Zach Bogosian

Getty Images

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

4 Comments

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]

Loading up on the right

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.

Why rebuilding teams should trade for players like Marleau

4 Comments

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, and others have discussed an intriguing possibility that the Los Angeles Kings might trade for Patrick Marleau from the cap-strapped Toronto Maple Leafs.

On its face, that seems like an ill-advised trade. Why would the already-old-as-dirt, expensive Kings seek out a near-40-year-old who carries a bloated $6.25 million cap hit?

Yet, in the cap era, it’s a deal that could make a ton of sense for both sides, if the right deal could be hashed out.

The Kings should go even bolder

While LeBrun discusses the Kings wanting to get rid of a different, cheaper problem contract to make the Marleau trade work (sub required), the real goal should be for both teams to acknowledge their situations. The Maple Leafs needs cap space; the Kings need to build up their farm system with picks and prospects.

Instead of trying to move, say, Dustin Brown or Ilya Kovalchuk, the Kings should instead find as creative ways as possible to bulk up on futures, while accepting the (admittedly grim) reality that they’ll suffer through 2019-20, if not 2020-21 and beyond.

In fact, if I were Kings GM Rob Blake, I’d pitch sending over Alec Martinez for Marleau, with the goal of really making it costly for the Maple Leafs. Imagine how appealing it would be for the Maple Leafs to move out Marleau’s contract and improve their defense, and imagine how much more of a ransom the Kings could demand if they’re absorbing all the immediate “losses” in such a trade? Could Los Angeles land yet another Maple Leafs first-rounder, say in 2020 or even 2021? Could such a deal be sweetened with, say, the rights to Andreas Johansson?

That trade might not work, but it’s a blueprint

The Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott believes that a deal probably won’t actually work out, and that’s understandable. There are a lot of ins and outs to a would-be trade that could send Marleau to L.A., particularly since Marleau would need to waive his no-trade clause to complete a trade.

But, really, this is just one example.

Rebuilding teams should apply similar logic to any number of other situations, while contenders can be forgiven for thinking more short-term.

Of course, a rebuilding team would also need to embrace the rebuilding reality, and not every team is past the denial stage.

Potential rebuilding teams

The Kings are in a decent position to absorb a tough year or two, what with being not that far removed from two Stanley Cup wins. The Ottawa Senators have already prepared fans for a rebuild, although they also need to avoid making things too brutal after an agonizing year. The Detroit Red Wings could be less resistant to rebuilding under Steve Yzerman than Ken Holland. Other teams should probably at least consider a short pulling off of the Band-Aid, too, with the Anaheim Ducks coming to mind.

What are some of the problem contracts that could be moved? Glad you (may have) asked.

Also, quick note: these mentions are based on my perception of the relative value of players, not necessarily how their teams view them.

Marleau-likes (challenging contracts ending after 2019-20)

  • Again, Marleau is about to turn 40, and his cap hit is $6.25M. His actual salary is just $4.25M, with Cap Friendly listing his salary bonus at $3M. Maybe the Maple Leafs could make his contract even more enticing to move if they eat the salary bonus, then trade him? If it’s not the Kings, someone should try hard to get Marleau, assuming he’d waive for at least a few situations.
  • Ryan Callahan: 34, $5.8M cap hit, $4.7M salary. Callahan to the Red Wings almost feels too obvious, as Yzerman can do his old team the Lightning a cap-related favor, get one of his beloved former Rangers, and land some much-needed pieces. Naturally, other rebuilders should seek this deal out, too, as the Bolts are in just as tough a spot with Brayden Point as the Maple Leafs are in trying to sign Mitch Marner.
  • Nathan Horton: 35, $5.3M cap hit, $3.6M salary. The Maple Leafs have been placing Horton on LTIR since acquiring his contract, but with his reduced actual salary, maybe a team would take that minor headache off of Toronto’s hands?
  • David Clarkson: 36, $5.25M cap hit, $3.25M salary. Basically Vegas’ version of the Horton situation.
  • Zach Bogosian: 29, $5.14M cap hit, $6M salary. Buffalo’s said the right things about liking Bogosian over the years, but with big spending coming up if they want to re-sign Jeff Skinner, not to mention get better … wouldn’t they be better served spending that money on someone who might move the needle?
  • Andrew MacDonald: 33, $5M cap hit, $5.75M salary. Like Bogosian, MacDonald’s salary actually exceeds his cap hit. Maybe you’d get a better return from Philly if you ate one year of his deal? Both the Flyers and Sabres have some added urgency to be better in 2019-20, after all.
  • Martin Hanzal: 33, $4.75M cap hit, $4M salary. The Stars already have a ton of cap space opening up while they made big strides during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. You’d think they’d be eager to get more room, earlier, and maybe make a run at someone bold like Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson? They were one of the top bidders for Karlsson last summer, apparently, but now they could conceivably add Karlsson without trading away a gem like Miro Heiskanen.
  • Dmitry Kulikov: 29, $4.33M cap hit and salary. Maybe the Jets could more easily keep Jacob Trouba along with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor if they get rid of an underwhelming, expensive defenseman? Just a thought.

If you want to dig even deeper, Cap Friendly’s list is a great guide.

Two years left

Seeking contracts that expire after 2020-21 is a tougher sell, but maybe the rewards would be worth the risk of extended suffering?

