Rasmus Ristolainen

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.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning vs. Sabres in 2019 NHL Global Series

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s Global Series matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Sabres head to Stockholm, Sweden for a “home and home” in the NHL Global Series. Friday’s game will mark the second Global Series game this season, with the Flyers beating the Blackhawks in Prague, Czech Republic on October 4.

This is the second regular season trip overseas for both teams. The Lightning lost both of their games in Czech Republic in 2008, while the Sabres won both of their games in Finland and Germany in 2011.

This will be the 33rd regular season game contested outside North America. It will be the 12th to be played in Sweden, the most among all countries, and the 11th game in Stockholm, the most of any city. The only game to take place in Sweden outside of the capital was New Jersey’s win against Edmonton in Gothenburg in October of last season.

The Lightning have lost three of their last four games, while they gave up six goals in their only win during that stretch (7-6 OT win at New Jersey). After opening the season with eight wins in their first 10 games, the Sabres have now lost four of their last five and head to Sweden on a three-game losing streak.

While captain Steven Stamkos leads Tampa with 13 points in 13 games (5G-8A), he has just one goal in his last seven games and none in his last three. Last season’s Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is second on TB with 11 pts (4G-7A) but has just one goal in the last nine games.

Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who just turned 23 years old last week, continues to lead the team in scoring with 17 points in 15 games this season (7G-10A). Eichel, who finished last season with a career-high 82 points, has seen his point total increase in every season of his NHL career. He is currently on pace for 92 points this season

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-SABRES BEGINS AT 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Ericsson Globe – Stockholm, Sweden
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 8, 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Alexander Volkov
Tyler JohnsonBrayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Patrick MaroonCedric PaquetteYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanKevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Luke Schenn – Mikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

SABRES
Victor Olofsson – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonVladimir Sobotka
Jimmy VeseyCasey MittelstadtConor Sheary
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Brandon MontourRasmus Dahlin
Henri JokiharjuColin Miller

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call Friday’s matchup.

Is Canadiens’ Drouin worth trading for?

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After two seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Jonathan Drouin approaches his third in a familiar situation: as a part of trade rumors.

The rumblings revved up on Tuesday, when Elliotte Friedman singled out Drouin in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts” while discussing the Canadiens’ desire to trade away a forward, what with the emergence of prospects such as Nick Suzuki. More smoke gathered on Wednesday, as Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported that an anonymous Eastern Conference executive texted him that Drouin’s “name is definitely out there.”

It’s gotten to the point that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin seemingly tried to put out the fire, complete with a fiery zinger:

Nice line, but let’s not kid ourselves: as befitting someone who developed a reputation as a notorious prankster during his playing days, Bergevin seems like a GM who always has something up his sleeve.

Consider Bergevin’s history, too.

On June 23, 2016, Bergevin mostly shot down P.K. Subban trade rumors, saying that a trade wasn’t “realistic.” The blockbuster Subban – Shea Weber trade happened about a week later.

So, it’s clear that, while Bergevin is joking about such rumors, he’s also been willing to throw in a plot twist and trade that player after all.

Maybe the most interesting question isn’t if the Canadiens would trade Drouin, but if they should trade Drouin, and what kind of return would be appropriate.

Let’s begin with the most basic facts. Drouin is 24, and carries a $5.5 million salary cap hit through 2022-23. Remarkably, Drouin’s $5.5M places him as the highest average annual value of any Canadiens forward, edging Tomas Tatar at $4.8M.

In 2018-19, Drouin scored 18 goals and tied a career-high with 53 points. For some, his production worked out well enough to at least calm down the most extremely negative comparisons to Mikhail Sergachev, although time will tell if that was still a lopsided win for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That’s because Drouin’s overall game leaves quite a bit to be desired.

While he finished with some of his better possession numbers last season, Drouin’s two-way stats were weak relative to his teammates. This RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey provides a useful snapshot of Drouin’s middling impact, at least when you consider the standards of top-six forwards, and how dominant the Canadiens were at even-strength last season:

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien has soured on scorers with defensive weaknesses in the past — including Tyler Seguin, who’s far and away more of a net positive than Drouin — so it’s no surprise that Drouin’s warts might make him expendable. It all brings back memories of Lightning coach Jon Cooper commenting in 2015 that Drouin needed to learn that there’s “more than one net in a rink.” The numbers argue that Drouin still has something to learn, and maybe Julien believes that it’s a lost cause?

Though it’s dangerous to read too much into preseason numbers, Engels points out that Drouin’s ice time has been pretty low at times over the last week, which sometimes foreshadows a move.

Perhaps Bergevin’s trying to be strategic in sarcastically denying trade rumors, then. If teams view the Canadiens as desperate to trade away Drouin, that would make it difficult to extract value for the forward.

Again, that’s where it gets tricky: what might the Canadiens actually want in return? You could make quite the argument for Drouin fetching great value, particularly if you emphasize the positive. He’s still young, his talent can be dazzling, and Drouin has produced some tangible offensive numbers.

The cons list is more troubling each year, though. Yes, 24 is young, and players can grow, but 24 is also a range where it’s clearer that a player probably is what that player is, more or less. Maybe Drouin can figure it out to become less of a drain defensively, yet it’s tough to imagine him getting anything but sardonic Selke Trophy votes in the future.

