Kyle Okposo

Plenty of questions for Kevyn Adams as Sabres GM

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The Sabres stunned many on Tuesday by firing Jason Botterill, and naming Kevyn Adams as their new GM.

The move accomplished the interesting task of making the inevitable feel shocking. Yes, Botterill seemed like he was on borrowed time as GM. But considering Kim Pegula’s vote of confidence from late May, the Sabres signaled that now was not the time. And then they changed course.

As messy as all of this is, the truth is that it might work out for the best. Why head into this long, unusual offseason with a GM you don’t believe in? Every prime year from Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is precious, so why waste them if Botterill really isn’t the best choice?

Of course, what happens next hinges on Kevyn Adams. Can he finally get the Sabres on track as the franchise is mired in a nine-year playoff drought? Let’s look at the monumental task(s) Adams has in front of him.

Adams faces key decisions (big and small, short and long-term) as Sabres GM

As cathartic as it might be to move on from a GM or coach that didn’t work out, there’s also a risk that the new people in charge will make the wrong changes, sometimes merely to show that they’re not just sitting idly.

For better (Jack Eichel) and worse (Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo), the Sabres have a lot of big contracts they really can’t move. Rasmus Ristolainen stands as the biggest piece — even literally — that they actually could conceivably remove.

It feels like Ristolainen has been subject to trade rumors for ages, even though he’s merely 25. Either way, it makes you wonder if Botterill wanted too much for Ristolainen, or if the market really is just that cold on him.

Frankly, the Sabres might be better off cutting their losses, even at a discount rate. By most measures, including this multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, Ristolainen seems like an overall drag on his team:

Kevyn Adams Sabres GM should trade Rasmus Ristolainen
via Evolving Hockey

If the Sabres traded Ristolainen, it might help solve their Rasmus Riddle.

On one hand, Ralph Krueger really helped improve the Sabres on defense. Consider his isolated impact via Hockey Viz:

Kevyn Adams Sabres GM should keep Ralph Krueger
via Hockey Viz

Yet, while Krueger bumped down Ristolainen’s ice time, the tall defenseman still topped the Sabres in ice time. Meanwhile, Rasmus Dahlin actually saw a dramatic drop in ice time from his rookie campaign (21:09) to his sophomore season (19:18).

That’s puzzling. I can’t help but point out that the “free agent” market for coaches is unusually robust, featuring choices ranging from Bruce Boudreau and Gerard Gallant to Peter Laviolette and even Mike Babcock.

Overall, though? It seems like Krueger is a good coach, maybe a very good one. Adams should probably trade away that one bad habit in Ristolainen, though.

RFAs need addressing

Take a look at the Sabres’ long-term outlook for a longer list, but Buffalo is brimming with RFA decisions to make.

Some of the most important names include breakout rookie sniper Victor Olofsson, goalie Linus Ullmark, baffling trade acquisition Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Montour, Michael Frolik, and Jimmy Vesey.

While the Sabres have $25M devoted to Eichel, Skinner, and Okposo alone, the slate is reasonably clean for Kevyn Adams to make his own mark as GM.

He’ll need to make the right calls not just with who to bring back, but also who to add.

Ullmark played pretty well this season, but not necessarily to the point that he silenced all questions about Sabres goaltending. Should Adams stick with Ullmark and Carter Hutton, who’s worked on vision problems and has one year remaining? Should the Sabres instead plunge into a pretty promising goalie market, and either try to trade away Hutton or even eat the cost of sending Hutton to the AHL?

Go big in free agency or aim more modestly?

If the Sabres make the call to spend on a UFA goalie, they’d need to determine the right target. Braden Holtby boasts a big name, but he’s struggled in recent years, and would be expensive if he leaves the Capitals. It’s difficult to imagine Robin Lehner returning to Buffalo, but maybe Adams and the Sabres can identify the next Lehner?

Skaters represent interesting questions, too.

If Alex Pietrangelo becomes available, is it worth the risk of going top-heavy to improve in an area of need? Dahlin will need a contract after 2020-21, so the Sabres could see their breathing room collapse quickly if they signed Pietrangelo, only to receive diminishing returns.

Taylor Hall could give Eichel the sort of support he’s rarely seen, yet Hall’s shown serious signs of decline recently.

The Sabres have also gotten burned by more mid-range free agent signings, so there are risks if they swing for contact rather than for the fences.

Maybe the best path would be to call up, say, the Lightning or another cap-challenged team to shake loose some talent?

Even if Adams keeps his early moves modest, he still faces a lot of questions in taking over as Sabres GM. This team needs to add talent, and rebuild trust from fans. As we’ve seen from Botterill and others, it’s a job that can go wrong in many ways.

What would you do if you were in Adams’ shoes?

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’ Okposo has surgery to repair right knee injury

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo had surgery to repair a right knee injury, leaving him plenty of time to recover during the team’s extended break.

The team on Friday announced Okposo had surgery this week, and is expected to miss up to six weeks.

