Zemgus Girgensons

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.”

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis rolls on for Blue Jackets; Matthews hits 40

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THREE STARS

1. Elvis Merzlikins, Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets rookie needed only 16 saves to record his second straight shutout in a 2-0 win over the Red Wings. He’s now undefeated in his last eight appearances, the longest win streak by a Blue Jackets rookie goaltender ever. Merzlikins also took over the NHL lead in shutouts with five. According to the NHL, only nine different rookie goaltenders in league history have picked up a win in nine-plus consecutive regular season appearances.

2. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs forward reached 40 goals for the second time in his career during a 5-4 overtime win over the Ducks. He also added three helpers, including one on John Tavares‘ winner. In tying his career high in goals, Matthews became the fifth player in franchise history to record multiple 40-goal seasons, joining the likes of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Rick Vaive, and Mats Sundin.

3. Joel Eriksson Ek, Wild

Down 2-0, the Wild staged a comeback and Eriksson Ek played hero by snapping a 2-2 tie with 25.7 seconds to go with his second of the game.

Devan Dubnyk was tremendous with 31 saves, including this late blocker stop on Radek Faksa:

PASSING PLAYS OF THE NIGHT

• Facing his former team, Jimmy Vesey made an impact during a 3-2 Sabres win over the Rangers. He scored what ended up as the game-winning goal and assisted on another. That assist kicked off a lovely sequence that was finished by Sam Reinhart:

Zach Werenski broke the franchise single-season record for goals by a defenseman with his 17th following this excellent set up:

STATS OF THE NIGHT

Zemgus Girgensons has five goals in eight games at Madison Square Garden since the start of the 2015-16 season. (Jourdon LaBarber)

SCORES
Sabres 3, Rangers 2
Maple Leafs 5, Ducks 4 (OT)
Blue Jackets 2, Red Wings 0
Wild 3, Stars 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL On NBCSN: How do the Sabres fix this?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is not where the Buffalo Sabres were supposed to be at this point.

Not at this point of the season, and certainly not at this point of their rebuild that started seven years ago.

The Sabres enter Thursday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and 12 points out of a playoff spot. They are on track to miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season (a nearly unprecedented run in NHL history) and there seems to be little short-or long-term hope for significant improvement.

They have lost four out of their past five games, and could be on the verge of losing even diehards like caller Duane.

How bleak has it been over the past decade? Since the start of the 2011-12 season they have not finished higher than 19th in the league standings, and have averaged a 25th place finish over an eight-year stretch. During that time they have never finished in the top-half of the league in goals scored or goals against, and very rarely crack the top-20. They are on their sixth different head coach during that run and their third general manager. The names and faces change from the locker room, to the bench, to the front office, but results on the ice remain almost exactly the same.

It is almost as if the Sabres are in need of a new rebuild from their most recent rebuild.

It also might be a necessity.

They have almost no long-term commitments (or commitments of any kind beyond this season) outside of their top couple of players (Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner), while they have seven pending unrestricted free agents after this season (Jimmy Vesey, Michael Frolik, Zach Bogosian, Conor Sheary, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Scott Wilson). There’s not really a compelling argument to re-sign any of them right now.

Before you even get in to improving the roster, they are simply going to need to to refill almost half of the roster just to put enough bodies on the bench next season. That’s not an easy short-term overhaul, and you also have to trust that you have the right decision-makers in place to do it.

The problem with hitting the reset button on the franchise (again) with yet another fresh start is that they can’t keep wasting the prime years of Eichel.

Eichel is a legitimate superstar talent. He is one of the league’s best players, a cornerstone player that you can build around, and in a better situation with better talent around him would be in the thick of the MVP discussion this season.

Next year is already going to be his sixth year in the league and his age 24 season. By this point in his career he should be the focal point of a Stanley Cup contender, not a team that needs to overhaul half of its roster and has yet to finish in the top half of the league.

The Sabres have so many holes to fill and so many needs to address in the short-term that it’s going to take nearly flawless roster decisions to make a significant short-term jump in the standings in the next year or two. Nothing in their roster decisions with the current management team suggest that is something that is likely, or even possible.

But they are also not in a position where they can start over from scratch because they run the risk of further alienating an already exhausted fan-base, and perhaps most importantly, the one building block player they still have.

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen hosts studio coverage on Thursday with Anson Carter and Colby Armstrong.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Another big night for Eichel; Neal’s bounce-back continues

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. Having lost nine of their previous 10 games the Buffalo Sabres desperately need to start stacking some wins together. They got a big one on Sunday when they crushed the Florida Panthers, 5-2, to snap what had been a three-game losing streak. Eichel was one of the big stars in this one as he finished with a goal and two assists in the win. He now has 12 points over his past six games.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings was a one-goal game until the final minute when they added an empty-net goal, but it was never really that close. Carolina was in control from the very beginning and ended up nearly doubling up the Red Wings on the shot chart, holding them to just 19 shots on goal for the game. Aho was the big star for the Hurricanes by scoring the game-winning goal and adding an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s empty-net goal. After a slow start that saw him record just one point in his first six games, Aho now has 19 points in the 17 games since.

3. James Neal, Edmonton Oilers. His bounce-back year continues. He scored his 14th goal of the season — and 10th on the power play — in the Oilers’ 4-3 shootout win over the Arizona Coyotes. Keep in mind this is the Oilers’ 26th game of the season. He scored seven goals in 63 games a year ago for the Calgary Flames before they traded him this offseason. No player on the Flames currently has more than 11 goals so far this season. Sunday’s win moved the Oilers into sole possession of first place in the Western Conference, moving them two points ahead of the St. Louis Blues.

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • James Reimer stopped all 19 shots he faced for the Hurricanes on Sunday to record first shutout of the season and his first as a member of the Hurricanes.
  • Zemgus Girgensons scored two goals for the Sabres in their win against Florida, while starting goalie Linus Ullmark stopped 43 out of 45 shots in net.
  • The Coyotes gained another point in the standings and defenseman Alex Goligoski played a big role in that with a three assist night.

Highlights of the Night

Eichel’s goal on Sunday was a great example of how he can make opposing defenders look silly and how quick his shot is.

Factoids

  • Andrei Svechnikov is the second teenager in Hurricanes/Whalers history to have a point streak of at least eight games, joining Ron Francis from the franchise’s Hartford days. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid‘s point streak reaches 11 games, making it the second longest streak of his career. He also scored the game-winning goal for the Oilers in the shootout. [NHL PR]
  • The Sabres’ win snapped a six-game losing streak in Florida against the Panthers. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 5, Florida Panthers 2
Carolina Hurricanes 2, Detroit Red Wings 0
Edmonton Oilers 4, Arizona Coyotes 3 (SO)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.