Rasmus Dahlin

Getty Images

Botterill’s plan needs to bear fruit in Buffalo

1 Comment

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

If all the good things they say about Ralph Krueger are true, Jason Botterill will look like a genius who bypassed several more experienced candidates for the head coaching gig in Buffalo in favor of a man with 48 NHL games as a bench boss.

The Phil Housley experiment didn’t work out even though he was hired for some of the same reasons that Krueger now has: a players’ coach that can work well with young players. Two years on from Housley’s hiring, Botterill is once again looking outside the regular carousel of coaches, gambling on guys with limited bench-boss experience in the NHL hoping they can bring something that the establishment cannot.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | X-factor | Three questions]

Botterill isn’t a rookie general manager this time around. Instead, he’s overseen two more seasons where the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs — a stretch that has now reached eight straight years.

Botterill has been nothing if not bold, both in the trade market, in free agency and his hires. Last summer, he made waves after trading Ryan O'Reilly away for a truckload of players and picks. But Buffalo watched O’Reilly lift the Stanley Cup this past season while being named the playoff MVP to rub it in some more. Oh, and O’Reilly also won the Selke for good measure.

Botterill does get some measure of the benefit of hindsight here. It was a pretty good haul for a player who wanted out. But it’s not exactly how they envisioned it working out. The 2019 first-round pick they received in the package turned into No. 31 in the draft thanks to St. Louis’ triumph. Patrik Berglund, meanwhile, quit the NHL after going AWOL last season.

Some things you can’t control, but at the end of the day it all becomes a part of a body of work, and that body of work has to have more pros than cons.

And there are certainly some pros. Botterill went out and got Jeff Skinner, who would go on to score 40 goals while helping show the Sabres could compete, at least for half a season.

Snagging Brandon Montour at the trade deadline and then plucking Colin Miller off the cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights are both good moves aimed at re-tooling the team’s back end, one that couldn’t give much help to two goalies that weren’t able to rise above the situation and play lights out.

Speaking of goalies, Carter Hutton didn’t exactly light the world on fire as a starter in his first season in that role last year. He was a very capable backup in St. Louis, but his starting numbers are outside of the top 31 goalies in the NHL, meaning they aren’t starting numbers at all.

It’s not all Hutton’s fault, however. The team’s defensive structure was poor and Housley couldn’t right that ship. Buffalo’s first half of last season was impressive. Hell, they were in first place in the entire NHL at one point. But it tumbled quickly when it began to fall apart.

It’s led Botterill to be aggressive once again with guys like Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Getting Skinner signed long-term is a feather in his cap.

There are only so many fingers to be pointed in other directions before they all begin to navigate in one direction. This time, the gavel will be hanging over Botterill’s head.

He’s gone through one coach and three summers of trying to re-invent the team around the likes of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and now Rasmus Dahlin.

He’s been bold and he’s made some shrewd moves. If they work, he’s laughing.

If not, it might be best to find someone else to lead the Sabres into a monumental offseason next year where they have 14 pending unrestricted and restricted free agents and a lot of cash to work with in the open market.

If progress isn’t made this year, it will most certainly be time to look elsewhere.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker


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

It’s Buffalo Sabres Day at PHT

2 Comments

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

2018-19
33-39-10, 76 points (6th in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Marcus Johansson
John Gilmour
Curtis Lazar
Colin Miller
Jimmy Vesey
Jean-Sebastien Dea
Andrew Hammond
Henri Jokiharju

OUT
Matt Tennyson
Kyle Criscuolo
Scott Wedgewood
Alex Nylander

RE-SIGNED
Evan Rodrigues
Zemgus Girgensons
Johan Larsson
C.J. Smith
Remi Elie

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

2018-19 Season Summary

It’s now been eight straight seasons since the Sabres made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the longest drought in the NHL. They’re now on their sixth head coach since 2011 and are hoping new head coach Ralph Krueger’s methods work in turning around a franchise that started off last season so well only to see it crash and burn.

The Sabres woke up on Nov. 28 tied for the most points in the NHL with 36 following a 10-game winning streak. Through 25 games they were 17-6-2, Jack Eichel led the team with 28 points and offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner was tied for league lead with 19 goals. Goaltender Carter Hutton was playing fabulous with a .928 even-strength save percentage. Things were looking bright for once.

The 10-game winning streak was followed by a five consecutive defeats as the Sabres began their fall back to earth. The next three month saw 26 losses in 39 games — and then March happened. Between March 2 and April 2, the Sabres recorded just four points 16 games, which saw only one victory. 

The fall was an historic one. The 2018-19 Sabres joined the 2016-17 Flyers as the only teams in NHL history to have a 10-game winning streak and miss the playoffs in the same season. It would ultimately cost head coach Phil Housley his job and open the door for Kruger’s NHL return.

