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PHT’s 2018-19 Atlantic Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Metropolitan Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

In 2017-18, the Atlantic Division was the only one of the four divisions that had three teams pick up at least 105 points during the regular season. The Lightning (113), Bruins (112) and Maple Leafs (105) each managed to have pretty strong seasons. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Atlantic, those three organizations were the only three that made the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Panthers, who finished fourth in the division, missed out on the postseason by just one point. But in the end, five of the eight playoff teams in the East came from the Metropolitan Division.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

BOSTON BRUINS:

Better or Worse: The Bruins didn’t make a major splash during the offseason, but they’re better simply because a lot of their young players are one year older. Guys like David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato are all capable of improving their overall game. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league when you consider Boston already has Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Backes, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Bruins have one of the best first lines in the NHL. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were unstoppable at different times last season, and there’s no reason to believe anyone will be able to slow them down this year. Yes, Bergeron is banged up right now, but the Bruins managed to overcome a stretch of games where he was injured last year, too. He managed to finish the year with 63 points in 64 games, while Marchand had 85 points in 65 games and Pastrnak accumulated 80 points over 82 contests.

Weaknesses: The Bruins have a great first line, but do they have enough scoring to match teams like Tampa Bay or Toronto? David Krejci has a hard time staying healthy and David Backes isn’t the same player he once was. They have some good youngsters on the roster, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick up the offensive slack enough to carry the Bruins to a division crown.

2017-18 Highlight: The team scored plenty of nice goals, but there’s no highlight that stands out more from 2017-18 than the one of Marchand licking opposing players. It’s gross, but it’s all anybody talked about when it happened.

MVP Candidate: It has to be Marchand. He led the team in scoring last year, and even though he’s the guy other team’s love to hate, there’s no denying that he’s an effective hockey player. Sure, he crosses the line a lot, but when he focuses on playing hockey, there aren’t too many in the league that are better. He’ll have to continue taking his game to another level if the Bruins are going to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Playoffs or Lottery: Definitely playoffs. Assuming they stay healthy, this team will compete for the division and conference crowns. They should stack up pretty well with the Maple Leafs and Lightning.

BUFFALO SABRES:

Better or Worse: The Sabres may have been one of the worst teams in the league last year, but they should be better. The simple fact that they were able to add Rasmus Dahlin because they won the NHL Draft Lottery last year makes them an improved squad. Even though they traded away Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, they still managed to add a veteran scorer like Jeff Skinner at a very reasonable price. The Sabres may not make the leap into the playoff picture this year, but they’re definitely better.

Strengths: Buffalo has one of the best young centers in the game in Jack Eichel. Even though they’ve yet to make the playoffs since he came into the league, every team in the league would kill to have a player like Eichel to build around. GM Jason Botterill still needs to work on getting his star forward some more help, but finding franchise centers is a lot harder than getting a good supporting cast. So the toughest part of the job is done.

Weaknesses: They’ll have their share of issues on defense, but the addition of Dahlin improves the unit right away. Rasmus Ristolainen is another important piece on the back end and Marco Scandella is a useful player, but the rest of the group needs some work. Also, they still don’t have a proven number one goalie on their roster. Carter Hutton is a veteran, but he’s never been asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. Linus Ullmark is an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Keeping the puck out of the net will be an issue this season.

2017-18 Highlight: A “Jack-Trick” isn’t really a creative name, but it’s still something that happened last season. The fact that he managed to score two goals in under 10 seconds is also pretty impressive.

MVP Candidate: As you’ve probably been able to figure out at this point, Eichel will be the one to carry this team if they’re going to make it to the postseason for the first time in years. His point total has increased from 56  to 57 (61 games) to 64 (in 67 games), so it’s only normal to expect his offensive numbers to increase assuming he can stay healthy.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Sabres are on the way up with players like Eichel and Dahlin at their disposal, but making the playoffs is a bit too big of an ask from this group right now. Expect them to be improved through.

DETROIT RED WINGS:

Better or Worse: The Wings brought back Thomas Vanek and they re-signed Mike Green, but the fact that they lost Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury definitely makes them worse. After years of being a model franchise, Detroit is going through a rebuild right now. They have some solid youth to build around, but they’ll suffer through a few more lean years before becoming competitive again.

