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Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

The Buzzer: Avalanche streaking; Golden Knights hold on for win

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Three Stars

1) Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights

The slightest mistake during three-on-three overtime hockey could be costly and Pacioretty benefitted from a poor Dallas Stars line change on Friday evening. Defenseman Shea Theodore sent a beautiful stretch pass to help No. 67 get behind the Stars skaters and have a clean breakaway. Then, Pacioretty forced Ben Bishop to leave the crease before performing a highly-skilled maneuver in the Golden Knights’ 3-2 victory.

2) Valeri Nichuskin, Colorado Avalanche

The goal Nichuskin scored was nothing spectacular in Colorado’s 3-1 against New Jersey, but the play he made to receive the puck in the neutral zone was impressive. While skating up ice and looking to his right, Nichuskin blindly received a puck on his backhand, before gaining momentum and entering the offensive zone. Without the highly-skilled play, the Russian forward never would have had the scoring opportunity.

3) Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

Benn showed why he is one of the premiere power forwards in the NHL late in the third period to help the Stars force overtime against the Golden Knights. Dallas’ captain raced to the corner after a faceoff to control a loose puck before sending it over to Tyler Seguin. Then, Benn boxed out William Karlsson in front of the Vegas net and positioned himself to redirect Seguin’s pass to even the score at two and help the Stars earn a point in the OT loss.

Other notable performance from Friday

Pavel Francouz, Colorado Avalanche

The Czech goaltender made 37 saves in his ninth win of the season and fifth victory in his last six appearances. Several NHL teams are starting to adopt a two-goalie philosophy and Francouz is proving to the Avalanche that he is worthy of more playing time even when Philipp Grubauer returns to the starting lineup.

Highlight of the night

Nathan MacKinnon faked a slap shot and delivered a perfect touch pass to set up Gabriel Landeskog in the slot to open the scoring for the Avalanche.

Factoids

  • Taylor Fedun opened the scoring in his return to the Stars’ lineup and has collected a point in seven of his nine home games this season [NHL PR].

  • The Golden Knights own the best record in NHL history by a franchise through its first 100 regular-season road games in terms of wins, points and point percentage [NHL PR].

  • The Avalanche are the only NHL team with 10 wins at home and 10 wins on the road so far this season
  • MacKinnon reached the 50-point mark in his 32nd game of the season, one fewer than when he hit the milestone in 2018-19 (33 GP) [NHL PR].

Note:

  • Stars defenseman John Klingberg is expected to be available Saturday after he missed Friday’s game due to a family illness.

[RELATED: Devils keep Hall out of lineup as trade rumors continue]

NHL Scores

Golden Knights 3, Stars 2

Avalanche 3, Devils 1

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Devils hold Taylor Hall out vs. Avs as trade rumors continue

Taylor Hall Trade Rumors
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Taylor Hall‘s days as a member of the New Jersey Devils are definitely numbered.

The team’s playoff chances are fading by the day, he is months away from free agency, there seems to be no progress in contract talks, and general manager Ray Shero is reportedly listening to offers from other teams around the league.

The Colorado Avalanche have been the odds on favorite to land him, and they were expecting to get an up close look at him on Friday with the Devils making their lone visit to Colorado. That did not happen however as the Devils held him out of the lineup due to what they called precautionary reasons.

 

Pierre LeBrun reported that Hall has not yet been traded but there is traction in trade talks and the Devils do not want to risk playing him at the moment.

With the speculation growing, it was only natural for Hall to be asked about the possibility on Friday ahead of the game.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston mentioned on Saturday’s edition of Headlines that teams believe it could take as many as four pieces to complete a trade for Hall. He also added that the Avalanche are pushing to acquire him, perhaps as soon as the holiday roster freeze which begins on Dec. 19.

Why the Avalanche still make the most sense

It’s not hard to see why the Avalanche are so high on the list.

They have one of the best rosters in the league and are already a Stanley Cup contender. Adding Hall to their second line would easily make them one of the most intimidating and dangerous teams in the league. Combine that with the fact they have the salary cap space to fit the remainder of his current contract, as well as possessing the young assets to trade, and they are a near perfect match for the Devils.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, have superstars still in the prime of their careers, with several signed to below market contracts to give them added flexibility.

It might be the right time to pounce and add another superstar to go all in on a championship while the opportunity is there if the price is right.

It all comes down to the cost

At this point Hall is a luxury for the Avalanche.

Make no mistake, he would be a huge addition and probably make them the Stanley Cup favorite. But he is not a necessity, and there are some potential risks that could come with trading for him.

Giving up significant assets — high draft picks, multiple high-end prospects — for a player that could walk in a few months is always going to be a risk a team in Colorado’s spot has to weigh. If you win the Stanley Cup with him, nobody cares. But that is always far from a guarantee.

While their salary cap situation is great right now, re-signing him could also lead to some long-term complications.

Sam Girard has a new contract starting next season. Gabriel Landeskog will need a new deal the year after that. Let’s not forget about Cale Makar and how much he is going to cost in the future given his development.

Hall will also be 29 next season, and while he is still an excellent player he would require a significant investment for a player that’s probably already played his best hockey for someone else.

