Colin Miller

Previewing the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

The Golden Knights cringed under a cap crunch during this offseason, losing intriguing KHL import Nikita Gusev, valuable scorer Erik Haula, and underrated defenseman Colin Miller while getting table scraps in return.

Luckily, the Golden Knights have been feasting lately, as Mark Stone is really only getting started after being a late addition around the 2018-19 trade deadline.

Strengths: The Golden Knights’ forward group is remarkable. Stone basically elevates Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to the equivalent of a top line, and Vegas already had one (or, at worst, a strong “1B”) in Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also have a top-six-quality winger in Alex Tuch if someone goes cold or gets hurt. Few teams can match that group, and it remains resounding that Vegas built this group up so quickly.

Bonus points if Cody Glass ends up making the team and getting meaningful minutes.

When he’s hot, Marc-Andre Fleury can still steal games for his team.

Weaknesses: It sure feels like the Golden Knights are rolling the dice a bit in net, though. Fleury turns 35 on Nov. 28, and their backup options leave a lot to be desired. That netminder situation sometimes resembles a wobbly Jenga tower.

While I like Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, and believe the latter may have “another gear,” it’s fair to wonder if the Golden Knights’ defense is a stride or two behind the NHL’s best. They’ve done well to craft a pretty good defense in a short time, but that group isn’t as impressive as their forwards.

Gerard Gallant has made some magic, but like with any NHL head coach, he has his quirks. If he indulges in leaning too much on Fleury, Ryan Reaves, and Deryk Engelland, it could be to the Golden Knights’ detriment.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Gallant won the Jack Adams in 2017-18, and has managed to bring Vegas to two playoff berths in as many seasons. About the only glaring criticism you can muster (beyond those smaller aforementioned quirks) is that maybe — just maybe — Gallant could have done more to settle his team down after Cody Eakin drew that notorious major penalty in Game 7 against the Sharks.

Overall, Gallant is pretty safe, although the Golden Knights aren’t shy about spending, so they expect to be a contender. Let’s put Gallant at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Theodore, Glass, and Stone.

Theodore had a cancer scare a few months ago, and thankfully, it sounds like he took care of that matter. Here’s hoping that he’s 100 percent to start the season, because he’s a blast to watch.

Glass is intriguing as a prospect who could, ideally, give Vegas another weapon — if he makes the team.

After a tumultuous final season with the Senators and trade to Vegas, Stone gets to settle in. This could be a good time for those in the hockey world who didn’t already know it to clue into something: he’s probably even better than he’s hyped up to be.

Playoffs or Lottery: With a weak Pacific Division in mind, the Golden Knights should be focused on winning a Stanley Cup, not merely making the playoffs.

It’s strange to say this so early in the team’s existence, but a trip to the lottery would be as disastrous as owing an old mob casino a bunch of money.

MORE:

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 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.