Strengths: As we mentioned above, there are some good young forwards on this team. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are right at the top of that list. Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Evgeny Svechnikov are also coming through the pipeline.

Weaknesses: The Red Wings have one of the worst bluelines in the NHL. Four of their top six defensemen are over 32 years old (Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathon Ericsson and Trevor Daley). That group just isn’t good enough to make the Wings competitive. This roster needs a ton of work, especially on the back end.

2017-18 Highlight: There weren’t many memorable moments for the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season, but the opening of Little Caesars Arena was special.

MVP Candidate: Larkin will have to be great if the Red Wings are going to compete for a playoff spot. The 22-year-old posted a career-high 63 points in 82 contests last season. Those are impressive numbers, but he’ll have to be even better if Detroit has any chance of playing deeper into April.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery, again. The Red Wings just aren’t deep enough at any position to be pencilled into a playoff spot at this point. They don’t have enough scoring, they probably won’t be good enough on defense and there’s only so much Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier can do between the pipes.

FLORIDA PANTHERS:

Better or Worse: GM Dale Tallon did a good job of making his team better after they missed the playoffs by one point last year. They went out and acquired Mike Hoffman from San Jose (via Ottawa), which gives them another proven top-six forward. Some of their young players have gained experience and that should also make them a better team, overall.

Strengths: Have you seen Florida’s top two lines? They’ll likely open the season with Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on their top line, and Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau on their second line. Those are two lines that are capable of creating offense on a nightly basis. The Panthers will be tough to stop.

Weaknesses: Their goaltending isn’t a weakness, but it can become one if Roberto Luongo fails to stay healthy, again, this season. The 39-year-old was solid when he played last year, but he only managed to suit up in 35 games. If he can play the majority of the games, he’ll be fine. If he can’t, the Panthers will have to turn to James Reimer, which is less than ideal.

2017-18 Highlight: Luongo delivered this incredibly emotional speech after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

MVP Candidate: Barkov has emerged as one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. The 23-year-old posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last season. There’s no reason to think that he can’t get even better this season. The Panthers’ new captain will have more pressure on his shoulders, but he can handle it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They missed the postseason by a point last year, so they’ll use that to fuel their season this year. They have a solid blue line and some skilled forwards. If the goaltending cooperates, they’ll be just fine.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS:

Better or Worse: Things seem to be a little more positive around Canadiens camp right now compared to last year. But it’s hard to suggest this team is better though, especially because they won’t have Shea Weber until Christmas and because they traded away their top two goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.

Strengths: Carey Price is still considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Even though he struggled mightily last year, he still has the ability to bounce back in a big way. If Price plays up to his potential, the Canadiens might surprise the hockey world this season.

Weaknesses: GM Marc Bergervin still hasn’t addressed the defense. Losing Weber for months hurts, but they’re still lacking good puck-movers. Jeff Petry will serve as their number one defenseman until Weber comes back, but his defense partners this preseason have included Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn. Yikes.

2017-18 Highlight: This Price save against Tampa is just too pretty not to watch over and over again. Ridiculous.

MVP Candidate: There’s no doubt who the MVP is in Montreal. It’s Price. If he dominates between the pipes the Canadiens will have a chance. If he doesn’t, they’re toast. It’s as simple as that.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. They’re too thin on the defense, too thin down the middle and there’s too much pressure on the goalie. It feels like the Canadiens are heading in the right direction, but they aren’t ready to make the playoffs this year.

OTTAWA SENATORS:

Better or Worse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that the Senators are a better team this year than they were last year. Trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman will do that. Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker won’t be able to fill the voids left by the players that they were traded for.

Strengths: Even though they traded some of their best players away, they still have Mark Stone and Matt Duchene on the roster for now (they’re both free agents at the end of the season). Those two will have to drive the offense for the Senators this season. Will they finish 2018-19 in Ottawa? That’s a different question.

Weaknesses: Thomas Chabot has a bright future ahead of him, but there’s no number one defenseman on this roster now that Karlsson’s gone. They aren’t very deep up front. And if Craig Anderson struggles like he did last year, it’s going to be a very long year in Ottawa.