The Sabres are off indefinitely after being one of seven teams to not qualify for the NHL’s proposed 24-team return-to-play format. The start of next season is expected to be pushed back, and may not open until January because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Okposo had surgery a week after the remainder of the Sabres season was canceled.

He was sidelined twice last season because of upper- and lower-body injuries that led to him missing 16 games. The 13-year veteran finished with nine goals and 10 assist for 19 points in 52 games, while playing mostly on Buffalo’s checking line.

Criticism doesn’t alter Sabres GM’s plan to build with youth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jason Botterill is very much aware of the criticism he’s attracted overseeing a Buffalo Sabres team that extended its playoff drought to nine years by failing to even qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team format.

That doesn’t mean the general manager is going to his alter his vision in continuing to build the organizational depth and developing young talent.

“There’s always urgency in this position, and I’m not surprised that our passionate fans want to see a winner on the ice,” Botterill said during a Zoom conference call Wednesday, a day after the Sabres were officially eliminated following the league’s decision to forego the remainder of the regular season.

“When we talk about development, it also equates to trying to find a winning environment here,” he added. “We want our young players to step in and put them in positions where they can succeed, where they can help out our core players right away.”

Though Botterill saw glimpses of his team being competitive under first-year coach Ralph Krueger, there wasn’t enough consistency to extend the Sabres’ 50th anniversary year after games were placed on pause due to the pandemic in March.

With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo finished 13th in the Eastern Conference standings with a .493 points per game percentage. The Sabres were edged out from securing the final spot in the expanded format by Montreal (.500).

Buffalo’s playoff drought is the NHL’s longest active streak, and one short of matching the league record shared by Florida (2001-11) and Edmonton (2007-16).

For now, Botterill has ownership’s backing after Kim Pegula this week told The Associated Press the GM’s job is secure for a fourth year.

Buffalo’s season featured a series of peaks and valleys. Following a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres proceeded to go 2-8-3 over their next 13 games. And after a 7-3-1 run put the Sabres in striking distance of the playoff race in February, the wheels fell off with a six-game skid.

“We had too many poor streaks to combat the good streaks,” veteran forward Kyle Okposo said. “One of the keys to making the playoffs and playing well season is to manage those skids. We need to find a way to do better at that.”

Okposo is preaching patience by saying he sees promise in the Sabres developing players, and the simplified structure introduced by Krueger.

“I know people are mad, and they want to win. And we want to win, too,” Okposo said. “But we are going in the right direction, and I think that’s the message I have for fans.”

BRIGHT SPOTS

Captain Jack Eichel scored a career-best and team-leading 36 goals, including nine game-winners. Forward Victor Olofsson finished with 20 goals and had been leading NHL rookies in scoring before missing 15 games with a lower-body injury. Second-year defenseman Rasmus Dahlin finished fourth on the team with 40 points (four goals, 36 assists) in 59 games.

LOW POINTS

Forward Jeff Skinner finished with 14 goals and 23 points, a year after scoring a career-best 40 goals, which led to him signing an eight-year, $72 million contract. Defenseman Zach Bogosian had his contract terminated after refusing to report to the minors. Goalie Carter Hutton won his first six starts before going 0-8-4 in 13 appearances, and finished the season 12-14-4.

BUSY OFFSEASON

The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potential constrict due to lost revenue.

Buffalo’s cap space stands to be eaten up with Olofsson, forward Sam Reinhart, defenseman Brandon Montour and goalie Linus Ullmark the most notable players eligible to become restricted free agents.

Buffalo’s unrestricted free agents include forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larrson and late-season addition Wayne Simmonds.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Though Botterill hasn’t ruled out adding experienced talent through trades or free agency, he also expects several youngsters to compete for jobs next season. The candidates includes former first-round draft picks Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt, who spent last season developing in the minors. Then there’s 2019 first-round pick, center Dylan Cozens, who has completed his Canadian junior eligibility.

DOWN DAHLIN

Missing the playoffs doesn’t sit well with Dahlin.

“It’s tough to be here in Sweden with all my Swedish buddies going back and playing, and I’m staying here at home,” Dahlin said via a Zoom call. “It (ticks) me off a little bit.”

Uncertainty awaits as NHL puts season on ice — for now

Michael Peca knows all about NHL work stoppages.

The two-time Frank Selke Award-winning forward endured two lockouts and lost another season due to a contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres during his 14-year career, which ended with Columbus in 2009.

Never could Peca have imagined a season – never mind essentially the entire North American sports schedule – being placed in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s weird because nothing like this has ever happened, and it’ll probably never happen again, hopefully,” Peca said Thursday, when the NHL joined numerous pro sports leagues in suspending its season.

“It’s like, `Is this even real?’” he added. “But there’s a big-picture purpose to it. … It’s about making sure we can slow down if not cease, but more likely slow down how quickly it’s spreading.”

The NHL placed the final month of its season on ice – for now – but hopes to eventually resume play and still award the Stanley Cup.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league followed the NBA’s lead after Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19.

With the two leagues sharing numerous facilities and locker rooms across North America, Bettman said: “It now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.”

The NHL Players’ Association backed the decision, calling it “an appropriate course of action.”