There were a few bright spots from a forgettable season, though. Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, was a Calder Trophy finalist after a nine-goal, 44 point season; Jeff Skinner hit 40 goals and signed an eight-year, $72 million extension in June; Jack Eichel put up a career-best 28 goals and 82 points, and Sam Reinhart had another 20-goal season.

Depending on how the 2019-20 season goes, the change may not stop behind the bench. General manager Jason Botterill is certainly on the hot seat and there are nearly 20 players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents next summer.

In trying to improve the blue line, Botterill went out and acquired Brandon Montour from the Ducks in February and picked up Colin Miller from the Golden Knights in a late-June trade. Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey were added up front in hopes of strengthening the forward group.

There’s a lot of work still to be done for Botterill and co., and this coming season will determine many futures inside the organization.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

————

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Breakout candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

Getty
6 Comments

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 potential breakout candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season.

We are looking for young players who have already made their NHL debut (so no Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko) and could be on the verge of taking a big step toward stardom.

Who makes the cut? Let’s find out. To the rankings!

1. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is one of just eight players since the start of the 2000-01 season to score at least 20 goals as an 18-year-old in the NHL. The previous seven (Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jordan Staal, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, and Patrik Laine) scored an average of 31 goals in year two. With his talent and rocket shot don’t be surprised if Svechnikov tops the 30-goal mark and becomes a top-line player for the Hurricanes.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are loaded with young talent and with the offseason trade of Tyson Barrie are going to be relying on a lot of youth on defense. Makar made his NHL debut in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and never really looked out of place, showing the type of skill and potential that could make him a Calder Trophy favorite entering the 2019-20 season.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. Flyers fans have reason to believe their long-time goaltending headache could finally be going away. Hart finished with a .917 save percentage as a 20-year-old and is going to enter the season as the team’s starter. He could be a franchise-changing player.

4. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. Not every No. 1 pick is going to enter the NHL and immediately become a superstar. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. Hischier has been really good his first two years in the league and probably still has another level he can reach, and with the Devils adding some impact talent to their roster this offseason he should have a little more help in getting there.

5. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks. There is an argument to be made that Labanc already had his “breakout” season this past year (17 goals, 56 assists) but it might still yet be ahead of him. He not only should get a bigger role this season for the Sharks but he also kind of bet on himself to have a big year with a one-year, $1 million contract. He has talent, he is already productive, and he has a lot to play for.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning. Ton of talent, potential and already productive at a young age. He just turned 21 and has already played 150 games and has averaged 0.36 points per game. Only six other active defenders have had a similar start to their careers: Drew Doughty, Zach Werenski, Morgan Rielly, Aaron Ekblad, Tyler Myers and Cam Fowler. Hopefully for the Lightning’s sake he follows the path of the first four.

7. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens. There was a lot to like about Kotkaniemi’s rookie season. Not only did he produce at a respectable level for a teenager, but he also posted dominant possession numbers (57 percent Corsi) that were among the league’s best. Was it a sheltered role? Sure it was, he was an 18-year-old rookie. But there is still something to be said for a player that age stepping right into the NHL and holding his own the way he did.

8. Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues. A first-round pick by the Blues in 2017, Thomas has been a highly anticipated prospect in the Blues organization and, in making the jump from the OHL straight to the NHL, made a strong first impression for the Stanley Cup champions. Great talent and likely to be a core building block for the Blues in the coming seasons.

9. Henri Jokiharju, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have added a lot of talent to their blue line over the past two years, drafting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall in 2018 and then acquiring Colin Miller and Jokiharju. Jokiharju is definitely the more intriguing out of the latter two because he is still only 20 years old, was a first-round pick just a couple of years ago, and looked really good at times in the first half of the 2018-19 season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He never seemed to get the trust of new coach Jeremy Colliton and was eventually traded this summer for Alex Nylander. If he reaches his potential in Buffalo the Sabres might finally have the start of a playoff caliber defense.

10. Devon Toews, New York Islanders. Toews is an interesting one because he is the oldest player on this list (25) and only has 56 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs combined) on his resume. It took him a few years to get his first look with the Islanders, but he absolutely made the most of it and looked more impressive with each game.

Honorable mentionsRyan Donato, Minnesota Wild; Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes; Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars; Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers; Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche; David Rittich, Calgary Flames; Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers; Filip Zadina, Detroit Red Wings.

MORE: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL 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.

Some surprises among NHL’s worst special teams units

Getty Images
1 Comment

Earlier on Friday, PHT looked at the 13 teams who scored more goals than they allowed on special teams when you combine 2017-18 and 2018-19 season totals. If you’re a math whiz like me, you realize that leaves us with 18 teams on the negative side of the “special teams plus/minus” ledger.

[Part 1: Teams on the positive side.]

