Evander Kane

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Jack Eichel is ‘sick of losing,’ so what can the Sabres do?

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If you look at the Buffalo Sabres’ 0-3-1 record and blast Jack Eichel‘s $10 million extension,* then you might be part of what’s making the rising star so frustrated.

After Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, Eichel had enough, as the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports.

Harrington gets it right in describing Eichel’s comments as a mic drop.

Jack and little else

Commend Eichel for absorbing some of the blame, but consider this: his line with Jason Pominville and Evander Kane have scored all nine of the Sabres’ goals so far this season. (Eichel has a goal and four assists, Kane scored four goals and two assists, and Pominville has four goals plus a helper.)

It’s pretty easy to see that the Sabres need more from the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, who has an assist and is doing well in the dot … but that’s about it. He’s suffering from uncharacteristically bad possession stats and hasn’t scored a goal despite firing nine SOG in four games.

Ultimately, as bad as having one line scoring all nine of your goals might be, the 18 goals allowed stand as the bigger concern.

Defensive lapses

It’s just four games, but the Sabres are getting absolutely shellacked from a puck possession standpoint, with the fourth-worst Corsi For rating standing as just one example. If that’s too sophisticated for you, Buffalo’s been on the wrong side of the shots battle in three of four contests.

To some extent, the Sabres might be making some missteps in assessing who to put on the ice.

For example: Rasmus Ristolainen probably isn’t the guy you want playing 26+ minutes per night, far and away the most of any Sabres skater so far. Even with an average of 4:35 power-play TOI, he’s their even-strength leader, too.

Ristolainen has been criticized heavily by the fancy stats community, and his 2016-17 HERO chart provides a Halloween-worthy snapshot of why:

via Dom Galamini

Check out that miniature shot suppression bar … yikes.

Ristolainen shouldn’t be singled out as the only struggling Sabres player, though. His current numbers look a lot better than those of addition Marco Scandella, who is just under siege so far to start his Buffalo days.

Looking through the team, Canadiens castoff Nathan Beaulieu might be part of the solution, although he’s already pressed into a lot of action averaging 20 minutes per night. Sabres fans might also have to stomach the occasional gaffe; hopefully most won’t be as egregious as this “assist” to John Tavares:

With Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson out of town in favor of Beaulieu and Scandella, it remains to be seen if Buffalo will make that much of an improvement on defense.

If management can add help, that would be great, but they’d need to get in line with, oh, 30 other NHL teams who are sniffing around for defensemen.

New coach

Which brings us to the most important would-be difference-maker: Phil Housley.

Let’s not forget that the Sabres have a new regime installed, and while there are times when teams ride fast and loose with that “new car smell,” there are other times when teams stall to begin.

Housley has the right idea in having an attack-minded approach; that seems to be both in keeping with the trends in the modern NHL and in acknowledging the makeup of this team. The key is to execute on such ideas.

Net gains?

Of course, to some extent, it hinges on having the Sabres’ goalies bail the defense out on occasions.

The good news in that regard is that both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson have track records that indicate that better work will come. Especially since they both have the motivation of contract years to keep them alert.

At the moment, Lehner has a .901 save percentage, which essentially translates to “weak backup.” His career save percentage is .917, while he’s been even more impressive in Buffalo with a .921 average over 84 games.

Goalies can be fickle beasts, but it seems like a reasonable gamble to expect more from Lehner and Johnson (who has a solid career average of .914).

***

Long story short, the Sabres have a lot of work to do, and some problems seem easier to fix than others.

More than anything else, Sabres fans and Eichel alike might need to practice patience as best they can.

* – Which, you know, technically doesn’t kick in until next 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.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Catch up on Bruins, Sabres, Red Wings, more (PHT’s Atlantic Division preview)

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Between August’s “Team of the Day” series and all the other articles that gets published, Pro Hockey Talk generates a ton of material to get you hyped for the 2017-18 season.

With that in mind, it’s understandable if you missed some great stuff. While these collections aren’t comprehensive, consider these divisional previews to be a good way to get hyped for the rapidly approaching season.

For the PHT’s staff picks, click here.

Boston Bruins

Poll/looking to make the leap/

In more immediate Bruins news, Bergeron and Backes seem a little banged-up.

Buffalo Sabres

Poll/looking to make the leap

Detroit Red Wings

Poll/looking to make the leap/

Florida Panthers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Montreal Canadiens

Poll/looking to make the leap

In more immediate news, the Habs made a minor trade.

… And another one:

Ottawa Senators

Poll/looking to make the leap

Tampa Bay Lightning

Poll/looking to make the leap

Toronto Maple Leafs

Poll/looking to make the leap

Sabres’ salary cap outlook with Jack Eichel’s massive extension

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PHT already discussed whether Jack Eichel is really worth $80 million over eight years for the Buffalo Sabres. Although the short answer is “Yes,” there’s room for debate, so click here for more.

