Ralph Krueger

Can Kevyn Adams overcome inexperience to succeed as Sabres GM?

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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.

To be frank, it’s difficult to guess what kind of vision Adams has as GM. In a lengthy discussion with The Athletic’s Tim Graham (sub required), Adams emphasized communication. And, yes, the word “efficient” went around a lot.

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.

The Athletic’s John Vogl captures how scorched-earth the Sabres “barren” system currently looks (sub required), illustrated quickest in his tweet:

Yikes.

It’s not particularly promising that Adams doesn’t just qualify as inexperienced as a GM. He hasn’t served as an assistant GM, either. He was just promoted to vice president of business administration in September.

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

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

MORE ON ADAMS, 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.

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.

Carter Hutton opens up about vision issues, tough Sabres season

Carter Hutton didn’t want to use his vision issues as an excuse for a rough season with the Sabres. Hutton opened up to the Buffalo News’ Lance Lysowski about his struggles with convergence insufficiency, and it’s a fascinating read.

Essentially, Hutton struggled to track pucks thanks to his left eye moving slower than his right. After receiving advice from the Sabres’ staff, Hutton sought out specialists and started to feel back on track by January.

“[Therapy] became part of my daily routine,” Hutton said. “I would do a ton of different eye training and things to get better at that. In the moment it was obviously tough. Now, moving forward, I learned a lot of skills to help improve that area and make my eye strength better and work on stuff. We weren’t sure what it was. It was something I managed throughout the season.”

Interestingly, Hutton told Lysowski that he started to feel back to normal during a tough Jan. 11 outing against the Canucks. (Sometimes results and feelings don’t always match up, huh?)

Hutton cannot pin all struggles on vision problems, but …

Now, Hutton himself didn’t chalk up all of his struggles to vision issues.

Even if you jump past some very difficult months, Hutton merely managed a 6-8-0 record and mediocre .901 save percentage starting with that Canucks loss.

That said, it will be interesting to see how Hutton performs if he puts his vision challenges behind him. Now, sure, the “struggling player will turn things around” story is a trope; we’re merely seeing it drop at a different time because of the pandemic interruption.

Consider this a story to watch heading into 2020-21 nonetheless.

More evidence that NHL teams need to manage goalie fatigue

Broadly speaking, I’ve often wondered: how many NHL players could benefit from, say, LASIK corrective vision surgery? Smart teams turn over every stone to try to get an edge, and there might be jelly in that donut. Incremental improvements can mean quite a bit in hockey.

Hutton’s vision struggles are also a reminder of how things can fall apart rapidly for goalies, in particular. It’s plausible that Hutton became so preoccupied with his vision that other parts of his game faltered. Or, really, when you really struggle (Hutton suffered through a personal 13-game losing streak), then sometimes you feel pressured to do too much.

It’s another testament to managing the person, not just the goalie. And maybe most importantly, managing that person’s workload.

Consider factors that increase the likelihood of developing convergence insufficiency, via Cedars Sinai:

You are mostly likely to notice symptoms of CI when you do close visual work, such as reading. Symptoms are even more likely if you do this for a long period of time. Extreme tiredness (fatigue) also can bring on symptoms.

Sounds like something a goalie might be at risk for, eh? (And also, gulp, bloggers.)

Really, one cannot help but wonder if goalies silently deal with similar vision or eye problems.

We’ve certainly learned of goalies acknowledging the strain that comes with the position, especially when facing bigger workloads. Lightning star Andrei Vasilevskiy admitted he was feeling tired when he made the jump to No. 1 in 2017-18. During the same season, Capitals workhorse Braden Holtby mentioned that his fatigue issues were mental, rather than physical.

Too much time for Hutton to resolve vision and other issues, or just right?

For better and worse, Hutton will get a long break from NHL hockey. As you likely know, it’s possible that the 2020-21 season may begin in December, or possibly even later.

By then, Hutton may be long beyond any vision issue. Even so, he’ll likely need to shake off any rust.

It should also be interesting to compare and contrast Hutton with a goalie who might go the distance during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the break between the end of 2019-20 and the beginning of 2020-21 is compressed as some expect, will Hutton and a few others gain a big edge?

After all, Hutton showed some serious promise as at least a platoon goalie during his time with the Blues. Hutton has one year left on his current contract, so the Sabres have incentive to figure out the best scenario. (Or, you know, maybe they’d trade Hutton?)

Overall, Hutton’s future and how goalies might be affected by all of this turbulence ends up being a lot to take in. You know, sort of like trying to keep track of an extremely fast-moving piece of vulcanized rubber.

MORE: Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: If NHL returns, could games take place in … North Dakota?

NHL 2019-20 North Dakota
Getty Images
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Elliotte Friedman details North Dakota as a possible host city in potential season resumption scenarios. Friedman notes that Ralph Engelstad Arena might work, in part because of the state’s low population density. The NHL should consider Engelstad’s controversies if they go probe deeper on a North Dakota plan, though. (Sportsnet)

• Bruce Garrioch expands on some of the issues the NHL and NHLPA are facing, stemming in part from Gary Bettman’s weekly conference call with the Board of Governors. Garrioch provides some interesting details about how players might try to limit the damage from big escrow challenges, and other issues that need to be cleared up. (Ottawa Sun)

• In the latest edition of his The Color of Hockey feature, William Douglas explores how Hockey Is For Everyone programs are helping rinks and schools adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. (NHL.com)

• Travis Yost analyzes the continued decline of “workhorse” goalies in the NHL. Yost shares some fascinating stats, including that Connor Hellebuyck and Carey Price are the only goalies to start 75 percent (or more) of their teams’ games in 2019-20. Could these trends eventually push No. 1 goalie salaries down, and backups’ cap hits up? Certainly plausible, and possibly more sensible than putting all your eggs in one goalie-shaped basket. (TSN)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger believes that Rasmus Dahlin‘s defensive game keeps going “up a notch.” Frankly, I’d argue that Dahlin’s ice time needs to go up multiple notches. After averaging 21:09 TOI per game as a rookie, Dahlin’s down by almost two minutes this season (19:18). While that climbed a bit toward the end of 2019-20, it’s baffling that Krueger hesitates to send Dahlin out on the ice at least as much as Dahlin was out there in 2018-19. Maybe such rave reviews will translate to more reps in year three? (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• You might say that I accused Krueger of under-coaching in the tidbit above. Barry Trotz, meanwhile, wonders if he over-coached his Islanders at times this season. (Newsday)

• John Barr compares 2019-20 attendance numbers to what we saw in previous seasons. Plenty of interesting graphs and charts to chew on if you’re interested in sellouts and other figures. (NHL to Seattle)

Connor McDavid and Gary Roberts teamed up for a video series to try to help kids find creative ways to stay fit indoors. Good stuff from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. (ESPN)

• Ranking the Nashville Predators’ jersey designs, from worst to best. Yes, mustard ranked low on the list. (Hockey By Design)

• Binging TV shows during the pause? Milan Lucic will provide staunch competition. He consumed Game of Thrones in just 19 days. That’s 73 episodes, and that wasn’t a 22-minute sitcom … although the travel logic of the latter episodes might’ve deserved a laugh track. (TSN)

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.