2017-18 Highlight: As bad as things were last season, at least the Senators took care of the Canadiens in that outdoor game in December.

MVP Candidate: Stone put up an impressive 62 points in 58 games last year, but he’s going to have to be a whole lot better in 2018-19 if the Senators are going to surprise. Of course, the better he plays, the more Eugene Melnyk will have to pay him next summer. So, is this a lose-lose for the Sens?

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. There’s so much drama around the Senators right now that it’s hard to imagine them going on any kind of run this year. Management has already come out publicly and said this is a rebuild (even though they have no first-rounder).

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:

Better or Worse: The Lightning didn’t make a major splash over the summer, but they’ll benefit from having J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh for a whole season (they acquired both players at the trade deadline). The Bolts didn’t have to make a major move to be considered one of the elite teams in the division. They’re better.

Strengths: The overall depth of this team is scary. They’re loaded on the defense with McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. They also have Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson down the middle. And, of course, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde on the wings.

Weaknesses: Ummmmm this team doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses on paper. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got quality defenders and they have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2017-18 Highlight: There’s no way Anze Kopitar didn’t have nightmares about this Vasilevskiy save.

MVP Candidate: There’s so many options, but Kucherov has to be the guy here. In the first half of last season, he was probably the favorite to win the Hart Trophy but players like Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon eventually emerged as options. The Russian winger cracked the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Too easy. This is a playoff team. They’re good enough to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but there’s going to be a ton of competition in this division.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 

Better or Worse: Any team that’s able to add John Tavares in free agency is automatically better (no kidding).

Strengths: There aren’t many teams that could go head-to-head with the Leafs down the middle. Auston Matthews and Tavares are one of the top two center duos in the league along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

Weaknesses: Their defense is still a question mark. Sure, they have Morgan Reilly, who is a quality defender, but they’re still lacking another top pairing guy. Maybe this is the year they’ll sacrifice some of their forward depth to make sure they go out and address that need.

2017-18 Highlight: This one was pretty funny. Matthews had a goal called back after video review, so the next time he put the puck in the net, he made sure to signal that it was a good goal.

MVP Candidate: There’s options here, but Matthews still has to be the go-to guy in this category. The 21-year-old scored 40 goals in his rookie year and 34 goals in 62 games last year, so it’s scary to think what he’ll be able to do if he stays healthy in 2018-19. He’ll need to be great if he wants to claim the division and conference crowns.

Playoffs or Lottery: Whether or not they make the playoffs isn’t the question. What everyone wants to know is: Will they make it out of the first round of the playoffs? No matter how good they are during the regular season, another first-round exit would be a huge disappointment in Leaf Land.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

O’Reilly trade makes sense for Habs, even if it costs too much

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It’s easy to understand why trading for Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly could be too rich for many tastes.

Even just directly, the 27-year-old costs a lot by way of his $7.5 million cap hit, which doesn’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That actually is a pretty fair rate for a quality player at a coveted position, but smart NHL teams try to find bargains whenever they can. O’Reilly is, instead, earning his market value, and the term means that a prospective buyer really needs to commit to him.

Of course, O’Reilly isn’t on the free agent market. Instead, he’s the subject of trade rumors, and it sounds like the Sabres are asking for quite a bit. Here’s a guess from The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun (sub required for the full article):

My sense of the Buffalo ask right now for O’Reilly is this: a first-round pick, a good prospect and a second-round pick.

Not cheap. LeBrun adds an interesting caveat that also spotlights how ROR is far-from-cheap: one of the stumbling blocks is that O’Reilly has a $7.5M bonus coming. Remarkably, the Sabres at least claim that they’d want more after July 2. One understands why they’d say so, but how much more could they realistically expect to get for ROR? Or is it true that the Sabres realize they’re better off not trading away a proven talent and merely want to force “an offer they can’t refuse?”

(As you can see from his contract terms via Cap Friendly, his deal is heavy on signing bonuses and low on base salary. The nice thing, then, is that his actual salary sinks to a more affordable $6M from 2019-20 to 2022-23; the 2018-19 campaign comes with a $8.5M total price tag.)

