Wayne Simmonds

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.

‘Long overdue’: White NHL players find their voice on racism

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Brian Boyle is a 35-year-old grizzled veteran of 13 National Hockey League seasons who grew up outside Boston.

After seeing video of George Floyd’s death, Boyle wanted to say something. The Florida Panthers forward, though, wasn’t sure how and didn’t want it to come off the wrong way. He wound up calling former teammate J.T. Brown to ask some questions — and listen. Brown is 29, black and the only player so far to protest racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem of an NHL game, back in 2017.

The two talked about how Floyd’s death had affected Brown.

“I was kind of at his mercy,” said Boyle, who is white. “I just don’t understand this pain. I’ve never had to live this pain.”

Floyd’s death in police custody has touched off an extraordinary reckoning of race and race relations and sports has been part of it, from European soccer to the NFL. It has also made ripples in NASCAR, which like the NHL has predominately white athletes and, by most accounts, a larger fan base among whites than people of color.

NHL players have no sustained track record of speaking out on societal issues, perhaps part of the reticence that is generally found in hockey. There was no collective outrage after Akim Aliu, Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simmonds joined the list of players who have publicly described their personal experience with racism in hockey.

This time, the culture of silence was nowhere to be found in a league that is over 95% white.

Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players made statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protested in Dallas, Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Patrice Bergeron, Tom Wilson and others made donations. Jonathan Toews met with activists in Chicago.

“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “It can’t just be their fight.”

It was the kind of response San Jose’s Evander Kane hoped for when he called on white athletes to make their voices heard. Some called it “a perfect storm” — athletes, like everyone else, were at home during the coronavirus pandemic and able to focus on the graphic nature of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the visceral reaction.

“People, I think, are listening more,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Hired in 2017, she is the highest-ranked African American in the league’s hierarchy and reports directly to Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“While these things have been happening for a long time, I think the COVID pandemic has brought to light for many the racial pandemic,” Davis said. “To be able to just be paused and to stop and witness for nine minutes, somebody’s knee on someone’s neck and to watch the life be taken out of them … that’s your humanity (telling) you there’s something very wrong with that.

“I think that’s why people are speaking out. I think that’s why players are speaking out,” Davis said.

Seguin marched in Dallas along with retired goaltender Marty Turco and kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time prosecutors say Floyd was pinned under the knee of a white police officer while his heart stopped. Seguin, a 28-year-old Canadian from outside Toronto, long believed matters of race were none of his business.

“It’s unfortunate that it took something of this magnitude to get people’s eyes open or myself having the accountability to realize and look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got to be better,’” Seguin said. “Am I part of the stigma because I haven’t thought about this, or haven’t really fully realized it or understood the history of it?”

Since Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, hockey has been dotted with examples of racism. Just in the last decade, Simmonds had a banana thrown at him and P.K. Subban and Joel Ward were subjected to racist social media posts after scoring playoff game-winning goals. Smith-Pelly was taunted in the penalty box. As recently as April, New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller had a video chat during the pandemic hacked by someone who posted a racial slur hundreds of times.

Junior and youth hockey are filled with similar stories, too, even amid determined and long-term efforts to diversify the sport.

“There’s clearly a racism problem in our sport,” said Kane, a 28-year-old Canadian from Vancouver who is part of a new effort by black players to do something about it. “It’s been pushed aside and covered up ever since I’ve been playing hockey. And that is a major issue that we need to suppress in a major way. That’s where being able to create a more diverse game, that’s where it’s going to start.”

Retired goaltender Ben Scrivens said he has “a healthy dose of cynicism” in seeing so many of his fellow white hockey players only now speaking out about racism. But he said it is nonetheless meaningful because players “can no longer claim ignorance” anymore.

“The fact that they’re putting themselves out there is a start,” Scrivens said. “And it also opens the door for them to be held accountable going forward.”

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been six months since Aliu’s comments on racism in hockey rocked the league. Bill Peters — who Aliu said used racist language toward him earlier in their careers — resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames and the NHL formed councils to address the issues. The growth in the number of players talking about racism now in the NHL seems logical, at least to Aliu.

“It’s a good step in the right direction, so I’m happy to see that,” he said, then paused. “But I feel like it’s long overdue.”

Wild’s Dumba on Hockey Diversity Alliance, getting advice from Kaepernick

Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba appeared on “Lunch Talk Live” to discuss the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance. Dumba detailed much of the HDA’s aims to Mike Tirico, while also noting how Dumba and the rest of the alliance received advice from trailblazer Colin Kaepernick.

“Eradicating racism can’t be on the shoulders of seven guys,” Dumba told Tirico.

Indeed, shortly after the Hockey Diversity Alliance released its statement, people were throwing the net out wider.

From hearing Dumba’s account of a zoom call with Kaepernick, it sounds like the seven members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance were in awe of the former(?) NFL QB. While Dumba was vague about specific advice, he noted that Kaepernick emphasized unity, and finding the right ambassadors.

So far, those seven HDA ambassadors include: co-heads Akim Aliu and Evander Kane, along with executive committee members Dumba, Trevor Daley, Joel Ward, Wayne Simmonds and Chris Stewart.

Tirico also covered protests, particularly in the Minnesota communities that serve as a second home for Dumba. Dumba said he wishes he could be there to lend his support; in the meantime, Dumba praised J.T. Brown for helping others in the community.

Dumba noted that more Hockey Diversity Alliance announcements could come soon, so that’s exciting.

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.

Aliu, Kane form Hockey Diversity Alliance ‘to eradicate racism and intolerance’

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A group of seven active and former NHL players announced the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) on Monday. Akim Aliu and Evander Kane will serve as co-heads of an executive committee that also includes Trevor Daley, Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward.

“Our mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” The Hockey Diversity Alliance wrote in their press release. “We will strive to be a force of positive change not only within our game of hockey, but also within society. Although we will be independent of the NHL, we are hopeful that we will work productively with the league to accomplish these important changes. We believe in the importance of accountability in developing inclusivity and diversity for all involved in our sport, including fans and the league office.”

Check out the release here.

(If you want the full text of the release, scroll to the bottom of this post.)

Promising goals, and maybe even more potential in the future?

Along with mapping out a broader goal of addressing racism in hockey (and society), the Hockey Diversity Alliance also shared goals about making the sport more accessible. Considering the costs of playing hockey at most levels, this is pretty exciting. The HDIA noted that they have a “charitable fiscal sponsor” to help boost such efforts.

Speaking of broader goals, it would be delightful to see the Hockey Diversity Alliance cover many groups. And it sounds like early steps are being taken to include women:

Truly spreading the “Hockey is for Everyone” message would be tremendous. Ideally, the sport will also become more inclusive for the LGBTQ2+ community, among others.

NHL executive Kim Davis and NHLPA head Donald Fehr already ranked among those who expressed pride in NHL players speaking up about racism following George Floyd’s tragic death. Seeing Aliu, Kane, Daley, Dumba, Simmonds, Stewart, and Ward form the HDA should only further such feelings.

As promising as it is to picture how far this could go, it seems like the Hockey Diversity Alliance is already off to a promising start.

Full text of Hockey Diversity Alliance release:

Here it is, in full:

We love our sport. We believe that hockey is the greatest game in the world.

As minorities who play professional hockey, we have come together to create the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA). We have appointed Akim Aliu and Evander Kane as co-heads and our executive committee includes Trevor Daley, Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward.

Our mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey. We will strive to be a force of positive change not only within our game of hockey, but also within society. Although we will be independent of the NHL, we are hopeful that we will work productively with the league to accomplish these important changes. We believe in the importance of accountability in developing inclusivity and diversity for all involved in our sport, including fans and the league office.

We will promote diversity at all levels of the game through community outreach and engagement with you and will endeavor to make the game more affordable and accessible. We will also focus on educating the hockey community about the racism issues confronting the sport, while advocating for acceptance and equality. We have partnered with a charitable fiscal sponsor and we will be launching a charitable division in the coming weeks to assist us in achieving our objectives.

In creating our alliance, we are confident we can inspire a new generation of hockey players and fans. We are hopeful that anyone who puts on skates or sits in the stands will do so without worrying about race, gender or socioeconomic background (and) will be able to express their culture, identity, values and personality without fear of retribution.

We are united in our efforts and promise to work tirelessly to bring about the change our sport and society needs.

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.”