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Fantasy Hockey: Sleepers, bargains for 2018-19

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There can be some crossover between a sleeper and a “bounce-back player”, so in some ways, consider this a supplement to Joey Alfieri’s recent fantasy post for PHT.

Either way, identifying bargains is often how you distinguish yourself from other comparably shrewd drafters. During one mock draft last season with Rotoworld writers who hauntingly wiser than I am, I somehow ended up drafting Nathan MacKinnon in the 12th round.

(If only such treasured moments happened with “real” fantasy teams, right?)

Anyway, before we get started, note that some “sleepers” are drowsier than others. In certain cases, you might want to draft someone just a little earlier than they usual go. In others, you’d be the only one who would drafted a true diamond in the rough. Considering the variety of stat categories and the swath of leagues (some shallow, some with a ton of teams or picks), this is meant as a generalized list of potential bargains.

Note: This post skews a bit toward how players are ranked/drafted in Yahoo leagues, although ESPN listings are also considered.

Players I’m especially excited about.

It’s easy to look at The Nuge’s production (tying a career-high with 24 goals, 48 points overall) and think “same old, same old.” As a former first overall pick, he’ll carry a stigma of “meh” for many.

Of course, RNH managed his 48 points despite being limited to 62 games, and he really took off once he was lined up with Connor McDavid. McDavid is the type of dynamic player who could push Nugent-Hopkins to incredible highs, to the point that he might be worth a mild reach (he’s ranked 135 in ESPN; while his ADP [average draft position] is 145 in Yahoo).

Sometimes it’s a fool’s errand to chase line combinations in Yahoo, so as a rule of thumb, make sure that the sleepers in mind can still fend for themselves outside of the cocoon of a great linemate. Nugent-Hopkins’ results are more likely to make you yawn if he loses McDavid privileges, but it won’t be “tear up your draft-day spreadsheets” bad.

We might as well stay on the subject of already-good players who could jump a considerable level if they can maintain robust linemate opportunities.

James Neal’s shown what he can do with great linemates before, scoring 88 goals in just 179 games in three seasons alongside Evgeni Malkin, with his production undercut quite a bit by a combination of injury issues and the stat-killing 2012-13 lockout.

It’s tantalizing to picture what the volatile winger might accomplish if he lands a semi-permanent spot with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Micheal Ferland scored 20 goals and 41 points riding their coattails last season, so big dreams aren’t too outrageous if you replace “Typo” with Neal.

Even if he slips down the lineup, Neal Just. Scores. Goals. He generated 25 with Vegas last season despite being limited to 71 games played. Granted, injuries are just about as frequent a consideration with Neal as goals are, so pencil in at least some mild frustration.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

  • J. T. Miller, C/RW

Transport yourself back to, say, the midpoint of the 2017-18 season, and recall how many people wished they had Vladislav Namestnikov on their teams. Through the first 38 games of the season, the then-Lightning forward generated 15 goals and 33 points, tying him with the likes of William Karlsson and Aleksander Barkov (while edging Patrik Laine‘s 32 points) at that moment in the campaign.

Namestnikov isn’t chopped liver, but you can chalk up much of that production to something obvious: he was riding shotgun with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

It’s not too shocking, then, that J.T. Miller flourished once he popped into that spot following the Ryan McDonagh trade. In 19 games with the Lightning, Miller generated 10 goals and 18 points.

Miller is a decent-enough scorer on his own (22 goals and 56 points in 2016-17 with the Rangers), and there’s the possibility that he’d land with Brayden Point if he can’t stick on that super line. Still, it’s your duty to make sure that Miller at least doesn’t go undrafted.

If this post went up last week, Theo might not have been on this list for a simple reason: his contract situation was unsettled.

A week later, he isn’t on just on Vegas’ roster; he’s close to a lifer considering, with a seven-year deal. The Golden Knights have little reason to resist throwing Theodore out there in high-profile situations, meaning that the talented defenseman should receive ample power play reps, and should be the go-to guy. That’s especially true since Nate Schmidt is suspended for a quarter of the season.

