Projecting the Sabres 2018-19 Opening Night Lineup

With 29 points through 40 games, the Buffalo Sabres sit in 30th place in the NHL. As flashbacks of the “tank” roll through the minds of the Buffalo community, fans are stuck looking toward the future for hope.

Following a severely disappointing inaugural season, Phil Housley and Jason Botterill will need to put their heads together this summer to revamp the Sabres’ underachieving roster. Players like Kyle Okposo and Ryan O’Reilly continue to fall short of their pay grades while Jack Eichel and Evander Kane are stuck carrying the load on offense (the two account for nearly 35% of the team’s goals).

Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley
Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

“There’s always next year” has transformed from tired cliché to perennial mantra, but that won’t stop us from speculating what the roster will look like in 2018-19. Team owner, Terry Pegula has a taste for success now that the Buffalo Bills have busted their 17-year playoff drought. If the Sabres cannot follow suit in short order, management seats will start to get warm. Pegula has invested millions in the downtown area surrounding Key Bank Center and the facility itself. Billionaires tend to get antsy when their investments don’t yield quick returns.

Botterill will look to shed salary and open up cap space at the trade deadline and into the summer. Fans can expect another year of sweeping roster changes. Here’s what the 2018-19 opening night lineup might look like.

Forward Line 1: Mittelstadt-Eichel-Reinhart

When picturing just how dynamic a Casey Mittelstadt and Jack Eichel combination will be, Sabre nation will need to hang plastic cups around their necks to catch the drool. In this scenario, Botterill will have no choice but to call Mittelstadt up to the NHL ranks after an impressive season in Minnesota and an MVP caliber performance at the World Junior Championships.

Though the American squad will have to settle for a chance at bronze, Mittelstadt put the team on his back throughout the tournament. His ability to slice through defenses like a hot knife through butter showed the Sabres’ brass that he is ready for the big leagues.

Casey Mittelstadt Buffalo Sabres prospect
Buffalo Sabres top prospect, Casey Mittelstadt (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

Botterill is known for keeping players on the farm to give them ample time to hone their skill and ensure that his prospects are not overwhelmed by the speed of the NHL. This move would contradict that policy, but Mittelstadt isn’t your average prospect.

Alongside Eichel, the blue and gold faithful will finally see a player who can keep up with their franchise cornerstone. Kane’s exit from the team is all but imminent and Botterill will need to find someone within the organization who is fit to skate on Eichel’s left wing. Mittelstadt is his best option, and it’s not even close.

Sam Reinhart seems to be at his best when teamed up with Eichel. Fortunately, it appears that Housley has finally recognized that Reinhart cannot be relied upon to carry a line of his own. His production without Eichel is pedestrian for a second overall draft choice.

Botterill will be faced with a choice in the offseason; either trade Reinhart for pennies on the dollar or sign him to a bridge deal and hope he can increase his production while attached to Eichel’s hip. He’ll choose the latter.

Forward Line 2: Neal – O’Reilly – Okposo

Yes, the Sabres should extend Evander Kane. It would be an easy decision if the team didn’t already have $13.5 million in cap space locked up between O’Reilly and Okposo. Kane should command somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million AAV. That much money locked into three forwards is bad business.

Kyle Okposo Sabres
Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres, Dec. 14, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Whether armchair general managers want to believe it or not, Botterill is not a magician. There is no team in their right mind that will take Okposo’s contract off his hands unless he takes a huge loss in the form of draft picks, which he won’t. O’Reilly could be dealt, but the value isn’t likely to be there. His term and cap hit are too restrictive.

The Sabres’ front office will have to hope that somewhere along the way this season Okposo finds his game. If you Google “snakebitten”, you’ll see a picture of him firing a point-blank shot well wide of a gaping net. Following a very serious concussion at the end of the 2016-17 campaign, he still looks like a shell of his former self.

That being said, with Kane’s salary coming off the books, the Sabres’ front office will have a little wiggle room to sign a veteran goal-scoring winger who will command a more modest salary (though still pretty high).

Enter James Neal.

After a relatively uninspiring campaign with the Nashville Predators in 2016-17, Neal has reemerged with the Vegas Golden Knights, registering 27 points in 38 games. There is a chance that Vegas opts to extend him, but in this make-believe scenario, he hits the open market. At 31 years old, his price tag should be somewhere in the $5 million per year range.

