Wayne Simmonds

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.

Wild’s Dumba on Hockey Diversity Alliance, getting advice from Kaepernick

Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba appeared on “Lunch Talk Live” to discuss the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance. Dumba detailed much of the HDA’s aims to Mike Tirico, while also noting how Dumba and the rest of the alliance received advice from trailblazer Colin Kaepernick.

“Eradicating racism can’t be on the shoulders of seven guys,” Dumba told Tirico.

Indeed, shortly after the Hockey Diversity Alliance released its statement, people were throwing the net out wider.

From hearing Dumba’s account of a zoom call with Kaepernick, it sounds like the seven members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance were in awe of the former(?) NFL QB. While Dumba was vague about specific advice, he noted that Kaepernick emphasized unity, and finding the right ambassadors.

So far, those seven HDA ambassadors include: co-heads Akim Aliu and Evander Kane, along with executive committee members Dumba, Trevor Daley, Joel Ward, Wayne Simmonds and Chris Stewart.

Tirico also covered protests, particularly in the Minnesota communities that serve as a second home for Dumba. Dumba said he wishes he could be there to lend his support; in the meantime, Dumba praised J.T. Brown for helping others in the community.

Dumba noted that more Hockey Diversity Alliance announcements could come soon, so that’s exciting.

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.

Aliu, Kane form Hockey Diversity Alliance ‘to eradicate racism and intolerance’

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A group of seven active and former NHL players announced the formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) on Monday. Akim Aliu and Evander Kane will serve as co-heads of an executive committee that also includes Trevor Daley, Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward.

“Our mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” The Hockey Diversity Alliance wrote in their press release. “We will strive to be a force of positive change not only within our game of hockey, but also within society. Although we will be independent of the NHL, we are hopeful that we will work productively with the league to accomplish these important changes. We believe in the importance of accountability in developing inclusivity and diversity for all involved in our sport, including fans and the league office.”

Check out the release here.

(If you want the full text of the release, scroll to the bottom of this post.)

Promising goals, and maybe even more potential in the future?

Along with mapping out a broader goal of addressing racism in hockey (and society), the Hockey Diversity Alliance also shared goals about making the sport more accessible. Considering the costs of playing hockey at most levels, this is pretty exciting. The HDIA noted that they have a “charitable fiscal sponsor” to help boost such efforts.

Speaking of broader goals, it would be delightful to see the Hockey Diversity Alliance cover many groups. And it sounds like early steps are being taken to include women:

Truly spreading the “Hockey is for Everyone” message would be tremendous. Ideally, the sport will also become more inclusive for the LGBTQ2+ community, among others.

NHL executive Kim Davis and NHLPA head Donald Fehr already ranked among those who expressed pride in NHL players speaking up about racism following George Floyd’s tragic death. Seeing Aliu, Kane, Daley, Dumba, Simmonds, Stewart, and Ward form the HDA should only further such feelings.

As promising as it is to picture how far this could go, it seems like the Hockey Diversity Alliance is already off to a promising start.

Full text of Hockey Diversity Alliance release:

Here it is, in full:

We love our sport. We believe that hockey is the greatest game in the world.

As minorities who play professional hockey, we have come together to create the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA). We have appointed Akim Aliu and Evander Kane as co-heads and our executive committee includes Trevor Daley, Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Chris Stewart, and Joel Ward.

Our mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey. We will strive to be a force of positive change not only within our game of hockey, but also within society. Although we will be independent of the NHL, we are hopeful that we will work productively with the league to accomplish these important changes. We believe in the importance of accountability in developing inclusivity and diversity for all involved in our sport, including fans and the league office.

We will promote diversity at all levels of the game through community outreach and engagement with you and will endeavor to make the game more affordable and accessible. We will also focus on educating the hockey community about the racism issues confronting the sport, while advocating for acceptance and equality. We have partnered with a charitable fiscal sponsor and we will be launching a charitable division in the coming weeks to assist us in achieving our objectives.

In creating our alliance, we are confident we can inspire a new generation of hockey players and fans. We are hopeful that anyone who puts on skates or sits in the stands will do so without worrying about race, gender or socioeconomic background (and) will be able to express their culture, identity, values and personality without fear of retribution.

We are united in our efforts and promise to work tirelessly to bring about the change our sport and society needs.

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.

New Jersey Devils: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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 surprises and disappointments for the New Jersey Devils .

P.K. Subban‘s tough season

The addition of Subban (via trade with the Nashville Predators) was one of the highlights of the Devils’ offseason. He is a big name, a superstar player, and even if he was starting to hit the downside of his career he was still an impact player as recently as last season.

Add in the fact he fit a huge need (a top-pairing defender) and that Devils gave up almost nothing of significance to get him, it seemed like a no-brainer move.

It just did not work out.

At least not for this season.

In his first year with the Devils Subban struggled through what is certainly the worst single-season performance of his career. Everything across the board for him is not only down, but is also pretty much at a career-low for him. A lot of things backfired for the Devils this season and did not go as planned, and Subban’s year is at the top of that list.

He is still signed for two more seasons at a salary cap hit of $9 million per season.

Nikita Gusev was exactly what they hoped he would be

This was the one big offseason move that worked as they hoped it would.

The Devils acquired Gusev as a restricted free agent from the Vegas Golden Knights and hoped he could provide some much-needed skill and production to their forward group. And he has.

At the time of the NHL’s pause Gusev is the Devils’ second-leading scorer (just one point back of Kyle Palmieri) and has already proven to be an outstanding playmaker.

Of the 334 forwards that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Gusev is 20th in the league in assists per 60 minutes (1.66) and sixth in the league in primary assists per 60 minutes (1.32). He has not only been the Devils’ best playmaker this season, he has been one of the best playmakers in the entire league. He only cost a couple of mid-round draft picks to acquire and has a very manageable $4.5 million salary cap hit through next season.

The end of the very brief Taylor Hall era

There were a lot of reasons for optimism this season for the Devils, from the drafting of Jack Hughes with the top pick, to the offseason additions of Subban, Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds. But one of the biggest reasons was the hopeful return of a healthy Taylor Hall.

Two years ago he was the league MVP and helped single-handedly carry the Devils to a playoff spot.

A year ago his season was decimated by injury, limiting him to just 33 games and the Devils just didn’t have the depth to overcome that.

Getting him back, plus all of the offseason additions, seemed as if it could have helped fix that.

It didn’t.

The Devils didn’t do enough to solve their goaltending issues, Subban had a down year, Hughes struggled through some rookie growing pains, and the team itself just wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was expected to be. Their dismal start — driven by an inability to hold onto multi-goal leads early in the year — put them in a position where they had to make a decision on Hall. From the very beginning of the season there was uncertainty about his future with the team given his contract status as an unrestricted free agent after this season. The decision was eventually made to trade him to Arizona in December, igniting an in-season fire sale that also saw Andy Greene, Blake Coleman, and Simmonds all be sent elsewhere.

Hall ended up spending three-and-a-half years in New Jersey, and while he lived up to expectations the Devils were never able to consistently build something around him.

Cory Schneider‘s strong finish

It is not much, but it is worth at least mentioning the way Schneider returned to the Devils’ lineup in February and put together what was probably his best four-game stretch in years.

At his peak Schneider was one of the NHL’s best goalies and one of the most overlooked top-tier players. But things had started to fall apart for him the past couple of years.

The way he finished the season after returning to the lineup was a brief reminder of what he once was and a small bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Devils.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils
What is the Devils’ long-term outlook?

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.

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.