If you can grab Theodore as your fourth or even third defenseman, you’re likely to be on a gravy train with biscuit wheels. Wait, is that even an efficient way to travel? Maybe we should table this “biscuit wheels” business …

[Again, you should read about rebounds.]

Ryan O'ReillyC

One of my minor quibbles with ROR, at least from a fantasy standpoint, was that he was sometimes a little trigger-shy. Heading into last season, he was under 200 shots on goal for three straight years. O’Reilly turned that around – maybe out of frustration? – by firing 230 SOG during his final season with the Sabres.

That peripheral stat might be dialed down in St. Louis, but if so, it would likely be for a good reason: O’Reilly would instead be passing to ultra-talented linemates in Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

If the Blues load up in that regard, that O’Reilly could be a bodacious bargain.

Other recommendations

I’m a bit more excited about the players listed above (at least relative to where they tend to be drafted, although Neal and Nuge are kind of all over the map), but these are worthy mentions.

  • Antti Raanta – Strong season as a No. 1 muted by early injury woes.
  • Jaden Schwartz – Actually, maybe you’d be better off getting him instead of Ryan O’Reilly? You could do worse than to draft one after the other goes, really.
  • Matt Duchene, Thomas Chabot, Mark Stone – Hey, someone has to score for the Senators.
  • Eric Staal – Somewhat quietly scored 42 goals and 76 points for the Wild last season, and has contract year motivation. He’s getting a little up there in age, though, as he’ll turn 34 on Oct. 29.
  • Ryan Pulock – Hey, someone has to score for the Islanders, and it can’t always be Mathew Barzal.
  • Nick Bjugstad – Looked awesome when he landed with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Not quite as exciting as Miller/RNH because he’s more dependent.
  • Daniel Sprong – Probably safer to “watchlist” rather than draft him, at least in relatively shallow, standard leagues. Then again, might be worth just pulling the trigger, considering that he seems likely to win The Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.
  • Bo HorvatSomeone needs to score for the Canucks, and usually it’s going to be Brock Boeser, and the guys who are along with him. Horvat’s the best of those guys.
  • Paul Stastny – Could be awfully interesting in deeper leagues if he’s conjoined with Max Pacioretty, who may be in store for a monster season considering Vegas’ attacking ways.
  • Jonathan Drouin – Fantasy hockey is as much about fun as it is to pointing to your brain. You can get one of the most prominent scorers on a team, who also happens to be a ton of fun to watch, at least if you’re not a Canadiens fan hoping he can heal all wounds.
  • Carter Hutton – Your mileage will vary depending upon how much of a jump you expect from the Sabres, and how much of a threat you believe Linus Ullmark would be. To me, he’s a Dollar Store version of Raanta’s appeal as a respectable second or even third fantasy goalie. (Note: Dollar Store versions of things can be perfectly fine. Don’t growl at me, Giant Tiger/other beast-themed dollar stores.)
  • Petr Mrazek/Scott Darling – Honestly, I’m a little frightened by Carolina goalies, because duh. Still, they’re worth listing, especially if you’re expecting big things.
  • Tomas Hertl – Look, I’m only human, so I can’t ignore the lure of a forward who currently draws the rare LW/C/RW designation.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Any other sleepers come to mind? Go ahead and share some favorites in the comments.

Heck, feel free to gloat about previous sleeper successes, too. Why, I’ll never forget about grabbing 2005-06 Eric Staal in the final r— OK, I’ll cut it out.

MORE:
Bounce back candidates
Goalies and other risky picks

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.

Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT’s 2018-19 Atlantic Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Metropolitan Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

In 2017-18, the Atlantic Division was the only one of the four divisions that had three teams pick up at least 105 points during the regular season. The Lightning (113), Bruins (112) and Maple Leafs (105) each managed to have pretty strong seasons. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Atlantic, those three organizations were the only three that made the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Panthers, who finished fourth in the division, missed out on the postseason by just one point. But in the end, five of the eight playoff teams in the East came from the Metropolitan Division.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

BOSTON BRUINS:

Better or Worse: The Bruins didn’t make a major splash during the offseason, but they’re better simply because a lot of their young players are one year older. Guys like David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato are all capable of improving their overall game. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league when you consider Boston already has Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Backes, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Bruins have one of the best first lines in the NHL. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were unstoppable at different times last season, and there’s no reason to believe anyone will be able to slow them down this year. Yes, Bergeron is banged up right now, but the Bruins managed to overcome a stretch of games where he was injured last year, too. He managed to finish the year with 63 points in 64 games, while Marchand had 85 points in 65 games and Pastrnak accumulated 80 points over 82 contests.

