Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap
• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]
• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]
• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]
• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]
• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]
Other hockey links
• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]
• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]
• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]
• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]
• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]
Fair or not, it’s difficult to avoid the “inexperience” question regarding the Sabres handing the GM keys to Kevyn Adams.
Keith Jones, Patrick Sharp, and Liam McHugh discussed that subject, along with other Sabres issues, in the latest edition of “Our Line Starts.” While Sharp provided some glowing words for Adams, and Jones expressed optimism about holdover head coach Ralph Krueger, the larger Sabres picture is unsettling.
You can watch and listen to the full “Our Line Starts” podcast in the video above. The episode is also included at the bottom of this post. Here’s the specific clip discussing Adams and the inexperience issue:
Sabres present a colossal challenge for GM Adams, even ignoring inexperience
It’s amusing that Kim and Terry Pegula leaning on “E” buzzwords, especially efficiency, in making this change, being that they’re going with a third inexperienced GM in a row.
Let’s be honest, if there’s an “E” you’d use to describe this Sabres era, it would be “erratic.”
Adams represents the fourth GM the Sabres hired since the Pegulas came into the picture in 2013. Ralph Krueger ranks as their sixth head coach. Both Tim Murray and now Jason Botterill only received three years to make their marks as Sabres GMs.
But there weren’t a lot of specifics. Just about every team claims that they want to emphasize speed and character, two things Adams did key on.
Adams did indicate that he’ll be working closely with Krueger. There can be some drawbacks to coaches having a lot of say in personnel matters, but considering how disjointed the Sabres are right now, having two top front office members on the same page is a plus.
(Yes, the Sabres are absolutely dealing in small victories right now. That’s what happens when you’re rudderless amid a nine-year playoff drought.)
Can Adams rebuild — not just the roster, but also the front office?
Botterill getting fired and replaced with Adams grabs the headlines. Yet, the Sabres absolutely dismantled their staff, almost top to bottom.
To be fair, many of us roll our eyes at NHL teams constantly hiring “retreads.”
Still, this situation makes you wonder if it’s really ideal for a novice. Sabres fans aren’t exactly overflowing with patience right now. Neither is superstar Jack Eichel.
Adams isn’t merely being asked to unearth prospects, or clean up the salary cap. While the Sabres’ messaging hinges on “doing more with less,” they’ll need to restock their front office — at least eventually.
Frankly, I view going short-staffed as short-sighted, at least in the longer term. It’s easy to look at a large staff as bloated. However, a savvy team can save millions merely by investing in an analytics staff that would tell people “No.”
Could a larger analytics emphasis have averted disastrous free agent signings over the years? Possibly. Maybe they could have salvaged more from trading Ryan O'Reilly, if that was unavoidable? It’s pretty easy to see how relatively cheap staff members could save teams millions.
The Sabres do still employ an analytics director (Jason Nightingale), but that doesn’t mean it’s an area of emphasis. I personally believe that is where a team can be more “efficient” than old-school, bigger spending teams.
Sabres at least have time to search for answers
Overall, there are a lot of troubling signs for the Sabres, with the inexperience of Kevyn Adams merely being one of them.
That said, it’s crucial to remember that the Sabres will probably look quite different whenever the 2020-21 season kicks into gear. (Or, gulp, 2021-22? Just 2021, then 2022? We live in uncertain times.)
The key is for important people, particularly the Pegulas, to learn from mistakes. Not even going through a GM search ranks as yet another troubling sign, but maybe inexperience won’t matter as much as some think regarding Adams?
It will be fascinating, and maybe a little frightening, to watch it all play out. Speaking of playing out, enjoy the latest episode of “Our Line Starts” below.
Start-12:45 Breaking down the front office overhaul in Buffalo 12:45-16:35 What will life in the “bubble” be like? 19:10-22:50 Discussion on potential hub cities as the official announcement nears 22:50-34:30 Handicapping some of the major awards
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.
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.
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.
So much for that vote of confidence from late May. The Buffalo Sabres announced that they fired Jason Botterill on Tuesday, while also naming Kevyn Adams as their new GM.
Kim and Terry Pegula noted that, after “candid discussions” with Botterill, they determined that the sides had “philosophical differences” about how to run the Sabres.
“This morning, we informed Jason Botterill he will no longer be the General Manager of the Sabres,” Kim and Terry Pegula said in that statement. “This decision was made after many candid discussions with Jason during a full review of our hockey operation. We recognized we have philosophical differences regarding how best to put ourselves in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup. So, we decided to make this change.”
Interestingly, the Sabres did not seem to attach an “interim” title to Adams as GM.
“New General Manager Kevyn Adams and Head Coach Ralph Krueger already have a close working relationship and we are excited to see what they can do together as we re-configure our hockey operations,” The Pegulas said. “We have the benefit of this long 2020 pause to take time to reorganize and re-energize our hockey department. We recognize the importance of this offseason with so many player decisions to be made.”
Botterill gives way to Adams after about three years
The Sabres hired Botterill as their eighth GM in May 2017. That gave Botterill enough time to scramble and conduct Buffalo’s 2017 draft, including choosing Casey Mittelstadt eighth overall. (Mittelstadt represents the second debatable eighth overall pick in a row for Buffalo, as the Sabres chose Alex Nylander in that spot the year before.)
Much like Botterill, Phil Housley carried a pretty high league-wide perception into his job as Sabres head coach. To put things mildly, both Botterill and Housley saw such reputations plummet. Botterill stayed on long enough to see Ralph Krueger coach the Sabres for one season, but that’s it.
Generally speaking, Botterill avoided huge free agent moves during his tenure, which seemed wise considering some of Buffalo’s biggest blunders.
Many of his biggest splashes came via trades. While acquiring Jeff Skinner was a big win, Skinner’s pricey extension negated most of that goodwill.
Will the revolving door stop for Buffalo?
The Sabres only managed marginal improvements in defense, goaltending, and depth scoring under Botterill. Despite changing GMs and coaches, the tune seems the same: the Sabres failed to surround Jack Eichel (and now Rasmus Dahlin, too) with much support.
Sabres fans get the change that some desired, at least at GM. You can’t “fire the owners,” so to speak, so plenty of people will grumble at decisions. We’ve seen plenty of examples of “re-arranging the deckchairs” on this sinking Sabres ship, too.
Probably worth mentioning that the contract of former Sabres GM Tim Murray expires in two weeks. He has still been on the Sabres books until June 30.
Will Adams find any more luck and success as GM than Botterill did? It won’t be easy. And Sabres fans might not be inclined to give Adams too much leeway.
UPDATE: The organizational changes continued Tuesday afternoon:
The @BuffaloSabres announced today that General Manager Randy Sexton, Head Coach Chris Taylor and Assistant Coaches Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen have all been relieved of their duties. pic.twitter.com/G0hUY5gdzZ
Both Rolston and Sacco have history together as they were assistants under Scott Gordon for Team USA during the 2010 World Championships. Sacco coached Team USA to the bronze medal at this year’s Championships.
Sacco was fired as head coach of the Avalanche following yet another disappointing season this year. He’ll join Teppo Numminen on Rolston’s coaching staff. Numminen was the only holdover from Lindy Ruff’s tenure in Buffalo.