LeBrun and others tab the Montreal Canadiens as a leading candidate for ROR, and it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s a quick rundown of why this could work from Montreal’s perspective.

Money burning a hole in Bergevin’s nicely tailored pockets

The Canadiens’ failed 2017-18 season was frustrating for many reasons, including the fact that, despite having high hopes, the Habs weren’t exactly spending to the cap ceiling. (A similar feeling rubbed extra salt in the wounds of Oilers fans.)

With GM Marc Bergevin’s seat only getting hotter, it would be surprising to see Montreal make that same call twice.

(Unless they decided to do a soft rebuild, which is a – valid – debate for another time.)

By Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Canadiens only have $60.88M devoted to 21 players, giving them about $18.61M in space. They have other needs they’d hope to address, but not many raises to worry about beyond the modest bump coming Phillip Danault‘s way.

If any team can afford to take on ROR for futures, it’s the Canadiens. They might even decide it’s worth it to eat that $7.5M bonus. Either way, they’re in a position to stomach that cap hit, and they don’t need to move salary the other way to do it.

Plugging the talent leak

Simply put, the Canadiens have been bleeding talent in recent years, thanks in large part to Bergevin losing trades in often dramatic ways. It sure seems like they’ll lose an additional key piece in Max Pacioretty, too.

[More: Canadiens slowly but surely decline under Bergevin]

Again, you can make the argument that the Canadiens might be better off following the Rangers’ lead and doing a soft-rebuild, yet it doesn’t seem like that’s the case.

With that and all the lost talent in mind, adding O’Reilly for futures could really help stem the tide.

ROR wouldn’t be the top center in every situation, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea for Montreal to trot him out as a tough matchup guy. He certainly has the two-way acumen to provide an upgrade at center, where the Canadiens have been weak for … a decade? More?

It would be especially enticing if ROR could take on the tough assignments while opening up cushy offensive zone starts for Jonathan Drouin, who generally struggled mightily as the go-to guy. It’s plausible that the duo would serve as a 1a/1b situation, but the point is that there could be a domino effect that helps Drouin out, in particular.

(You could make a similar comparison in Buffalo, as Rasmus Dahlin may eventually make life a whole lot easier for Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s arguably been exposed when asked to do too much.)

Clock’s ticking

The clock is ticking, and not just on Bergevin’s run as GM.

If the Canadiens want to enjoy a big rebound, ROR could be essential. Don’t forget that Shea Weber is 32, and probably a beaten-up 32 considering his rugged style and many years of heavy use. Carey Price is 30 and his injuries have really been stacking up.

O’Reilly won’t make those contracts suddenly look wise, mind you, but in the reasonably likely instance that both rebound for at least a little while, ROR could help Montreal make the most of those windows.

A (darkly) amusing possibility

Imagine if the Canadiens land ROR, trade Pacioretty away, and end up looking smart by drafting center Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Go really wild and imagine that Drouin finds his footing as a center once he’s placed in extremely favorable situations.

After years of saying “If only we could improve at center,” the Canadiens could very well be deep and dangerous down the middle … while being shaky-to-putrid just about everywhere else.

Such a scenario would be very hockey and very Canadiens.

***

O’Reilly isn’t a perfect player, and he doesn’t own a perfect contract. The Canadiens could very well end up “losing” another trade if they acquired ROR.

Sometimes it’s OK to overpay for that $5 shake, though, and that might just be the case with O’Reilly and the Habs.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Central Scouting final rankings; Ovechkin still believes

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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.

• Central Scouting released their final 2018 final draft rankings on Monday. No surprise, as Rasmus Dahlin is the top ranked European skater on the list. (NHL.com)

• Speaking of that list, Brady Tkachuk was ranked as the second best North American skater, but this FanSided story argues that he doesn’t belong there. (FanSided)

• Golden Knights players Nate Schmidt and Erik Haula have a very special bond that dates back to their days at the University of Minnesota. (SinBin.Vegas)

• The Flyers only find themselves down 2-1 against the Penguins, but the reality is that they might not be ready to compete with their rivals for a while. (Philly.com)

• The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell roasted Kings defenseman Drew Doughty‘s play and his attitude in the first-round series against the Golden Knights. A little harsh, but take a look for yourself. (The Hockey News)