Weaknesses: The Bruins have a great first line, but do they have enough scoring to match teams like Tampa Bay or Toronto? David Krejci has a hard time staying healthy and David Backes isn’t the same player he once was. They have some good youngsters on the roster, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick up the offensive slack enough to carry the Bruins to a division crown.

2017-18 Highlight: The team scored plenty of nice goals, but there’s no highlight that stands out more from 2017-18 than the one of Marchand licking opposing players. It’s gross, but it’s all anybody talked about when it happened.

MVP Candidate: It has to be Marchand. He led the team in scoring last year, and even though he’s the guy other team’s love to hate, there’s no denying that he’s an effective hockey player. Sure, he crosses the line a lot, but when he focuses on playing hockey, there aren’t too many in the league that are better. He’ll have to continue taking his game to another level if the Bruins are going to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Playoffs or Lottery: Definitely playoffs. Assuming they stay healthy, this team will compete for the division and conference crowns. They should stack up pretty well with the Maple Leafs and Lightning.

BUFFALO SABRES:

Better or Worse: The Sabres may have been one of the worst teams in the league last year, but they should be better. The simple fact that they were able to add Rasmus Dahlin because they won the NHL Draft Lottery last year makes them an improved squad. Even though they traded away Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, they still managed to add a veteran scorer like Jeff Skinner at a very reasonable price. The Sabres may not make the leap into the playoff picture this year, but they’re definitely better.

Strengths: Buffalo has one of the best young centers in the game in Jack Eichel. Even though they’ve yet to make the playoffs since he came into the league, every team in the league would kill to have a player like Eichel to build around. GM Jason Botterill still needs to work on getting his star forward some more help, but finding franchise centers is a lot harder than getting a good supporting cast. So the toughest part of the job is done.

Weaknesses: They’ll have their share of issues on defense, but the addition of Dahlin improves the unit right away. Rasmus Ristolainen is another important piece on the back end and Marco Scandella is a useful player, but the rest of the group needs some work. Also, they still don’t have a proven number one goalie on their roster. Carter Hutton is a veteran, but he’s never been asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. Linus Ullmark is an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Keeping the puck out of the net will be an issue this season.

2017-18 Highlight: A “Jack-Trick” isn’t really a creative name, but it’s still something that happened last season. The fact that he managed to score two goals in under 10 seconds is also pretty impressive.

MVP Candidate: As you’ve probably been able to figure out at this point, Eichel will be the one to carry this team if they’re going to make it to the postseason for the first time in years. His point total has increased from 56  to 57 (61 games) to 64 (in 67 games), so it’s only normal to expect his offensive numbers to increase assuming he can stay healthy.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Sabres are on the way up with players like Eichel and Dahlin at their disposal, but making the playoffs is a bit too big of an ask from this group right now. Expect them to be improved through.

DETROIT RED WINGS:

Better or Worse: The Wings brought back Thomas Vanek and they re-signed Mike Green, but the fact that they lost Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury definitely makes them worse. After years of being a model franchise, Detroit is going through a rebuild right now. They have some solid youth to build around, but they’ll suffer through a few more lean years before becoming competitive again.

Strengths: As we mentioned above, there are some good young forwards on this team. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are right at the top of that list. Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Evgeny Svechnikov are also coming through the pipeline.

Weaknesses: The Red Wings have one of the worst bluelines in the NHL. Four of their top six defensemen are over 32 years old (Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathon Ericsson and Trevor Daley). That group just isn’t good enough to make the Wings competitive. This roster needs a ton of work, especially on the back end.

2017-18 Highlight: There weren’t many memorable moments for the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season, but the opening of Little Caesars Arena was special.