So maybe it would take a “change of scenery” deal for the third overall pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Would it make sense for, say, the Canadiens to send Drouin to the Buffalo Sabres for a comparably polarizing player in Rasmus Ristolainen? Might Montreal receive a better return if they merely want to move Drouin for picks, whether that would be to a rebuilding team or a contender wanting to add some oomph on offense?

Watching this all play out could be almost as exciting as witnessing Drouin’s tremendous puck skills, yet could also be almost as perilous as asking Drouin to be a shutdown defender.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Sabres have renewed hopes with Krueger on board as coach

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — New coach. New hopes. Maybe this is the season in which the Buffalo Sabres’ long-awaited turnaround finally begins.

”Let’s get through Day 1 first,” Kyle Okposo said with a laugh upon reporting for training camp.

It’s not as if Okposo doesn’t welcome the upbeat, motivational vibe new coach Ralph Krueger is introducing to a team the spent the past two years mostly underachieving under Phil Housley. An out-of-the-box hire if there ever was one, the just turned 60-year-old Krueger is highly respected in hockey circles and returns to the bench after spending five years as chairman of soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

What gives Okposo reason for pause is how long it will take Krueger’s philosophies to sink in on a team called ”fragile” and ”soft” by players and previous coaches.

”There’s going to be a big buy-in,” said Okposo, who was struck by the message Krueger delivered during the team’s first meeting.

”I talked to five or six guys after. Ralph talked for 15 or 20 minutes, and every single one of them said they wanted to run through a wall after he was done talking,” he said.

The Sabres have been big on talk before in September. The trouble has been a persistent inability to translate what they say into actual success once the regular season begins, which is a big reason why they’re now on their fifth coach in six-plus years.

This is a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – during which Buffalo has finished last in the overall standings three times. And the Sabres are coming off a season in which their maddening tendency to crumble at the first sign of adversity was largely evident.

After briefly sitting first overall in late November following a franchise-record-matching 10-game winning streak, Buffalo proceeded to win just 16 of its final 57 games to finish 27th overall with a 33-39-10 record.

”Yeah, we’ve been through a lot of tough times together in the organization with tough years. It’s been up and down,” captain Jack Eichel said. ”But I think you can use that experience to better yourself.”

Krueger’s vast hockey experience includes coaching the Swiss national team, serving as a consultant to Canada’s gold-medal-winning team at the 2014 Winter Games, and coaching Team Europe to a second-place finish in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He also was an NHL assistant in Edmonton, and spent 2012-13 as the Oilers head coach before being fired following a 19-22-7 finish.

Known for being a hockey innovator, Krueger has introduced a mantra of ”Playing Connected” to Buffalo to build team unity both on and off the ice.

”I just want them to understand that we’re all in this together, and we all need to work together on this,” Krueger said.

WHO’S HERE: Krueger, forwards Marcus Johansson (free agency), Jimmy Vesey (trade with New York Rangers), and rookie first-round pick Dylan Cozens, and defensemen Colin Miller (trade with Vegas) and Henri Jokiharju (trade with Chicago).

WHO’S NOT: Forwards Jason Pominville (unsigned) and Alexander Nylander (traded to Chicago).

KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Skinner must begin showing himself worthy of Buffalo’s commitment in re-signing him to an eight-year, $72 million contract after scoring a career-best 40 goals. Eichel needs to build on a career-best season (28 goals and 82 points). The same goes for defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a rookie of the year finalist as an 18-year-old last year, in which the Swedish-born player wowed fans with his deft skating and play-making abilities, while struggling at times adapting to the NHL’s smaller ice surface. Can Casey Mittelstadt shrug off his rookie year struggles and fill the team’s much-needed void as a second-line center? Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen‘s future remains in question. He continues to be the focus of trade speculation after spending the offseason suggesting he would prefer to play elsewhere.

OUTLOOK: It’s difficult to assess how good – or bad – the Sabres were the past two seasons under Housley, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, who showed signs of being overwhelmed as a first-time head coach. On the plus side, GM Jason Botterill enters the third year continuing to add depth and youth to an organization left mostly barren under former GM Tim Murray. He could have a chance to stockpile even more talent by trading Ristolainen, who has an NHL salary-cap friendly three years left on his six-year, $32.4 million contract.

PREDICTION: Though it might be too much to suggest the Sabres ending their playoff drought under Krueger, they have the talent to at the very least stay in contention in the final weeks. Finishing with 90 points – something Buffalo hasn’t done since 2010-11 – would be considered an achievable goal.

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli outlined the Jets’ roster options for how to handle the situation, and it could be any one of three different scenarios. If the Jets list him as an “active non-roster player” he will not count toward their 23-man roster, but his salary cap hit will remain on the books. They could suspend him and petition the league for his salary cap hit to not count. The other scenario is Byfuglien retires and his salary cap hit gets completely stripped away. The added salary cap space would be important as the Jets try to figure out a way to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and fit them under the salary cap. It would also allow them to try and find a replacement for Byfuglien on the trade market if he does indeed walk away from the game.

Byfuglien has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Laine and Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.