Johan Larsson

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.

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.

The Buzzer: Rough night for rougher teams

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Three Stars

1. Assorted Buffalo Sabres

Look, when you beat a team 7-1, you’re probably going to have at least a few standouts, and your top Sabres star probably boils down to taste.

Johan Larsson is a good player to start with. His three assists happened during Buffalo’s five-goal opening period, one that really made the Devils’ dire situation extra-glaringly-clear. Jack Eichel did what he does, which is score a lot, extending his point streak to 10 games with one goal and two assists.

To be fair to the Devils, they at least tried to make the score more respectable. They fired 45 shots on goal, including 39 during the second and third period, to try to get in the game. Linus Ullmark wasn’t interested in helping New Jersey save face, however, as he stopped all but one of those 45 SOG.

2. Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

Could we be seeing a mini-renaissance for a goalie who’s been left in the dust by Jordan Binnington?

Allen was arguably the first star of Monday night, making 38 saves for his first shutout of 2019-20, including 17 in the third period to cement that goose egg.

While it’s a small sample size, Allen has been heating up after two rocky appearances in October. Allen generated a strong .934 save percentage during five appearances in November, and began December with this shutout. Again, it’s not exactly a lengthy run of elite puck-stopping, yet if Allen can maintain a decent level of play, the Blues can at least keep Binnington reasonably rested as they try to defend that first-ever Stanley Cup title.

Semyon Varlamov is a decent option as another goalie as he made 30 out of 31 stops as the Islanders got back on the winning track against the very-much-not-winning Red Wings.

3. Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks

It’s unclear if Lindholm will find the game that made him an under-the-radar elite defensive presence from 2015-16 to 2017-18, only to drop off significantly in 2018-19. But he at least enjoyed a nice game on Monday.

Lindholm collected three assists against the Kings, ending a seven-game pointless streak. The last time he collected a point? Why, that was … another three-assist night, in that case against the Avalanche on Oct. 26. Lindholm now has 12 points (all assists) in 20 games in 2019-20.

Stephenson is Vegas-bound

The Washington Capitals traded Chandler Stephenson to the Vegas Golden Knights (and George McPhee) for a fifth-round pick in 2021.

Tough to say that Stephenson is a huge loss, judging by both his modest scoring numbers, workmanlike other stats, and his RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey. But he might at least give Vegas a decent option to soak up penalty kill minutes and other unglamorous roles.

Highlight of the Night

Kings forward Nikolai Prokhorkin sliced through the Ducks defense like a hot fork knife through butter.

Lowlight

Ouch, Louis Domingue.

Factoids

  • Jake Allen joins Brian Elliott (25) and Jaroslav Halak (20) as the only three Blues goalies with 20 career shutouts, according to NHL PR. Binnington is at six in his regular season career, in case you were wondering.
  • NHL PR points out that Jack Eichel (four assists on March 21, 2018) is the only Sabres player with more assists in a single period than the three Larsson collected in the opening frame on Monday.
  • The Devils have lost their last two games by a combined score of 11-1. The Sabres scored three goals before New Jersey even registered its first shot on goal in Monday’s 7-1 drubbing.
  • The Red Wings have now lost 10 games in a row, and have allowed the most goals in the league with 118. No one else has reached 100 goals allowed yet this season (Montreal’s second-worst with 95).
  • As rough as the Rangers’ underlying numbers have been, they were putting together some decent stretches. Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Golden Knights ended a five-game point streak where the Rangers went 4-0-1.

Scores

BUF 7 – NJD 1
VGK 4 – NYR 1
NYI 4 – DET 1
STL 4 – CHI 0
ANA 4 – LAK 2

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 GM Botterill ‘actively seeking’ forward depth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With defenseman Zach Bogosian getting closer to making his season debut, Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill said he is actively seeking a trade to balance the Sabres roster.

Botterill said he is ”actively looking” to acquire a forward to help a team that is in the midst of a 1-5-2 skid and dealing with injuries at the position. He spoke Tuesday after attending GM meetings in Toronto and before the Sabres hosted Minnesota.

Bogosian has been out since having hip surgery last spring, and his upcoming return means the Sabres are overstocked on the blue line. Buffalo is carrying eight defensemen already.

Botterill said he is ”optimistic” that Bogosian will be able to return to the lineup during the Sabres’ three-game trip that starts Thursday in Boston.

”I think he’ll be a big boost to our team,” Botterill said.

The Sabres also lack forward depth as a result of injuries. Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely with a concussion suffered Saturday. It is Okposo’s fourth concussion in less than three years.

”There’s a lot of concern,” Botterill said. ”Right now, the focus is just making sure that Kyle is all right and getting him back to normal health.”

Tage Thompson sustained an upper body injury Sunday after being called up to fill in for Okposo. The Sabres have also been without forward Johan Larsson (upper body), Marcus Johansson (upper body) and Vladimir Sobotka (lower body).

The injuries forced the Sabres to move defenseman John Gilmour to forward for Tuesday night’s game.

The Sabres have also lacked secondary scoring beyond captain Jack Eichel, who has scored the team’s last five goals.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning vs. Sabres in 2019 NHL Global Series

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s Global Series matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Sabres head to Stockholm, Sweden for a “home and home” in the NHL Global Series. Friday’s game will mark the second Global Series game this season, with the Flyers beating the Blackhawks in Prague, Czech Republic on October 4.

This is the second regular season trip overseas for both teams. The Lightning lost both of their games in Czech Republic in 2008, while the Sabres won both of their games in Finland and Germany in 2011.

This will be the 33rd regular season game contested outside North America. It will be the 12th to be played in Sweden, the most among all countries, and the 11th game in Stockholm, the most of any city. The only game to take place in Sweden outside of the capital was New Jersey’s win against Edmonton in Gothenburg in October of last season.

The Lightning have lost three of their last four games, while they gave up six goals in their only win during that stretch (7-6 OT win at New Jersey). After opening the season with eight wins in their first 10 games, the Sabres have now lost four of their last five and head to Sweden on a three-game losing streak.

While captain Steven Stamkos leads Tampa with 13 points in 13 games (5G-8A), he has just one goal in his last seven games and none in his last three. Last season’s Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is second on TB with 11 pts (4G-7A) but has just one goal in the last nine games.

Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who just turned 23 years old last week, continues to lead the team in scoring with 17 points in 15 games this season (7G-10A). Eichel, who finished last season with a career-high 82 points, has seen his point total increase in every season of his NHL career. He is currently on pace for 92 points this season

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-SABRES BEGINS AT 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Ericsson Globe – Stockholm, Sweden
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 8, 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Alexander Volkov
Tyler JohnsonBrayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Patrick MaroonCedric PaquetteYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanKevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Luke Schenn – Mikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

SABRES
Victor Olofsson – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonVladimir Sobotka
Jimmy VeseyCasey MittelstadtConor Sheary
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Brandon MontourRasmus Dahlin
Henri JokiharjuColin Miller

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call Friday’s matchup.