MVP Candidate: Larkin will have to be great if the Red Wings are going to compete for a playoff spot. The 22-year-old posted a career-high 63 points in 82 contests last season. Those are impressive numbers, but he’ll have to be even better if Detroit has any chance of playing deeper into April.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery, again. The Red Wings just aren’t deep enough at any position to be pencilled into a playoff spot at this point. They don’t have enough scoring, they probably won’t be good enough on defense and there’s only so much Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier can do between the pipes.

FLORIDA PANTHERS:

Better or Worse: GM Dale Tallon did a good job of making his team better after they missed the playoffs by one point last year. They went out and acquired Mike Hoffman from San Jose (via Ottawa), which gives them another proven top-six forward. Some of their young players have gained experience and that should also make them a better team, overall.

Strengths: Have you seen Florida’s top two lines? They’ll likely open the season with Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on their top line, and Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau on their second line. Those are two lines that are capable of creating offense on a nightly basis. The Panthers will be tough to stop.

Weaknesses: Their goaltending isn’t a weakness, but it can become one if Roberto Luongo fails to stay healthy, again, this season. The 39-year-old was solid when he played last year, but he only managed to suit up in 35 games. If he can play the majority of the games, he’ll be fine. If he can’t, the Panthers will have to turn to James Reimer, which is less than ideal.

2017-18 Highlight: Luongo delivered this incredibly emotional speech after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

MVP Candidate: Barkov has emerged as one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. The 23-year-old posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last season. There’s no reason to think that he can’t get even better this season. The Panthers’ new captain will have more pressure on his shoulders, but he can handle it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They missed the postseason by a point last year, so they’ll use that to fuel their season this year. They have a solid blue line and some skilled forwards. If the goaltending cooperates, they’ll be just fine.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS:

Better or Worse: Things seem to be a little more positive around Canadiens camp right now compared to last year. But it’s hard to suggest this team is better though, especially because they won’t have Shea Weber until Christmas and because they traded away their top two goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.

Strengths: Carey Price is still considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Even though he struggled mightily last year, he still has the ability to bounce back in a big way. If Price plays up to his potential, the Canadiens might surprise the hockey world this season.

Weaknesses: GM Marc Bergervin still hasn’t addressed the defense. Losing Weber for months hurts, but they’re still lacking good puck-movers. Jeff Petry will serve as their number one defenseman until Weber comes back, but his defense partners this preseason have included Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn. Yikes.

2017-18 Highlight: This Price save against Tampa is just too pretty not to watch over and over again. Ridiculous.

MVP Candidate: There’s no doubt who the MVP is in Montreal. It’s Price. If he dominates between the pipes the Canadiens will have a chance. If he doesn’t, they’re toast. It’s as simple as that.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. They’re too thin on the defense, too thin down the middle and there’s too much pressure on the goalie. It feels like the Canadiens are heading in the right direction, but they aren’t ready to make the playoffs this year.

OTTAWA SENATORS:

Better or Worse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that the Senators are a better team this year than they were last year. Trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman will do that. Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker won’t be able to fill the voids left by the players that they were traded for.

Strengths: Even though they traded some of their best players away, they still have Mark Stone and Matt Duchene on the roster for now (they’re both free agents at the end of the season). Those two will have to drive the offense for the Senators this season. Will they finish 2018-19 in Ottawa? That’s a different question.

Weaknesses: Thomas Chabot has a bright future ahead of him, but there’s no number one defenseman on this roster now that Karlsson’s gone. They aren’t very deep up front. And if Craig Anderson struggles like he did last year, it’s going to be a very long year in Ottawa.

2017-18 Highlight: As bad as things were last season, at least the Senators took care of the Canadiens in that outdoor game in December.

MVP Candidate: Stone put up an impressive 62 points in 58 games last year, but he’s going to have to be a whole lot better in 2018-19 if the Senators are going to surprise. Of course, the better he plays, the more Eugene Melnyk will have to pay him next summer. So, is this a lose-lose for the Sens?

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. There’s so much drama around the Senators right now that it’s hard to imagine them going on any kind of run this year. Management has already come out publicly and said this is a rebuild (even though they have no first-rounder).

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:

Better or Worse: The Lightning didn’t make a major splash over the summer, but they’ll benefit from having J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh for a whole season (they acquired both players at the trade deadline). The Bolts didn’t have to make a major move to be considered one of the elite teams in the division. They’re better.

