Zach Bogosian

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.

Byfuglien and other veteran NHL free agent defensemen with unclear futures

NHL free agent defensemen Dustin Byfuglien Andy Greene
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After covering forwards and goalies, let’s close things out with a look at fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen.

Before we start, note that this isn’t about top defensemen available. Alex Pietrangelo likely only stands on the fringe between a huge contract or just a very big contract. Also, the sheer glut of defensemen means a lot of borderline players will either be off this list, or merely mentioned in passing.

A lot of stuff to consider with Buff

Going to an earlier post, health questions limit Corey Crawford‘s earning potential. Those issues loom even larger for very large defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

After missing the 2019-20 season, it’s unclear how close Byfuglien can be to full-strength. Most of all, Byfuglien must decide if he even wants to come back. And at what cost.

Being that Byfuglien turned 35 on March 27, he’d need a 35+ contract. That could be a Byfuglien-sized sticking point if the defenseman wants term in any deal.

All of that aside, even a compromised version of Byfuglien towers over many of the fringe options.

Other reasonably prominent fringe NHL free agent defensemen

Let’s go over a few of them, while Cap Friendly features a more expansive list that drives home the glut.

  • Mike Green — There were times when it felt like criticisms were way, way too harsh for Green. (Maybe it was fury at the fauxhawk?) The temperature’s changed in 2020, though. Most of the people who bashed Green have moved on to (insert latest offensive defenseman who might win a Norris). But there are just enough teams with nostalgia for Green that he might get a chance in his reduced, 34-year-old form. Consider the Oilers trading an actual draft pick for Green during the past deadline if you need evidence.

While Green’s defensive game slips with age, he also doesn’t provide that zip on offense, either.

It’s sadly not too surprising to see Green — and some other fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen — at the bottom of the ranks of this GAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

worst GAR NHL free agent defensemen Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey
  • While Green’s fellow 34-year-old defenseman Roman Polak plays a different style, he also finds himself in the dregs of that list. It’s even more common for some NHL GM to talk themselves into a hard-nosed Polak than it is for them to believe Green could rekindle his scoring touch, too. Both ideas seem ill-advised, although if you need to appease an old-school coach, maybe you throw them a bone by giving Polak a very cheap contract (that you can bury or get rid of)?
  • It was tough not to chuckle when the Islanders spent a second-round pick to acquire Andy Greene.

That’s not really a knock against Greene, generally speaking. He has some value as a defense-first defensemen. Instead, it’s just that the Islanders felt the need merely to add more of the same.

This isolated impact chart from Hockey Viz reinforces those points well enough:

Andy Greene iso NHL free agent defensemen
via Hockey Viz

Regardless, if the Islanders are willing to spend a prominent pick on Greene, the 37-year-old will probably draw some attention. By the muted expectations of this quantity-over-quality group, you could do worse … if you don’t pledge much money or especially term.

(There’s an argument that Greene is viable enough not to be fringe. Still, his advanced age makes it seem reasonable to list him.)

  • If your team must have someone like Polak, how about Justin Braun? The 33-year-old doesn’t bring offensive value, but he’s more useful defensively.
  • My guess is that there will be at least some market for Ron Hainsey. At 39, it’s fair to wonder how much Hainsey has left in the tank. That’s also a fair question for most of the veteran NHL free agent defensemen we’re discussing.

Veteran free agent NHL defensemen lightning round

  • I usually cut these lists off at 30+, but Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are two 29-year-old defensemen who’ve garnered more attention than I’d usually expect. Maybe they will again? Teams can get pretty desperate for defense.
  • I haven’t mentioned Kevin Shattenkirk until now because I feel like anyone who observed his work in 2019-20 would give him a low-risk contract. But just in case, the 31-year-old would be a standout if he’s “fringe” material.
  • There are plenty of defensemen who might retire as much for health reasons as a lack of interest. Factor in age, too, and you could mark that box for defensemen including Jonathan Ericsson, Jay Bouwmeester, Deryk Engelland, and maybe Andrej Sekera.
  • Again, there are quite a few middling options who may ride meager name recognition. Teams have regularly inflated the value of 33-year-old Michael Stone, for instance.
  • Are Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber still NHL defensemen? GMs will decide that too.

(In case you’re wondering, Zdeno Chara‘s calling his own shot, and expected to be back. So that’s why he didn’t get a mention only now.)

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.

What is the Lightning’s long-term outlook?

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning
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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 Tampa Bay Lightning.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Lightning have been favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the past few seasons due to their cornerstone pieces at every level. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov lead the forward group and are the top two point scorers on the Bolts roster through the first 70 games. Victor Hedman is the most prominent name on a well-balanced blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy.

In addition to the stellar building blocks, the Lightning also have secondary offensive firepower. Brayden Point is close to becoming a foundational player, if he is not there already. Alex Killorn was closing in on a 30-goal season, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and others contribute in a meaningful way.

Tampa Bay also hasn’t seen the true impact of trade deadline acquisitions of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

The Lightning have all the pieces needed to accomplish their goal of winning a championship but remain in limbo until society solves the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-Term Needs

The wish list in Tampa Bay is quite short. The organization has accomplished a lot in recent years but still needs to get over the final hump and win a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, the Lightning’s regular season performance had little impact on the judgment of this team as long as they reached the postseason.

The long-term needs for the franchise are essentially the same as other teams that have a core in place and compete for a championship year in and year out. Find value in the NHL Draft process and continue to produce prospects that can contribute in one way or another to the varsity team. General manager Julien BriseBois also needs to manage the salary cap effectively and not fall into the trap of paying for past performances but rather remain focused on the future.

Long-Term Strengths

The best asset of the organization is their current core group of players. Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos and Vasilevskiy are all locked up for the next several seasons. Point’s contract does not expire until the end of the 2021-22 season and is close to becoming an integral part of the team, if not already.

If the NHL season does not return, the Lightning will be one of the more fascinating teams to watch this upcoming offseason. Will they blow it up as if they didn’t achieve their goal? Does Jon Cooper remain coach? Or, do they take another shot at a championship next season and reevaluate at that time?

The pause in action created a murky situation for the future of several NHL teams and the Lightning are near the top of that list.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning biggest surprises and 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 put injury-plagued D-man Zach Bogosian on waivers

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres placed Zach Bogosian on waivers Friday in a move that could give the injury-plagued defenseman a new home and open a spot on Buffalo’s crowded blue line.

Bogosian goes on waivers just over a week before the NHL trade deadline. He asked for a trade earlier this season.

The 29-year-old has been in and out of the lineup with hip injuries and has also sat as a healthy scratch. He missed the first 22 games of this season recovering from offseason hip surgery – his second in there years – and has been a healthy scratch in seven of Buffalo’s past eight games.

Bogosian counts $5.14 million against the salary cap in the final year of his contract.

He would be assigned to Rochester of the American Hockey League if he clears waivers and would still count $4.07 million against Buffalo’s cap.

Bogosian joined the Sabres in 2015 in a multiplayer trade with Winnipeg that was then-general manager Tim Murray’s attempt to rebuild the roster. The deal hasn’t panned out for Buffalo, which is now on its third coach and second GM and is in jeopardy of extending the NHL’s longest active playoff drought to nine years.

He has a goal and four assists in 19 games this season and 53 goals and 141 assists in 636 regular-season games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets and Sabres.

The Sabres then freed up another roster spot by assigning defenseman Lawrence Pilut to the minors. The two moves leave Buffalo with just six defensemen on its roster.

Buffalo is coming off a 4-3 overtime win over Columbus and off until hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night.