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Botterill’s plan needs to bear fruit in Buffalo

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

If all the good things they say about Ralph Krueger are true, Jason Botterill will look like a genius who bypassed several more experienced candidates for the head coaching gig in Buffalo in favor of a man with 48 NHL games as a bench boss.

The Phil Housley experiment didn’t work out even though he was hired for some of the same reasons that Krueger now has: a players’ coach that can work well with young players. Two years on from Housley’s hiring, Botterill is once again looking outside the regular carousel of coaches, gambling on guys with limited bench-boss experience in the NHL hoping they can bring something that the establishment cannot.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor | Three questions]

Botterill isn’t a rookie general manager this time around. Instead, he’s overseen two more seasons where the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs — a stretch that has now reached eight straight years.

Botterill has been nothing if not bold, both in the trade market, in free agency and his hires. Last summer, he made waves after trading Ryan O'Reilly away for a truckload of players and picks. But Buffalo watched O’Reilly lift the Stanley Cup this past season while being named the playoff MVP to rub it in some more. Oh, and O’Reilly also won the Selke for good measure.

Botterill does get some measure of the benefit of hindsight here. It was a pretty good haul for a player who wanted out. But it’s not exactly how they envisioned it working out. The 2019 first-round pick they received in the package turned into No. 31 in the draft thanks to St. Louis’ triumph. Patrik Berglund, meanwhile, quit the NHL after going AWOL last season.

Some things you can’t control, but at the end of the day it all becomes a part of a body of work, and that body of work has to have more pros than cons.

And there are certainly some pros. Botterill went out and got Jeff Skinner, who would go on to score 40 goals while helping show the Sabres could compete, at least for half a season.

Snagging Brandon Montour at the trade deadline and then plucking Colin Miller off the cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights are both good moves aimed at re-tooling the team’s back end, one that couldn’t give much help to two goalies that weren’t able to rise above the situation and play lights out.

Speaking of goalies, Carter Hutton didn’t exactly light the world on fire as a starter in his first season in that role last year. He was a very capable backup in St. Louis, but his starting numbers are outside of the top 31 goalies in the NHL, meaning they aren’t starting numbers at all.

It’s not all Hutton’s fault, however. The team’s defensive structure was poor and Housley couldn’t right that ship. Buffalo’s first half of last season was impressive. Hell, they were in first place in the entire NHL at one point. But it tumbled quickly when it began to fall apart.

It’s led Botterill to be aggressive once again with guys like Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Getting Skinner signed long-term is a feather in his cap.

There are only so many fingers to be pointed in other directions before they all begin to navigate in one direction. This time, the gavel will be hanging over Botterill’s head.

He’s gone through one coach and three summers of trying to re-invent the team around the likes of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and now Rasmus Dahlin.

He’s been bold and he’s made some shrewd moves. If they work, he’s laughing.

If not, it might be best to find someone else to lead the Sabres into a monumental offseason next year where they have 14 pending unrestricted and restricted free agents and a lot of cash to work with in the open market.

If progress isn’t made this year, it will most certainly be time to look elsewhere.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker


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

The Buzzer: Benn keeps Stars rolling; Pastrnak, McDavid keep dominating

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Three Stars

1. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars. It was only a matter of time until Benn started to produce. He is too good, too talented, and has too much of a track record to keep being as invisible as he had been on the scoresheet at the start of the season. Now the points are starting to show up in bunches. He scored two goals and added an assist on Tuesday to help lead the Stars to a huge 6-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Benn now has three goals and six total points over the past three games. The Stars, meanwhile, are now 11-1-1 after starting the year 1-7-1.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins. Nobody can stop this guy right now. He added two more goals in the Bruins’ 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, giving him a league-leading 19 goals in only 21 games this season. He sits three goals ahead of Leon Draisaitl for the top spot in the league even though Draisaitl has played in two additional games. Even without Patrice Bergeron in the lineup that top line continues to dominate. The duo of Pastrnak and Brad Marchand is one of the best in the league

3. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. Speaking of dominating, McDavid extended his current point streak to eight games with a goal and two assists in the Oilers’ big win to snap the San Jose Sharks’ five-game winning streak. He now has 20 points during that streak as he and Leon Draisaitl continue to carry the team. Read more about their win here.