As a refresher, the very simple formula for special teams plus/minus is:

(Power play goals [PPG] for + shorthanded goals [SHG] for) – (PPG against + SHG against) = special teams plus minus.

Let’s run down the list of minuses (when you combine 2017-18 and 2018-19 results), with some commentary.

Teams at -16 or worse during the past two seasons combined.

  • Edmonton Oilers: -12 last season, -32 combined. Not surprising, even with Connor McDavid being capable of concealing some blemishes.
  • Detroit Red Wings: -17 last season, -32 combined. Also not a surprise.
  • Montreal Canadiens: -14 season, -29 combined. The Canadiens were a sneaky-strong team at even strength last season, so improved special teams play could mean playoffs.
  • Anaheim Ducks: -24 last season, -26 combined. One of two California teams who were a special teams disaster in 2018-19.
  • Philadelphia Flyers: -18 last season, -25 combined. Will Chuck Fletcher’s many changes lead to competence in this area?
  • Chicago Blackhawks: -16 last season, -24 combined. Much like the overall picture, a few dynamic scorers couldn’t fix all problems.
  • Ottawa Senators: -3 last season, -20 combined. Honestly, -3 seems like a small miracle considering the Senators’ skill squalor.
  • New York Islanders: -6 last season, -17 combined. The Trotz effect: improved PK, meh power play.
  • Los Angeles Kings: -28 last season, -17 combined. The other California disaster. When your power play only creates 22 more goals than it allows, you’re not going to have a good time.
  • Vancouver Canucks: -6 last season, -16 combined. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser may just keep Vancouver respectable here.

Teams with negative special teams, but less than double digits. Closer to mediocre than outright bad, generally speaking.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets: +6 last season, but -9 overall. The Blue Jackets failed to hit 40 PPG in either season, and now they lost Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for the PK. Gulp.
  • St. Louis Blues: +5 last season, -8 overall. Back in the day, I complained about Alex Ovechkin being on the Capitals’ power play point far too often; now I’m chiding the Blues for not putting Vladimir Tarasenko in the right “office.”
  • Washington Capitals: -6 last season, -8 overall. Well, this is puzzling. During the past two seasons, Washington’s 104 power-play goals ranks eighth in the NHL, while they’re tied with Vancouver for the fifth-most allowed at 108.
  • New York Rangers: -11 last season, -6 overall. All of that incoming talent, plus Mika Zibanejad? Yow.
  • Buffalo Sabres: -1 last season, -5 overall. Pro tip: More Rasmus Dahlin, less Rasmus Ristolainen.
  • Dallas Stars: +6 last season, -4 overall. Joe Pavelski could make their top quintet absolutely terrifying.
  • Nashville Predators: -12 last season, -3 overall. If the Predators still rely on too many point shots, then what are we even doing?
  • Carolina Hurricanes: even last season, -2 overall. For all that’s holy, put Dougie Hamilton on the first unit instead of Justin Faulk. C’mon.

Here is the full list of 31 teams group from highest special teams plus/minus to lowest from 2018-19; you can also check the plus teams here. Some teams were positive one season and negative the other, so this chart adds some context.

TEAM special teams +/- 2017-18 +/- two years +/- PPG SHGA PPGA SHGF
Tampa Bay 43 8 51 74 3 40 12
Florida 19 7 26 72 13 43 3
Arizona 15 -13 2 42 9 34 16
Calgary 14 -6 8 53 7 50 18
Winnipeg 13 16 29 62 7 52 10
San Jose 12 24 36 57 9 45 9
Colorado 9 14 23 63 5 58 9
Boston 8 20 28 65 15 49 7
Pittsburgh 8 18 26 56 15 45 12
Minnesota 6 -1 5 49 4 44 5
Dallas 6 -10 -4 45 2 41 4
Columbus 6 -15 -9 34 6 30 8
New Jersey 5 13 18 45 10 40 10
St. Louis 5 -13 -8 50 7 43 5
Vegas 4 12 16 39 2 44 11
Toronto 1 12 13 46 9 41 5
Carolina 0 -2 -2 44 8 44 8
Buffalo -1 -4 -5 46 9 41 3
Ottawa -3 -17 -20 46 8 45 4
Washington -6 -2 -8 49 5 55 5
Vancouver -6 -10 -16 43 8 48 7
NY Islanders -6 -11 -17 33 1 44 6
NY Rangers -11 5 -6 44 4 58 7
Nashville -12 9 -3 33 8 45 8
Edmonton -12 -20 -32 47 7 62 10
Montreal -14 -15 -29 31 4 46 5
Chicago -16 -8 -24 48 7 63 6
Detroit -17 -13 -30 39 7 56 7
Philadelphia -18 -7 -25 40 11 51 4
Anaheim -24 -2 -26 36 10 55 5
Los Angeles -28 11 -17 35 13 54 4

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Trade: Sabres nab Jokiharju; Blackhawks receive Alex Nylander

Getty Images
12 Comments

For the last few weeks, a thought has percolated: “Boy, the Buffalo Sabres are … kind of killing it, aren’t they?”