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal
Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal could be an option for the Sabres in free agency (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

With players like Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson set to hit free agency, there will be enough cap room to add Neal. He is also an upgrade from Benoit Pouliot, who is likely to be dealt at the trade deadline despite the resurgence of sorts that he has experienced in Buffalo.

Forward Line 3: Rodrigues – Girgensons – Pominville

You’re probably asking yourself why Girgensons is back at center. A lot of people feel that he is better on the wing, and they’re not wrong, but the same can be said for Rodrigues. While neither of them will impress anyone in the faceoff dot, this duo is fast. Since arriving in Buffalo, Housley has preached a speed-oriented style of attack, though it hasn’t been fully operational at this point.

With Jason Pominville’s steady veteran presence on the right side, Girgensons and Rodrigues will have more freedom to attack deep in the offensive zone. Pominville has done pretty well for himself since arriving back in Buffalo via trade in June, however, most of his production has come on Eichel’s wing. With one more year remaining on his deal, the Sabres will have to find a spot for him somewhere on the roster. He is best suited as a safety valve for younger players at this point in his career.

Jason Pominville Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Sabres right wing Jason Pominville (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Johan Larsson will be dealt at the trade deadline in this scenario, and he will no longer be around to frustrate fans for doing nothing on the third line year after year. His only use at this point is as a penalty killer, and that isn’t reason enough for Botterill to turn down fair value on the trade market.

Forward Line 4: Smith – Josefson – Criscuolo

Look, C.J. Smith finally cracked the roster! He has excelled this season in Rochester, being named to the AHL All-Star Game along with goaltender Linus Ullmark. Currently tied for 10th in the league in points, he is ready for NHL action.

Jacob Josefson hasn’t exactly made a significant mark on the score sheet, but that’s not his role. The 26-year-old is the Sabres’ most consistent forward presence on the penalty kill (along with Larsson), and at $700,000 per year, Botterill will have no problem signing him to another short-term deal. On a Buffalo team that has lacked consistent effort, Josefson’s play has remained steady.

The final forward spot on the roster is a bit of a crapshoot, so let’s defer to the player who has had the most impressive call-up so far. In a year where he was ultimately forgotten by prognosticators, Kyle Criscuolo has been a pleasant surprise. While once highly regarded prospects Nic Baptiste and Justin Bailey look more and more like career AHL players, Botterill doesn’t have many options, though he could opt to sign an inexpensive veteran like J.T. Brown on the open market.

It won’t be long before Alex Nylander challenges for a spot on the roster, but it is becoming clear that he needs more time to develop in Rochester. An early season lower-body injury derailed a critical development year for him, and he still doesn’t look like he’s fully recovered.

Defense Pairing 1: Scandella – Ristolainen

Like it or not, with limited options on the free agent market, Housley will be forced to roll with these two on the top pair. While they haven’t been terrible, Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen look more like a high-end second unit than a reliable shutdown tandem.

Scandella remains the best player involved in the trade with the Minnesota Wild, though he has experienced lapses in his own end of late. Being paired with a player like Ristolainen, who struggles positionally, he needs to pick up a lot of the defensive slack. It is important to note that Scandella wasn’t called upon to match up against top forward lines during his time with the Wild. In his first season eating big minutes, he’s wearing down a bit.

Buffalo Sabres Rasmus Ristolainen
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Ristolainen is an anomaly of sorts, and there has been endless debate among the Sabres community as to where he is best suited. He ranks third in the NHL for average ice time at 26:47 per game. For a player that would be best suited as a middle-pairing power play specialist, Ristolainen is called upon in every situation. Following a year where former head coach, Dan Bylsma ran the young blueliner into the pavement, there was hope that Housley would dial back his ice time, but nothing has changed.

People are quick to point to his hilariously bad Corsi numbers, but above all else, Ristolainen is severely misused and has been held back by yet another member of the coaching staff.

Defense Pairing 2: Guhle – Trouba

Now, this is exciting. After what seem like ages, Sabres fans will finally get a chance to see Brendan Guhle in action. If Housley could design a young defenseman in a laboratory, Guhle would be the blueprint. His puck-carrying ability is borderline elite. Pair that with natural speed, and you have the prototypical Predators-style defenseman that with which Housley experienced so much success in 2016-17.

