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Sabres’ Brandon Montour out rest of preseason with hand injury

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour will miss the remainder of training camp because of a hand injury and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be ready for the start of the season in two weeks.

The Sabres released no details of Montour’s injury on Thursday.

The team said it will provide an update on his status at the end camp. It’s unclear when Montour was hurt after he logged more than 17 minutes in a 4-1 preseason loss at Columbus on Tuesday.

Montour is a fourth-year NHL player and projected to play a top-four role on Buffalo’s blue line. He was acquired in a trade with Anaheim in February.

Buffalo will start the season minus defensemen Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut, who are recovering from offseason surgery.

The Sabres also announced forward Scott Wilson and defenseman Casey Fitzgerald are listed day to day with lower body injuries.

Sabres’ Ristolainen happy to be in Buffalo – for now

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said he was happy to report for the start of training camp amid questions if he would have preferred being traded.

What Ristolainen couldn’t say Thursday was whether he’d feel the same way if he was on the Sabres’ roster come March, following the NHL’s trade deadline.

”I’m not a guesser, so let’s live in the moment and go day by day,” he said.

”I’ve been here six years and seen this business. You never know where you will be next week or next month,” Ristolainen added. ”I’m here now, and I guess I will be here tomorrow, look at the schedule and ready to work.”

His future in Buffalo has been uncertain since Ristolainen expressed frustrations on several occasions since the end of last season, when Buffalo extended its playoff drought to eight years, the NHL’s longest active streak.

Saying he was mentally drained, the 24-year-old declined to say if he wanted to return when cleaning out his locker in April. In August, he referred to his situation as being ”open” during an interview with Finland’s MTV Sports.

Ristolainen said Thursday he was merely expressing frustration over being on a team that’s yet to finish with a winning record.

”Things get rough and you get (angry),” he said. ”I was just telling them that year wasn’t easy for me. And I wasn’t blaming anyone else than, you know, myself. I’m hard on myself, and that’s about it.”

Ristolainen declined to say whether he has asked to be traded.

Thursday was the first time Ristolainen has spoken to the media in Buffalo since the end of last season, and he was fully anticipating the questions. Upon stepping to the podium, he greeted reporters with a smile and said: ”Can’t wait to see you guys.”

General manager Jason Botterill has sidestepped questions about Ristolainen this offseason by saying he’s had ”positive conversations” with the player. In August, he said wasn’t surprised by the comments Ristolainen made to the television station.

On Monday, newly hired coach Ralph Krueger said he looked forward to working with Ristolainen.

”I know there’s a lot of potential there that’s still untapped, and it’s up to me and the coaches to find out what that is,” said Krueger, who took over after Phil Housley was fired following two seasons.

Ristolainen was Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft and has been the team’s workhorse defenseman since opening his third season in 2015-16. He has led the team in averaging 24-plus minutes a game while topping 40 points in each of the past four seasons.

Ristolainen’s frustrations stem from being on a team that’s finished last overall in the NHL standings three times and is now on its fifth coach since he arrived in Buffalo.

”Losing is frustrating for sure, but the way I think, when you go through tough times and losing, I feel like it makes me and makes us stronger,” he said. ”It makes us respect the win more. We’ve got to earn it.”

A knock against Ristolainen is his occasional defensive struggles, something he fully acknowledges.

”We all know I have to work on especially my defensive-zone game,” he said. ”It’s not my strength, so let’s make it my strength.”

Should he remain in Buffalo, Ristolainen’s workload is likely to decrease given the defensive additions the Sabres made this offseason. Buffalo acquired Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas and Henri Jokiharju in a trade with Chicago.

The Sabres have 10 defensemen who played 30 or more NHL games last season, with seven being right-hand shots, including Ristolainen. Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder), however, are expected to miss the start of the season while recovering from surgery.

Ristolainen is entering the fourth year of what’s considered a reasonably priced six-year, $32.4 million contract.

He said he is excited to work with Krueger and liked Buffalo’s offseason additions, which included veteran forward Marcus Johansson.

”I think the team is even stronger than last year. And last year, when things clicked those couple of months we were on top of the league,” Ristolainen said, referring to the Sabres briefly leading the league following a 10-game winning streak in November. ”That gives you a lot of hope.”

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

Sabres adding Miller doesn’t mean subtracting Ristolainen

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres general manager Jason Botterill disputed the speculation that adding defenseman Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas directly leads to Buffalo subtracting another defenseman such as Rasmus Ristolainen.

”There’s going to be rumors because he’s a player teams want to go after and teams want to have,” Botterill told reporters Saturday, a day after acquiring Miller .

”I think there’s always a demand for those,” he said, referring to Miller and Ristolainen both being right-shot defenseman and playing under reasonably priced contracts. ”I’m never going to be in a situation where I complain about too much depth.”

The Sabres suddenly have plenty of talent on defense after Miller became expendable in Vegas as a result of the salary cap-crunch facing the Golden Knights and their over-extended payroll. In acquiring a fourth-year player who combined for 13 goals and 70 points over his past two seasons, Buffalo gave up a 2021 second-round and 2022 fifth-round draft pick.

Miller has three years left on the $15.5 million contract he signed last summer.

Aside from Ristolainen, Miller joins a group of defenseman that includes rookie of the year finalist Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella and restricted free agent Jake McCabe.

”Right now, to me, this gives us options,” Botterill said. ”We wanted to improve our competition and improve our depth, and that’s why we made the move.”

Ristolainen is the Sabres’ workhorse after topping 24 minutes of ice time per game for the fourth consecutive season last year. He has three years left on a six-year $32.4 million contract.

Injuries are an issue, with Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder) both expected to miss the start of next season.

Miller had what he called mixed emotions about being traded.

He’s going to miss Vegas, where he led the team’s defensemen with 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season two years ago. On the upside, Miller looks to establish himself in a larger role with the Sabres after having an up-and-down season last year.

Another plus for Miller is he’ll no longer worry about being mentioned in trade rumors.

”I won’t be looking over my shoulder now at what Vegas is doing,” he said. ”Your focused on the opportunity that you now have moving forward. It’s definitely a good one here.”

Newly hired Sabres coach Ralph Krueger noted Miller fits his style of play, which is similar to the Golden Knights’ speedy, aggressive approach. With the Sabres in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought, Krueger also noted Miller having extensive playoff experience, including Vegas’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.

NOTES: The Sabres top draft pick, center Dylan Cozens, will see a specialist Monday after hurting his left thumb during a three-on-three scrimmage in the final day of Buffalo’s rookie development camp. Cozens said the visit is precautionary and his thumb is not broken. … Cozens, selected seventh overall, is planning to return to his home in Canada’s Yukon Territory capital of Whitehorse to spend the summer. … ”It’s going to be pretty crazy,” Cozens said of the reception he expects after being only the third Yukon-born player ever drafted. ”Those are the people who helped me get where I am. And I’m going to give back to them for sure.”

Trade: Sabres improve defense with Colin Miller; Vegas saves money

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Not long ago, I shared my belief that NHL teams are more likely to improve through savvy trades, rather than free agent spending (especially for defense). Quite a few NHL GMs seem to agree.

The Buffalo Sabres made a shrewd decision on Friday, taking advantage of the Vegas Golden Knights’ salary cap bind by landing quality defenseman Colin Miller. (It probably didn’t hurt that Miller sometimes lands in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse, making it that much more imperative to move Miller.)

Here are the terms of the trade via TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who also reports that the call has been made official.

Sabres receive: Colin Miller.

Golden Knights get: 2021 second-round pick (St. Louis Blues’) and 2022 fifth-round pick.

Again, this is a situation where the Golden Knights needed to save money. While I’d argue that Miller is well worth $3.875 million per season (quality right-handed defensemen are hard to find), Miller was lost in the shuffle a bit in Vegas. Much like with the Brandon Montour trade, the Sabres need all the defensive help they can get, so Miller is quite the boon.

Miller is in his prime at 26, and his $3.875M cap hit runs through 2021-22, so if Miller can indeed rise to a top-four level, than the Sabres might have received a nice bargain here. With Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner combining for a $19M cap hit, Buffalo needs all the value it can get.

That brings us to an interesting side note: could this also open the opportunity for the Sabres to move divisive defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The 24-year-old struggles mightily in his own end, but there are likely those around the league that believe in his talent (and maybe their ability to improve his defensive play), so maybe someone would take on Ristolainen and his $5.4M cap hit, which expires after 2021-22? It’s conceivable that the Sabres could move Ristolainen for some help on offense, as the drop-off from the dynamic Eichel – Skinner duo to everyone else is jarringly steep.

(Naturally, if Buffalo can find a taker for Zach Bogosian‘s bloated $5.142M cap hit, that would be sweet, too.)

If not, the Sabres still stand to be better on defense, an area of glaring need. Different people can have different qualms with all of Ristolainen, Montour, and Miller, but it sure beats what they’ve slogged around the ice with before. Of course, the biggest factor remains Rasmus Dahlin, who was brilliant in 2018-19 and may only get better from there.

The Golden Knights basically had to do this, considering their cap clogging situation, what with Mark Stone‘s $9.5M and Max Pacioretty‘s $7M extension about to kick in. As fantastic as William Karlsson‘s freshly signed $5.9M really is considering this climate of escalating prices, the bottom line is that all that extra money is inevitably going to push good players like Miller out.

Miller is a luxury the Golden Knights could no longer afford, much like Erik Haula. It’s possible they have some prospects who can stem the tide.

That stings, but honestly, who would have expected the Golden Knights to be selling off talent because they have too much of this, so early in their existence?

Either way, brilliant work by Buffalo. The Sabres still have work to do, but this is another important step forward.

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.