Victor Olofsson

Kim Pegula to AP: Botterill returning as Sabres’ GM

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has ownership’s backing to return for a fourth season despite overseeing a team that will miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year, team president and co-owner Kim Pegula told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Acknowledging the decision might be unpopular among some fans, Pegula said she and her husband, Terry, are confident in the job the GM has done. And while the plan all along was to retain Botterill before the NHL season was paused in March because of the pandemic, Pegula said it is even more important to do so now given the continuity he provides entering an uncertain and extended offseason.

“He’s our GM. Our plan is to continue with him,” Pegula said in a Zoom interview.

“I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right,” she said. “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”

That doesn’t mean the Pegulas are satisfied, given the Sabres finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and couldn’t even qualify for the NHL’s expanded playoff format featuring the top 12 teams in each conference. The Sabres’ playoff drought is the league’s longest active streak.

“Believe me, I don’t think anyone knows the frustrations more than Terry and I do,” Pegula said. “Coach and Jason know they’ve got to show not only us, but they’ve got to show it to the fans. And they know that. They understand that.”

The Sabres’ offseason officially began with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announcing the league was going forward with the expanded playoff format. With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo missed out on qualifying by the slimmest of margins: Montreal clinched the East’s final berth with 71 points in 71 games (.500), just ahead of Buffalo, which had 68 points in 69 games (.493).

The order could have been switched had the season not been postponed March 12, when the Sabres were in Montreal preparing to play the Canadiens.

Pegula backed the NHL’s playoff format, even though it cost the Sabres.

“Listen, we should’ve won another game or two back in the day. We didn’t. So that’s no fault of any other club. That’s on us,” she said. “Although I don’t like the way it concluded, but it’s the best thing for the league to conclude the season.”

Botterill and the Pegulas became the focus of fan criticism over the course of a season in which the Sabres experienced numerous peaks and valleys under first-year coach Ralph Krueger.

After getting off to a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres then went 2-8-2. The Sabres lost six in a row before a 3-2 shootout win over Washington on March 9, their final game.

The Sabres showed signs of playing with more structure and efficiency under Krueger, and yet still encountered stretches of inconsistency as a result of poor goaltending and a lack of secondary scoring.

Led by captain Jack Eichel’s career-best 36 goals, he, Sam Reinhart and rookie Victor Olofsson accounted for 78 of Buffalo’s 193 goals scored. Forward Jeff Skinner struggled in a second-line role by finishing with 14 goals and 23 points a season after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract.

The Sabres featured a lineup with an over-abundance of defensemen, even after the team terminated the contract of Zach Bogosian and traded Marco Scandella to Montreal.

Botterill enters an offseason in which he can finally begin reshaping a roster of over-priced and under-performing players. 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 potentially constrict due to lost revenue.

In Botterill’s defense, he inherited a disjointed mix of a team put together by his predecessor, Tim Murray. The Sabres farm system also lacked NHL-ready depth as a result of a series of poor drafts and questionable trades.

Botterill still made several missteps, starting with his first coaching hire of Phil Housley, who was fired two seasons into his tenure.

Botterill has also taken a brunt of criticism for getting little in return in trading unhappy center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in July 2018.

Neither of the three skaters acquired by Buffalo in the trade have made much of an impact at the NHL level. Forward Patrik Berglund abruptly left the Sabres a few months into his first season and had his contract terminated by the team.

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.

Buffalo Sabres: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres.

2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

Record: 30-31-8 (68 points); sixth in the Atlantic Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference
Leading Scorer: Jack Eichel — 78 points (36 goals and 42 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Traded Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary to the Penguins for Dominik Kahun.
• Sent a conditional fifth-round pick to the Devils for Wayne Simmonds.
• Traded away Marco Scandella for the Sharks’ fourth-round pick, then flipped that fourth-rounder to the Flames for Michael Frolik.

Season Overview: 

Woof. What can you really say about the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres but, “Woof?”

The Sabres present a story that’s felt basically the same for far too long, only with a rotating cast of characters.

While Jack Eichel’s basically willed them from seasons that rank among the worst of the salary cap era, the Sabres remain disappointing. Whether the coronavirus claims the season and playoffs or not, Buffalo’s playoff drought will extend to nine consecutive seasons. They’re heading toward a string of 11 misses in 13 seasons, and haven’t won a playoff series since that nice run in 2006-07.

Again, woof.

Sabres fans have largely had it, as you can observe from their Duane Drain. And who can really blame them?

If new head coach Ralph Krueger made any real difference, it’s negligible, at least in the short-term. The hope is that maybe he’s building something, but you have to squint to see the potential beyond Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and others making progress.

The Sabres added to that dire feeling with some brow-furrowing trade deadline moves. The season felt long gone when they traded for the likes of Wayne Simmonds, although at least Buffalo only spent marginal draft picks. Selling probably would’ve been the wisest move, but PR-wise, fans are likely far beyond tired of that liquidation approach.

Considering how tough the Atlantic figures to be for the near future, this Sabres franchise has its work cut out for it. Terry Pegula hasn’t exactly earned a lot of goodwill regarding how he’s handled COVID-19, either.

