Sam Reinhart

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Botterill’s plan needs to bear fruit in Buffalo

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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

Sabres have questions to answer in offensive, defensive zones

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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.

Let’s ponder three burning questions for the Sabres in 2019-20 …

1. How will their goaltending situation play out?

The San Jose Sharks will tell you, confidently, that team save percentage during the regular season means very little.

In their case, they’re not lying, per se. Still, it would be stretching the truth based on a complete anomaly.

And as bad as the Sharks were between the pipes in the regular season, they still had enough talent to put them into the Western Conference Final.

How does this relate at all to the Buffalo Sabres some 2,700 miles away? Well, it outlines how much better the Sharks were in front of Martin Jones despite an inferior team save percentage. The Sabres are a team that couldn’t be saved by outscoring their opponents and therefore their 22nd-ranked team save percentage of .901 had quite the bearing on their outcome in 2018-19.

There wasn’t much between Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark last season. Both played well along with the team early on in the season, when the Sabres were battling for first in the East. That all came crashing down in the second half, however, as team defense took a nosedive, bringing their season along with it.

Ullmark, who signed a one-year extension with the team on Saturday, enters once again as the backup but should see significant time as he did last year, especially if Hutton struggles again.

[A look back at the Sabres in 2018-19]

2. Will the re-tooling on defense do wonders?

Taking advantage of a cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights team, the Sabres went about acquiring Colin Miller for a couple of picks, a shrewd move by general manager Jason Botterill and one that was much-needed as the team strives for a better defensive effort this coming season.’

Speaking of shrewd moves, they also added Henri Jokiharju after trading Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks. Henri Jokiharju was taken in the first round in 2017 and was projected to be a big part of Chicago’s future on the right side. Instead, they traded him away for Nylander who hasn’t developed the way the Sabres would have wanted him to.

All these moves leave the Sabres with nine defensemen on their roster, meaning one should be getting moved prior to the season, both for cap compliance and roster space reasons. The Sabres are above the cap limit by $1 million and have 24 players signed at the moment.

There have been rumors of Rasmus Ristolainen being on his way out, but nothing has materialized in that realm as of yet.

Nevertheless, the additions of Miller and Jokiharju are intriguing, along with having Brandon Montour getting a full training camp with the team and a healthy Jake McCabe back in the fold.

3. Can the Sabres get the secondary scoring they need? 

Buffalo’s big three of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart combined for over 200 points last season, including Skinner’s 40 goals and Eichel’s 82 points.

From there, their next two top scorers came on defense with Dahlin and Ristolainen, the latter who may not be with the team by the time the regular season rolls around.

No other forward on the team had more than 34 points (Conor Sheary) and 16 goals (Jason Pominville), so the Sabres have gone out and tried to rectify that.

The addition of Marcus Johansson is a big one, in terms of puck possession and scoring. Johansson had 13 goals and 30 points in 58 games last season and 11 points in 22 games for the Boston Bruins in the playoffs.

They also acquired Jimmy Vesey, the 17-goal man from last season with the New York Rangers. Vesey hasn’t been the player he was touted as coming out of college as a Hobey Baker winner but perhaps new scenery on a young team can jump-start his career.

There’s also the pending return for Ristolainen if the Sabres can swing a deal. Buffalo won’t be wanting a defenseman in return, which means they could add someone up front to add further depth.

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

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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.

Skinner’s contract overshadows new Sabres coach’s arrival

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Rather than focus on what’s gone wrong in the past, new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger arrived in Buffalo intent on building a better future with the underperforming team he inherited.

Most important, Krueger expressed confidence that leading scorer Jeff Skinner will be part of that future based on a lengthy phone conversation he had with the unsigned forward who is some three weeks away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

”I work on the basis that Jeff Skinner is a Buffalo Sabre and as a result that’s how our conversation went,” Krueger said Wednesday during his introductory news conference.

”It was really just the flow of the conversation that made me feel comfortable,” he added. ”I felt he really loved to be here and that he was happy to be here.”

As for getting Skinner re-signed, Krueger said he was leaving that to general manager Jason Botterill.

For his part, Botterill said nothing has happened during negotiations to change his expectations regarding Skinner’s return.

”I would say discussions continue to go very well, but you never have a deal completely done until there’s a signature,” he said. ”We’ve clearly shown that this is a priority to try and get something done. Hopefully, we can find a way to get that materialize.”

Botterill said the sides are negotiating with the intention of getting a deal done before the NHL’s free-agency signing period opens July 1. In saying Skinner has earned the right to test the market, Botterill added that at no point has that possibility been broached by the player’s agency.

”There’s always that option for the player,” he said. ”But in my dialogue with Newport Sports, it’s been to try to find a solution before then.”

The just-turned 27-year-old Skinner completed his ninth NHL season, and first in Buffalo after being acquired in a trade with Carolina in August. In leading Buffalo with 40 goals, he topped 30 goals for the fourth time in his career.

The Sabres maintain an edge in re-signing Skinner because under league rules they can offer him an eight-year contract. He would be limited to signing a seven-year deal in free agency.

Skinner’s uncertain status overshadowed Krueger’s introduction, which came some three weeks after he was hired .

