Jimmy Vesey

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Krueger holds key to unlocking Sabres’ potential

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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.

One has to wonder what Ralph Krueger could have done with the Edmonton Oilers and all of their talent if given more than 48 games.

The truncated 2012-13 season due to the lockout was all Krueger would get, however. The Oilers went 19-22-7 and Krueger was let go a season after he was promoted from an associate coach.

Krueger then disappeared from the NHL, first moving into a role as a consultant with Team Canada for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and then taking on the role of director and then chairman of Southampton Football Club, who were in the Premier League at the time, England’s top-flight soccer league.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | Three questions | Under pressure]

He was named coach of Team Europe for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where he and his squad would reach the best-of-three final before losing to Canada in two games.

Everywhere he’s gone, at least on the international level, Krueger has met success. And he’s garnered a title of a players’ coach who gets the maximum from those under his tutelage.

And let’s face, there hasn’t been a coach in Edmonton that’s really done anything special with that club since. And while Krueger wasn’t afforded a longer chance, he’s now getting on in Buffalo on a team with some special, young talent itself.

If the Sabres have an x-factor this season, it very well could be the man standing behind the players. Krueger’s ability to band the troops together will be key as the Sabres try and reverse their losing culture and make the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

And Krueger believes the team is on the cusp.

“This group is ready to become a contender and to compete with anybody on any given night,” Krueger told The Associated Press back in May. “I’m confident that we can become that kind of a team quite quickly.”

There’s optimism around the Sabres after another aggressive summer that has seen them acquire both Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju on the back end and Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey up front, along with signing 40-goal man Jeff Skinner to a massive eight-year deal.

Skinner was a big piece that needed to be signed this summer if the Sabres were going to continue to have a big-time goal scorer. It would appear Krueger played a part in Skinner’s decision to commit long-term.

“Before I even had the chance to speak with him, I had a few different people reach out and tell me about their positive experiences with him,” Skinner told NHL.com. “Our conversation on the phone seemed to confirm all those things.

“He’s obviously a great leader, and his resume speaks for itself. What stood out from our conversation was how excited he was to be in Buffalo. I think his excitement is genuine and reflects the feeling we have as players.”

While question marks remain in goal and with the team’s defensive structure, there’s a good chance that Krueger shifting the team’s mindset from one of losing to one with promise going forward will only pay in dividends to the team buying into his message.

Krueger is the man tasked with changing it and much of where the Sabres head this season rests on his shoulders.

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’ Rodrigues gets $2 million in arbitration

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The Buffalo Sabres announced on Thursday that forward Evan Rodrigues has been signed to a one-year, $2 million contract for the 2019-20 season.

The terms of the deal were awarded by an arbitrator and help bring the Sabres’ roster closer to completion for the upcoming season. He will still be a restricted free agent next summer once this contract expires. The only remaining unsigned players are defender Jake McCabe and backup goalie Linus Ullmark.

Rodrigues, 25, has spent parts of four seasons with the Sabres and is coming off of a 2018-19 season that saw him score nine goals and 20 assists. All of those marks were career highs, though that was mostly due to the fact he played in 78 games. His per-game production actually dropped pretty significantly from what he did during the 2017-18 season even though he played two additional minutes per game.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

It has been a busy offseason for the Sabres as they work to end an eight-year playoff drought.

This offseason has seen them acquire Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey and Collin Miller, while also re-signing winger Jeff Skinner to a long-term contract.

Related: Sabres have made big strides this summer

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.

NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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.