Jeff Skinner

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PHT Morning Skate: Eichel, Skinner make donations; feel-good stories for NHL teams

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Buffalo Sabres forwards Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are donating to the COVID-19 fight. (NHL.com)

• Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett laments the team’s lost progress during season pause. (Sportsnet)

• PHPA and ECHL announce relief fund for ECHL players. (ECHL)

• The feel-good stories of the season for all 31 NHL teams. (ESPN)

• Who rules the NHL’s 3-on-3 format? (TSN)

• Does Quinn Hughes beat out Cale Makar for the Rookie of the Year award? (Vancouver Is Awesome)

• Florida Panthers not letting COVID-19 dictate the future. (Panther Parkway)

• Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk is awaiting the next step in his rehabilitation process. (NHL.com)

• The epic decline of fighting in the NHL. (NHL To Seattle)

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.

What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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 long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Pending free agents

Dominik Kahun (RFA)
Curtis Lazar (RFA)
Brandon Montour (RFA)
Victor Olofsson (RFA)
Lawrence Pilut (RFA)
Sam Reinhart (RFA)
Tage Thompson (RFA)
Linus Ullmark (RFA)
Zemgus Girgensons (UFA)
Matt Hunwick (UFA)
Johan Larsson (UFA)
Michael Frolik (UFA)
Wayne Simmonds (UFA)
Vladimir Sobotka (UFA)
Jimmy Vesey (UFA)

The Core

The Buffalo Sabres have drafted two of the hardest pieces to find in the National Hockey League. A franchise center in Jack Eichel and a top-pairing defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin.

Sam Reinhart reached the 50-point mark for the third consecutive season and Victor Olofsson has been a pleasant surprise. However, the Sabres will need to find several more pieces to fill out the rest of the lineup to challenge in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.

Casey Mittelstadt is only 21 years of age, but after playing 77 games in 2018-19, he didn’t take the next step in his development. The young center played just 31 games in the NHL while spending the other half of the season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. The maturation process varies from player to player, but the Sabres still expect Mittlestadt to grow into a formidable NHL player.

Two of the Sabres’ top five scorers (Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen) anchor the defensive group. Ristolainen has been the subject of trade rumors for several years now, but still is a right-handed shot defenseman with an offensive touch. Brandon Montour was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in February of 2019 but is a pending restricted free agent.

Linus Ullmark has provided a boost in goal this season but hasn’t cemented himself as the long-term option. Several goaltenders could hit the free agency market this season and the Sabres could find a long-term solution at a reasonable price if they play their cards right.

Long-term needs for Sabres

The challenge for the Sabres front office has been finding the right complementary pieces to play alongside their foundational players. The Jeff Skinner contract extension is not providing the return expected with a $9 million average annual value. In 59 games this season, the high-priced forward has recorded only 23 points (14 goals, 9 assists).

The Sabres didn’t give up a valuable asset for Wayne Simmonds at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, but the idea that they gave up a draft pick for an expiring contract was strange to say the least. Simmonds’ value to the Sabres might not be measured by his on-ice performance but could be another veteran voice in the locker room. If he is extended in the offseason, Simmonds can be a sounding board for Eichel and Dahlin as the they continue to develop.

General manager Jason Botterill has six draft picks in the upcoming NHL Draft, but is missing his third and sixth-round picks from the Skinner acquisition in the summer of 2018. The Sabres have needs throughout their NHL lineup, but have limited assets and salary cap space to fill the holes.

Buffalo will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season and will struggle to break that streak in 2020-21.

Long-term strengths

Eichel and Dahlin represent two foundational pieces and should be the face of the Sabres for years to come.

Head coach Ralph Krueger is also an interesting character and has gotten a lot out of his captain and Dahlin in his first season behind Buffalo’s bench. But, after an 8-1-1 start this season, Krueger was unable to stop the skid as his team fell out of the playoff picture.

Obviously, if there was more to add in the strength’s column, the Sabres would have finished higher in the standings and have a better trajectory for years to come.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
Sabres biggest surprises, disappointments so far

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Buffalo Sabres: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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 long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

NHL On NBCSN: How do the Sabres fix this?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is not where the Buffalo Sabres were supposed to be at this point.

