Linus Ullmark

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.

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.”

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.

The Buzzer: McDavid and MacKinnon miss time; Kings’ royally surprising streak

McDavid MacKinnon illness injury PHT Buzzer
Getty Images

Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon miss time; unclear if they will be out longer

As of this moment, it’s unclear if anything serious happened to McDavid or MacKinnon. Yet, consider the star power of both centers, the situations are both worth monitoring.

In McDavid’s case, he missed Monday’s significant game against the Golden Knights because of an “illness.” Despite waves of coronavirus jokes splashing around, the specifics remain unclear.

Speaking of unclear, it’s not immediately obvious how badly Nathan MacKinnon is hurt. He left the Avalanche’s loss to the Kings with a lower-body injury and did not return. Injuries are really piling up for Colorado, so the Avs have to hope this is only a minor setback.

“He leaves the game, I’m concerned right away. I have no idea (of the severity),” Jared Bednar said in his postgame press conference, via the Denver Post’s Mike Chambers. “Honestly, I just went (into the coach’s room) and came out here. I know he wasn’t good enough to come back in the game tonight. So, yeah, there’s some concern.”

Here’s hoping that neither this illness for McDavid nor this injury for MacKinnon costs either star much time.

Coronavirus causes disruptions for Sharks, media

Monday’s most noteworthy bits of information often didn’t revolve around Monday’s games.

Santa Clara County called for a ban on meetings involving 1,000 people or more, which puts the Sharks in a pickle. The Sharks provided a statement on the matter, with the basic takeaway being “TBD.”

On a related note, the NHL joined other sports leagues in prohibiting media and other “nonessential” people from locker rooms in hopes of limiting the chances of the virus spreading.

Three Stars

1. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets

Ehlers spearheaded a spirited comeback after the Jets fell behind 2-0 to the Coyotes. Ehlers generated one goal and two assists to help Winnipeg earn a crucial win against Arizona, and in regulation to boot.

After failing to score a point in three straight games, Ehlers now has one goal in each of his last two contests, and five points during that two-game span. With 25 goals and 57 points, Ehlers could match or exceed career-highs (29G, 64P).

Cody Eakin (GWG, 1A) and Tucker Poolman (1G, 1A) were also instrumental in the win, while Nick Schmaltz scored two goals in a losing cause for Arizona.

2. Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers must have groaned heading into Monday’s game. They didn’t have McDavid in the lineup with a Pacific Division lead on the line against the Golden Knights.

Vegas did indeed dominate Monday’s game, and they ultimately won after Shea Theodore scored the overtime game-winner. Even so, Koskinen made 45 saves to secure a useful standings point for Edmonton. Considering McDavid’s absence and the Golden Knights’ 48-24 shots on goal edge, the Oilers should be thankful.

3. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

Dahlin generated two assists despite pretty brief-for-overtime usage (17:16 TOI) and then generated a shootout goal as the Sabres beat the Capitals. You could definitely give some of the credit to Linus Ullmark, too, as he made 33 saves.

Alex Ovechkin was productive in defeat, scoring his 48th goal and adding his (heh) 19th assist to improve to 67 points in 68 games. Ovechkin is right in the thick of the Maurice Richard Race, but it wasn’t enough to get the Capitals a win or Ovechkin a third star nod.

Highlight of the Night

The Kings beat the Avalanche on Monday, giving Los Angeles a most-unexpected six-game winning streak. They aren’t just knocking over (other?) tomato cans, either. The Kings defeats the Avs, Penguins, Wild, Maple Leafs and Golden Knights for five of those wins. Yes, the Devils do account for one of those wins, but even New Jersey’s been scrappier lately.

Jonathan Quick didn’t need to be all that busy as the Avs were shorthanded with MacKinnon out on Monday, but this was quite the sequence:

NHL Standings update

East (after significant win for Panthers)

West (after Jets beat Coyotes in regulation, etc.)

Scores

BUF 3 – WSH 2 (SO)
WPG 4 – ARI 2
FLA 2 – STL 1
VGK 3 – EDM 2 (OT)
LAK 3 – COL 1

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.

Jets’ playoff hopes alive thanks to Connor Hellebuyck

The first half of the 2019-20 NHL season went different than how the Jets expected. Injuries, slow starts offensively, and poor defense have put them outside the Western Conference playoff picture through 51 games.

Hope remains, however. Winnipeg is three points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Stars for third place in the Central Division. The playoffs remain a reality because of Connor Hellebuyck, who was voted as Vezina Trophy winner in the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s midseason awards.

The 26-year-old Hellebuyck was in St. Louis last weekend attending his second All-Star Game. After a tough first half for the Jets, it was time for a much-needed break, which fell in line with their bye week.

Hellebuyck planned to “turn off the brain” and “put my mind on hold” and rest up for be an important final stretch. Through Thursday, he’s played the third-most minutes (2,318:40) and is the main reason why the Jets’ season hasn’t fallen apart.

“I think this break’s huge,” Hellebuyck said in St. Louis. “I wouldn’t say it’s ever been too much yet because I’ve managed it pretty well, and I’ve been turning my brain off when I need to. Definitely there’s some moments when I needed some rest and I think I got those. I think this is going to be really good for me now to just kind of wipe everything clean and come back right where I started at the beginning of the year.”

Hellebyuck for Vezina

Through 42 appearances Hellebuyck is leads the NHL in shutouts (four), is top 10 in even strength save percentage (.927) and has faced the most shots at 5-on-5 (1,030) among all goaltenders. The other stunning stat is his goals saved above average of 10.52, per Evolving Wild, which places him fifth. Of the four goalies ahead of him in that category none have come close to his 1885:25 time on ice. Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark is closest at 1572:10.

Hellebuyck’s strong stats on a mediocre Jets team are further highlighted by the fact that he’s faced the most high-danger shots against (283) in the NHL, per Natural Stat Trick. Combine them all and you could make an argument that, for the moment, he may deserve a place on a long list of Hart Trophy candidates as well.

After a down-ish year last season, Hellebuyck’s numbers are back to where they were in 2017-18 when he was a Vezina finalist and earned a six-year, $37M extension. He said he feels more patient and that there’s better balance in his game. “I feel way more on top of reads. I feel like I’m challenging very well, making more controlled saves,” he added.

No rest for the weary

As the Jets continue to ride Hellebuyck, his workload might challenge his career high of 64 starts that he made in 2017-18. He’s started 40 of Winnipeg’s 51 games and will continue to be relied upon for their playoff push.

Hellebuyck entered the break with a night off against Columbus, which came after he allowed 14 goals in three starts. He said he doesn’t feel worn down physically, but there have been times mentally he’s felt it.

“I think mental fatigue is worse than physical fatigue,” he said. “I could play 82 physically, but mentally there’s no way. There’s certain games that really drain on you mentally because you might not get a whole lot of shots but you have to read the play over and over again. Just because it doesn’t get to the net doesn’t mean it wasn’t a whole lot of mental effort just in case it did, right? I think that’s the biggest thing. 

“When you get a lot of pressure, you’re constantly making decisions. Not only that, but you’re trying to identify when is your moment, when is the moment you’re going to have to come and take a shot, and when is the moment you’re going to change the play. … That weighs on your brain, you know?”

The way Hellebuyck has continued to improve his game hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. And they know just how important he is to their success.

“He doesn’t have any complacency in him,” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele. “He continues to work on his game, continues to come back every year a little better and he’s worked at it. His success isn’t just by chance or by luck he works at it. That’s something I always respect a lot is when a guy goes home and works on his game and gets better every year. That’s a very respectable quality.”

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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.