It has been an eventful past couple of weeks for the Buffalo Sabres, and it’s only going to get more so with time. Kevyn Adams made his first trade as general manager last Wednesday, acquiring potential Hall-of-Famer Eric Staal in exchange for Marcus Johansson, a move that has Sabres fans everywhere feeling optimistic about the team’s future.
In more good news, Victor Olofsson finished seventh in Calder Trophy voting and was named to the 2019-20 NHL All-Rookie Team, Jack Eichel finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting, and the team was able to sign Curtis Lazar to a cap-friendly two-year contract with an AAV of $800,000. There’s plenty to unpack in this edition of Sabres News & Rumors.
Adams Acquires Staal in His First Move as GM
Many fans were awaiting the day Adams, the Sabres’ new general manager hired in June with no NHL managerial experience whatsoever, would make his first move at the helm of Buffalo’s sinking ship. The Sabres have not qualified for the playoffs in nine straight seasons, one season away from tying the record for the longest postseason drought in NHL history. I think it’s safe to say nobody expected him to pull off such a bold move by acquiring Staal in his first test of the GM waters.
Not only was the Staal-Johansson trade a bold one, but it was also a very smart one. By acquiring Staal, the Sabres now have a solidified second-line center, which will make Dylan Cozens’ expected transition to the NHL next season much easier. Cozens is widely regarded as the Sabres’ #1 prospect, but it was unclear how he could fit into a lineup spot that would give him enough comfort and space to establish himself at the top level. Now that Staal is in the picture, Cozens can slide onto the third or fourth line and find his game in the NHL under less pressure.
Staal, a former teammate and close friend of Adams, adds a wealth of experience to the Sabres’ young roster. At 35-years-old, he has recorded 1,021 points (436 goals, 585 assists) in 1,240 games played. In 2006, he helped lead the Carolina Hurricanes to their first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history. He is a natural leader and served as the Hurricanes’ captain from 2010 until his trade to the New York Rangers in 2016.
He served as an alternate captain for the Minnesota Wild in three of his four seasons with the team. His leadership skills and nearly two decade’s worth of NHL experience should prove highly beneficial in helping develop the Sabres’ youth. In addition, superstar captain Eichel now has someone he can look up to on the roster for the first time in his career.
Olofsson Finishes Seventh in Calder Trophy Voting, Named to All-Rookie Team
For the second year in a row, the Sabres have a player in the top-10 for Calder Trophy voting. After Rasmus Dahlin finished third in voting in 2018-19, Olofsson managed to finish seventh this year after playing his rookie season as a 24-year-old. Olofsson recorded 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 54 games played this season, good for third-most points on the Sabres’ roster.
Olofsson’s outstanding performance this season also landed him a spot on the 2019-20 NHL All-Rookie Team. The other two forwards selected to the team were Chicago Blackhawks’ Dominik Kubalik and Montreal Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki. The Sabres have now had a representative on the team in three of the past four seasons (Eichel in 2015-16, Dahlin in 2018-19, Olofsson in 2019-20). Olofsson has proven himself as one of the Sabres’ top players through his first year in the NHL and will look to continue improving in what is hopefully an 82-game season in 2020-21.
Eichel Finishes Eighth in Hart Trophy Voting
In the highest finish for a Sabres forward since Pat LaFontaine (third) in 1992-93, Eichel finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting for 2019-20. This is the first time in his young career that he has received votes for the Hart Trophy. Eichel led the Sabres with 78 points (36 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games played this season, 28 points ahead of runner-up Sam Reinhart (50 points).
The 23-year-old center has proven time and again that he is the most valuable and skilled Sabres player by a long shot, and he only seems to be improving. The only thing separating Eichel from a serious run at the Hart Trophy is a lack of team success. If Adams continues making quality trades and signings this offseason, there is a good chance Eichel will be able to lead a better-equipped roster to a playoff run next season. If the Sabres can fix their on-ice woes, expect Eichel to finish higher than eighth in next year’s voting.
Lazar Signs Two-Year Contract
The Sabres added to their depth at center by locking in 25-year-old Lazar for the next two seasons at an AAV of $800,000. The former first-round pick recorded 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) in 38 games played this season and was a pending restricted free agent. Lazar’s low-cost, low-risk contract is yet another great move by Adams.
Lazar had a career-high 51.2% win rate in the face-off circle this season. Head coach Ralph Krueger would often utilize him on the opening draw of 3-on-3 overtimes to gain first possession of the puck. Although he hasn’t seemed to find any significant success at the NHL level yet, he formerly served as captain for Team Canada when they won gold at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and recorded 169 points (99 goals, 70 assists) in 199 games played for the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings from 2010-2014. It is likely that Lazar will start as a fourth-line center for the Sabres next season.
What’s Next for the Sabres?
The Sabres still have plenty of restricted free agents to sign, including Reinhart, Olofsson, Dominik Kahun, Brandon Montour, Linus Ullmark, and more. In addition, Adams is looking for an upgrade in net. There is a long list of goalies expected to hit free agency this offseason that the Sabres could target, including Jacob Markstrom, Braden Holtby, Craig Anderson, Corey Crawford, Anton Khudobin, and more.
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Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury are two notable names that could soon be added to that list if their teams decide to buy them out within the Sept. 25-Oct. 8 buyout window. Adams has a lot of work ahead of him to put together a competitive roster that can get Buffalo back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The Sabres roster you see today could look quite different in a few weeks’ time.
Tom Pepper is an NHL columnist at The Hockey Writers. He lives in Toronto and is a diehard fan of the St. Louis Blues.