Henri Jokiharju

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Sabres’ Ristolainen happy to be in Buffalo – for now

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said he was happy to report for the start of training camp amid questions if he would have preferred being traded.

What Ristolainen couldn’t say Thursday was whether he’d feel the same way if he was on the Sabres’ roster come March, following the NHL’s trade deadline.

”I’m not a guesser, so let’s live in the moment and go day by day,” he said.

”I’ve been here six years and seen this business. You never know where you will be next week or next month,” Ristolainen added. ”I’m here now, and I guess I will be here tomorrow, look at the schedule and ready to work.”

His future in Buffalo has been uncertain since Ristolainen expressed frustrations on several occasions since the end of last season, when Buffalo extended its playoff drought to eight years, the NHL’s longest active streak.

Saying he was mentally drained, the 24-year-old declined to say if he wanted to return when cleaning out his locker in April. In August, he referred to his situation as being ”open” during an interview with Finland’s MTV Sports.

Ristolainen said Thursday he was merely expressing frustration over being on a team that’s yet to finish with a winning record.

”Things get rough and you get (angry),” he said. ”I was just telling them that year wasn’t easy for me. And I wasn’t blaming anyone else than, you know, myself. I’m hard on myself, and that’s about it.”

Ristolainen declined to say whether he has asked to be traded.

Thursday was the first time Ristolainen has spoken to the media in Buffalo since the end of last season, and he was fully anticipating the questions. Upon stepping to the podium, he greeted reporters with a smile and said: ”Can’t wait to see you guys.”

General manager Jason Botterill has sidestepped questions about Ristolainen this offseason by saying he’s had ”positive conversations” with the player. In August, he said wasn’t surprised by the comments Ristolainen made to the television station.

On Monday, newly hired coach Ralph Krueger said he looked forward to working with Ristolainen.

”I know there’s a lot of potential there that’s still untapped, and it’s up to me and the coaches to find out what that is,” said Krueger, who took over after Phil Housley was fired following two seasons.

Ristolainen was Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft and has been the team’s workhorse defenseman since opening his third season in 2015-16. He has led the team in averaging 24-plus minutes a game while topping 40 points in each of the past four seasons.

Ristolainen’s frustrations stem from being on a team that’s finished last overall in the NHL standings three times and is now on its fifth coach since he arrived in Buffalo.

”Losing is frustrating for sure, but the way I think, when you go through tough times and losing, I feel like it makes me and makes us stronger,” he said. ”It makes us respect the win more. We’ve got to earn it.”

A knock against Ristolainen is his occasional defensive struggles, something he fully acknowledges.

”We all know I have to work on especially my defensive-zone game,” he said. ”It’s not my strength, so let’s make it my strength.”

Should he remain in Buffalo, Ristolainen’s workload is likely to decrease given the defensive additions the Sabres made this offseason. Buffalo acquired Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas and Henri Jokiharju in a trade with Chicago.

The Sabres have 10 defensemen who played 30 or more NHL games last season, with seven being right-hand shots, including Ristolainen. Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder), however, are expected to miss the start of the season while recovering from surgery.

Ristolainen is entering the fourth year of what’s considered a reasonably priced six-year, $32.4 million contract.

He said he is excited to work with Krueger and liked Buffalo’s offseason additions, which included veteran forward Marcus Johansson.

”I think the team is even stronger than last year. And last year, when things clicked those couple of months we were on top of the league,” Ristolainen said, referring to the Sabres briefly leading the league following a 10-game winning streak in November. ”That gives you a lot of hope.”

Sabres defenseman Matt Hunwick expected to miss season

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Matt Hunwick is expected to miss this season due to a neck condition that bothered the 12-year veteran for much of last season.

General manager Jason Botterill based Hunwick’s prognosis on offseason medical evaluations in making the announcement Wednesday, about two weeks before the Sabres report to training camp.

Hunwick was initially hurt last summer and the injury forced him to miss the first two months of the season. He was limited to playing 14 games.

Buffalo acquired the 34-year-old with forward Conor Sheary in June 2018 as part of a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Hunwick has 25 goals and 119 points in 535 career games. He is entering the final year of his contract and set to make $1.75 million.

Hunwick’s chances of making Buffalo’s season-opening roster were uncertain after the team acquired Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju in separate trades this summer.

The Sabres are expected to place Hunwick on the long-term injured list, which will allow the team to free up space under the salary cap. Buffalo was projected to be about $1 million over the $81.5 million salary cap after re-signing defenseman Jake McCabe and goalie Linus Ullmark earlier this month.

Stan Bowman’s big bet on Blackhawks’ core

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With no postseason series wins in four years, no postseason appearances in two years, and a veteran team with big contracts it would not have been a huge shock if the Chicago Blackhawks decided to tear things down a little this offseason in an effort to start a new chapter for the organization.

Sure, some of the contracts remaining on the team are ugly in terms of the commitment and dollars still owed, and they are loaded with no-trade clauses, but there are always ways around all of that that. No contract is so bad that it can not be moved, clauses can be waived, deals can be bought out.

But instead of tearing down the core or making drastic changes to the foundation of the team, Bowman has instead doubled down on his championship core and worked to try and fix the flaws that existed around it.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

  • He signed Robin Lehner for one year to give the team a safety net in case Corey Crawford is limited by injuries or poor performance.
  • He acquired veteran defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan.
  • He re-acquired Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens, continuing his longstanding trend of bringing back players he previously traded or lost to free agency.
  • He made the bold and controversial decision to trade one the team’s top prospects — defender Henri Jokiharju — for what is probably a lesser prospect in Alexander Nylander.

By doing all of this, and by going after the type of players he did (mostly established veterans built to win now), he is pretty much telling the hockey world he still believes this Blackhawks team is good enough to compete and win this season. Maybe there is some reason for him to believe that. As long as a team has high-end players in its lineup the window will always remain cracked open and you never want to truly punt on a season as long as you still have that. And the Blackhawks certainly still have some of that element with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Duncan Keith at the top.

But it is still a big bet that is going to depend largely on what happens with the Crawford-Lehner duo in net, how much they can get out of their top-returning defenders, and if he acquired the right players to improve what has been one of the league’s worst defensive teams.

The issue for Bowman is going to come if he is wrong on these bets.

The Blackhawks have not come close to reaching the standard they set for themselves between 2010 and 2015 and have won just three total playoff games over the past four years (all coming in a Round 1 loss to the St. Louis Blues during the 2015-16 playoffs).

Given that the team has already fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning, future Hall of Fame coach within the past year we have probably reached the point where any continued lack of success is going to start falling on Bowman. He is the one that chose the direction of the team, he is the one that brought in the players that are supposed to help fix the problems, and it’s not like his recent track record of deals and moves is beyond reproach.

Everything about the Blackhawks’ offseason points to a team that thinks it can win this season.

If it doesn’t, it could be costly for the general manager.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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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 Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.