A lack of a bonafide No. 2 center. A glaring lack of secondary scoring. Woeful special teams. There are plenty of reasons why the Buffalo Sabres sit outside of the playoff picture.
With all the frustration, there’s a nagging question that seems to be gaining momentum: why is Zach Bogosian still in the lineup?
Since returning from his second hip surgery in two years on Nov. 24 against the Florida Panthers, Bogosian has become the whipping boy du jour. He’s playing out the final season of his seven-year, $36-million contract (originally signed by the Winnipeg Jets) and will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Bogosian’s trade value, not much to begin with, was further cheapened when word leaked that he wanted out of Buffalo. The Massena, NY native reportedly asked for a trade after being scratched Dec. 12, which would have been his 11th game since returning from hip surgery.
Since then, he’s been scratched seven of 13 games and that’s including after Marco Scandella was shipped to Montreal. In 18 games this season, Bogosian has one goal and four assists and a plus-3 rating.
The oft-injured defenseman has struggled to stay healthy his entire career. He’s played in 66 or more games in a season only twice since breaking into the league with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008-09, both early in his career.
On the ice, Bogosian plays hard and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. This season though, he’s been a mess in his own zone and has clearly lost a step in today’s faster speed-based game. Off the ice, Bogosian continues to be a great community guy, supporting numerous initiatives including his own, Bogo’s Bunch.
He has the dubious honor of playing 635 regular season games without ever lacing up for an NHL playoff game. Only Jeff Skinner has a longer run without postseason action, 700 games and counting.
Calling for Colin Miller
Last summer, when he was looking to solidify his blue line, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill traded a 2021 second and 2022 fifth-round draft pick to the Vegas Golden Knights for Colin Miller. At the time, it seemed like a steal – two picks for a cost-controlled, puck-moving defenseman. The right-shot defender had three seasons left on a contract inked in July 2018 for $15.5 million, or $3.875 million per year. The 27-year-old native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was originally drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Los Angeles Kings.
After skating in the Sabres’ first 17 games of the season, Miller only appeared in 16 of the next 32. He’s been scratched 16 times or nearly a third of the team’s games. With the Golden Knights, he missed a total of 17 games in the previous two seasons combined. When Scandella turned his game around, Miller suddenly became the odd man out.
With the Sabres, Miller’s ice time is more than two minutes less per night compared to his time in Vegas. He has one goal and six assists. His leash is short, which is a bit odd considering Casey Mittelstadt floundered through 144 NHL games before his was yanked and he was sent to the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans.
Head coach Ralph Krueger has noted Miller’s struggles to adjust to his system, which plays less man-to-man and focuses on positional assignments. Miller blamed his play on the lack of a consistent partner. With Krueger rotating eight or more healthy defensemen, and often playing seven blueliners, Miller is constantly adjusting. As a result, he hasn’t settled in.
“Colin is continuing to adapt to what we want to see. He has an ability to add some offensive punch which we believe is still going to evolve here with us,” said Krueger. “I’ve always told you, you lose a little of your offense as you’re getting used to the defensive concepts of a group and trying to find your way within that system. That’s been his situation. I’m sure his offense will bloom as he continues to learn to be that player without the puck. He’s working hard at it and we love having him. He’s an important part of our group.”
An Analytical Stats Perspective
In addition to Bogosian and Miller, at the start of the season, the Sabres logjam on defense included Scandella, Henri Jokiharju, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Dahlin, and Brandon Montour. While the Sabres’ overall goals against has improved from last season, their blueliners have struggled.
Dahlin has battled back from a long stretch where he was committing far too many turnovers and missed too many coverage assignments in his zone. The one standout defender who struggled much of last season, Scandella, is playing for the Canadiens now.
The Sabres have only a 10.9 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 0.5 percent chance to hoist the Stanley Cup this season. They’re on pace for 86 points, with a 4.6 percent chance (seventh best odds of any team) of winning the NHL draft lottery. They’re not going anywhere this season.
Krueger is a great speaker who continues to talk about culture and process. He finds the positive in a sinking ship, espousing how it helps build stronger ones. “We will end up here with a group of players that really want to be here,” Krueger said. “And we will work with the players that really want to be here and, quite clearly, play the players that want to be here.”
After Bogosian’s trade demand leaked, the head coach stressed the need for everyone to buy in. “It’s about building a culture here in Buffalo where everybody on the roster is all in on the plan that we have,” said Krueger. “And they are pushing to make everybody around them better and helping to make the club better.”
“I’m a leader that’s not here to be popular at all,” continued Krueger. “The past is not the present. It is the past. And we will work with the present and what you’re doing today. What you’re giving the team today will decide where your role is, what your minutes are and how much you are playing a part in our process.
It’s not that I’m cold. I’m doing what I know I need to do as a leader to get the most out of this group and to find the potential of the Buffalo Sabres and that’s what I move to do every day.”
Botterill’s Bloated Blue Line
Botterill has put Krueger in the unenviable position of having to accommodate and play veterans, like Bogosian, who aren’t necessarily his best choice.
It’s a terrible look for the franchise’s front office to continue to play a player (or players – forward Evan Rodrigues also asked for a change of scenery) who says he wants out but is still in the lineup. At this point in his career, showcasing him for a trade is silly. He is who he is.
Even the savviest general manager would be in a tough place trying to deal a 5/6 defenseman with a bloated cap hit of $5.1 million. If the Sabres find a taker for Bogosian, they’re likely going to need to retain much of his salary. Remember, last season, Nathan Beaulieau garnered a sixth-round pick and his cap hit was only $2.4 million.
That said, it was Botterill who created much of this mess. He’s the one who added multiple players to the blue line without addressing their obvious need for a No. 2 center.
Trade Deadline Looms
Botterill has a lot to fix on this skill-starved roster.
Suddenly the price tag of two draft picks feels like a steep price to pay for a player munching on popcorn in the press box. Miller’s name has even been heard in trade rumors, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. Though he’s still a cost-controlled puck-mover, it’s wishful thinking to suggest Botterill could recoup the assets he dealt to acquire Miller, a bottom-pairing defenseman. That’s a sunk cost for a sinking franchise.
Perhaps the bigger concern is whether Krueger and Botterill are on the same page. Why would Botterill acquire a player (for multiple draft picks) for his coach not to play him? It’s a real head scratcher.
It’ll be interesting to see how things play out in the weeks ahead and if either are on the Sabres’ roster after the trade deadline.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”