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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.

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

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.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

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.