Linus Ullmark

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.

Sabres goalie Ullmark out 3-4 weeks; Johansson promoted

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres starting goalie Linus Ullmark will miss between three and four weeks with an injury to his right leg.

The team issued the update without revealing the nature of the injury Wednesday, a day after Ullmark was hurt in a 5-2 loss to Ottawa.

Ullmark was untouched in his crease while tracking Ottawa forward Artem Anisimov circling the net. Ullmark’s left skate slipped out from under him, and he fell back with his right leg bent under him.

He was unable to put any weight on his right leg while being helped off the ice with 9:32 remaining in the third period and after stopping 30 of 33 shots. Ullmark has a 16-14-3 record and has held the starting role since mid-November after spending the first six weeks of the season splitting the duties with Carter Hutton.

Hutton won his first six starts before going into a extended slump. He’s gone 0-7-4 in his past 11 games, with his last victory a 25-save performance in a 4-3 overtime win over San Jose on Oct. 22.

Buffalo promoted goalie Jonas Johansson from Rochester, its American Hockey League affiliate.

Johansson, who has yet to appear in an NHL game, has a 13-3-3 record this season. He ranks third in the AHL with a 2.19 goals-against average and fifth with a 0.925 save percentage.

The Sabres are in the midst of playing nine of 10 games at home and host Montreal on Thursday.

The Buzzer: Rough night for rougher teams

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Three Stars

1. Assorted Buffalo Sabres

Look, when you beat a team 7-1, you’re probably going to have at least a few standouts, and your top Sabres star probably boils down to taste.

Johan Larsson is a good player to start with. His three assists happened during Buffalo’s five-goal opening period, one that really made the Devils’ dire situation extra-glaringly-clear. Jack Eichel did what he does, which is score a lot, extending his point streak to 10 games with one goal and two assists.

To be fair to the Devils, they at least tried to make the score more respectable. They fired 45 shots on goal, including 39 during the second and third period, to try to get in the game. Linus Ullmark wasn’t interested in helping New Jersey save face, however, as he stopped all but one of those 45 SOG.

2. Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

Could we be seeing a mini-renaissance for a goalie who’s been left in the dust by Jordan Binnington?

Allen was arguably the first star of Monday night, making 38 saves for his first shutout of 2019-20, including 17 in the third period to cement that goose egg.

While it’s a small sample size, Allen has been heating up after two rocky appearances in October. Allen generated a strong .934 save percentage during five appearances in November, and began December with this shutout. Again, it’s not exactly a lengthy run of elite puck-stopping, yet if Allen can maintain a decent level of play, the Blues can at least keep Binnington reasonably rested as they try to defend that first-ever Stanley Cup title.

Semyon Varlamov is a decent option as another goalie as he made 30 out of 31 stops as the Islanders got back on the winning track against the very-much-not-winning Red Wings.

3. Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks

It’s unclear if Lindholm will find the game that made him an under-the-radar elite defensive presence from 2015-16 to 2017-18, only to drop off significantly in 2018-19. But he at least enjoyed a nice game on Monday.

Lindholm collected three assists against the Kings, ending a seven-game pointless streak. The last time he collected a point? Why, that was … another three-assist night, in that case against the Avalanche on Oct. 26. Lindholm now has 12 points (all assists) in 20 games in 2019-20.

Stephenson is Vegas-bound

The Washington Capitals traded Chandler Stephenson to the Vegas Golden Knights (and George McPhee) for a fifth-round pick in 2021.

Tough to say that Stephenson is a huge loss, judging by both his modest scoring numbers, workmanlike other stats, and his RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey. But he might at least give Vegas a decent option to soak up penalty kill minutes and other unglamorous roles.

Highlight of the Night

Kings forward Nikolai Prokhorkin sliced through the Ducks defense like a hot fork knife through butter.

Lowlight

Ouch, Louis Domingue.

Factoids

  • Jake Allen joins Brian Elliott (25) and Jaroslav Halak (20) as the only three Blues goalies with 20 career shutouts, according to NHL PR. Binnington is at six in his regular season career, in case you were wondering.
  • NHL PR points out that Jack Eichel (four assists on March 21, 2018) is the only Sabres player with more assists in a single period than the three Larsson collected in the opening frame on Monday.
  • The Devils have lost their last two games by a combined score of 11-1. The Sabres scored three goals before New Jersey even registered its first shot on goal in Monday’s 7-1 drubbing.
  • The Red Wings have now lost 10 games in a row, and have allowed the most goals in the league with 118. No one else has reached 100 goals allowed yet this season (Montreal’s second-worst with 95).
  • As rough as the Rangers’ underlying numbers have been, they were putting together some decent stretches. Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Golden Knights ended a five-game point streak where the Rangers went 4-0-1.

Scores

BUF 7 – NJD 1
VGK 4 – NYR 1
NYI 4 – DET 1
STL 4 – CHI 0
ANA 4 – LAK 2

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.

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.