Set up for success either way

The Avalanche have done enough work to fix their scoring depth, they have a kings ransom of cheap young players coming through their system they can keep building around, and they still have the flexibility to look elsewhere for potential secondary players that might be more cost effective. In terms of both long-term salary cap space and assets they would have to give up.

Trading for him without giving up a Bowen Byram caliber prospect, or re-signing him to a long-term deal that does not crush your long-term salary cap outlook would be a no-brainer for the Avalanche.

But if neither of those things can be accomplished there is nothing wrong with looking elsewhere or standing pat because the team is still set up for long-term success even without him.

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.

Flyers’ Oskar Lindblom diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma

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The Philadelphia Flyers announced on Friday that forward Oskar Lindblom has been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

He will be sidelined for the remainder of the season as he goes through treatment.

Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher released the following statement:

“Philadelphia Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom has been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma by leading specialists at the University of Pennsylvania. He will undergo further testing and evaluation next week and begin treatment immediately thereafter. He is not expected to return to play for the remainder of the season. The Flyers will do everything possible to support Oskar and assist him in securing the best care available. Out of respect for Oskar and his family, the team will have no further comment at this time and asks that Oskar be afforded a period of privacy so that he may focus his efforts on his treatment and a return to full health.”

The 23-year-old Lindblom had been sidelined for the past week with what the team had been calling an upper-body injury. He appeared in 30 games this season and was off to the best start of his career.

Ewing’s sarcoma is an extremely rare form of cancer (fewer than 1,000 cases per year) that is usually found in the bones of the legs, arms, chest, pelvis, spine, or skull.  It typically impacts adolescents and young adults.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pastrnak the Unpredictable: Bruins winger is dominating NHL

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David Pastrnak on the ice these days is like a dazzling young magician who isn’t quite sure how his sleight of hand is going to work out.

When he has the puck, his Boston Bruins teammates don’t know what to expect. Opponents don’t know. He doesn’t even know.

”If you don’t know what you’ll do, then they’re not going to know what to do,” Pastrnak said.

Unpredictability is at the core of Pastrnak’s brilliance. His blend of creativity and skill is the reason the player nicknamed ”Pasta” leads the NHL with 26 goals.

The 23-year-old winger from the Czech Republic has been better than a point-a-game player before and helped Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final last year, but this season has put him in the discussion as one of the best goal-scorers in the world.

”He’s played great hockey this year,” said Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star who has led the league in goals eight times and may now be passing the torch to Pastrnak. ”He’s a great shooter, a great skater and he’s on the next level this year.”

Pastrnak is on pace to shatter his career high in goals and points. He credits that to chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and more of a ”shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that has perhaps taken opposing defenses and goaltenders by surprise.

”I’ve been playing with these two guys so long that I know where they’re at and I know where to find them and they know where to go,” Pastrnak said. ”I’ve been shooting the puck a little more. I think when there is a shot, I take it. It used to be times when I would still look for pass. Now, I think I discover better that if I’m in a good spot, then I should shoot.”

Pastrnak is averaging almost four shots a game, but aside from the faceoff circle on the power play where he can one-time the puck, few know when he’s going to put the puck on net. He has even tried a drop pass on a breakaway this season.

Good luck to anyone trying to anticipate his next move.

”Even his own teammates don’t know what to expect from him,” said Washington defenseman Radko Gudas, who has played with Pastrnak on the Czech national team. ”I think that’s the hardest part is the reading of him, but for a defenseman, you’re staying on the defensive side, there’s only so much you can do. I guess you try to not get dangled by him.”

Teammates only have to worry about that in practice. In games, they benefit from Pastrnak’s magic acts.

Much like skating with a distributing center like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, it’s not easy playing with someone who is abruptly creative, but his linemates are finally getting the trick.

”I just try to stay predictable for him,” Marchand said. ”I tend to go to the same spots or put the puck in the same areas. So when he’s being unpredictable he at least knows what I’m going to do and then I kind of just let him do his thing and try to find space where he isn’t.”

Marchand added: ”He could do 100 different things in a game, so it’s tough to defend that.”

How about coaching it? Bruce Cassidy isn’t worried about Boston’s top goal-scorer going off script – he expects it – and figures Bergeron and Marchand would put Pastrnak back in line, if needed.

The Bruins coach understands his top line’s dynamic allows for Pastrnak and Marchand to be more offensively driven because Bergeron does so much all over the ice.

”With the puck, he’s earned the right to play his game,” Cassidy said of Pastrnak. ”The things we work with David on is playing through frustration, if teams are starting to play you harder. We’ve talked to him about how he can still help the team. We talk about his play away from the puck because he’s on the ice 18, 20 minutes a night, so that’s important.”

Opponents can sense confidence oozing from Pastrnak and see that as the reason for his breakout season. Pastrnak himself is soft-spoken and just trying to enjoy himself and score some goals.

”That’s what it’s about, to have fun, and I think that’s when you play your best hockey,” he said. ”I’m just trying to make plays that I see.”

More often than not, they’re plays no one else can see.