Other notable performances from Tuesday

  • The New York Islanders’ point streak is now at 15 games (14-0-1) record thanks to their come-from-behind win in Pittsburgh against the Penguins. The line of Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, and Derick Brassard drove this one. Read all about it here.
  • Zach Parise scored two goals for the Minnesota Wild as they cruised to an easy win over the fading Buffalo Sabres.
  • Anthony Duclair continued his strong season for Ottawa with a pair of goals (up to nine on the season) in its 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
  • Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho both scored their 10th goals of the season in Carolina’s 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • Colorado’s depth forwards came through in a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames, with Andre Burakovsky leading the way thanks to his two-goal performance.
  • Connor Hellebuyck stood tall for the Winnipeg Jets once again, turning aside 38 shots in a 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • Aleksander Barkov, Brett Connolly, and Evgenii Dadonov all had two points in the Florida Panthers’ 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Highlights of the Night

Maybe the highlight of the season to this point, but Marc-Andre Fleury makes an absolutely incredible save to secure the win for the Vegas Golden Knights. Read all about it here.

It came in a losing effort, but Morgan Frost scored his first NHL goal for the Philadelphia Flyers and it was a beauty.

Speaking of beautiful goals, take another look at Oskar Sundqvist‘s goal for the St. Louis Blues in their 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, all set up by an incredible pass from Robert Thomas. Read all about that game here.

Bloopers of the Night

This goes in the books as a goal for Detroit Red Wings forward Robby Fabbri, continuing his strong start with his new team. He ended up getting a big assist from Senators forward Logan Brown who accidentally kicked it in his own net. Oops. Fortunately for him the Senators ended up getting the win.

Columbus’ 5-2 win over Montreal on Tuesday was the first time this season they have won a game by more than a single goal. Pierre-Luc Dubois had another huge night to help lead the way, and they also had a little bit of luck on their side.

Factoids

  • Among players to debut with the Boston Bruins only Barry Pederson required fewer games than David Pastrnak to reach the 150-goal mark. Pederson did it in 316 games while Pastrnak reached it in 346 games. [NHL PR]
  • Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim scored his 13th career goal on Tuesday. He has scored five of those goals against Sergei Bobrovsky. [Sam Carchidi]
  • Kirby Dach has a five-game point streak for the Chicago Blackhawks, tied with Eddie Olczyk for the third-longest streak by an 18-year-old in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Not only did he make the save of the night, Fleury became the seventh goalie ever to record 450 career wins. [NHL PR]
  • Miro Heiskanen recorded his third straight multi-point game for the Stars on Tuesday. The only defensemen in franchise history with a longer streak was Brad Maxwell with four straight games back when the team was still based in Minnesota. [NHL PR]
  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau leads the NHL in goals since the start of November and needs just four more goals this month to tie the Ottawa Senators franchise record for most goals in the month of November. [NHL PR]
  • Emil Bemstrom now has a five-game point streak for the Blue Jackets, tying a franchise record set by Dubois during the 2017-18 season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 5, New Jersey Devils 1
Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Montreal Canadiens 2
Florida Panthers 5, Philadelphia Flyers 2
Minnesota Wild 4, Buffalo Sabres 1
New York Islanders 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 3 (OT)
Ottawa Senators 4, Detroit Red Wings 3
St. Louis Blues 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 1
Winnipeg Jets 2, Nashville Predators 1
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Dallas Stars 6, Vancouver Canucks 1
Colorado Avalanche 3, Calgary Flames 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Edmonton Oilers 5, San Jose Sharks 2

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.

Oilers snap Sharks’ win streak with big win

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After a dreadful start to the 2019-20 regular season, the San Jose Sharks started to look like the perennial playoff contender we have become used to seeing.

A six-game winning streak helped steady the ship in the Bay area, but the Sharks ran into the dynamic tandem of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and fell to the Edmonton Oilers, 5-2.

While the Sharks don’t have the ultimate trophy to back up their run over the past decade, they have long been the class of the Pacific Division.

However, with a new culture in Edmonton, the Oilers are looking to establish themselves as the new elite team in the Western Conference.

Oilers kept foot on the gas pedal

A strong start helped the Oilers capture an early two-goal lead. But their response after Kevin Labanc cut their lead in half is why they left the arena with two points against a division rival. Not only did Jujhar Khaira score late in the first period to restore a two-goal advantage, James Neal recorded his 13th of the season to keep the game out of reach.

Neal has enjoyed a bounce-back season after an extremely tough season with the Calgary Flames last year.

