing the U.S. at the World Junior hockey championships in January.

INJURIES

Lehner visited a specialist Monday to assess a lower body injury that forced him to miss the final five games. D Zach Bogosian expects to be cleared to skate by June after having season-ending hip surgery in January.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Maple Leafs drop fourth in a row with loss to Sabres

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It was pretty obvious as early as November that Buffalo Sabres probably weren’t going to end their playoff drought this season and that it was going to be another lost year in their ongoing rebuild.

It’s been tough. At times ugly.

The exception to that has come over the past week or two as they have put together a pretty solid stretch of games that continued on Monday night with a pretty solid 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Buffalo has now won four of its past six games with three of those wins coming against three of the top teams in the NHL — the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and on Monday, the Maple Leafs.

Five different Sabres scored goals in the win, while Jason Pominville, Sam Reinhart, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Ryan O'Reilly all had two points in the win.

For Toronto the loss wraps up what turned out to be a pretty ugly road trip that saw them lose all four games. After earning at least a point by losing in overtime to Tampa Bay and Florida to begin the trip, the Maple Leafs were blown out in the Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy against the Washington Capitals then ended the trip with Monday’s clunker.

Frederik Andersen, who has been a workhorse for the Maple Leafs in net this season (maybe a little too much), struggled on Monday by giving up five goals on the 24 shots he faced.

At the other end of the ice Chad Johnson stopped 37 of the 40 shots he faced for the Sabres in the win.

The loss does not really hurt the Maple Leafs all that much because they are pretty firmly positioned in that third spot in the Atlantic Division. They are only three points back of the Boston Bruins for second place, but have played six more games than the Bruins. They remain 15 points ahead of the fourth-place Florida Panthers.

Related: Ryan O’Reilly gets an accidental assist from the referee (Video)

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

Fantasy impact of 2018 NHL Trade Deadline: East

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The 2018 NHL trade deadline provided some serious fireworks, even though Erik Karlsson and Max Pacioretty didn’t move.

Over the next two days, PHT will assess the deadline from a fantasy standpoint. Today, we begin with the East. Look out for the West edition on Friday.

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Boston Bruins: Rick Nash is looking good so far, continuing to fire a high volume of shots (10 SOG in his first two Bruins games, one resulting in a sweet goal). At the moment, he’s skating with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, not too extreme a drop-off from Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello in New York.

Buffalo Sabres: Sheesh, with Evander Kane traded and Jack Eichel injured, who’s going to score for Buffalo? Ryan O'Reilly and Jason Pominville?

At least the Sabres have no choice but to turtle ahead of two pending free agent goalies in Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson. I wouldn’t expect many W’s, but maybe they’ll have high-save nights for those spot starting goalies? (Yes, I agree with your “Meh.”)

Carolina Hurricanes: *cricket chirps*

Columbus Blue Jackets: Thomas Vanek gets a golden opportunity to prove he’s still worth something, or at least able to cosplay as 2016-17 Sam Gagner, what with his spot on the Blue Jackets’ top power-play unit.

Detroit Red Wings: Seems like Tyler Bertuzzi will be the biggest winner of the Tomas Tatar trade, as Tatar’s most common linemates were Dylan Larkin (by a large margin) and Andreas Athanasiou.

While his injury might make the point moot, Mike Green staying with the Red Wings might not be such a bad thing for his fantasy value. On a contender, Green would probably see fewer minutes, and be more of a specialist. In Detroit, he seems more likely to get those specialist PP minutes while also receiving something closer to a featured role overall.

Florida Panthers: Frank Vatrano could be interesting in an elevated role, once healthy … but not exactly a busy trade deadline for the Cats. Then again, with all the turbulence lately, it’s almost certainly wisest to aim for some stability.

Although Max Pacioretty would have been a lot of fun, if that ever was going to happen without Vincent Trocheck going the other way …

Montreal Canadiens: Patches might have benefited from a breath of fresh air. Even so, Habs fans get to let out a sigh of relief that Marc Bergevin didn’t bungle another trade.

New Jersey Devils: Via Left Wing Lock, Patrick Maroon might begin on the Devils’ fourth line with Brian Boyle and Blake Coleman. I’d imagine that’s to allow Maroon to get accustomed to a new team?