Fair or not, many hockey fans will judge Eichel based upon how the Sabres fare as a team; if they remain also-rans, big numbers might not save Eichel from taking the heat for his $10M cap hit.

Really, though, Eichel will need some help. Let’s take a look at the structure of this Sabres team to see where the strengths lie, the big decisions ahead, and the red flags waving in front of our faces.

This is part of a running series at PHT, so click here for more salary cap breakdowns.

Long-term commitments

Eichel’s contract extension won’t kick in until 2018-19, so the Sabres get one more year of rookie-deal savings before they pay up. His extension expires after 2025-26; the Sabres own Eichel’s prime years, so it will be fascinating to watch the ups and downs.

Eichel joins a few other lengthy commitments. Ryan O'Reilly, 26, isn’t cheap with a $7.5M cap hit. He’s a borderline Selke-worthy two-way forward who’s still in his prime, and it’s unlikely that he’ll regress sharply during this current deal, which runs for six more seasons.

At worst, “ROR” is a “$5 shake.”

Kyle Okposo, 29, carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23. It’s tough to beat up too much on the winger considering how comforting it is that Okposo is OK after his health scares. Okposo’s a solid guy right now, assuming he’s healthy, but that could be a problem deal.

Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4M for five more seasons) is a fascinating case. On one hand, he scored 45 points at the ripe age of 22. On the other hand, he’s framed as a disaster in his own end; TSN’s Travis Yost listed him as a “dud” from an analytics standpoint. You might not find a better case of perception … unless “eye test” types aren’t impressed, either?

The Sabres boast two other mid-range guys with expensive, three-year deals: Zach Bogosian and Marco Scandella. That’s almost $10M in debatable defensemen (though they both could help, even if one or both might be overpriced).

Off the books soon

Jason Pominville ($5.6M) and Matt Moulson ($5M) are two aging wingers whose contracts expire after two more seasons. Pominville has more to offer going forward, but you’d think that management is keen on transferring many of those dollars to younger players.

Josh Gorges only has one year remaining on his $3.9M, so as much as Eichel adds to the bottom line, Buffalo is ridding itself of some problems soon.

You almost wonder if Buffalo might accept a bad expiring deal or two if this season goes wrong, just to gain riches soon enough?

Big choices

Robin Lehner can be a scary dude. The 26-year-old has also shown flashes of serious brilliance as a goalie. He’s in a contract year, so the Sabres must decide if the intimidating netminder is a part of the future or not.

Chad Johnson backs him up with a one-year deal of his own.

Evander Kane, 26, faces quite the crossroads in his career, as his $5.25M cap hit will expire after 2016-17. Kane is on the short list of players who future value is difficult to determine; seriously, what kind of contract do you expect for the power forward? Years and term both stand as tough to determine.

Growth areas

The Sabres have some interesting guys on two-year deals: Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe, Nathan Beaulieu, and others could be key fixtures or short-term guys.

Naturally, the Sabres also have some other young players, with Alex Nylander and Sam Reinhart being make-or-break types. Buffalo’s been enjoying some strong draft picks while adding some potential foundational pieces; the crucial thing, then, is to actually develop some of them into difference-makers.

***

Cap Friendly places Buffalo’s 2018-19 cap spending at $56.56M with Eichel’s deal in mind. That provides some serious room to maneuver, even if the ceiling remains flat at $75M.

Despite this huge investment, the Sabres’ new management has room to operate. They have some nice pieces and a worry or two. Some crucial decisions and serious progress (or failed developments) may determine if Buffalo can really contend.

David Pastrnak is a star and the Bruins should be willing to pay him like one

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As training camps draw closer all eyes in the NHL are starting to turn to the situation in Boston where restricted free agent David Pastrnak remains unsigned.

According to general manager Don Sweeney, there is no timetable on when a deal is going to be reached and there seems to be a bit of a gap between the two sides when it comes to the type of contract Pastrnak is going to get.

The Bruins have reportedly offered a seven-year deal worth around $6 million per year, while Pastrnak would reportedly prefer a deal closer to the eight-year pact Leon Draisaitl received from the Edmonton Oilers. Given their ages and overall production to this point, as well as the market for RFA’s of that skill level, it is not a completely unreasonable ask.

There are a couple of problems for the Bruins here, and a big one is simply the optics of the situation.

The Bruins have a 21-year-old player that appears to be on the verge of stardom in the NHL. He not only can be a young, cornerstone offensive player, he already is one. They also have more than enough salary cap room to fit him in.