Dave Tippet has installed a system that allows skilled players to flourish in the offensive zone as long as they handle their responsibilities on the other end of the ice.

Through 23 games, the results have been favorable in Edmonton.

Draisaitl deserves more respect

When mentioning the top players of the game throughout the NHL, Draisaitl is often left off most lists.

Connor McDavid’s tantalizing skill set usually overshadows Draisaitl, but the German forward is quietly leading the NHL in points (16 goals, 28 assists) and should be considered a favorite for the Hart Trophy.

Draisaitl is currently riding a 13-game point streak while McDavid extended his own point streak to eight games.

The Oilers have eyes on returning to the postseason but will need more secondary scoring to compete for a Stanley Cup. The question general manager Ken Holland will have to answer is, do they have the pieces internally, or does Edmonton need to make an acquisition?

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.

Fleury’s save of the year candidate extends Maple Leafs’ misery

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If we are being honest, simply calling this a save of the year candidate might be underselling it.

This might actually already be the save of the year because it is really difficult to imagine what it would take to top this.

With the Vegas Golden Knights hanging on to a one-goal lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the third period, Marc-Andre Fleury did this to Nic Petan, who thought he was going to tie the game with the entire net staring him right in the face.

I mean … come on.

That is just completely ridiculous.

After the initial shot from Ilya Mikheyev hit the cross-bar behind Fleury, it bounced to a wide open Petan who attempted to backhand the shot into the yawning net and, well, you saw the replay.

What the hell are you supposed to do about that as a shooter? Nothing. There is nothing you can do. You did everything right, you did exactly what you needed to do, and the universe still punched you in the face.

The Golden Knights added an empty-net goal to go on to a 4-2 win, extending the Maple Leafs’ current losing streak to six games. They have won just two games in regulation in their past 16 (and only five games total during that stretch) and are 9-10-4 on the season. That record is currently one of the worst in the NHL for a team that was supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender.

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.

Kucherov injured as Lightning get shut down by Blues: 3 takeaways

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It has been an odd stretch as of late for the St. Louis Blues.

Even though they entered Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning riding a three-game losing streak, they still collected points in two of them (overtime losses) and were on a 9-2-2 run since Oct. 20.

The majority of those games (seven of them to be exact) extended beyond regulation and were decided in overtime or a shootout. It is a risky way to keep trying to win games and at some point they were going to need to show they could win a game in 60 minutes.

Mission accomplished on Tuesday as they completely shut down the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the league’s most dangerous offensive teams, in a 3-1 win.

Here are three things that stood out about the Blues’ win.

1. This was championship level defense from the Blues. Even with Tampa Bay’s slow start this is still one of the most talented rosters in the league both on paper and on the ice. Shutting them down is never easy. They have started to find their way in recent games and fill the back of the net the way they did a year ago, scoring 29 goals in their previous six games entering Tuesday, but all of that disappeared in St. Louis. The Blues limited the Lightning to just 18 shots on goal and, for the most part, did a great job insulating Jordan Binnington against their forwards. On the rare occasion that Tampa Bay did get something through, the Blues’ Stanley Cup winning goal was up to the challenge.

With Vladimir Tarasenko out of the lineup for most of the season the Blues are going to have a hard time generating offense and are going to need to win games like this.

They showed they could do it last year, and Tuesday was a great example of how they still have it against the league’s best.

2. The game-winning goal from Oskar Sundqvist was a thing of beauty. The Blues did not know if they were going to have Sundqvist for this game after he had a disciplinary hearing for charging Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson over the weekend.

Instead of a suspension, Sundqvist was able to skate away with only a fine.

That was fortunate for the Blues because he ended up scoring the game-winning goal with a perfect snipe that was set up by an incredible behind-the-back pass by Robert Thomas.

3. Nikita Kucherov exited with an injury after a big hit. Perhaps the most important news for the Lightning out of this game wasn’t the result itself, but the status of superstar winger Nikita Kucherov.

The league’s reigning MVP and scoring champion exited the game later in the second period after he was crushed by Blues forward Brayden Schenn.

He did not return to the game.

Kucherov has not been as dominant offensively as he was a year ago when he finished with 128 points, but he had been starting to turn it on lately and carried a four-game point streak into Tuesday (recording seven points in those four games).

The only update coach Jon Cooper had after the game is that Kucherov’s absence was not related concussion protocol.

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.