Strengths: The overall depth of this team is scary. They’re loaded on the defense with McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. They also have Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson down the middle. And, of course, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde on the wings.

Weaknesses: Ummmmm this team doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses on paper. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got quality defenders and they have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2017-18 Highlight: There’s no way Anze Kopitar didn’t have nightmares about this Vasilevskiy save.

MVP Candidate: There’s so many options, but Kucherov has to be the guy here. In the first half of last season, he was probably the favorite to win the Hart Trophy but players like Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon eventually emerged as options. The Russian winger cracked the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Too easy. This is a playoff team. They’re good enough to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but there’s going to be a ton of competition in this division.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 

Better or Worse: Any team that’s able to add John Tavares in free agency is automatically better (no kidding).

Strengths: There aren’t many teams that could go head-to-head with the Leafs down the middle. Auston Matthews and Tavares are one of the top two center duos in the league along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

Weaknesses: Their defense is still a question mark. Sure, they have Morgan Reilly, who is a quality defender, but they’re still lacking another top pairing guy. Maybe this is the year they’ll sacrifice some of their forward depth to make sure they go out and address that need.

2017-18 Highlight: This one was pretty funny. Matthews had a goal called back after video review, so the next time he put the puck in the net, he made sure to signal that it was a good goal.

MVP Candidate: There’s options here, but Matthews still has to be the go-to guy in this category. The 21-year-old scored 40 goals in his rookie year and 34 goals in 62 games last year, so it’s scary to think what he’ll be able to do if he stays healthy in 2018-19. He’ll need to be great if he wants to claim the division and conference crowns.

Playoffs or Lottery: Whether or not they make the playoffs isn’t the question. What everyone wants to know is: Will they make it out of the first round of the playoffs? No matter how good they are during the regular season, another first-round exit would be a huge disappointment in Leaf Land.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Under Pressure: Carter Hutton

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

The pressure on Carter Hutton won’t be coming from the money the Buffalo Sabres paid for his services on July 1.

No, general manager Jason Botterill did the team a solid by signing Hutton to a deal where he makes less than $3 million per season to be a starting goaltender in the NHL.

The risk, financially, is low.

The pressure here is solely cemented in performance. If Hutton strays too far from the career-best numbers he posted this past season in St. Louis, then trouble will be afoot in Buffalo.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Taking gambles on serviceable backup goalies, hoping that they turn into sufficient starting netminders, doesn’t always pay off (see: Scott Darling).

But with Robin Lehner not panning out, Buffalo needed to make a change. With Lehner becoming a restricted free agent (with no intention of qualifying him) and with Hutton available for the taking as an unrestricted free agent, the Sabres took the leap, as did Hutton.

Hutton comes into a Sabres team that looks vastly different from the team that gave up the third most goals-against in the league last year and the team that put up the least run support in the NHL.

Rasmus Dahlin’s arrival certainly helps on the backend, and the addition of Jeff Skinner should help out up top. More goals-for and perhaps a little more shot suppression will go a long way in Buffalo, if Hutton can perform in the task he’s been handed.

“I think for me my main goal right now is going in to win hockey games,” Hutton told NHL.com after he signed. “I’d love to get into the higher end of [50 starts] just to really give myself a goal. I think I play better when I get more minutes.”

Hutton posted a .931 save percentage last season in 32 games. It was his best season as a backup by far, posting a 17-7-3 record. They’re stellar backup numbers, for sure. But can they translate when you double the number of games played?

Hutton isn’t a proven workhorse, nor is it known how he will adjust to not having exceptional defending in front of him.

The Sabres, despite what they’ve built in front of Hutton, could be in serious trouble if he can’t.

Sure, Hutton’s contract is cheap for a starting netminder, but they have nothing proven behind him if this new marriage doesn’t work out. Linus Ullmark could very well be the future and is slated to come up from Rochester to be Hutton’s backup, but there’s no one to steady the ship should it hit turbulent waters.

All that aside, Hutton has one heck of an opportunity in front of him and if he can take those reins and run with them, he’ll be the steal of this offseason’s UFA class.


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