A critical time is upon us.
While the Buffalo Sabres’ postseason push may be too difficult to realize, the next seven months will shape the future of the organization.
There are only four forwards, five defencemen and one goalie signed for next season with nearly $35 million in projected available cap space. While new deals will no doubt be made for Sam Reinhart, Brandon Montour, Victor Olofsson, Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt and Lawrence Pilut, there could be upwards of $10-$15 million available to reshape the roster. Management will need to be prudent, with new deals for Henri Jokiharju and Rasmus Dahlin coming the following season, but they have the ability to bring in a player or two who can help turn things around.
Management should start making changes before free agency opens on July 1. The trade deadline and the 2020 NHL Draft will be pivotal for general manager Jason Botterill to build his team according to how he wants his team to look for the next decade.
Similar to last season, Botterill should be looking for a younger player with team control. In bringing in Montour, he was able to improve his core going forward rather than rely on draft picks that may or may not pan out over the next five seasons.
Josh Anderson of the Columbus Blue Jackets is someone the Sabres should be looking to add.
Anderson’s Overblown Struggles
Anderson’s season has been underwhelming, to say the least. In 2018-19, he scored 27 goals – the most since his final season with the London Knights – and a career-high 47 points. He has just one goal and four points in an injury-plagued 2019-20 campaign.
Looking a little deeper into Anderson’s game, using Evolving-Hockey, things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem. Last season with the Blue Jackets, his rates per hour were solid. Among forwards, he ranked third in goals with 1.16, sixth in points with 2.02, third in shots with 9.89, third in shot attempts with 16.46 and second in individual expected goals with 1.08. He was also ninth on the team with a shooting percentage of 11.74.
Without the puck, Anderson ranked 15th out of 17 forwards with only .82 giveaways and fifth with 2.02 takeaways per hour. Among players who played at least 800 minutes, he was first on the team, averaging 9.2 hits, a staggering number for a player who played 82 games.
This season, Anderson has yet to hit his stride, no doubt due to his injury. He is not lighting up the scoresheet but he has continued to play his game. Hourly, he ranks 16th among forwards with just .14 goals and 17th with just .57 points. However, he ranks fourth with 9.05 shots, third with 14.08 shot attempts and second with .93 individual expected goals. His shooting percentage, however, is a paltry 1.59 percent.
That last stat screams regression. Over the previous three seasons, Anderson’s shooting percentage has been 14.3, 10.1 and 11.74. When his shooting regresses to the average, the goals will come in bunches, especially with his shots increasing to nearly 10 per hour.
When he doesn’t have the puck, Anderson has been middle of the pack in giveaways and takeaways. He has continued to bring his physical game, averaging 9.77 hits per hour, second on the team. He is a rare player who continues to play a highly-coveted style of hockey in today’s game. Why would he be available?
Anderson and Blue Jackets Not a Fit
The Hockey Writers’ own Mark Scheig tackled the Anderson trade situation. One of the main reasons he is available, is because of how well his team has played since he was injured. Since losing him on Dec. 16, the Blue Jackets have a 15-2-2 record. They are showing that, while he is a valuable piece, he isn’t essential to their success.
Secondly, Anderson would likely have to play a bottom-six role for the Blue Jackets going forward. With Cam Atkinson and the emergence of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Anderson has become a top-six forward without a top-six spot available on the right side.
Finally, Anderson and the Blue Jackets have a less than rosy history. Their previous contract negotiation extended into the season, and Anderson missed some time. With only one more year of restricted free agent eligibility, this next negotiation may be even more challenging. While the Blue Jackets have significant cap flexibility, would they really be willing to pay top-six dollars for a player who slots into their bottom-six?
That said, the Blue Jackets will not be looking to give him away. They know full well the value he brings,even in the midst of a few tough breaks this season. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets are strong on the blue line, an area the Sabres can afford to trade. Columbus will also be looking to add a first-round pick, an asset the Sabres cannot afford to part with this season.
In any event, Botterill needs to explore what needs to be done to bring Anderson into the fold. If next season’s first-round pick needs to be involved, so be it. Players of Anderson’s calibre are rarely made available and adding him would pay immediate dividends. The fit would be ideal.
Anderson’s Fit with the Sabres
The Sabres’ top line combo of Victor Olofsson-Jack Eichel-Reinhart has been stellar when healthy and should provide an offensive punch for years to come. What the team lacks is a true second wave offensive attack.
Jeff Skinner is an excellent fit as a second-line left winger. Unfortunately, the Sabres have little else resembling an offensive threat. Playing Skinner with Anderson on his right would make for a formidable combo. Both are tenacious on the puck and with Skinner’s ability to get under his opponent’s skin and Anderson’s tendency to control the play and physically dominate, opposition defences would feel less comfortable against them than with Marcus Johansson or Conor Sheary bearing down on them.
Adding Anderson would leave the Sabres with one goal this summer: to find a second-line centre. Given their upcoming cap flexibility and the increased trade value of Rasmus Ristolainen due to his play, a move for an impact player can be made.
Unless the Sabres hit the jackpot and get the opportunity to draft Quinton Byfield, they cannot sit on their hands for another offseason. They need to fill two top-six holes, and hoping and praying that Dylan Cozens is ready to be their answer at centre is folly. Finding a way to add Anderson would fill one of those holes in a big way.
At this critical juncture, Botterill must make an impact move to upgrade his roster. He needs to bring in players who will make a difference and drag the sorry lineup out of the NHL doldrums. His job depends on it.