The Buffalo Sabres finished 31st in the NHL this season, dead last behind every other team. While fans of this franchise are no strangers to that kind of performance, it was a disappointing season nonetheless, especially considering the expectations heading into the season after some big moves last summer. General manager Kevyn Adams has no time to waste thinking about what could have been, though, as he and the rest of the front office have a busy summer ahead of them. Here are some of the Sabres’ top priorities heading this offseason.
Hire the Next Head Coach
Since parting ways with longtime head coach Lindy Ruff back in 2013, the Sabres have yet to find another coach who has been able to turn this team around and get back to their old winning ways. Ownership has cycled through six coaches over the past eight seasons: Ron Rolston (2013), Ted Nolan (2013-15), Dan Bylsma (2015-17), Phil Housley (2017-19), Ralph Krueger (2019-2021), and now interim head coach Don Granato. Other than Granato, none of those coaches have been able to stay in the favor of the fans.
The Sabres started this season playing under Krueger, but he lasted just 28 games with the team, exactly half the shortened 56-game season, before being fired by Adams. The Sabres were 6-18-4 under Krueger this season and had lost 12 games in a row before his departure. In 97 games total as the Sabres’ bench boss, Krueger managed a 36-49-12 record.
Granato took over the Sabres bench after Krueger’s firing, coaching the team to a 9-16-3 record, much more impressive than what Krueger was able to pull out, and without the likes of Jack Eichel and Linus Ullmark for most of the time, no less. Rightly so, Granato is considered a frontrunner for the next full-time head coach of the team.
Other candidates for the job make up a long list, but some of the marquee names are Bruce Boudreau, Gerard Gallant, and even John Tortorella. Boudreau seems to be the fans’ choice, with his track record of winning bringing him to the forefront of the conversation. I personally believe that he would be the best choice, too, since I think the Sabres need to move on from coaches who were in Buffalo for these losing seasons and hire someone who has proven they know how to coach winning hockey teams. Boudreau is that guy.
Solve the Eichel & Reinhart Situations
Eichel’s name was circulated through the trade rumor mill for what seemed like all season, with Adams putting those rumors to bed ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline back in April. While Sabres fans could finally breathe at the time, the relief didn’t last for long. In Eichel’s exit interview at the end of the season, the star center indicated that there was a “disconnect” between himself and the team, relating primarily to contrasting opinions over what rehabilitation path to take with his neck injury from earlier in the season.
This injury kept Eichel sidelined for the majority of the season, as he dressed for just 21 games, scoring two goals and 16 assists for 18 points. He was a minus-9 and shot at a career-worst 3.3 percent, so he never had the chance to return and redeem himself before the season was over. Eichel’s obvious disdain with management has some Sabres fans worried he could be on his way out the doors before next season rolls around.
Sam Reinhart, the Sabres’ leading scorer this season and another of their star players, also indicated he might be interested in playing somewhere other than Buffalo next season, adding to the worry fans were already feeling heading into the offseason. “In terms of the future,” said Reinhart in his exit interview, “I’m going to take some time. That stuff’s all going to get figured out when the time comes.”
Adams absolutely must make it a priority to keep Eichel and Reinhart on this roster. There is no trade situation that has been proposed or can be proposed wherein the Sabres come out winners, and that is not going to change. These are two elite talents that, if gone, would leave a hole on the roster that could possibly stay unfilled for seasons to come. After hiring a new coach, this becomes priority number one.
Bolster the Goaltending Depth
The Sabres haven’t had a real starting goaltender since the middle of the 2013-14 season when they traded Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues, a trade in which they received virtually nothing in return. The closest thing they’ve had to a starter in the past seven seasons is Linus Ullmark, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Ullmark has shown glimpses of being a good starting goaltender at the NHL level, but one big question looms over his head in planning for the future: his injury proneness. In the past two seasons, he’s been injured a number of times, including two separate occasions this past season that kept him out for more than six weeks combined.
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Ullmark won 9 games in 20 starts for the Sabres this season, more than half the wins the team recorded all season long. The other goalies to dress for the Sabres combined for an abysmal 6-28-4 record, a list that includes Carter Hutton, Dustin Tokarski, Jonas Johansson, and Michael Houser.
The Sabres are in no position to argue over a contract with Ullmark, and Buffalo is not necessarily the number one free agent destination for any goalies on expiring contracts this summer if I had to make a guess. With that said, I think it might be wise for Adams to start making calls about a possible trade involving a goalie with teams around the league now that he has an idea of which players might want out.
Draft the Best Players Available
The Sabres have the best odds to land the first overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, and where they pick will ultimately be decided at the NHL Draft Lottery on June 2. No matter where they end up drafting (they can fall no lower than the third overall pick), they must make sure to do one thing: draft the best player available.
Adams and company caught some flack last draft for taking Jack Quinn at eighth overall, especially with players like Cole Perfetti and Marco Rossi still remaining on the board when they picked him. What the Sabres were likely aiming to do in drafting Quinn was address an area the team desperately needs (goal-scoring), but many think they should have gone with the best choice available at the time, which is looking like Perfetti at this point.
If the Sabres end up winning the first pick, they have their pick of the bunch for which player they want to take. If they fall to second or third, that might actually make the decision easier in the end. Either way, they need to make sure to take the best player available to them at that slot.
Adams has his work cut out for him this season, and he is one man I do not envy at all. His position is a difficult one, and the road ahead for the Sabres looks long and somewhat bleak. This offseason will be crucial to building a competitive roster for years to come, though, so it’s crucial they get it right.