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Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

Penguins sign coach Mike Sullivan to four-year contract extension

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There were a lot of reasons to believe Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan might be on the hot seat entering the 2019-20 season.

On Friday, the Penguins pretty much erased that possibility.

At least for now.

The Penguins announced that Sullivan, who was set to enter the final year of his current contract, has signed a four-year extension that will run through the conclusion of the 2023-24 season.

“Mike has done a great job delivering four, 100-plus point seasons with our team,” general manager Jim Rutherford said in a team statement. “To win back-to-back Stanley Cups in this era speaks volumes of him as a coach. His instincts in managing the inter-workings of our team both on and off the ice has been impressive.”

Rutherford took over behind the Penguins’ bench in the middle of the 2015-16 season, replacing Mike Johnston, and was one of the major changes that helped turn that season around for the team. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup, and then became the first team in two decades to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in two decades.

In his three-and-a-half seasons as Penguins head coach Sullivan has put together a 174-92-34 record, while also winning nine playoff series.

Despite all of that success, his job security seemed to be in at least some jeopardy entering the 2019-20 season.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The Penguins are not only coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit (a sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders) following an inconsistent regular season, but the longer Sullivan went without a new contract the more it seemed possible he could be on the hot seat entering the season.

That speculation only increased when the Penguins hired reigning Calder Trophy winning coach Mike Velluci (who has a history with Rutherford from their days in the Hurricanes’ organization).

All of that goes out the window for at least another year or two.

With Sullivan’s contract situation now taken care of the next key member of the Penguins’ organization due a contract extension is starting goalie Matt Murray as he enters the final year of his current deal. He will be a restricted free agent following this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

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The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sabres hire Mike Bales, Don Granato to coaching staff

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Newly hired Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger has begun filling out his staff by hiring Don Granato and Mike Bales, who will take over as the goalie coach.

Krueger also retained Steve Smith, who was an assistant under former Sabres coach Phil Housley, who was fired in April. The team announced the additions Friday, some four weeks after Krueger was hired.

Bales has six seasons of NHL coaching experience, including the past two with the Carolina Hurricanes. He was previously with the Penguins, where Bales was credited with scouting and developing current Pittsburgh starting goalie Matt Murray.

Granato joins the Sabres after spending the past two seasons as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was previously the associate head coach at the University of Wisconsin and also spent seven seasons as head coach of the St. Louis Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Yzerman’s big draft; Comparing Binnington to Murray

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t be in a hurry to trade Andrew Shaw away this summer. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Hurricanes goalie coach Mike Banes has resigned from his position with the team. (News & Observer)

• Should the Tampa Bay Lightning stick with Jon Cooper as their head coach? (Bolts by the Bay)

• Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has 19 days to figure out how to improve his team’s roster. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Tanner Glass is reportedly joining the Rangers’ front office. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• How does Jordan Binnington‘s run to the Stanley Cup compare to what Matt Murray did for the Penguins? (The Sports Daily)

• Steve Yzerman has to knock this draft out of the park for the Detroit Red Wings. (Detroit Free Press)

• Now that Jay Bouwmeester has won a Stanley Cup, The Hockey News looks at other notable veterans that are searching for their first championship. (The Hockey News)

• The Score takes a look at what Matthew Tkachuk‘s next contract might look like. (The Score)

Darcy Kuemper went from being a backup goalie to becoming the most important player on the Coyotes. (Five for Howling)

• TSN’s Travis Yost writes about how the Blues’ patient approach paid off in the end. (TSN)

• NHL.com broke down the top 10 moments of the Stanley Cup Final. (NHL.com)

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.