The decision left numerous unanswered questions, ranging from when games might resume to what shape players might be in once they return. The stoppage also raised concerns over what the economic impact might be on the bottom line in the league’s 31 markets.

As Nashville Predators president Sean Henry put it: “We’re working through really uncharted territory.”

Henry wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the season not resuming.

“I think there’s a fear for all of us of that,” he added. “We all want answers. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of them.”

There have only been two years in which the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded since 1893. It happened in 1919, when the final was canceled after five games because of the Spanish flu outbreak, and then again in 2005, when an NHL lockout wiped out the entire season.

Though disappointed, players understood the reasoning.

“Nothing is more important than everyone’s health and safety. The league did the right thing today,” Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno wrote in a post on his Twitter account. “We have the best fans in the world, and we’ll get through this together.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

While players will continue to be paid, they won’t be allowed to practice together for at least the short term, the Predators’ Henry said.

The NHL has not said any player has tested positive for COVID-19. The Washington Capitals, who used the same visiting locker room as the Jazz at New York’s Madison Square Garden, said they will closely monitor the health of players, coaches and staff.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who followed the Jazz into two arenas last weekend and occupied the same locker room while in Boston, said deep cleaning and sanitizing was done before they arrived.

In Dallas, Stars forward Alexander Radulov has been sick, but team president Brad Alberts said no players had yet been tested.

Alberts said he’s encouraged a majority of employees to work from home. Players have also been encouraged to quarantine themselves in the event they might have contracted the virus.

Retired NHL forward and Minnesota Wild assistant director of player development Matt Hendricks noted how different this hiatus is to past stoppages.

“This is kind of no-man’s territory,” Hendricks said.

“When we were locked out, we had the ability to go and skate and train,” he said. “But this one’s a little bit different in the sense that you really don’t want to expose yourself if you don’t have to. … So going into public gyms that might not be the best thing to do to put yourself at risk and put others at risk.”

In Buffalo, former Sabres and Wild forward Jason Pominville said it can’t be easy for players to stop competing a month before the playoffs were scheduled to begin..

“They just want to play, they’re in a rhythm, not a lot of practices, playing a lot of games and then, all of a sudden, it’s shut down for who knows how long,” said Pominville, who hasn’t filed his retirement papers since completing his 15th NHL season last year.

He’s spent this season playing in a local beer league. Upon learning of the NHL pausing its season, Pominville playfully reached out to former Sabres teammate, Kyle Okposo.

“I was like, `Hey bud, if you or any of the boys are looking to skate, my beer league’s not canceled yet, and you guys are welcome,’” Pominville said, laughing. “We’re always looking to get better.”

Wednesday Night Hockey: Avs, Sabres took surprising deadline approaches

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Avalanche and Sabres were in very different positions heading into the trade deadline. Colorado was comfortably in a playoff spot, while the Sabres were far enough out of a postseason position that no one expected them to make a trade to bolster their team. But the NHL is an unpredictable place.

One of the first moves made on Monday morning was between Ottawa and Colorado. The Avs sent a 2021 draft pick to the Sens for Vladislav Namestnikov. That’s a solid, low-cost depth move by general manager Joe Sakic. The expectation was that the Avs would continue to swing a few deals throughout the day, but outside of a move for veteran goalie Michael Hutchinson, they didn’t do anything else.

Sakic’s team has been hit pretty hard by the injury bug. Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Colin Wilson, Matt Calvert and Philipp Grubauer are all sidelined right now. Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, all they can do is wait for these bodies to get healthy again.

Rantanen is arguably the most important player of the bunch. Since he went down to injury though, the Avs have found a way to win all three of their games. As difficult as it must be to not have him and other key players in their lineup right now, these guys should all come back fresh for a playoff push. They just have to find a way to survive without them in the present.

As for the Sabres, they surprised us on deadline day by giving up one of their 2021 draft picks for pending unrestricted free agent Wayne Simmonds. Even though their odds of participating in the playoffs were slim, general manager Jason Botterill wanted to give his team some kind of spark.

“I think we made Jason’s job a little bit more difficult, which is what our goal was,” forward Kyle Okposo said after Sunday’s win over Winnipeg. “We like the group that we have in here. I think we’ve shown some resilience that’s been missing in the past.”

Simmonds is nowhere close to being the player he was with the Philadelphia Flyers a few years ago. That’s why he fetched a fifth-rounder two years from now. But for a young Sabres team, adding a veteran like him could help them immediately and potentially heading into next year if the marriage between these two sides works.

The 31-year-old has eight goals and 24 points in 61 games with New Jersey this year and five of his eight goals have been scored on the man-advantage.

Botterill also acquired forward Dominik Kahun from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues. The 24-year-old is currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

The Sabres were six points out of a playoff spot on Monday. They’re now eight points behind Toronto for the third place in the Atlantic Division, but they have two games in hand. Keep in mind, they’d have to leap over the Leafs, Panthers and Canadiens to get the job done. That’s not an ideal situation to be in, but they’ll have to make the most of it.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.