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

• ESPN looks back at how Boston’s teams have dominated in over the last two decades and how Washington’s have come up empty. This isn’t a hockey-only story but it’s still pretty interesting to compare and contrast. (ESPN)

Rasmus Ristolainen has been a a useful player for the Sabres over the last five years, but losing consistently has taken a toll on him. Being out of the playoff hunt by Christmas is starting to get old. (Buffalo News)

• Don Cherry was not a fan of David Pastrnak‘s celebration in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. A little “get off my lawn” from Cherry here. (Sportsnet)

• Despite being in an 0-2 hole against Columbus, Alex Ovechkin believes that his team will be able to win two straight games on the road. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Former NHLer Anson Carter discusses Taylor Hall‘s incredible performance in Monday’s Game 3 win over the Lightning:

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.

O’Reilly: Sabres adopted mindset of ‘being OK with losing’

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Ryan O'Reilly was unable to hide his dejection as he acknowledged that the Sabres’ latest last-place finish led him to question his love for hockey.

If that wasn’t enough, the high-priced center accused the Sabres of adopting a mindset of “being OK with losing.”

“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said Monday, two days after Buffalo closed one of its worst seasons in franchise history. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

Losing is all O’Reilly knows in the three seasons since being acquired in a trade with Colorado, after which the Sabres signed him to a seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension.

Rather than being part of a rebuilding plan, which included Buffalo selecting Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, O’Reilly and company find themselves back at square one. They became the NHL’s first team to finish 31st – following this year’s addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – after back-to-back 30th-place finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-’15.

This year’s collapse is considerably worse given that Buffalo’s trajectory was supposed to be trending upward under the new regime of general manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley. They took over last spring after the Sabres underachieved in finishing 26th under GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma

“We have to evaluate everything, coaching staff, the players. What are they willing to change?” Housley said. “There comes a point in your career where you have to realize what’s important. Obviously, winning, what it takes to win, the commitment to win in this league. And that’s what we talk about change.”

Very little went right in a season Buffalo opened 1-5-2 and closed 2-9, extending the franchise’s longest playoff drought to a seventh straight year.

Buffalo matched a franchise low for home wins by going 11-25-5, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers in the Winter Classic at New York City. The Sabres finished last in the NHL with 199 goals scored, 91 goals at home and in being outscored by 81 goals.

Their best run was a three-game win streak, all on the road, while the Sabres went winless over four or more games seven times, including an 0-5-2 skid from Nov. 10-22.

The reality of how bad the Sabres were, set in at the midpoint of the season for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

“It was around Christmas and we were done, and we still had 40 games to play,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone wants to make the playoffs so bad, and we weren’t even close.”

LIKING EICH

Eichel led Buffalo with a career-best 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games, despite missing 15 games with a sprained right ankle. Much more is expected next season when Eichel’s eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in.

“Things will get better and it starts with me,” Eichel said. “Everybody needs to look at themselves and figure out what they’re doing. Obviously, whatever I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. What we’ve been doing as a team hasn’t been working.”

DOWN ON THE FARM

While the Sabres are done, their AHL Rochester Americans affiliate qualified for the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Americans feature several Sabres prospects being counted upon to play in Buffalo full-time next season including forward Alexander Nylander, defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark.

FREE AGENTS

The Sabres have a decision to make in goal with starter Robin Lehner set to become a restricted free agent and backup Chad Johnson eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The team’s other pending unrestricted free agents include forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Nolan, and defenseman Josh Gorges.

Forward Sam Reinhart, who scored a career-best 25 goals, completed his three-year entry level contract and eligible to be a restricted free agent.

OFF TO THE WORLDS

Rookie first-round draft pick Casey Mittelstadt accepted Hockey USA’s invitation to compete at the world championships in Denmark next month. Mittelstadt signed with Buffalo last month after completing his freshman season at Minnesota. The center won a bronze medal representing the U.S. at the World Junior hockey championships in January.

INJURIES

Lehner visited a specialist Monday to assess a lower body injury that forced him to miss the final five games. D Zach Bogosian expects to be cleared to skate by June after having season-ending hip surgery in January.

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