What keeps the Bruins from getting the benefit of the doubt in this situation (at least from this perspective) is the track record they have in dealing with young, cornerstone offensive players. They tend to toss them aside, having traded Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Seguin and standout defenseman Dougie Hamilton all within the past 12 years (and with three different general managers completing those trades). It creates the perception that the organization as a whole doesn’t properly value high end talent and would rather trade it away — often times for pennies on the dollar — than pay market value to keep it.

The argument against paying Pastrnak a deal similar to the one Draisaitl received, for example, is that the team is paying for potential. He might not pan out. It might not be a great value.

Pastrnak at this point in his career has one monster season and a couple of half seasons where he flashed star potential.

But his production puts him in some pretty rare and special company when it comes to impact players.

Over the past 20 years there have only been 10 players that have appeared in at least 170 games and scored at least 59 goals by the end of their age 20 season: Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Steven Stamkos, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Skinner, Evander Kane, Jordan Staal, Vincent Lecavalier, Nathan MacKinnon and … David Pastrnak. The only player on that list that really didn’t continue on the same path that they showed early on has been Kane, and a lot of that has been due to injury and health.

What stands out about Pastrnak on that list is how little ice time it has taken him to reach that level compared to some of the others. Via Hockey-Reference.

On a per-minute basis his production is off the charts for someone his age.

Players that produce at this level at this age tend to be good enough to sustain it.

It’s not paying for potential. It’s paying for what a player will do for you instead of what a player has done for you.

The Bruins have been fortunate to get some tremendous bargains with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron over the years, and giving Pastrnak $7-8 million per season right now might look like a little bit of an overpay. But not every contract has to be below market value. Plus, if Pastrnak continues on his current path — and there is every reason to believe that he will given what he has done so far, his ability to generate shots and his possession numbers — that contract, too, could look like a bargain in the near future.

Sabres have big decision looming on Evander Kane

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This post is part of Sabres Day on PHT…

Jack Eichel‘s pending contract extension will probably be the signature move of Jason Botterill’s brief tenure as Buffalo’s GM.

But there may be another.

Botterill and the Sabres are facing a quandary with forward Evander Kane. Kane, who turned 26 on Wednesday, is heading into the last of a six-year, $31.5 million deal with a $5.25 million average annual cap hit. He led the team in goals last year, with 28. The only forwards to average more TOI were Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly. He’s a big part of the team.

Kane’s behavioral issues and off-ice antics are well documented, but with the charges from last summer’s bar incident having been dropped, his trade value may be higher than it’s been in quite some time. His name was bandied about prior to June’s draft — Sportsnet reported teams were interested, the L.A. Kings among them — and while the rumblings have since gone quiet, uncertainty remains about next year.

There are some major considerations at play.

Kane might not want re-sign with the Sabres.

Back in mid-June, Kane said he wasn’t looking for a change of scenery.

“I’m getting prepared to start another NHL season,” he told The Province. “Hopefully it’s in Buffalo.”

Staying with the Sabres this season is one thing. Staying beyond is another.

Kane was eligible to sign an extension on July 1, and a full month has passed. Granted, Botterill had plenty on his to-do list, including the ongoing Eichel negotiations. But with each passing day, Kane gets closer to starting the campaign while heading into the last year of his deal, and all that comes along with it. There will be endless questions about where negotiations are at. Will you negotiate during the year? Will you shut down talks? Then there’s speculation about getting traded at the deadline. It’s what most pending UFAs face in the final year of their deals.

There’s also free agency itself.

Kane’s never really had a say in where he’s played. He was drafted by Atlanta, moved with the team to Winnipeg, then got traded to Buffalo. Going to market would be his first chance at picking a preferred locale — and, as always with free agency, a major opportunity to cash in.

The Sabres might be good!

There’s energy in KeyBank right now. Franchise legend Phil Housley’s behind the bench, and Botterill bolstered the blueline by acquiring Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Viktor Antipin. Up front, Kane has talented running mates in Eichel, O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart, who almost have to be healthier than last year. Combined, that quintet missed over 60 games to injury.

As such, a scenario exists where Kane enters the year without a deal, plays well, and the Sabres wind up in playoff contention come deadline time. That’s when Botterill is faced with the big decision. If he decides to move Kane, he gets something in return for an asset… but also diminishes the team’s chances of winning. If he keeps Kane, it signals the Sabres are ready to make a push — remember, it’s been six years without a playoff appearance — but they also run the risk of losing Kane for nothing.

Sign and trade?

This idea has been bandied about. The thinking is that Kane’s trade value is diminished somewhat due to the expiring contract, so what if there was more security? Botterill could, in theory, get an extension signed, then move Kane (who doesn’t have a NMC or NTC). The acquiring team would have more cost certainty this way and know the term.

The issue here is Kane signing on the dotted line. Aside from the guaranteed money, he wouldn’t control a huge part of the process — specifically, where Botterill could send him. Given free agency is just months away, Kane could take total control by simply going to market.

It’s going to be an interesting next while.