Alex Nylander

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

 

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s Buffalo Sabres day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

[Three Questions | Under PressureBuilding Off a Breakthrough]

2017-18
Record: 25-45-12, 62 points. (8th in the Atlantic Division, 16th in the Eastern Conference, 31st in the NHL)
Did not qualify for the playoffs

IN:
Jeff Skinner
Vladimir Sobotka
Patrik Berglund
Tage Thompson
Carter Hutton
Conor Sheary
Matt Hunwick
Scott Wedgewood

OUT:
Ryan O'Reilly
Robin Lehner
Chad Johnson
Josh Gorges
Benoit Pouliot

RE-SIGNED:
Scott Wilson
C.J. Smith
Danny O’Regan
Justin Bailey
Nicholas Baptiste
Sean Malone

The best part of the Buffalo Sabres’ season last year was the day it ended and they had secured the highest odds for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft

And after winning the lottery with the best odds, the Buffalo Sabres went out and took defenseman Rasmus Dahlin to bolster their defense.

It’s a nice reward for a horrible season, where Buffalo finished dead last in goals-for with 198, the only team in the NHL not to eclipse the 200-mark, and gave up the third-most goals-against.

Their season was a tire fire that burned until for a good, long while.

The good news for Sabres fans is that’s all in the past now, and suddenly the team might just work itself in to — get ready for it — the playoff discussion.

Yes, general manager Jason Botterill has been hard at work trying to craft a better hockey team. Losing Ryan O’Reilly via trade to St. Louis stung, but they got three roster players in return in the deal, added Carter Hutton in goal to replace the outgoing Robin Lehner, and made a splash just this week to get Jeff Skinner to inject some offense into the team.

Botterill has a something that resembles a team now, and a future to go along with it as he’s cobbled together three first-round picks in the 2019 NHL Draft.

What the Sabres look like in terms of lines and defensive pairings remains to be seen, but rest assured, it has to look better than last season.

Prospect Pool:

Casey Mittelstadt, C, University of Minnesota – 2017 first-round pick

Mittlestadt had 11 goals and 30 points in 39 games in his first season of college hockey this past season, led the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships with 11 points, including four goals, as Team USA finished with a bronze medal and then scored his first NHL goal with the Sabres as he played in six games, amassing five points. Mittelstadt turned pro in March, signing an entry-level deal and looks poised to be a key contributor to the Sabres next season.

Brendan Guhle, D, Rochester Americans – 2015 second-round pick

Guhle had 26 points in 50 games in a solid first pro season in the American Hockey League. He also played 18 games with the Sabres, putting up five assists in that time. He didn’t look out of place during his time with the big club and will compete for a roster spot in Buffalo come training camp.

Alex Nylander, RW, Rochester Americans – 2016 first-round pick

Perhaps a bit of a polarizing figure in Buffalo as he hasn’t progressed as quickly as brother William has in Toronto. Still, it’s premature to label Nylander — who is only 20 — a bust. His eighth overall pick status in 2016 comes with certain pressure, sure, but Nylander improved in his second pro season despite beginning it injured. His 27 points were one fewer than his 28 from the previous year, but he played in 14 fewer games in 2017-18. He also had eight points in seven games as Sweden captured the silver medal at the World Juniors and scored his first NHL goal on April 6.


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

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.

Sabres demote Alex Nylander; Kyle Connor can’t make Jets cut

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Teams need to get their rosters ready for the 2017-18 season, which means some key prospects will need to go to junior or the AHL.

Let’s address some of the bigger names that don’t qualify as players on waivers or worse.

Alex Nylander and Sean Malone were sent down to the AHL on Tuesday.

Nylander, 19, did fine in the AHL in 2016-17, but he didn’t exactly dominate. He managed a modest 10 goals and 28 points in 65 games. That points total ranked him seventh on the Rochester Americans last season. Simply put, it doesn’t seem like he’s on the same accelerated pace as his brother William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Looking to make the leap: Alex Nylander

And that’s OK. The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington points out that Nylander was injured during training camp, robbing him of a full opportunity to make an impression:

Nylander, in particular, lost out at a chance to make the club out of camp with the injury. Last year’s No. 1 pick looked strong at summer development camp but never got into competition for one of the open slots on the wing.

Opinion: in the long run, the Sabres and Nylander may be better off with this slow-and-steady approach.

***

The bigger surprise might be that Kyle Connor was unable to make the Winnipeg Jets.

Looking to make the leap: Kyle Connor

Connor, 20, believed that he really made some progress late last season, progress he thought might carry over into NHL work this coming season. Connor believed that a demotion to the AHL would do him good, as he told NHL.com.

“You have to experience it,” Connor said back in August. “Once I moved down [to Manitoba], it was a bit upsetting, of course, and it took a couple of games more than I wanted to adjust. But once I did, I worked with the staff really well and the stuff they wanted me to implement into my game. I thought that made a huge difference, and you could see it toward the end of my season.”

Connor played in 20 games with Winnipeg last season, so they already burned a year off of his entry-level contract.

On one hand, the Jets have some serious firepower at the top of their order. If the belief is that he wouldn’t have much use unless placed in a prominent role, then that would make some sense.

Still, injuries happen, and the Jets could certainly use more pop down their order. The young forward has to feel pretty disappointed.

Connor and Nylander rank among the bigger surprises (or partial surprises), but there were other notable players who couldn’t make the cut on Tuesday. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, demoted Timothy Liljegren.

On the other hand, Nolan Patrick and others did make the leap, in some cases earlier than expected. Add Samuel Girard of the Nashville Predators to that group: