Victor Olofsson

2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists: Hughes, Makar, Kubalik

The NHL announced Quinn Hughes (Canucks), Cale Makar (Avalanche), and Dominik Kubalik (Blackhawks) as the 2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists. The wording of the Calder, aka rookie of the year, is that it’s given to the player who was  “most proficient in his first year of competition.”

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association votes on the Calder Trophy each year. Elias Pettersson took home the Calder Trophy in 2018-19.

This year’s Calder Trophy winner will be announced sometime during the Conference Finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Calder Trophy cases for finalists Hughes, Kubalik, Makar

The case for Quinn Hughes

Hughes, 20, topped all rookies — not just rookie defensemen, all rookies — with 53 points in 2019-20. In doing so, Hughes became just the third rookie defenseman to top rookie scoring outright (joining Bobby Orr and Brian Leetch).

By averaging 21:53 time on ice, Hughes ranked second (just a slight bit behind Ethan Bear of the Oilers [21:58]). Alexander Edler (22:37) stood as the only Canucks player who averaged more ice time than Hughes this season.

Hughes joined Makar among rookie defensemen who jumped immediately into big roles, and passed most tests with flying colors.

This RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey captures some of what made Hughes special. He created offense while avoiding many of the mistakes you’d expect a rookie (and an offensive-minded defenseman, in general) to make:

Calder Trophy finalists Quinn Hughes RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

The case for Cale Makar

While Hughes tops some of the volume stats, Makar makes a “quality-over-quantity” argument for the Calder.

Makar scored more goals (12) than Hughes (eight) even though he appeared in fewer games (57 games played to Hughes’ 68). Despite missing that time, Makar finished second among all rookies with 50 points. Averaging .88 points per game is difficult for any defenseman; it’s extremely rare for a rookie. Makar expands the list of rookie defensemen with at least .88 points-per-game with 50+ games played, joining Larry Murphy and Al MacInnis.

Like Hughes, Makar didn’t totally sacrifice defense to create offense. Makar grades well on Evolving Hockey RAPM charts, too:

2020 Calder Trophy finalists Makar RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

[More: Hughes vs. Makar from earlier in 2019-20]

The case for Dominik Kubalik

It will be a tough call between Hughes and Makar, but others enjoyed strong rookie seasons. A certain portion of hockey fans may debate Kubalik vs. other 2020 Calder Trophy finalists for some time. Beyond historic seasons for Hughes and Makar, defensemen like Adam Fox and John Marino made this a special year for rookie defensemen.

But Kubalik turned heads, too, even more than other high-scoring rookie forwards such as Victor Olofsson of the Sabres.

Kubalik topped all rookies in goals with 30, scoring 46 points in 68 games. While the Blackhawks forward is unlikely to become the first Czech-born Calder Trophy winner, he’s the first Czech-born player to lead all rookies in goals.

Hughes, Kubalik, and Makar are all involved in the 24-team 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so you can get another peak at the 2020 Calder Trophy finalists during the return to play. (COVID-19 permitting.)

NHL AWARD FINALISTS
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Masterton Trophy: Stephen Johns, Oskar Lindblom, Bobby Ryan
• Lady Byng Trophy: Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly

Vezina Trophy: Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask, Andrei Vasilevskiy
Norris Trophy: John Carlson, Victor Hedman, Roman Josi
Selke Trophy: Patrice Bergeron, Sean Couturier, Ryan O’Reilly
Hart Trophy: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin

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.

Plenty of questions for Kevyn Adams as Sabres GM

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The Sabres stunned many on Tuesday by firing Jason Botterill, and naming Kevyn Adams as their new GM.

The move accomplished the interesting task of making the inevitable feel shocking. Yes, Botterill seemed like he was on borrowed time as GM. But considering Kim Pegula’s vote of confidence from late May, the Sabres signaled that now was not the time. And then they changed course.

As messy as all of this is, the truth is that it might work out for the best. Why head into this long, unusual offseason with a GM you don’t believe in? Every prime year from Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is precious, so why waste them if Botterill really isn’t the best choice?

