Linus Ullmark

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
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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.

Sabres fans seem to be running out of patience

Sabres fans losing patience Duane
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The Buffalo Sabres face a grim possibility: losing their Duanes.

Linus Ullmark‘s significant injury made it clear(er) that the Sabres’ playoff drought seems likely to extend to nine consecutive seasons. Apparently that realization is pushing fans – including the most hardcore ones – to a boiling point.

In at least one case, that boiling point created quality entertainment.

Duane channels Sabres fans’ disdain

If you want to hear passion and anger from a fan, listen to caller Duane’s passionate rant to WGGR 550’s Schopp and the Bulldog. Then wonder: when was the last time you felt as strongly about sports (or anything?) as Duane does here?

Delightful, at least if this Twitter user is the Duane, and thus is enjoying the attention from becoming something of a viral sensation.

Someone even spliced it with music from “Titanic,” which might double as a way to preserve the clip:

Duane has become something of a mascot for fan discontent. Sabres fans have responded to various team tweets with references, sometimes merely responding with “Duane.” #WeareallDuane appears to be the most frequently used hashtag, but it’s far from the only one.

Here’s hoping that others follow Duane’s advice, then, and use their voices “responsibly.” USA Today’s Bradley Gelber took screenshots that indicate the Pegula family has dealt with harassment. As we’ve seen from innumerable Internet movements in just about every niche, people can go from passionate to toxic at the drop of a hat. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t end up that way, or if it has, that such ugly behavior stops.

Sabres fans upset by mistakes both big and small

Because, no doubt about it, it’s understandable if Sabres fans are losing their patience.

Again, the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010-11. The Sabres last won a series in 2006-07. Fans suffered through some of the worst NHL teams (and overall sports teams) of the past decade during this span. There’s been recent growth, but sometimes raised expectations only make the lows feel lower.

And, when those feelings fester, little things start to feel like bigger annoyances.

Fans and Sabres media alike noted mistakes such as Dave Andreychuk’s jersey being spelled “Andreychuckduring “Aud Night” and poor execution for other throwback festivities. When teams are competitive, mistakes like these usually get laughed off. When losing lingers, people can sometimes fixate.

(Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The easiest answer is to say that winning would solve your problems. That playoff runs could stop a Duane drain.

Yet, with the Sabres facing long odds to make the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs (they’re 10 points out of the final East wild-card spot), fans might need to wait until next year — again.

Don’t be shocked if there are a bunch of Duane-related signs as the Sabres host Montreal on Thursday. Fans get a bunch of opportunities, actually, with eight of their next nine games in Buffalo.

All of that home-cooking might not spark an unlikely playoff run, but the Sabres at least have a chance to make their hardcore fans happier.

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 goalie Ullmark out 3-4 weeks; Johansson promoted

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres starting goalie Linus Ullmark will miss between three and four weeks with an injury to his right leg.

The team issued the update without revealing the nature of the injury Wednesday, a day after Ullmark was hurt in a 5-2 loss to Ottawa.

Ullmark was untouched in his crease while tracking Ottawa forward Artem Anisimov circling the net. Ullmark’s left skate slipped out from under him, and he fell back with his right leg bent under him.

He was unable to put any weight on his right leg while being helped off the ice with 9:32 remaining in the third period and after stopping 30 of 33 shots. Ullmark has a 16-14-3 record and has held the starting role since mid-November after spending the first six weeks of the season splitting the duties with Carter Hutton.

Hutton won his first six starts before going into a extended slump. He’s gone 0-7-4 in his past 11 games, with his last victory a 25-save performance in a 4-3 overtime win over San Jose on Oct. 22.

Buffalo promoted goalie Jonas Johansson from Rochester, its American Hockey League affiliate.

Johansson, who has yet to appear in an NHL game, has a 13-3-3 record this season. He ranks third in the AHL with a 2.19 goals-against average and fifth with a 0.925 save percentage.

The Sabres are in the midst of playing nine of 10 games at home and host Montreal on Thursday.