  • Corey Perry: 36, $8.625M cap hit. $8M salary in 2019-20; $7M salary ($4M base; $3M salary bonus) in 2020-21. If you’re offering to take on Perry’s contract, you’d probably want a significant package in return. If the Ducks are in rebuild denial, then they’d get a fresher start if they managed to bribe someone to take Perry. Ryan Getzlaf‘s deal also expires after 2020-21 with similar parameters, though it’s less appealing to move him.
  • Kevin Shattenkirk: 32, $6.65 cap hit, cheaper salary in 2020-21. Marc Staal, 34, $5.7M cap hit, cheaper salary in 2020-21. The Rangers’ future is blurry now, as they could go from rebuild to trying to contender if they get Panarin. If they’re really gearing toward contending, maybe they’d want to get rid of some expensive, aging defensemen?
  • David Backes: 35, $6M cap hit, $4M salary each of the next two seasons. The bottom line is that Backes has been a pretty frequent healthy scratch, and the Bruins should funnel his cap hit toward trying to keep both Charlie McAvoy (RFA this offseason) and Torey Krug (UFA after 2020-21).
  • Alexander Steen: 37, $5.75M cap hit, cheaper in 2020-21. Paying this much for a guy who’s become a fourth-liner just isn’t tenable for a contender. He’s been great for the Blues over the years, yet if you want to stay in the mix, you sometimes need to have those tough conversations.
  • Lightning round: Brandon Dubinsky, Matt Niskanen, Artem Anisimov, and Jake Allen, among others. There are a lot of other, less-obvious “let’s take this off your hands” considerations. Check out Cap Friendly’s list if you want to dive down that rabbit hole.

***

As you can see, plenty of contenders have contracts they should try to get rid of, and rebuilding teams should capitalize on these situations.

Interestingly, there are fascinating ideas if rebuilders would take on even more than a year or two of baggage. Would it be worth it to ask for a lot for, say, James Neal, particularly if they think Neal might be at least a little better than his disastrous 2018-19 season indicated? Might someone extract a robust package while accepting Milan Lucic‘s positively odious contract?

It’s easier to sell the one or two-year commitments, which is why this post focuses on those more feasible scenarios. Nonetheless, it would be fun for the armchair GMs among us to see executives get truly creative.

Should your team seek these trades out? What level of risk is too much to stomach? Do tell in the comments.

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.

Sabres’ Zach Bogosian out 5-6 months after hip surgery

Getty Images
2 Comments

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian will miss five to six months after his second hip operation in a little more than a year.

The Sabres provided the update Tuesday, two weeks after their season ended. Bogosian missed the final eight games with what the team referred to only as a lower-body injury.

The timetable for recovery means Bogosian is in jeopardy of missing the start of next season.

The surgery is the latest setback for the 28-year-old hard-hitting defenseman, who has played 70 games just twice in his 11 NHL seasons. Bogosian was limited to playing just 18 games in 2017-18 before season-ending hip surgery in January of that season.

Last season, he finished with three goals and 19 points in 65 games, matching the most he played since 2011-12, when Bogosian was with Winnipeg.

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

Devils’ Gabriel sets bait, Sabres’ Bogosian takes it in warm-up fracas

MSG
3 Comments

Kurtis Gabriel doesn’t play a pile of minutes, so it’s a little surprising that Zach Bogosian took such an interest in the 25-year-old forward prior to puck drop between the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.

It must be something he said.

Indeed, Gabriel got under the veteran defenseman’s skin well before the game officially started. A heated conversation at the center line during warmup seemed to spark an extended battle between the two as the usual pre-game skate progressed.

Bogosian took issue with something Gabriel chirped in their first exchange and swatted the latter in the back of the leg before departing, momentarily at least.

Bogosian hooked Gabriel on another pass-by later on, then proceeded to fire a puck his way before the intense death glare. Of course, Bogosian wasn’t finished. He got in a solid cross-check to Gabriel’s arm followed by a quick slash — Bogosian’s version of a 1-2, apparently.

Here’s the tape:

Gabriel didn’t budge. Instead, he mocked Bogosian before Drew Stafford skated between the two to diffuse the situation.

Nothing seemed to come of it during the game and the pair didn’t drop the gloves.

Bogosian finished with nearly 21 minutes of ice time while Gabriel had 7:03.

The Devils got the last laugh, winning 4-1.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sabres’ biggest question: Defense

8 Comments

As much as the Buffalo Sabres have improved lately, it still seems like they’re going to struggle on defense.

Honestly, there are strong odds that they’ll struggle a lot.

You can trot out the simplest stats (Buffalo allowed a league-worst shots on goal average of 35.6 per game, two more than second-worst Toronto) or go a little deeper (the Sabres’ Fenwick Close was downright ghastly), but the bottom line is that Buffalo was atrocious on D. Their offensive firepower was meek in 2014-15, yet the Sabres’ work in their own end was the leading reason people described them as “historically inept.”

Just look at the dregs of NHL.com’s “SAT” stat and you’ll see just how much worse Buffalo was than the rest of the worst:

26. Columbus: -365
27. Toronto: -515
28. Calgary: -839
29. Colorado: -984
30. Buffalo: -1,789

Yikes.

GM Tim Murray made this team better in many ways – and certain facets should benefit Buffalo defensively – but the personnel is still lacking.

Even if Dan Byslma’s a big difference-maker, it’s difficult to imagine him working many miracles with some combination of Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian (pictured), Josh Gorges, Mike Weber, Matt Donovan, Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe and Carlo Colaiacovo.

(Seriously, take a step back and ponder that group for a moment.)

Look, players like Ristolainen could very well make significant strides in 2015-16. Buffalo is also likely to enjoy better two-way play from its forward group, as Ryan O’Reilly and David Legwand both possess some defensive chops. Again, Byslma’s systems could at least drag the Sabres closer to respectability, as well.

If you dial down the optimism to more reasonable levels, the Sabres are likely to put a ton of pressure on Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson next season, as that defense stands as a work in progress … at best.