Michael Grabner‘s currently on a third line with Travis Zajac and Stefan Noesen. There’s no doubt that Ray Shero’s latest slew of trades were made to improve depth, but I’d imagine the Devils would probably like to see those two forwards eventually solidify the top nine, with one of them ideally on the first or second line.

Maroon owners might already be nostalgic for the Connor McDavid days.

New York Islanders: *Cricket takes out a billboard that says “chirp”*

New York Rangers: Ryan Spooner hearts NY. So far in two games, the underrated former-Bruin has five assists, including three from last night. Vladislav Namestnikov looked great in his Rangers debut, too, scoring a goal and an assist.

Both forwards are in contract years and should get nice opportunities on a team in transition, so they are both nice deeper league options.

Ottawa Senators: Life might be weird for Erik Karlsson after not getting moved, but he’ll probably pile up points just the same. Exhibit A:

Sure, there were scenarios in which Karlsson would generate better numbers on a contender. He’d be less likely to deal with teammates going through the motions and might simply have better players to set up.

Still, there’s always an adjustment in going to a new team, especially for a star. So it’s not all great or all bad for Karlsson owners.

Philadelphia Flyers: Tough to gripe too much with staying the course when this team is positioned so strongly, even after ignoring calls for change after a 10-game losing streak. News flash: Ron Hextall is pretty good at this GM’ing thing.

Pittsburgh Penguins: It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Penguins experiment with different alignments regarding Derick Brassard, especially when you consider how comfortable they are moving wingers around Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

You wonder if Mike Sullivan might also experiment with Brassard on one of the top two lines, even if it’s just to take a look. That would be the ideal scenario for fantasy, as playing on the third line could be a slight issue for Brassard, although those worries are mitigated by Phil Kessel currently joining him (and, hey, Conor Sheary isn’t chopped liver either).

Tampa Bay Lightning: We may need to wait a bit for returns on the big trade. Both Ryan McDonagh and Nikita Kucherov are injured. The Bolts lost to the lowly Sabres last night, and maybe worse, they were noticeably out-shot.

The dream scenario for J.T. Miller owners is that he’d eventually just slide into Namestnikov’s usual role as “Good Player Who Looks Great next to Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.” Right now it’s just sort of a mess, although Tyler Johnson isn’t the worst consolation prize.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Much like the Bolts with Kucherov, things are a little funky in Toronto with Auston Matthews out.

Tomas Plekanec‘s a decent pick up, yet he’s not really expected to light scoreboards on fire. That said, depending upon linemates, he could get a boost. We’ll see, but I wouldn’t scramble to add him in typical leagues, either.

I mean, unless you need to win the coveted turtlenecks category.

Washington Capitals: Rumors have it that the Capitals at least dipped their toes in the water re: Erik Karlsson and Ryan McDonagh. Instead, they’re not making a splash after doing so during many recent deadlines.

That’s probably most heartening to John Carlson, who won’t even need to fend off an aging Mike Green as he continues to pile up numbers in a contract year. He already has 50 points this season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Nugent-Hopkins for Hoffman makes sense; OAR dominate Slovenia

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Team USA veterans like Brian Gionta and Matt Gilroy have helped young players feel comfortable. (NBC Olympics)

• Slovenia managed to beat Team USA, but they weren’t so fortunate against the Olympic Athletes of Russia. (NBC Olympics)

• The puck used to score Korea’s first goal at the Olympics is heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Yonhap News)

• American Matt McIlvane has the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of Team Germany’s coaching staff. (NBC Olympics)

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

• The Kings probably won’t have to make a trade to get an offensive boost, as Jeff Carter is closing in on a return. (LA Times)

• A trade involving Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mike Hoffman makes a lot of sense for the Sens and Oilers. (TSN.ca)

• It’s been a rough year for the Blackhawks, but it looks like they have a plan moving forward. (ESPN)

• Dave Lozo writes an interesting piece about how every team should make the playoffs! (Vice Sports)

• Sabres could Chad Johnson could be on the move before the trade deadline. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• How will Lightning GM Steve Yzerman approach the trade deadline? (Raw Charge)

• Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers has a hard time scoring on breakaways. (Jets Nation)

Zach Werenski showed off his elite vision while shopping for furniture. (1st Ohio Battery)

• Here’s the story of a young hockey player that left Canaan to come to Canada to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL. (Times of Israel)

• Certain Sabres have stepped up in Jack Eichel‘s absence. (Die By the Blade)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.