Jack Eichel

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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.

Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

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.

Is Jeff Skinner worth $9M to Sabres?

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Is Jeff Skinner worth an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit between $8.5 million and $9.5 million?

That’s the “sweet spot” Bob McKenzie identified for the 27-year-old winger and the Buffalo Sabres during an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday (the Skinner-related details kick in a bit after the 4:45 mark of the video above).

McKenzie indicates that negotiations have picked up recently with the NHL Scouting Combine taking place in Buffalo. While he says there’s “optimism” that a deal can be done, going as far as to indicate that it’s “very close,” McKenzie also emphasizes that it also could fall through. McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger also noted that mix of hesitation and optimism during a WGR 550 radio appearance on Friday.

So, to summarize, a deal around $9M per year, for eight years, could end up happening — maybe.

Is this a wise idea for the Sabres? Let’s consider the details surrounding this situation.

Why $9M+ might be a bit much

Back in March, The Athletic’s John Vogl made in-depth comparisons between Skinner and some peers (sub required), with the resulting impression being that an $8M cap hit would be closer to Skinner’s true value than, say, the $9.6M that fellow, similarly-aged winger Mark Stone received from the Vegas Golden Knights.

A lot of that is fair.

Yes, Skinner scored 40 goals in 2018-19, but he still only matched his career-high for points with 63. While Skinner’s tilted the ice in his team’s favor for most (if not all) of his career, he’s not a perennial Selke candidate in the making like Stone, either.

None of this is to denigrate Skinner. He’s really, really good, and will justifiably be raking it in. It’s just fair to note that the Sabres might grimace a bit at his rate, particularly since they’re already paying Jack Eichel $10M per season. The more pertinent thought could be that the Sabres have been burned by risking contracts before, including Kyle Okposo, who’s limited at 31 and will carry a $6M cap hit through 2022-23.

So, sure, there are some arguments for why a new Skinner contract could cause some indigestion, especially since one with an eight-year term would likely get highly challenging as it goes along, since many snipers hit the wall hard around the time they turn 30.

Supply and demand

Honestly, though, the Sabres need this.

This is a mess of a franchise whose troubles sapped Ryan O'Reilly‘s joy of the sport, and that was one failed season ago. The Sabres have burned through dicey contracts and ripped through coaches at a troubling rate. Even if they re-sign Skinner, Buffalo faces a steep uphill battle to end a postseason drought that stretches back to 2011-12, to say nothing of winning their first series since 2006-07.

Just consider how dramatic the drop-off is from Skinner, Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and a select few others when it comes to metrics like Goals Above Replacement (visualization by Sean Tierney, data via Evolving Hockey).

Not ideal, right?

Whether you look at deeper stats or simple box scores, it’s clear that the Sabres need to add players, not subtract the likes of Skinner.

While there are some other decent players readying to hit free agency, particularly if you believe that we’re finally going to hit the Age of the Offer Sheet, there aren’t a ton of better bets than Skinner. If anything, the Sabres should cross their fingers that they can add Skinner and another needle-mover, whether it be a defenseman like Erik Karlsson or (more likely) a forward such as Matt Duchene.

Cap Friendly estimates that Buffalo’s cap space hovers at about $29.4M allocated to 15 players, so Buffalo would likely have about $20M to work with if they signed Skinner.

This is a pretty straightforward situation: the Sabres badly need talent, and their fans sorely need some bright sides to look on. While, yes, a Skinner contract would cause some to worry about worst-case scenarios (particularly those who remember his early-career struggles with concussions), it’s reasonable to assume that far more Sabres fans would be deeply saddened if Skinner walked away instead.

A nice situation for Skinner

It’s crucial for Skinner to like Buffalo and to believe that the team has at least a shot at being competitive.

If those boxes are checked off, then sticking with the Sabres makes a lot of sense for Skinner. To start, Buffalo can offer the max term of eight years, while he’d only be able to land a seven-year contract if he waited until July.

Skinner also showed great chemistry with Eichel, and he’d know that he’d be a BMOC of sorts, getting top minutes and playing a go-to role. Skinner’s 18:31 TOI per game from 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career, and 2012-13 was the last Hurricanes season where he averaged 18+ minutes per night.

McKenzie reports that new Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger pitched Skinner on his system producing better results. In the event that Skinner views Buffalo as having a reasonable chance to compete, then there’s a lot to like for his side of the deal.

***

If you look at Skinner potentially making $9M+ per year, you can tie yourself into knots comparing that would-be contract to Sidney Crosby getting $8.7M AAV, Nikita Kucherov getting $9.5M per year at age 25, and so on. And, yes, that potential price tag is steep for Skinner, especially since an eight-year deal would stretch to age 34.

But when you zoom out and consider the changing market around Skinner, and the sense of urgency – if not outright anxiety – surrounding the Sabres, this potential deal starts to look pretty logical for Buffalo.

It’s risky, yet if you want to get better in sports, you often need to make calculated risks. Do you think this would be the right call for the Sabres overall?

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.

U.S. tops Germans 3-1 for 5th win in row at world championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Dylan Larkin scored midway through the third period to help the United States beat Germany 3-1 Sunday at the world championships.

Alec Martinez had two assists for the U.S., and Cory Schneider stopped 24 shots. Jack Eichel made it 3-1 late in the third.

Frederik Tiffels put Germany in front midway through the first period, and James van Riemsdyk tied it for the Americans less than two minutes later.

The U.S. has won five straight games in Group A since opening with a 4-1 loss to the host Slovaks.

”This is a hard tournament, harder than I think people realize,” U.S. coach Jeff Blashill said. ”We got some real strong performances from guys like (Ryan) Suter, Martinez, Larkin and van Riemsdyk, but I thought Jack Eichel really raised his game and played like he wasn’t going to be denied.”

The U.S. closes the preliminary round Tuesday against rival Canada, and the quarterfinals begin Thursday.

The Americans trail group-leading Finland, which blanked France 3-0 with a goal in each period and Kevin Lankinen’s strong play in net.

Michael Frolik scored to help the Czech Republic beat winless Austria 8-0 in Bratislava in Group B. In the same group, Nikita Kucherov scored twice and Russia beat Switzerland 3-0 to stay undefeated.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sabres captain Eichel disagrees with NHL’s two-game suspension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel disputes the NHL’s decision to suspend him for two games for an illegal check to the head of Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche.

Eichel was suspended Sunday following a hearing with the league’s department of player safety.

He blamed Soderberg for lowering his head while the two raced for a loose puck along the boards during Colorado’s 3-0 victory Saturday. He said Soderberg was reaching for the puck and that his head hit Eichel’s back.

The NHL ruled Eichel was to blame because Soderberg didn’t change the direction he was heading, while Eichel cut sharply in front of Soderberg to initiate contact.

Eichel was penalized for an illegal hit. The suspension will cost him more than $107,500 in lost salary.

Alexander Nylander is expected to replace Eichel in the lineup after the 2016 first-round draft pick was called up from the minors.