Carter Hutton

Criticism doesn’t alter Sabres GM’s plan to build with youth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jason Botterill is very much aware of the criticism he’s attracted overseeing a Buffalo Sabres team that extended its playoff drought to nine years by failing to even qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team format.

That doesn’t mean the general manager is going to his alter his vision in continuing to build the organizational depth and developing young talent.

“There’s always urgency in this position, and I’m not surprised that our passionate fans want to see a winner on the ice,” Botterill said during a Zoom conference call Wednesday, a day after the Sabres were officially eliminated following the league’s decision to forego the remainder of the regular season.

“When we talk about development, it also equates to trying to find a winning environment here,” he added. “We want our young players to step in and put them in positions where they can succeed, where they can help out our core players right away.”

Though Botterill saw glimpses of his team being competitive under first-year coach Ralph Krueger, there wasn’t enough consistency to extend the Sabres’ 50th anniversary year after games were placed on pause due to the pandemic in March.

With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo finished 13th in the Eastern Conference standings with a .493 points per game percentage. The Sabres were edged out from securing the final spot in the expanded format by Montreal (.500).

Buffalo’s playoff drought is the NHL’s longest active streak, and one short of matching the league record shared by Florida (2001-11) and Edmonton (2007-16).

For now, Botterill has ownership’s backing after Kim Pegula this week told The Associated Press the GM’s job is secure for a fourth year.

Buffalo’s season featured a series of peaks and valleys. Following a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres proceeded to go 2-8-3 over their next 13 games. And after a 7-3-1 run put the Sabres in striking distance of the playoff race in February, the wheels fell off with a six-game skid.

“We had too many poor streaks to combat the good streaks,” veteran forward Kyle Okposo said. “One of the keys to making the playoffs and playing well season is to manage those skids. We need to find a way to do better at that.”

Okposo is preaching patience by saying he sees promise in the Sabres developing players, and the simplified structure introduced by Krueger.

“I know people are mad, and they want to win. And we want to win, too,” Okposo said. “But we are going in the right direction, and I think that’s the message I have for fans.”

BRIGHT SPOTS

Captain Jack Eichel scored a career-best and team-leading 36 goals, including nine game-winners. Forward Victor Olofsson finished with 20 goals and had been leading NHL rookies in scoring before missing 15 games with a lower-body injury. Second-year defenseman Rasmus Dahlin finished fourth on the team with 40 points (four goals, 36 assists) in 59 games.

LOW POINTS

Forward Jeff Skinner finished with 14 goals and 23 points, a year after scoring a career-best 40 goals, which led to him signing an eight-year, $72 million contract. Defenseman Zach Bogosian had his contract terminated after refusing to report to the minors. Goalie Carter Hutton won his first six starts before going 0-8-4 in 13 appearances, and finished the season 12-14-4.

BUSY OFFSEASON

The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potential constrict due to lost revenue.

Buffalo’s cap space stands to be eaten up with Olofsson, forward Sam Reinhart, defenseman Brandon Montour and goalie Linus Ullmark the most notable players eligible to become restricted free agents.

Buffalo’s unrestricted free agents include forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larrson and late-season addition Wayne Simmonds.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Though Botterill hasn’t ruled out adding experienced talent through trades or free agency, he also expects several youngsters to compete for jobs next season. The candidates includes former first-round draft picks Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt, who spent last season developing in the minors. Then there’s 2019 first-round pick, center Dylan Cozens, who has completed his Canadian junior eligibility.

DOWN DAHLIN

Missing the playoffs doesn’t sit well with Dahlin.

“It’s tough to be here in Sweden with all my Swedish buddies going back and playing, and I’m staying here at home,” Dahlin said via a Zoom call. “It (ticks) me off a little bit.”

Biggest surprises, disappointments for 2019-20 Predators

Predators disappointments Rinne Duchene Johansen
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Nashville Predators.

Rinne ranked among biggest disappointments for Predators

After a midcareer hiccup, Pekka Rinne skyrocketed back up the goalie ranks in recent seasons. Rinne won the 2018 Vezina Trophy as the highlight of this rebound, but was quite strong (.918 save percentage or higher) from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Things weren’t pretty in 2019-20 … at least beyond the goal Rinne scored.

