Nathan Beaulieu

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These GMs are paying dearly for bad gambles

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Earlier today, PHT spoke about the resounding, uncomfortable parallels between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel struggling to start this season (or at least struggling to find team success).

One can see a similar phenomenon occurring with some NHL GMs who made bold, polarizing moves to craft their teams in their images. In each case, their teams are likely to rebound – at least to some extent – yet it’s remarkable to see the similarities in how they’re being burned for, essentially, making unforced errors.

Ugly growths for Peter Chiarelli

Look, it’s not just about the Adam LarssonTaylor Hall trade, or even the Ryan StromeJordan Eberle move.

Instead, we’re looking at an Edmonton Oilers team built in the image of what GM Peter Chiarelli believes is a modern winner. Players like Hall and Eberle are gone, in part, to make room for Milan Lucic and Kris Russell. With more than $8M in cap space according to Cap Friendly, the Oilers assumed that they didn’t need to make additional moves during the summer – particularly to improve their defense – and there’s debate that it’s already too late to make a push.

In this salary cap age, sometimes you need to wave goodbye to quality players, but Chiarelli has instead moved younger, possible core guys out for older, slower, less effective pieces. I’m not the first to make this joke, but Chiarelli is the “general disappointment,” not the team. He’s the one who shopped for questionable ingredients.

The Oilers are asking too much of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Cam Talbot (who carried a ridiculous workload last season). Merely look to Tuesday night to see the strain for these players.

Bergevin in a bind

The parallels between Chiarelli and Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin are, honestly, almost startling. (Bergevin’s the better dresser, though.)

Bergevin’s bet big on the Canadiens in the short term. Most obviously, he moved a younger star defenseman in P.K. Subban for an older one with a scarier contract in Shea Weber. Even the Mikhail SergachevJonathan Drouin trade made the Habs older.

In many cases, the Habs suffer from old-school thinking in similar ways to the Oilers. The addition of Karl Alzner is divisive in that way, and it hasn’t gone well. Nathan Beaulieu isn’t a world-beater, but he can play a transition game that can help him fit in with the modern game, and the Canadiens gave him up for a pick. Andrei Markov walked to the KHL.

Much like $20M soon going to Connor McDavid + Leon Draisaitl, we can debate the Carey Price extension, especially with his health faltering, but those are the risks many NHL teams take. The thing that really stings Montreal is the unforced errors Bergevin’s made in crafting a team that plays “the old way” in some cases.

It hasn’t been pretty.

Another parallel between the Canadiens and the Oilers is that they both have cap space used for (???). It brings up a painful thought: Bergevin and Chiarelli, two swashbuckling traders, probably couldn’t get things done early this season. It’s basically the worst of both worlds for fans of the Canadiens and Oilers.

This quote from Bergevin via The Athletic’s Apron Basu (again, sub required), almost feels like he’s becoming slowly, painfully self-aware:

” … So it’s hard to make trades, it’s just the way it is,” Bergevin said. “There’s a few here and there, but at the end of the day teams want to keep their core players. That’s just the way it is.”

Bad defenses, a feeling of desperation mixed with little room for moves, and all this cap space going to waste. Yeah, this is sounding familiar. Both teams are also suffering with goalie headaches, with Carey Price ailing and Talbot struggling.

Thank goodness Dale Tallon’s back?

Of course, in both cases, asking for an Oilers/Canadiens trade is a “careful what you wish for” proposition.

Just look at the Florida Panthers and reinstated GM Dale Tallon, who showed an almost charming lack of self-awareness in discussing his return to a team that … still seems rudderless.

The Panthers allowed Jaromir Jagr to walk in free agency and gave Jason Demers, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault away for little more than mulligans.

Last season, Florida saw crushing injuries to Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau while experiencing a slew of front office headaches. Tallon’s been able to resume control, and in doing so, going back to … wait for it … and old-school design.

