Tage Thompson

Criticism doesn’t alter Sabres GM’s plan to build with youth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jason Botterill is very much aware of the criticism he’s attracted overseeing a Buffalo Sabres team that extended its playoff drought to nine years by failing to even qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team format.

That doesn’t mean the general manager is going to his alter his vision in continuing to build the organizational depth and developing young talent.

“There’s always urgency in this position, and I’m not surprised that our passionate fans want to see a winner on the ice,” Botterill said during a Zoom conference call Wednesday, a day after the Sabres were officially eliminated following the league’s decision to forego the remainder of the regular season.

“When we talk about development, it also equates to trying to find a winning environment here,” he added. “We want our young players to step in and put them in positions where they can succeed, where they can help out our core players right away.”

Though Botterill saw glimpses of his team being competitive under first-year coach Ralph Krueger, there wasn’t enough consistency to extend the Sabres’ 50th anniversary year after games were placed on pause due to the pandemic in March.

With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo finished 13th in the Eastern Conference standings with a .493 points per game percentage. The Sabres were edged out from securing the final spot in the expanded format by Montreal (.500).

Buffalo’s playoff drought is the NHL’s longest active streak, and one short of matching the league record shared by Florida (2001-11) and Edmonton (2007-16).

For now, Botterill has ownership’s backing after Kim Pegula this week told The Associated Press the GM’s job is secure for a fourth year.

Buffalo’s season featured a series of peaks and valleys. Following a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres proceeded to go 2-8-3 over their next 13 games. And after a 7-3-1 run put the Sabres in striking distance of the playoff race in February, the wheels fell off with a six-game skid.

“We had too many poor streaks to combat the good streaks,” veteran forward Kyle Okposo said. “One of the keys to making the playoffs and playing well season is to manage those skids. We need to find a way to do better at that.”

Okposo is preaching patience by saying he sees promise in the Sabres developing players, and the simplified structure introduced by Krueger.

“I know people are mad, and they want to win. And we want to win, too,” Okposo said. “But we are going in the right direction, and I think that’s the message I have for fans.”

BRIGHT SPOTS

Captain Jack Eichel scored a career-best and team-leading 36 goals, including nine game-winners. Forward Victor Olofsson finished with 20 goals and had been leading NHL rookies in scoring before missing 15 games with a lower-body injury. Second-year defenseman Rasmus Dahlin finished fourth on the team with 40 points (four goals, 36 assists) in 59 games.

LOW POINTS

Forward Jeff Skinner finished with 14 goals and 23 points, a year after scoring a career-best 40 goals, which led to him signing an eight-year, $72 million contract. Defenseman Zach Bogosian had his contract terminated after refusing to report to the minors. Goalie Carter Hutton won his first six starts before going 0-8-4 in 13 appearances, and finished the season 12-14-4.

BUSY OFFSEASON

The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potential constrict due to lost revenue.

Buffalo’s cap space stands to be eaten up with Olofsson, forward Sam Reinhart, defenseman Brandon Montour and goalie Linus Ullmark the most notable players eligible to become restricted free agents.

Buffalo’s unrestricted free agents include forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larrson and late-season addition Wayne Simmonds.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Though Botterill hasn’t ruled out adding experienced talent through trades or free agency, he also expects several youngsters to compete for jobs next season. The candidates includes former first-round draft picks Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt, who spent last season developing in the minors. Then there’s 2019 first-round pick, center Dylan Cozens, who has completed his Canadian junior eligibility.

DOWN DAHLIN

Missing the playoffs doesn’t sit well with Dahlin.

“It’s tough to be here in Sweden with all my Swedish buddies going back and playing, and I’m staying here at home,” Dahlin said via a Zoom call. “It (ticks) me off a little bit.”

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.

Sabres’ Thompson to miss 5-6 months after shoulder surgery

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres center Tage Thompson will miss the remainder of the season after having surgery to repair an injury to his right shoulder.

The Sabres announced Thompson had the operation on Tuesday and will require between five and six months of recovery time. Thompson was initially projected to miss three to five weeks before team doctors determined he required surgery.

The third-year player was hurt in the final minutes of a 4-1 loss at Chicago on Nov. 17. It was Thompson’s first NHL game of the season and came shortly after being promoted from AHL Rochester.

Thompson had seven goals and five assists for 12 points in 65 games with Buffalo last season before being demoted to the minors. The 2016 first-round draft pick was acquired by the Sabres in a multiplayer trade that sent center Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis in July 2018.

Sabres GM Botterill ‘actively seeking’ forward depth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With defenseman Zach Bogosian getting closer to making his season debut, Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill said he is actively seeking a trade to balance the Sabres roster.

Botterill said he is ”actively looking” to acquire a forward to help a team that is in the midst of a 1-5-2 skid and dealing with injuries at the position. He spoke Tuesday after attending GM meetings in Toronto and before the Sabres hosted Minnesota.

Bogosian has been out since having hip surgery last spring, and his upcoming return means the Sabres are overstocked on the blue line. Buffalo is carrying eight defensemen already.

Botterill said he is ”optimistic” that Bogosian will be able to return to the lineup during the Sabres’ three-game trip that starts Thursday in Boston.

”I think he’ll be a big boost to our team,” Botterill said.

The Sabres also lack forward depth as a result of injuries. Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely with a concussion suffered Saturday. It is Okposo’s fourth concussion in less than three years.

”There’s a lot of concern,” Botterill said. ”Right now, the focus is just making sure that Kyle is all right and getting him back to normal health.”

Tage Thompson sustained an upper body injury Sunday after being called up to fill in for Okposo. The Sabres have also been without forward Johan Larsson (upper body), Marcus Johansson (upper body) and Vladimir Sobotka (lower body).

The injuries forced the Sabres to move defenseman John Gilmour to forward for Tuesday night’s game.

The Sabres have also lacked secondary scoring beyond captain Jack Eichel, who has scored the team’s last five goals.

Sabres’ Okposo out with fourth concussion in less than three years

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with his fourth concussion in a little more than 2 + years.

The Sabres provided the update in posting their weekly injury report Monday, two days after Okposo was hurt in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It happened with five minutes left in the second period when Okposo took the ice and accidently collided with Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey.

This marks the fourth consecutive season the 31-year-old player has been sidelined by a concussion. The most serious one happened when he missed the final two weeks of 2017-18 and spent nearly a week in a hospital after what he called a routine hit in practice.

Okposo missed three games in March 2018 after a concussion from a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan. And he missed a week last February when punched in the face by New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

Okposo is a 13-year veteran in his fourth season in Buffalo. He has a goal and four assists in 19 games.

The Sabres also announced center Tage Thompson will be out three to five weeks with an upper body injury. He was hurt in a 4-1 loss at Chicago on Sunday and after being called up from the minors to replace Okposo.