After a splendid start (7-0-2, .920 save percentage in October), Rinne plummeted to a sub-backup level. In the 27 games since, Rinne went 11-14-2 with a dreadful .887 save percentage. (That ties Rinne with Carter Hutton for the fourth-worst save percentage among goalies with at least 10 games played during that span.)

Juuse Saros stumbled to start the season, too, suffering through a .895 save percentage before the All-Star break. Luckily for the Predators, Saros turned things around in a big way, managing a .936 save percentage in 17 games following that break.

If the 2019-20 season resumes, it might be a disappointment if John Hynes chooses Rinne over Saros — at least if the two goalies continue on opposite trajectories.

Top Nashville defensemen found another gear?

While goaltending failed Nashville in some unexpected ways, you could argue the Predators’ defense somehow got stronger. At least if you’re grading the top guys.

Roman Josi cannot be ignored as the most obvious standout. Josi easily topped all Predators scorers with almost a point per game (65 in 69 contests). He also cleaned up his defensive game quite a bit, which silenced many of his doubters.

You could argue that in some ways, Josi surged off the charts. I had to raise the y axis of his Evolving Hockey RAPM chart to four deviations to account for his Corsi For/60 in 2019-20. (Translation: Josi was fantastic in 2019-20, and didn’t just ride a hot hand.)

Roman Josi not among Predators disappointments Evolving Hockey

When you consider all-around play, Josi may just be a better choice for Norris than John Carlson. That’s a debate for another day, though.

Injuries limited Ryan Ellis to 49 games played in 2019-20, yet he still managed to place fourth in team scoring with 38 points. That sandwiches Ellis between two $8M centers (Matt Duchene at 42, Ryan Johansen at 36).

Mattias Ekholm completes the Predators’ tremendous trio, sitting at 33 points with sound all-around work.

Considering P.K. Subban‘s sad 2019-20 season, the Predators hit a lot of the right buttons on defense. That was huge, because you could argue that almost every other facet of this Predators team hovers over the “disappointments” category.

Forward group remains on list of disappointments for Predators

When it comes to investing in goalies and defensemen, the Predators have consistently received good to outright fantastic value. That’s part of what made Rinne’s 2019-20 slump one of their surprises.

But it seems like no matter how much money the Predators pump into adding forwards, they end up worthy of the same gestures: a shoulder shrug, if not a shoulder slump.

After chasing Matt Duchene for quite some time, the Predators got what they wished for. Paying Matt Duchene $8M per year doesn’t automatically make him anything more than Matt Duchene.

And, hey, Duchene is … fine.

Yes, managing a modest 42 points in 66 games is underwhelming. Especially when you attach the phrase “for an $8M center,” which some understandably can’t resist.

Duchene checks out reasonably well in underlying stats, providing some of the better numbers of his career in that area. That $8M price tag will only look worse as he ages, yet Duchene really isn’t the problem. He just doesn’t solve many of your other problems.

Because, honestly, Duchene isn’t even the Predators’ most disappointing $8M center. That goes to Ryan Johansen. Johansen isn’t a bad player by any stretch — like Duchene, his underlying stats are respectable — but he can be frustrating. It’s one thing to be a playmaker. It’s another to become one-dimensional, which feels like a fair way to describe Johansen. Johansen averaged just 1.49 shots on goal per game this season, basically falling in line with his career-low from 2011-12, when he was 19.

An expensive committee

That “fine … but expensive” feeling hangs over others. Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, and Mikael Granlund pitched in 30+ points each, helping the Predators score by committee .. but a very expensive committee.

It was a relatively tough season for Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, too. They both still rank as big bargains, mind you, but it was that kind of season for Nashville’s forward group.

Such widespread disappointments make you wonder if there’s something systemic going on for the Predators. While they addressed that by firing Peter Laviolette, I’m not so sure John Hynes will end up being the answer.

All things considered, it might be a pleasant surprise that this team entered the pause in playoff position. Maybe the Predators could generate bigger surprises if those disappointments turn around?