With 18 points in 33 games for the Amerks, Guhle hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire like some were expecting, but he is more than ready for NHL action.

Jacob Trouba’s name has swirled around the rumor mill for the better part of two seasons. After dealing Kane at the deadline, Botterill will have a handful of futures burning a hole in his pocket. He will use some (or all) of that bounty to secure Trouba’s RFA rights from the Winnipeg Jets. At just 23 years old, he has the makings of a future top pairing defenseman. The only potential issue with this trade is what kind of salary and term Trouba will expect from his new team.

Defense Pairing 3: McCabe – Bogosian

Back to reality. Zach Bogosian is signed through 2019-20, so he isn’t going anywhere. Though he has shown improvement, there is really nothing about his game that justifies his ridiculous cap hit. After missing a big chunk of time to start the season, he has settled back into the lineup. Through 15 games, he has registered one assist.

Zach Bogosian Buffalo Sabres
Zach Bogosian, Buffalo Sabres, Dec. 14, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Much like the Okposo situation, there isn’t a general manager in their right mind who would do the Sabres a favor and absorb Bogosian’s contract. Unless something drastically changes between now and the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, he will be a compliance buyout candidate.

Jake McCabe is as average as they come. There is nothing he does particularly well, but aside from the occasional missed forward assignment, he is decent enough in his own end. Earning a reasonable salary at $1.6 million per year, the value is right for a bottom pairing defenseman.

Victor Antipin is set to become an RFA this summer. Barring something unforeseen, he will likely get another one-year deal and serve in rotation with Bogosian as a healthy scratch.

Goaltenders: Ullmark – Halak

Yes, Robin Lehner has been on fire lately. Prior to a six-goal shellacking by the Wild on Thursday, he was 4-2-4 in his last ten starts, boasting a .934 save percentage. Not too shabby.

Unless he is able to continue that level of production for the remainder of the season, Botterill will be hard pressed to offer him a long-term contract. The Sabres’ defense hasn’t done Lehner any favors, and his teammates have offered no goal support, which makes his recent performance all the more impressive. That being said, he’s a head case. All it will take is a string of bad losses to send him spiraling back into obscurity.

Buffalo Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Linus Ullmark has been a revelation in Rochester. With a record of 15-5-1 and a .926 save percentage, the 24-year-old Swede has earned his status as an AHL All-Star. In a critical development year, he has extinguished any doubt about his starting potential in the NHL. He ranks right up there with Mittelstadt and Guhle among the most valuable assets in the Sabres’ farm system. Barring a Vezina caliber second half from Lehner, Ullmark will get his shot between the pipes next season.

In accordance with the Sabres tradition of signing a backup netminder to a one-year contract each and every year, Botterill will turn toward a steady veteran in Jaroslav Halak. He will serve as a safety valve should Ullmark falter as a rookie.

But Where’s??….

So you noticed that there are a handful of roster players missing, did you?

Veteran journeymen like Jordan Nolan, Scott Wilson, and Josh Gorges are in the final year of their deals. None of them are worth re-signing and there is a distinct possibility that only Gorges will get another shot as an NHL regular.

The Nathan Beaulieu experiment has been a waste of a third-round pick. Botterill will try to trade him in the offseason. If he is unable to strike a deal with another team, Beaulieu will join Antipin as a rotational healthy scratch for when the inevitable rash of injuries plagues the defensive corps.

Josh Gorges Buffalo Sabres
Josh Gorges could be finished as a Buffalo Sabre after this season Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

Chad Johnson has been downright awful in relief of Lehner thus far. He’ll be lucky to find another job in the NHL.

Tim Murray set this roster back further than anyone imagined, and Botterill will need to deal with several restrictive contracts. Because of the money tied up in under-performing veterans, he will need to rely on players in the system to be NHL ready next season.

The Sabres’ brutal performance this season shows just how far away they are from playoff contention. Botterill needs time to drain the swamp and put his stamp on the roster. Buffalo will show improvement in 2018-19, but ultimately, fans are looking at yet another rebuilding year in Western New York.