Sure, they might have paid too much for Jeff Skinner, but they kind of had to. After that, they landed Colin Miller for pennies on the dollar, took a flier on Jimmy Vesey, and signed Marcus Johansson to a very team-friendly contract. People also seemed pretty happy with their draft haul. It was tempting to write something praising this offseason for a nice bit of work, but there needed that one extra move to go from “scratching your chin in approval” to outright excitement.

Tuesday’s trade with the Chicago Blackhawks might just provide that extra push, as the Sabres added young defenseman Henri Jokiharju in exchange for troubled (but still interesting, maybe?) prospect Alex Nylander. According to the Sabres, that’s the extent of the trade. There are no picks or prospects to warp things, so this is as simple as it gets: Buffalo’s betting on the young defenseman, while Chicago’s betting that they can pull a Dylan Strome with Nylander by getting more out of the struggling winger than Buffalo ever enjoyed.

Sabres receive: Henri Jokiharju

Blackhawks receive: Alex Nylander

To reiterate, the two young skaters have similar contract situations, too, so this is basically a pure one-for-one trade.

No joke

Considering the fact that Jokiharju was a 19-year-old rookie thrust into a prominent role on a Blackhawks defense that needed any help it could find, he fared surprisingly well. That argument is neatly made when you consider his stats relative to his more-experienced, but in many cases, more limited Blackhawks teammates:

Ultimately, as The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus and others indicate, it seems like Chicago soured on the now 20-year-old, for whatever reason(s). PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed to Jokiharju as a reason to be optimistic about the Blackhawks just earlier today, and now he’s gone.

Jokiharju finished with zero goals and 12 assists in 38 NHL games last season, averaging a robust-for-a-rookie 18:59 average TOI. Along with Colin Miller, he gives the Sabres another promising right-handed defenseman, and that overall defense corps is looking better and better, what with emergence of wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin, along with the solid addition of Brandon Montour. Jokiharju also gives the Sabres yet another nudge toward moving on from Rasmus Ristolainen, a polarizing blueliner who may be better off traded.

But, either way, there’s a lot of promise in Jokiharju, though apparently Chicago doesn’t see it that way.

Another reclamation project for Chicago?

Jokiharju is no slouch as a prospect, as the Blackhawks selected him in the first round (29th overall in 2017) and saw the Finnish defenseman make a remarkably swift jump to the NHL.

Make no mistake about it, though, Alex Nylander carries higher expectations. The Sabres selected Nylander eighth overall in 2016, ahead of the likes of Mikhail Sergachev (ninth), Charlie McAvoy (14th), and Alex DeBrincat (soothe your wounds a bit if you’re a Blackhawks fan, he was an instant steal at 39th).

Nylander, uh, hasn’t lived up to that billing, yet the Blackhawks might see this as a sequel to The Thrilling Redemption of Dylan Strome.

That’s certainly possible, but I have some worries that it will work out that way. Much like with Strome in Arizona, it just seemed like Nylander was running out of chances to stick with the Sabres, but the difference in their AHL play provides some cause for concern. Strome generated 50-plus points in his last two AHL seasons, despite shuttling back and forth to the NHL a bit. Nylander’s AHL numbers are more modest: 31 points in 49 games this past season; just 27 points in 51 AHL games in 2017-18.

It’s more comforting to see your should-be-star at least dominating a lower level of competition as they’re struggling to acclimate to the NHL. Strome showed plenty of signs of that during his tumultuous times with the Coyotes; Jesse Pulujarvi’s limited runs with the AHL tend to result in nice production.

The Blackhawks might have more modest expectations for Nylander, yet you wonder if they’ve significantly undersold on Jokiharju’s value. It’s tough enough to find promising defensemen, let alone ones who are just 20 and are right-handed shots.

This point should be clear: considering how explosive Chicago’s offense can be, if Nylander can’t excel there, then you might just have to fasten the “bust” label to him.

***

Yes, the Blackhawks likely view their defense as improved, and they were hoping to add some supporting scoring. They’ve also had some luck with reclamation projects, particularly (somewhat) similar story in Strome.

As of July 2019, this sure feels like a pretty big win for a Sabres team that badly wants to improve its defensive personnel. If Nylander is the bust many feared, Buffalo managed to avoid squandering his name value. Instead, they landed an intriguing prospect who’s already shown some promise at the NHL level.

If you had to choose a side, and had to project based on what you know right now, who won this trade? Consider my vote strongly in the Sabres’ camp.

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.