It isn’t easy being a fan of the Buffalo Sabres these days. There is very little to be positive about, other than the fact that the team continues to lose which will get them one of the top picks in the draft, and they have numerous picks in the upcoming drafts along with a slew of prospects. Sadly, that doesn’t transform into anything right now. With the emphasis being on the future of the franchise, there are many questions the Sabres need to address and there is no point in waiting.
Do They Have Their Goalie of the Future?
My colleague here at The Hockey Writers, Tim Olewniczak, did a good job at looking at this situation in depth in his most recent article: Buffalo Sabres Starting Goaltender: Who Will Replace Ryan Miller?
But let’s take a quick look at this. The Sabres have four goalies 26-years-old and younger. They have to determine in the next year if one of Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, Matt Hackett or Nathan Lieuwen can be their franchise goalie. All guys have their strengths but are very different goalies. Neuvirth has the most NHL experience with 136 games, Enroth has the winning experience at the international level, Lieuwen, at 6’5, has the size and Hackett has put up good numbers wherever he has played.
The Sabres are fortunate, in a way, that injuries have given them the chance to take a look at all four goalies since the trade deadline, but they cannot rotate four goalies next year. They have to evaluate the four and start looking at who has the best chance of emerging as a number one down the road. Enroth will most likely get the best chance and it is well deserved, but any of the other three could emerge to grab the job.
Who Do They Draft?
The Sabres are just games away from clinching the worst record in the standings. So assuming they clinch that dubious honour, they will have one of the first two pick guaranteed. Three names have been batted around as the potential number-one pick this year: Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Aaron Ekblad.
The two Sam’s are centres, something that the Sabres desperately need. Reinhart plays for the Kootenay Ice in the Western Hockey League. He finished the season with 105 points in 60 games while helping his team secure a playoff berth. Bennett also had a stellar offensive season for the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. Bennett had 91 points in 57 games for the Fronts. Either forward looks like a good pick for the Sabres but they might not be ready to jump right into the NHL next season.
That is where things get interesting because opinions on Barrie Colts defenseman Ekblad are that he is NHL ready. The Sabres have a wealth of defenders in their system but could they possibly take Ekblad? One would have to think the only way he becomes a Sabre is if the team can deal a current defender for a highly sought after young player. While it seems unlikely it could make for an interesting draft day. In the end, you have to think that one of the two forwards will become a Sabre barring that draft day trade. While Bennett’s name has emerged recently, Reinhart has consistently been in the conversation and remains top choices of many scouts.
What Is Taking So Long With Ted Nolan?
Earlier this week, Nolan appeared on Buffalo Sports Radio WGR for his weekly interview with their morning show. What has become a reoccurring question was “Any news on the extension?” Nolan responded by saying he felt it was only a matter of time.
This would be another good area for the Sabres to have dealt with and locked up. Nolan has shown many positive strides since returning to the Sabres. He seems to be getting more out of players like Tyler Myers, before his injury, and Drew Stafford.
He also gained notoriety with the performance of Team Latvia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics last month.
The Sabres need to regain the stability they used to have at the coaching position with someone that the players want to play for and who will be able to develop under. Is Nolan the guy for General Manager Tim Murray? We’ll know if the extension is announced. It would appear that he is, at least that is what he thinks but until it is signed, sealed and delivered anything could still happen.
Who Is Going To Lead This Team?
With team captains flying out the door in Buffalo, most recently Steve Ott in the trade with St. Louis, the Sabres are once again searching for leadership. One potential candidate to become the voice of the team could be Stafford. Stafford is the longest tenured Sabre, excluding Henrik Tallinder who left for three years to play in New Jersey. Not only has Stafford stepped up his game and been one of the major offensive contributors since the trade deadline, but he also has shown leadership by having a voice and addressing the team in situations, like after a bag skate a couple weeks ago.
Christian Ehrhoff was another Sabre who addressed the team after that skate. With a contract that runs through 2021, he could provide the stability the team needs as well as the veteran presence from a leadership standpoint.
It is another decision the Sabres need to make but having both guys step up in these difficult times is something the organization should be happy to see. The team would love to see someone from in step up to be a future leader but much of it depends on where current players fit into future plans.
Who Is Part Of The Future?
Many of the question posed above all depend on one factor: who does the organization want to keep going forward. A lot of talk is that the team has too many third and forth liners, which is true. So, then who will remain and be part of the future. We already know they will have to make a decision in net with at least two goalies, on the blue line one would have to think the future includes last year’s first round draft picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, plus Mark Pysyk. Unless an offer comes around that blows Murray away, it is still too early to give up on Tyler Myers and there are even more prospects in the system such as former U.S. national development program member Jake McCabe. With Ehrhoff’s contract looking like it will be difficult to move, there’s not much room for other defensemen currently on the team.
Up front, the team will eventually need to make decisions as well. Assuming they take one of the centres (Bennett or Reinhart) where does that leave Cody Hodgeson and Tyler Ennis. The two could be competing for the second line center spot. Going back to Stafford, even though he might be showing leadership qualities, does he fit into a top-six role with the team? And how about the rest of the players fighting for third and forth line positions? There are so many questions with how the future line up will look, but it will have to begin to take shape soon.
These are just some of the many questions the team must look at because a fan base can be patient for only so long before they want to see results. Any steps in the right direction will be the results that the fans have been waiting to see.