The Sabres stunned many on Tuesday by firing Jason Botterill, and naming Kevyn Adams as their new GM.
The move accomplished the interesting task of making the inevitable feel shocking. Yes, Botterill seemed like he was on borrowed time as GM. But considering Kim Pegula’s vote of confidence from late May, the Sabres signaled that now was not the time. And then they changed course.
As messy as all of this is, the truth is that it might work out for the best. Why head into this long, unusual offseason with a GM you don’t believe in? Every prime year from Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is precious, so why waste them if Botterill really isn’t the best choice?
Of course, what happens next hinges on Kevyn Adams. Can he finally get the Sabres on track as the franchise is mired in a nine-year playoff drought? Let’s look at the monumental task(s) Adams has in front of him.
Adams faces key decisions (big and small, short and long-term) as Sabres GM
As cathartic as it might be to move on from a GM or coach that didn’t work out, there’s also a risk that the new people in charge will make the wrong changes, sometimes merely to show that they’re not just sitting idly.
For better (Jack Eichel) and worse (Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo), the Sabres have a lot of big contracts they really can’t move. Rasmus Ristolainen stands as the biggest piece — even literally — that they actually could conceivably remove.
It feels like Ristolainen has been subject to trade rumors for ages, even though he’s merely 25. Either way, it makes you wonder if Botterill wanted too much for Ristolainen, or if the market really is just that cold on him.
Frankly, the Sabres might be better off cutting their losses, even at a discount rate. By most measures, including this multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, Ristolainen seems like an overall drag on his team:
If the Sabres traded Ristolainen, it might help solve their Rasmus Riddle.
On one hand, Ralph Krueger really helped improve the Sabres on defense. Consider his isolated impact via Hockey Viz:
Yet, while Krueger bumped down Ristolainen’s ice time, the tall defenseman still topped the Sabres in ice time. Meanwhile, Rasmus Dahlin actually saw a dramatic drop in ice time from his rookie campaign (21:09) to his sophomore season (19:18).
That’s puzzling. I can’t help but point out that the “free agent” market for coaches is unusually robust, featuring choices ranging from Bruce Boudreau and Gerard Gallant to Peter Laviolette and even Mike Babcock.
Overall, though? It seems like Krueger is a good coach, maybe a very good one. Adams should probably trade away that one bad habit in Ristolainen, though.
RFAs need addressing
Take a look at the Sabres’ long-term outlook for a longer list, but Buffalo is brimming with RFA decisions to make.
Some of the most important names include breakout rookie sniper Victor Olofsson, goalie Linus Ullmark, baffling trade acquisition Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Montour, Michael Frolik, and Jimmy Vesey.
While the Sabres have $25M devoted to Eichel, Skinner, and Okposo alone, the slate is reasonably clean for Kevyn Adams to make his own mark as GM.
He’ll need to make the right calls not just with who to bring back, but also who to add.
Ullmark played pretty well this season, but not necessarily to the point that he silenced all questions about Sabres goaltending. Should Adams stick with Ullmark and Carter Hutton, who’s worked on vision problems and has one year remaining? Should the Sabres instead plunge into a pretty promising goalie market, and either try to trade away Hutton or even eat the cost of sending Hutton to the AHL?
Go big in free agency or aim more modestly?
If the Sabres make the call to spend on a UFA goalie, they’d need to determine the right target. Braden Holtby boasts a big name, but he’s struggled in recent years, and would be expensive if he leaves the Capitals. It’s difficult to imagine Robin Lehner returning to Buffalo, but maybe Adams and the Sabres can identify the next Lehner?
Skaters represent interesting questions, too.
If Alex Pietrangelo becomes available, is it worth the risk of going top-heavy to improve in an area of need? Dahlin will need a contract after 2020-21, so the Sabres could see their breathing room collapse quickly if they signed Pietrangelo, only to receive diminishing returns.
Taylor Hall could give Eichel the sort of support he’s rarely seen, yet Hall’s shown serious signs of decline recently.
The Sabres have also gotten burned by more mid-range free agent signings, so there are risks if they swing for contact rather than for the fences.
Maybe the best path would be to call up, say, the Lightning or another cap-challenged team to shake loose some talent?
Even if Adams keeps his early moves modest, he still faces a lot of questions in taking over as Sabres GM. This team needs to add talent, and rebuild trust from fans. As we’ve seen from Botterill and others, it’s a job that can go wrong in many ways.
What would you do if you were in Adams’ shoes?
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.