Brandon Montour

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.

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.

Buffalo Sabres: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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’ Brandon Montour out rest of preseason with hand injury

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 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]

Loading up on the right

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.