He arrived in Buffalo on Tuesday after spending time in Europe where he met with several players, including captain Jack Eichel, competing at the World Championships in Slovakia. Krueger also had personal issues to deal with in preparing to move back to North America after spending the past five years serving as chairman of soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Fully focused on being the Sabres coach, Krueger said he has little interest in reflecting on what’s gone wrong with a team in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – and now on its fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired in February 2013.

”I’m not the kind of person who spends a lot of time on the opinions of the past,” he said. ”For me to analyze one year, three years, five years, 10 years, 15 years past would be a waste of time in my opinion. It’s more, what do we need to be. And I’ll focus on that.”

At 59, Krueger returns to the NHL, where he fired after one year as the Edmonton Oilers coach following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Krueger, who is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, established his reputation as a hockey innovator and motivator internationally while coaching the Swiss national team and leading Team Europe to a second-place finish at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Krueger has much on his plate. He will be attending the NHL draft in Vancouver, British Columbia, in two weeks, immediately followed by the Sabres’ annual rookie development camp, and hopes to have a staff in place by the end of the month. He’s already spoken to half the players on the Sabres’ roster, and hopes to reach out to the remaining ones over the next week.

Krueger characterized his conversations with Eichel and forward Sam Reinhart at the world championships as productive.

”There was a clear understanding of what needs to be done here I thought in their conversations. We didn’t just speak about the weather,” he said. ”We spent a lot of time speaking about what needs to happen off ice, on ice and through.”

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

Fellow coaches expect Krueger to thrive, adjust with Sabres

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Mike Babcock and Ralph Krueger’s relationship goes back to 2004 and countless conversations since about coaching in the NHL.

The Toronto Maple Leafs coach just wishes Krueger hadn’t joined the rival Buffalo Sabres to make his job more difficult.

”It didn’t thrill me that he’s just down the road, but that’s the way life is,” Babcock said. ”He’s going to help their team out.”

Babcock and other coaches who have worked closely with Krueger over the years are glad he’s back as a part of their fraternity after five years as chairman of English Premier League soccer club Southampton FC. Krueger’s friends and colleagues in hockey believe he’ll have more success than during his ill-fated 2013 season in Edmonton but also that there will be a steep learning curve in the first year back in the NHL.

”He’ll find it taxing in his first year,” said Ken Hitchcock, who worked with Krueger on Babcock’s gold medal-winning Canada staff at the 2014 Olympics. ”The way you win in the NHL and the way you play defense in the NHL has really changed in the last few years. And he’s going to have to have people help him with those adjustments and recognize what they are because even since he coached the Oilers, things have changed a lot. I think he’ll embrace those adjustments, but there will be adjustments.”

Six full seasons removed from his only 48 games of NHL head-coaching experience, Krueger said he now has a better idea of how to plan out the year from beginning to end. Despite Buffalo’s NHL-worst eight-year playoff drought, Krueger believes his team can contend right away.

Krueger certainly carries a reputation for helping teams overachieve, including his first three seasons at Southampton amid the departure of several key players.

”That was a great opportunity for him,” Babcock said. ”I talked to him a lot over the time there. It was a growing experience. I think it was a good challenge.”

Like that challenge in management, Krueger’s 13 years as coach of Switzerland’s national team was about establishing a standard of play, a process that can take years before results follow.

”Ralph’s all about culture creates chemistry, which creates winning,” Hitchcock said. ”He’s not looking at winning. He’s looking at culture. He looks way down the road. Ralph is a big-time believer in full-time success.”

Krueger’s most recent North American experience as coach of Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey is another example of his team-building skills. The 59-year-old brought together players from eight different countries and made a surprise run to the tournament final.

”In a very short period of time, he was able to build a really powerful culture,” said Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, who was an assistant under Krueger at the World Cup. ”He made absolutely everybody in the room feel a part of it. The equipment guys, the medical guys, the media guys – everybody that was involved with that group had an incredible experience, and that was almost solely driven by Ralph.”

Much of the burden for Krueger now is developing a culture with the Sabres, who have cycled through five different coaches since last making the playoffs. He’s getting an early start on that front by meeting forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart next week at the world championships in Slovakia.

For all the tactical adjustments Krueger might have to make now, Hitchcock doesn’t believe communicating with this generation of players is one of them. The 2014 Olympic experience was a taste of how Krueger can quickly and effectively deliver a message to players and fellow coaches.

”He’s very, very good at reasoning with players,” Hitchcock said. ”He’s a very intelligent guy on getting the players to understand where he wants to take them. He just doesn’t grab them and pull them along. He’s very good at getting the players to understand the value of where he needs them to go.”

The joy from Babcock, Maurice and Hitchcock in Krueger’s return stems from their admiration for him as a person and confidence that he’s a good coach who deserves this opportunity. Half a decade in a front office job didn’t sap Krueger’s love for coaching.

”He gets up in the morning rolling and he wants to get to work and make things better,” Maurice said. ”He has this great passion for the game, but he’s also a generally caring person and that’s the great mix. He’s not so driven by his passion that he doesn’t care about people or just a people person who’s not involved in the details of the game. It’s just a big blend of being a real good human being and being very driven at the same time.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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