MORE ON THE PREDATORS

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: Hats off to Dustin Brown; Saros shuts out Stars again

NHL Scores
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Three Stars

1. Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings. The Kings have nothing to play for at this point, they traded several key players before the NHL trade deadline, and they are all of a sudden playing their best hockey of the season. With Saturday’s 7-3 win over the Minnesota Wild they are now 8-2-1 in their past 11 games and have won five games in a row. Those wins during that stretch have come against Calgary, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Florida, Vegas, Toronto, and Minnesota. All teams either in a playoff spot or competing for one. The big star for them on Saturday was veteran winger Dustin Brown who scored three goals, an assist, and five shots on goal

2. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators. The Predators picked up back-to-back massive wins against the Dallas Stars in their past two games, and it was Saros leading the way in both with consecutive shutouts. After stopping all 33 shots he faced in a 3-0 win on Thursday, he was even better on Saturday by turning aside 37 shots in a 1-0 win. Ryan Ellis scored the only goal for Nashville on Saturday. With the Predators fighting desperately for a playoff spot, Saros turned aside all 70 shots he faced in two games against one of the league’s best teams. That is called coming through when your team needs you most.

3. Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers. Koskinen was nearly flawless for the Oilers on Saturday, stopping 46 out of 47 shots from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 4-1 win. The win moved the Oilers back into first place (by tiebreaker ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights) in the Pacific Division as they have won four out of their past five games.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The Philadelphia Flyers extended their winning streak to nine games thanks to two goals from Claude Giroux and another huge game from Carter Hart. Read all about it here.
  • Nic Dowd scored two goals for the Washington Capitals as they dominated the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • The New Jersey Devils played spoiler on Saturday by beating their arch-rivals, the New York Rangers, thanks to two-goal efforts from Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri.
  • The Florida Panthers kept their playoff hopes alive with a big 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins had a lot of chaos, including this stretch where they scored two shorthanded goals in 62 seconds. You can read more about the chaos from this game right here.

Blooper of the Night

Sabres goalie Carter Hutton had a bad time on this play.

Controversial play of the Night

The Carolina Hurricanes snapped their losing streak with a huge overtime win against the New York Islanders. It was not without its controversy. It sure looked like Andrei Svechnikov set up the game-winner with a high-stick, but after review it was ruled that he did, in fact, make contact with the puck below his normal shoulder level. Do you agree?

Playoff Push

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 3, New York Islanders 2 (OT)
Washington Capitals 5, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
Nashville Predators 1, Dallas Stars 0
Los Angeles Kings 7, Minnesota Wild 3
Ottawa Senators 2, San Jose Sharks 1 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Boston Bruins 3
Florida Panthers 4, Montreal Canadiens 1
New Jersey Devils 6, New York Rangers 4
Philadelphia Flyers 3, Buffalo Sabres 1
Edmonton Oilers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

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.

Eichel vows ‘wheels won’t fall off’ Sabres as in past years

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres captain Jack Eichel is doing everything within his power to prevent his team from falling into an all-too-familiar late-season rut.

The fifth-year player is enjoying a breakout season with a career-best 31 goals – seven of them game-winners – as he displays on-ice consistency.

And then there are continuing signs that the 23-year-old is maturing into a well-rounded leader.

Eichel might still show an occasional outburst of frustration, such as when he smashed his stick over Buffalo’s net in the closing moments of a 3-1 loss to Montreal last week. What’s been more apparent is the self-restraint Eichel has displayed in not allowing his emotions to roil into the following day.

”The biggest thing I think is being able to regroup,” he said, before pausing to gather his thoughts a day after the loss to Montreal.

”It’s not like last year,” Eichel said, referring to how Buffalo unraveled by turning a 17-6-2 start into a 33-39-10 finish that led to coach Phil Housley’s firing.

”We’ve been through these times where we take a couple of hits at this time of year … and then all of a sudden the wheels fall off,” he added. ”That’s not happening here.”

The following day, Eichel backed up his words by scoring 36 seconds into overtime of a 2-1 victory over Columbus.

The win might mean little in the big picture for a Sabres team that at 23-22-7 opened this week 10 points out of contention and is in jeopardy of extending the NHL’s longest active playoff drought to a ninth year.

And yet, the victory over Columbus was significant in how it briefly silenced a disgruntled fan base voicing its displeasure over a team displaying modest hints of development under its fifth coach and third general manager in six years.