At least Jack Eichel rules though, right?

Highlight of the Season So Far:

The Sabres started 2019-20 on a heck of a run, going 8-1-1 in their first 10 games. They claimed that they didn’t fear echoing the 2018-19 season by ultimately falling apart, but, well … they did.

Again, Eichel authored many of the Sabres’ crescendos, including a robust personal point streak.

Victor Olofsson played a big role in Buffalo’s hot start with a historic early run of scoring, and while both the player and power play slowed down, Olofsson shows some promise.

Eichel, Olofsson, Dahlin and others simply need more help. Maybe Buffalo can actually build on the positives … eventually?

MORE SABRES BITS:
Sabres’ biggest surprises and disappointments
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

The NHL’s All-Underrated rookie team

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Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks defender Quinn Hughes have long been thought of as the only two legitimate Calder Trophy candidates. But is it really just a two-horse race? One of those two players will likely be named rookie of the year, there are other first-year players having impressive seasons in 2019-20.

So, we decided to build the all-underrated rookie team for the 2019-20 season. We’ll pick two wingers, a center, a pair of defensemen and a starting netminder. These first-year players have received their share of recognition, but none of them has gotten serious Calder consideration.

Here we go:

Dominik Kubalik – W – Chicago Blackhawks: The 24-year-old scored a hat trick in last night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s now up to 29 goals and 44 points in 62 games this season. That puts him on pace for 37 goals in 2019-20. That’s an impressive total for any player, let alone someone who is in their first season in North America.

Even his teammates are openly campaigning for him now:

Kubalik’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that 25 of his 29 goals and 35 of his 44 points have come at even strength. No other rookie has more than 12 even-strength goals in 2019-20. That’s how good the ‘Hawks freshman has been.

Nick Suzuki – C – Montreal Canadiens: Suzuki was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round draft pick. The Habs had to give up captain Max Pacioretty to them that haul, but it’s a deal that’s worked out well for both sides.

Suzuki started the year playing wing on the fourth line and he’s since emerged as a valuable contributor down the middle. The 20-year-old is in the middle of a four-game pointless drought, but he’s managed to pick up 13 goals and 40 points in 66 games. His numbers are solid, but don’t jump off the page. That’s mainly because he didn’t start getting power play time until later on in the season.

He deserves to be mentioned among the group of under the radar rookies. He’s shown that his hockey IQ is up there for a player of his age and he has the offensive instincts to chip in offensively with regularity.

“He’s a smart player, he figures it out, but at the end of the day it’s having been through that grind before,” head coach Claude Julien said of the rookie’s heavy workload in junior hockey, per CBC. “Once the guys go through it once they’re a lot better the second time around. So to me, he had it before he got here and that’s why he’s doing well.”

Victor Olofsson – W – Buffalo Sabres: Olofsson is to power play goals what Kubalik is to even-strength production. The Sabres rookie has scored 19 goals this season and 11 of them have come on the man-advantage. Sure, you’d like to see him produce more at five-on-five, but when you can get this type of offense from a player drafted in seventh round, you shouldn’t complain.

No matter what you think of his even-strength production, you have to be encouraged by the fact that his first NHL campaign has gone this well. It’s definitely something he can build on going forward. And since when is being a lethal weapon on the power play such a bad thing anyway?

Adam Fox – D – New York Rangers: How is it possible to be underrated in New York? Well, Fox has found a way. The 22-year-old has an impressive seven goals and 34 points in 63 games this season. He’s also averaging 18:45 of ice time per game, but he’s played over 20 minutes in each of the last eight games.

It’s always good for a youngster to be mentioned in the same breath as a player like John Carlson. The numbers in the above tweet are really impressive.

Canadiens forward Max Domi banked a puck off Fox and into the Rangers net in the first period of last night’s game, but the rookie responded with a goal and an assist in his team’s comeback victory.

Ethan Bear – D – Edmonton Oilers: Penguins defenseman John Marino would’ve probably been in the spot had he been healthy, but he’s been sidelined for a while now. Bear is worthy of being here. The 22-year-old played 18 games in the NHL last year, but he still qualifies as a rookie in 2019-20.

He’s emerged as a key piece on a team that’s been lacking quality defenders for a while now. Bear has begun getting more power play time recently and he’s also averaging 21:42 of ice time, which is more than Makar (20:52) and slightly less than Hughes (21:44).

Bear has five goals and 20 points in 64 games this season. Those numbers should continue to climb now that he’s getting added time on special teams.

Elvis Merzlikins – G – Columbus Blue Jackets: How could it not be Elvis? Yes, Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov has also put together a strong rookie year, but no one expected the Blue Jackets to compete for a playoff spot this year.

Merzlikins suffered an injury on Tuesday night and Columbus needs him to get back as soon as possible. He’s posted a 12-9-8 record with a 2.39 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage this season. And, oh by the way, he’s also tied for the league lead in shutouts, with five.

The 25-year-old’s first season in North America has gone as well as anybody could’ve expected. The Blue Jackets are 1-4-5 in their last 10 games, but they’re still clinging on to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They need Elvis to get back in the building (sorry) as soon as possible.

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.