Marco Scandella

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

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.

Crosby leaves preseason finale with apparent foot injury

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PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby left the Pittsburgh Penguins’ preseason finale against Buffalo in the first period Saturday after taking a shot off his skate.

Hit by a shot from Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella, Crosby played on 6:42 before leaving. Pittsburgh forward Bryan Rust left the game after he was hit in the hand in the third period.

”They both got hit with shots,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. ”They are being evaluated now. We will probably have more definitive answers tomorrow morning.”

The Sabres won the game 3-2 in a shootout, with Casey Mittelstadt scoring in the sixth round.

Tage Thompson also scored for Buffalo in the shootout. Thompson’s goal in the second round drew Buffalo even, after Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang opened the round by scoring on a wrist shot. Letang was the only Penguin to score in the shootout.

Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark made 34 saves, and Marco Scandella and Zemgus Girgensons scored for the Sabres. Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust scored for the Penguins, and Matt Murray made 28 saves.

The two teams will open the regular season Thursday in Buffalo.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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 among teams focused on trade market over free agency

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Realizing how difficult it is to lure free agents to Buffalo, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has spent the past two-plus years relying on trades to stock his roster with established talent.

It happened two years ago, when he acquired defenseman Marco Scandella from Minnesota. Botterill did it once again last summer, when Buffalo gave up a prospect and three draft picks to land 40-goal-scorer Jeff Skinner from Carolina.

Though not all the trades have panned out, such as dealing playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues a year ago, it’s a process Botterill expects to continue this summer in a bid to transform the Sabres into contenders.

”We felt that we were close on some of the discussions,” Botterill said after signing four minor-leaguers on the first day of NHL free agency Monday.

”But as much as we want players to be part of it, and help us with our immediate needs, there has to be a balance, and there has to be a situation where we’re not making signings that are going to be detrimental to us in the future.”

In other words, the Sabres weren’t in a position to overpay for players in free agency, which is why Botterill is placing his focus on the trade market. With the salary cap set at a lower-than-expected $81.5 million, he anticipates some teams pressed for payroll space to be forced to shed talent through trades.

”In a cap world, there’s only so much you can give to players,” Botterill said.

”I never would’ve guessed that we would’ve picked up a player like Jeff Skinner in the middle of summer last year,” he added. ”But I think it’s important that we have dialogues throughout the league to see whenever that might materialize, whether it’s later on this week, a couple of weeks or the start of September.”

Botterill’s approach has already paid off.

On Friday, Buffalo gave up two draft picks to acquire defenseman Colin Miller from the cap-strapped Vegas Golden Knights. On Monday, the most significant move the Sabres made was landing third-year center Jimmy Vesey from the New York Rangers, who freed up cap space to sign free agent Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract.

It’s Botterill’s belief players will find there is more to the perception that Buffalo is just a Rust Belt city stuck in an eight-year stretch without a playoff appearance once they get an opportunity to get a taste of living and playing in the city. That was the case with Skinner, who often noted how he was impressed by the passionate fans. It didn’t hurt that the Sabres re-signed him to an eight-year, $72-million contract last month.

And it’s something the Sabres hope eventually resonates with Miller, who acknowledged having “mixed emotions” over leaving Vegas for Buffalo.

The situation is similar in places such as Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and even Montreal, where the Canadiens have rebuilt their team mostly through trades and the draft. And when the Canadiens lost out on landing free-agent center Matt Duchene on Monday, they resorted to the rare option of trying to poach Sebastian Aho from Carolina by signing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet.

The move is expected to fail after the Hurricanes on Tuesday announced they intend to match the offer.

Of the past seven offer sheets made since 2007, five have come from Canadian-based teams.

The difficulty some teams have in attracting players is reflected in where the top free agents landed Monday. Panarin headed to the Big Apple, Duchene chose Nashville over Montreal, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky ended up with Florida.

And Canadian-based teams have an even more challenging time attracting talent.