Not at this point of the season, and certainly not at this point of their rebuild that started seven years ago.

The Sabres enter Thursday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and 12 points out of a playoff spot. They are on track to miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season (a nearly unprecedented run in NHL history) and there seems to be little short-or long-term hope for significant improvement.

They have lost four out of their past five games, and could be on the verge of losing even diehards like caller Duane.

How bleak has it been over the past decade? Since the start of the 2011-12 season they have not finished higher than 19th in the league standings, and have averaged a 25th place finish over an eight-year stretch. During that time they have never finished in the top-half of the league in goals scored or goals against, and very rarely crack the top-20. They are on their sixth different head coach during that run and their third general manager. The names and faces change from the locker room, to the bench, to the front office, but results on the ice remain almost exactly the same.

It is almost as if the Sabres are in need of a new rebuild from their most recent rebuild.

It also might be a necessity.

They have almost no long-term commitments (or commitments of any kind beyond this season) outside of their top couple of players (Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner), while they have seven pending unrestricted free agents after this season (Jimmy Vesey, Michael Frolik, Zach Bogosian, Conor Sheary, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Scott Wilson). There’s not really a compelling argument to re-sign any of them right now.

Before you even get in to improving the roster, they are simply going to need to to refill almost half of the roster just to put enough bodies on the bench next season. That’s not an easy short-term overhaul, and you also have to trust that you have the right decision-makers in place to do it.

The problem with hitting the reset button on the franchise (again) with yet another fresh start is that they can’t keep wasting the prime years of Eichel.

Eichel is a legitimate superstar talent. He is one of the league’s best players, a cornerstone player that you can build around, and in a better situation with better talent around him would be in the thick of the MVP discussion this season.

Next year is already going to be his sixth year in the league and his age 24 season. By this point in his career he should be the focal point of a Stanley Cup contender, not a team that needs to overhaul half of its roster and has yet to finish in the top half of the league.

The Sabres have so many holes to fill and so many needs to address in the short-term that it’s going to take nearly flawless roster decisions to make a significant short-term jump in the standings in the next year or two. Nothing in their roster decisions with the current management team suggest that is something that is likely, or even possible.

But they are also not in a position where they can start over from scratch because they run the risk of further alienating an already exhausted fan-base, and perhaps most importantly, the one building block player they still have.

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen hosts studio coverage on Thursday with Anson Carter and Colby Armstrong.

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.

‘Unacceptable finish’ sends Sabres to another loss

Sabres
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With their most recent loss on Saturday afternoon, a 6-3 decision at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks, the Buffalo Sabres continued their slide out of playoff contention. For as frustrating as this season has been in Buffalo, this latest defeat seemed to really sting because of how close they were to getting something out of it.

With 14 minutes to play in regulation they were tied in a competitive, entertaining back-and-forth game that seemed to be there for the taking.

It was at that point that everything started to unravel as they surrendered three unanswered goals,

“That’s definitely something we can’t accept,” said coach Ralph Krueger after the game.

“It was a hell of a hockey game until 14 minutes to go, and we turned it into a very painful, unacceptable finish. We know how they play, we respect their skill, and the way they push the game offensively. They like to play an open game. Somewhere through all that we ended up trying to play more their game than on our, and gave up on it. It’s very frustrating right now for all of us.”

He continued: “We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves. The comebacks from going down 2-1, going down 3-2, I thought we stayed pretty calm, we stuck with it, it was a good game going on. Just too many individual breakdowns today through the game, from beginning to end. We need to look hard at this. Those final 14 minutes we really, really have to put a mirror in front of our faces and figure out why we gave up on what is our game. There is just no sign of it.”

The Sabres are in a world of trouble right now. They are without two of their best offensive players in Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson due to injury, and they do not have enough depth after Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to make up for it.

On top of that, they have now won just three of their past 12 games.

After starting the season with a 9-2-1 mark through 12 games, they are just 10-16-6 in the 34 games since. That leaves them seven points out of a wild card spot (with five teams ahead of them) before the rest of Saturday night’s games. If they do not get this turned around it is going to be the second year in a row they waste a fast start to the season.

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.