Goalie Carter Hutton acknowledged the importance of the win by saying: ”Everyone knows what’s going on. We’re not stupid. The outside, and the pressure that comes with the situation we’re in: So it was a big answer today.”

The Sabres spent much of last week careening toward a state of crisis after coming out of a 10-day break with home losses to Ottawa and Montreal.

The disgruntled masses gained a voice when 32-year-old fan Duane Steinel phoned into the Sabres’ flagship station, WGR-Radio, to deliver a three-plus-minute tirade on the franchise’s shortcomings. His criticisms ranged from questioning the Sabres’ inconsistencies to citing issues beyond the team’s control, such as an inability to print out-of-stock jerseys as part of the franchise’s silver anniversary celebrations.

The clip went viral on social media and was picked up by radio stations in Canada.

”I just want (the Sabres) to care. I just want them to matter again,” Steinel told The Associated Press on Monday, saying his frustrations were prompted by Buffalo’s 5-2 loss to Ottawa. ”It was depressing. I just looked around in the arena, even when the game was tied, there was nobody cheering. The atmosphere was so bad, and it’s been like this for so long, man.”

Two nights later, the Sabres were booed off the ice against Montreal.

First-year coach Ralph Krueger can feel the fans’ pain, even though he’s trying to block it out so as not to distract from his message to the team.

”It’s not that we’re sticking our heads in the sand, and whatever noise is out there is out there,” Krueger said.

”But I really don’t let it into my head or my space because I need to work with this group on a daily basis as constructively as possible,” he added. ”Do fans deserve to boo us after games like Ottawa and Montreal? Yes. Do we need to take that? Yes. And it should fuel us to continue to work in the right direction.”

Buffalo’s season has been a series of peaks and valleys, with the Sabres following a 9-2-1 start with a 1-7-2 slump, before going 13-13-4 since.

Krueger blames the inconsistencies on the team failing to stick to fundamentals.

”Sometimes it takes pain like we’re feeling right now to implement those (fundamentals) to become normal for us, and they aren’t yet,” Krueger said.

Eichel has been the Sabres’ one consistent bright spot and is getting mentioned as an NHL MVP candidate despite Buffalo’s struggles. He’s fourth in the league in scoring and tied for seventh in points.

Eichel has been held without a point 12 times this season, and just three times in his past 33 games – a stretch in which he’s combined for 23 goals and 23 assists.

Difficult as it might sound, Eichel insisted he can do more.

”Everyone needs to kind of look in the mirror and expect more out of themselves going forward. That includes me,” he said.

Though hopeful about the future, Eichel acknowledged the team’s inconsistencies have worn on him.

”Wouldn’t it wear on you?” Eichel said. ”Yeah, I think it wears on everyone. But that’s my job as a hockey player, as a leader, as a person, to be able to find a way to regroup every day, come to work and get better.”

Sabres goalie Ullmark out 3-4 weeks; Johansson promoted

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres starting goalie Linus Ullmark will miss between three and four weeks with an injury to his right leg.

The team issued the update without revealing the nature of the injury Wednesday, a day after Ullmark was hurt in a 5-2 loss to Ottawa.

Ullmark was untouched in his crease while tracking Ottawa forward Artem Anisimov circling the net. Ullmark’s left skate slipped out from under him, and he fell back with his right leg bent under him.

He was unable to put any weight on his right leg while being helped off the ice with 9:32 remaining in the third period and after stopping 30 of 33 shots. Ullmark has a 16-14-3 record and has held the starting role since mid-November after spending the first six weeks of the season splitting the duties with Carter Hutton.

Hutton won his first six starts before going into a extended slump. He’s gone 0-7-4 in his past 11 games, with his last victory a 25-save performance in a 4-3 overtime win over San Jose on Oct. 22.

Buffalo promoted goalie Jonas Johansson from Rochester, its American Hockey League affiliate.

Johansson, who has yet to appear in an NHL game, has a 13-3-3 record this season. He ranks third in the AHL with a 2.19 goals-against average and fifth with a 0.925 save percentage.

The Sabres are in the midst of playing nine of 10 games at home and host Montreal on Thursday.