Carter Hutton

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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

Sabres have questions to answer in offensive, defensive zones

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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.

Let’s ponder three burning questions for the Sabres in 2019-20 …

1. How will their goaltending situation play out?

The San Jose Sharks will tell you, confidently, that team save percentage during the regular season means very little.

In their case, they’re not lying, per se. Still, it would be stretching the truth based on a complete anomaly.

And as bad as the Sharks were between the pipes in the regular season, they still had enough talent to put them into the Western Conference Final.

How does this relate at all to the Buffalo Sabres some 2,700 miles away? Well, it outlines how much better the Sharks were in front of Martin Jones despite an inferior team save percentage. The Sabres are a team that couldn’t be saved by outscoring their opponents and therefore their 22nd-ranked team save percentage of .901 had quite the bearing on their outcome in 2018-19.

There wasn’t much between Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark last season. Both played well along with the team early on in the season, when the Sabres were battling for first in the East. That all came crashing down in the second half, however, as team defense took a nosedive, bringing their season along with it.

Ullmark, who signed a one-year extension with the team on Saturday, enters once again as the backup but should see significant time as he did last year, especially if Hutton struggles again.

[A look back at the Sabres in 2018-19]

2. Will the re-tooling on defense do wonders?

Taking advantage of a cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights team, the Sabres went about acquiring Colin Miller for a couple of picks, a shrewd move by general manager Jason Botterill and one that was much-needed as the team strives for a better defensive effort this coming season.’

Speaking of shrewd moves, they also added Henri Jokiharju after trading Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks. Henri Jokiharju was taken in the first round in 2017 and was projected to be a big part of Chicago’s future on the right side. Instead, they traded him away for Nylander who hasn’t developed the way the Sabres would have wanted him to.

All these moves leave the Sabres with nine defensemen on their roster, meaning one should be getting moved prior to the season, both for cap compliance and roster space reasons. The Sabres are above the cap limit by $1 million and have 24 players signed at the moment.

There have been rumors of Rasmus Ristolainen being on his way out, but nothing has materialized in that realm as of yet.

Nevertheless, the additions of Miller and Jokiharju are intriguing, along with having Brandon Montour getting a full training camp with the team and a healthy Jake McCabe back in the fold.

3. Can the Sabres get the secondary scoring they need? 

Buffalo’s big three of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart combined for over 200 points last season, including Skinner’s 40 goals and Eichel’s 82 points.

From there, their next two top scorers came on defense with Dahlin and Ristolainen, the latter who may not be with the team by the time the regular season rolls around.

No other forward on the team had more than 34 points (Conor Sheary) and 16 goals (Jason Pominville), so the Sabres have gone out and tried to rectify that.

The addition of Marcus Johansson is a big one, in terms of puck possession and scoring. Johansson had 13 goals and 30 points in 58 games last season and 11 points in 22 games for the Boston Bruins in the playoffs.

They also acquired Jimmy Vesey, the 17-goal man from last season with the New York Rangers. Vesey hasn’t been the player he was touted as coming out of college as a Hobey Baker winner but perhaps new scenery on a young team can jump-start his career.

There’s also the pending return for Ristolainen if the Sabres can swing a deal. Buffalo won’t be wanting a defenseman in return, which means they could add someone up front to add further depth.

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

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

2018-19
33-39-10, 76 points (6th in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Marcus Johansson
John Gilmour
Curtis Lazar
Colin Miller
Jimmy Vesey
Jean-Sebastien Dea
Andrew Hammond
Henri Jokiharju

OUT
Matt Tennyson
Kyle Criscuolo
Scott Wedgewood
Alex Nylander

RE-SIGNED
Evan Rodrigues
Zemgus Girgensons
Johan Larsson
C.J. Smith
Remi Elie

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

2018-19 Season Summary

It’s now been eight straight seasons since the Sabres made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the longest drought in the NHL. They’re now on their sixth head coach since 2011 and are hoping new head coach Ralph Krueger’s methods work in turning around a franchise that started off last season so well only to see it crash and burn.

The Sabres woke up on Nov. 28 tied for the most points in the NHL with 36 following a 10-game winning streak. Through 25 games they were 17-6-2, Jack Eichel led the team with 28 points and offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner was tied for league lead with 19 goals. Goaltender Carter Hutton was playing fabulous with a .928 even-strength save percentage. Things were looking bright for once.

The 10-game winning streak was followed by a five consecutive defeats as the Sabres began their fall back to earth. The next three month saw 26 losses in 39 games — and then March happened. Between March 2 and April 2, the Sabres recorded just four points 16 games, which saw only one victory. 

The fall was an historic one. The 2018-19 Sabres joined the 2016-17 Flyers as the only teams in NHL history to have a 10-game winning streak and miss the playoffs in the same season. It would ultimately cost head coach Phil Housley his job and open the door for Kruger’s NHL return.

There were a few bright spots from a forgettable season, though. Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, was a Calder Trophy finalist after a nine-goal, 44 point season; Jeff Skinner hit 40 goals and signed an eight-year, $72 million extension in June; Jack Eichel put up a career-best 28 goals and 82 points, and Sam Reinhart had another 20-goal season.

Depending on how the 2019-20 season goes, the change may not stop behind the bench. General manager Jason Botterill is certainly on the hot seat and there are nearly 20 players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents next summer.

In trying to improve the blue line, Botterill went out and acquired Brandon Montour from the Ducks in February and picked up Colin Miller from the Golden Knights in a late-June trade. Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey were added up front in hopes of strengthening the forward group.

There’s a lot of work still to be done for Botterill and co., and this coming season will determine many futures inside the organization.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

————

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 avoid arbitration; reach deals with McCabe, Ullmark

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The Buffalo Sabres have avoided arbitration rulings by reaching agreements to sign defenseman Jake McCabe and goalie Linus Ullmark.

McCabe agreed to a two-year $5.7 million contract Saturday, a day before his scheduled hearing. Ullmark agreed to a one-year $1.325 million contract a day after his hearing, but before an arbitrator issued a decision.

Though the Sabres avoided the players potentially being awarded more expensive contracts, the deals push Buffalo about $1 million over the $81.5 million salary cap. That puts the team in a position to have to create additional space before the season opens in early October.

The 25-year-old McCabe has four full seasons of NHL experience since being selected by Buffalo in the second round of the 2012 draft. He had four goals and 14 points in 59 games, and ranked fifth among Sabres defensemen in averaging just less than 19 minutes of play last season.

Ullmark had a 15-14-5 record and two shutouts over 37 games in his first full NHL season, while splitting the goalie duties with Carter Hutton. The 26-year-old from Sweden struggled down the stretch by going 2-9-1 over his final 12 appearances.

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]

Loading up on the right

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.