Of course, what happens next hinges on Kevyn Adams. Can he finally get the Sabres on track as the franchise is mired in a nine-year playoff drought? Let’s look at the monumental task(s) Adams has in front of him.

Adams faces key decisions (big and small, short and long-term) as Sabres GM

As cathartic as it might be to move on from a GM or coach that didn’t work out, there’s also a risk that the new people in charge will make the wrong changes, sometimes merely to show that they’re not just sitting idly.

For better (Jack Eichel) and worse (Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo), the Sabres have a lot of big contracts they really can’t move. Rasmus Ristolainen stands as the biggest piece — even literally — that they actually could conceivably remove.

It feels like Ristolainen has been subject to trade rumors for ages, even though he’s merely 25. Either way, it makes you wonder if Botterill wanted too much for Ristolainen, or if the market really is just that cold on him.

Frankly, the Sabres might be better off cutting their losses, even at a discount rate. By most measures, including this multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, Ristolainen seems like an overall drag on his team:

Kevyn Adams Sabres GM should trade Rasmus Ristolainen
via Evolving Hockey

If the Sabres traded Ristolainen, it might help solve their Rasmus Riddle.

On one hand, Ralph Krueger really helped improve the Sabres on defense. Consider his isolated impact via Hockey Viz:

Kevyn Adams Sabres GM should keep Ralph Krueger
via Hockey Viz

Yet, while Krueger bumped down Ristolainen’s ice time, the tall defenseman still topped the Sabres in ice time. Meanwhile, Rasmus Dahlin actually saw a dramatic drop in ice time from his rookie campaign (21:09) to his sophomore season (19:18).

That’s puzzling. I can’t help but point out that the “free agent” market for coaches is unusually robust, featuring choices ranging from Bruce Boudreau and Gerard Gallant to Peter Laviolette and even Mike Babcock.

Overall, though? It seems like Krueger is a good coach, maybe a very good one. Adams should probably trade away that one bad habit in Ristolainen, though.

RFAs need addressing

Take a look at the Sabres’ long-term outlook for a longer list, but Buffalo is brimming with RFA decisions to make.

Some of the most important names include breakout rookie sniper Victor Olofsson, goalie Linus Ullmark, baffling trade acquisition Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Montour, Michael Frolik, and Jimmy Vesey.

While the Sabres have $25M devoted to Eichel, Skinner, and Okposo alone, the slate is reasonably clean for Kevyn Adams to make his own mark as GM.

He’ll need to make the right calls not just with who to bring back, but also who to add.

Ullmark played pretty well this season, but not necessarily to the point that he silenced all questions about Sabres goaltending. Should Adams stick with Ullmark and Carter Hutton, who’s worked on vision problems and has one year remaining? Should the Sabres instead plunge into a pretty promising goalie market, and either try to trade away Hutton or even eat the cost of sending Hutton to the AHL?

Go big in free agency or aim more modestly?

If the Sabres make the call to spend on a UFA goalie, they’d need to determine the right target. Braden Holtby boasts a big name, but he’s struggled in recent years, and would be expensive if he leaves the Capitals. It’s difficult to imagine Robin Lehner returning to Buffalo, but maybe Adams and the Sabres can identify the next Lehner?

Skaters represent interesting questions, too.

If Alex Pietrangelo becomes available, is it worth the risk of going top-heavy to improve in an area of need? Dahlin will need a contract after 2020-21, so the Sabres could see their breathing room collapse quickly if they signed Pietrangelo, only to receive diminishing returns.

Taylor Hall could give Eichel the sort of support he’s rarely seen, yet Hall’s shown serious signs of decline recently.

The Sabres have also gotten burned by more mid-range free agent signings, so there are risks if they swing for contact rather than for the fences.

Maybe the best path would be to call up, say, the Lightning or another cap-challenged team to shake loose some talent?

Even if Adams keeps his early moves modest, he still faces a lot of questions in taking over as Sabres GM. This team needs to add talent, and rebuild trust from fans. As we’ve seen from Botterill and others, it’s a job that can go wrong in many ways.

What would you do if you were in Adams’ shoes?

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.

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.”

Kim Pegula: Jason Botterill returning as Sabres’ GM

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — 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.