Oh yeah, and gutting the sort of depth you need to succeed when that awesome Barkov line can’t do everything, kind of like Edmonton struggling when McDavid can’t do everything. This all sound familiar, doesn’t it?

***

Seriously, the parallels get creepier the deeper you dive.

The three teams even boast nearly identical records. Both the Oilers and Panthers are 7-11-2 as of this writing, while the Canadiens sit at 8-11-2.

Now there are differences at hand; it seems like the Canadiens and Oilers are at least regretting decisions, while there’s some (at least public) defiance from Tallon. It’s also fair to expect improvements in each situation, especially with Montreal and Edmonton.

And that brings us to an important question: are these teams learning any lessons about giving up skill and speed? For all we know, it might be too late for this season, but McDavid, Barkov, and others are still easily young enough that their teams can get back on the right path.

That might not happen if their teams keep making the same, critical mistakes.

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.

Tough news for Sabres: Ristolainen now week-to-week

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Hockey fans annoyed by “day-to-day” updates should be careful what they wish for, because “week-to-week” is becoming a more common thing, and it’s more annoying. You might consider seven times as annoying, even.

After missing two games with an upper-body injury, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen goes from day-to-day to week-to-week.

Buffalo is already dealing with the loss of blueliners, although it’s worth noting that not all of the injury news was bad. Head coach Phil Housley mentioned that Josh Gorges and Nathan Beaulieu are both nearing returns from their ailments:

All  of these issues meant a heavy workload for Marco Scandella, particularly during Tuesday’s 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals, as the former Wild defenseman logged 26:34 of ice time. (Taylor Fedun stands out as another defenseman who was pressed into more duty amid all of these issues.)

Now, it’s fair to acknowledge the devil’s advocate argument that Ristolainen can be a real mess in his own zone. That said, his possession stats have shown some improvement through 13 games in 2017-18, prompting one to wonder if Housley might be able to help the well-compensated Finn.

The Sabres are on the verge of a back-to-back set, as they’ll host the Panthers on Friday and then face the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday. That trip to Montreal begins a three-game road swing; following that, they’ll play four in a row and six of seven in Buffalo.

That opens the door for the Sabres to make some progress, but it sounds like they’ll spend a substantial portion of that time without Ristolainen.

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.

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.

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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.

Housley focused on making Sabres ‘an aggressive team’

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The Buffalo Sabres haven’t been a playoff team in quite some time, but the organization is hoping that their major offseason changes will help them take a few steps in the right direction.

One of those major changes came behind the bench, as the team hired Predators assistant Phil Housley to be their head coach.

Housley did some terrific work with defensemen like Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban last season. A big part of Nashville’s attack came from defenders pushing the pace from the back.

“We want to be an aggressive team,” Housley said, per NHL.com. “I think everybody we’ve talked about playing aggressive offensively but we need to play aggressive defensively. I think defense gives you a chance to win every night and they’ll understand that we want to be fast and aggressive. The days are gone when a guy wants to make a breakout pass and the [defense] just watched the rush go up and play; they have to get up in the play not only to maybe join the rush and add to the attack, but to be in the offensive zone, being able to keep pucks in, or else you’re going to start playing defense.”

The Sabres could use an offensive boost from their defense (or anyone really). Last season, Jack Eichel collected 57 points in 61 games, which comes out to an impressive 0.934 points-per-game. But Unfortunately for the Sabres, no player topped 60 points in 2016-17.

Buffalo changed the look of their defense during the summer, as they acquired Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal and Marco Scandella from Minnesota. Both guys are capable of moving the puck, which should help Housley execute his plan.

Also, it’ll be interesting to see if Housley can take Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game to the next level. The 22-year-old has surpassed the 40-point mark in each of the last two seasons. He’s also served as the big-minute guy on the Sabres blue line.

“We’re here to learn from him and pick his brain, he was a [heck] of a player in his day,” defender Zach Bogosian said. “He gets the game. He’s played for a while, he’s coached for a while, he’s been around forever.

“Guys are looking forward to playing that style.”