As former Flames president Brian Burke told The Associated Press in April, numerous players – including Canadians – don’t prefer playing north of the border for several reasons. The first is the lack of privacy and amount of pressure placed on them in many Canadian markets. The second is Canada’s taxation rate.

In Buffalo, Botterill also isn’t prepared to make the same mistakes his most recent predecessors did in attempting to make major splashes in free agency.

There are many examples of free-agency busts, and include Matt Moulson playing out the final 2+ years of his five-year, $25 million contract on loan with the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign. Then there was Ville Leino having his six-year, $27 million contract bought out two years after he signed it.

”I think with where we are as a team, we have to be ready on both fronts,” Botterill said of his approach entering free agency this summer. ”We’re certainly going to be at least in discussions with some free agents for sure. … But we have to be ready to see if trade possibilities arise.”

NOTES: The Buffalo signed restricted free agent C.J. Smith to a two-year, $1.4 million contract Tuesday. … In free agency Monday, Buffalo signed G Andrew Hammond, D John Gilmour and F Curtis Lazar to one-year, $700,000 contracts, and Jean-Sebastien Dea to a two-year, $1.4 million contract.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sabres adding Miller doesn’t mean subtracting Ristolainen

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres general manager Jason Botterill disputed the speculation that adding defenseman Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas directly leads to Buffalo subtracting another defenseman such as Rasmus Ristolainen.

”There’s going to be rumors because he’s a player teams want to go after and teams want to have,” Botterill told reporters Saturday, a day after acquiring Miller .

”I think there’s always a demand for those,” he said, referring to Miller and Ristolainen both being right-shot defenseman and playing under reasonably priced contracts. ”I’m never going to be in a situation where I complain about too much depth.”

The Sabres suddenly have plenty of talent on defense after Miller became expendable in Vegas as a result of the salary cap-crunch facing the Golden Knights and their over-extended payroll. In acquiring a fourth-year player who combined for 13 goals and 70 points over his past two seasons, Buffalo gave up a 2021 second-round and 2022 fifth-round draft pick.

Miller has three years left on the $15.5 million contract he signed last summer.

Aside from Ristolainen, Miller joins a group of defenseman that includes rookie of the year finalist Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella and restricted free agent Jake McCabe.

”Right now, to me, this gives us options,” Botterill said. ”We wanted to improve our competition and improve our depth, and that’s why we made the move.”

Ristolainen is the Sabres’ workhorse after topping 24 minutes of ice time per game for the fourth consecutive season last year. He has three years left on a six-year $32.4 million contract.

Injuries are an issue, with Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) both expected to miss the start of next season.

Miller had what he called mixed emotions about being traded.

He’s going to miss Vegas, where he led the team’s defensemen with 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season two years ago. On the upside, Miller looks to establish himself in a larger role with the Sabres after having an up-and-down season last year.

Another plus for Miller is he’ll no longer worry about being mentioned in trade rumors.

”I won’t be looking over my shoulder now at what Vegas is doing,” he said. ”Your focused on the opportunity that you now have moving forward. It’s definitely a good one here.”

Newly hired Sabres coach Ralph Krueger noted Miller fits his style of play, which is similar to the Golden Knights’ speedy, aggressive approach. With the Sabres in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought, Krueger also noted Miller having extensive playoff experience, including Vegas’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.

NOTES: The Sabres top draft pick, center Dylan Cozens, will see a specialist Monday after hurting his left thumb during a three-on-three scrimmage in the final day of Buffalo’s rookie development camp. Cozens said the visit is precautionary and his thumb is not broken. … Cozens, selected seventh overall, is planning to return to his home in Canada’s Yukon Territory capital of Whitehorse to spend the summer. … ”It’s going to be pretty crazy,” Cozens said of the reception he expects after being only the third Yukon-born player ever drafted. ”Those are the people who helped me get where I am. And I’m going to give back to them for sure.”