When NHL Deputy Commisioner Bill Daly flipped the last card at the NHL Draft Lottery to reveal the Buffalo Sabres logo, he instantly changed the outlook of all Western New Yorkers.
In the same way, adding Rasmus Dahlin instantly changes the team’s lineup and their offseason.
Dahlin Opens Doors
Adding Dahlin, the odds-on favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, opens doors for Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill to explore. Picking up such a talented player, radically changes the dynamic of the offseason. His acquisition gives the beaten-down franchise an instant lift and helps Botterill in his quest to change the roster and the culture.
Dahlin’s gifts are rare: a combination of quickness, explosive acceleration, precise passing and goal-scoring. He is one of the most talented defensemen to enter the draft in decades and a transformational talent that can impact a game every night. He could very likely become the league’s best defenseman and a perennial Norris Trophy contender. He’s as complete a package as they come.
For the last two seasons, he’s been dominating against men up to twice his age in European leagues and international tournaments.
Dahlin and the Defense
Dahlin can responsibly log top minutes in a top-pair defensive role that another Sabres blueliner was never quite capable or suited to play successfully. A lack of talent in the group caused guys to play out of position and more minutes than they should have. By adding the young Swede to the Sabres lineup, he pushes everyone down a notch, repositioning everyone closer to where they naturally belong.
“We’ve got to defend better. We have to be quicker to close, be more aggressive, because we’re allowing teams to cycle and wear us down defensively,” said head coach Phil Housley after one of countless losses this season. “I think that’s why we don’t have the puck. We want to be an attacking team, but, in order to do that, we have to be better in our own end. The teams that don’t give you much, it just seems like they have the puck a lot more, are in the offensive zone, and as a result get more goal production.”
Ristolainen and the Rest
The Sabres top six defenseman going into the 2018-19 season are: Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe, Brendan Guhle, and Casey Nelson.
Ristolainen was considered to be a No. 1 defenseman–and paid like one–with a six-year, $32.4 million contract inked in Oct. 2016. It hasn’t played out quite as expected. He’s consistently logged top minutes (fourth-most at 26 minutes, 31 seconds per game) among league defensemen with no real supporting cast around him.
The five-year veteran has been overused, mostly because Housley hasn’t had any better options. As a result, as the season wears on, his game often suffers.
The reality is Risto ranks 37th in salary for defensemen, plays top-five minutes in the league on a terrible team. He’s upped his power play goals in four of five years and held steady with a .56 point-per-game average on a team that didn’t even score 200 goals this year. He’s underrated. And possibly even underpaid.
The addition of Dahlin rightly pushes Ristolainen down a notch. Maybe even two. If Dahlin is his partner, Risto finally has a partner that can skate with him. If Risto drops to the second pair, he’ll benefit from playing fewer minutes per night and will face second line players. It would likely improve his health, his game and his production. He might even be a plus player.
Lastly, while there’s chatter on social media to trade the native from Turku, Finland, other than shaking things up, one must ask, will the Sabres really be a better team without him? And it’s highly unlikely they could replace him for similar money.
Nelson, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, recently signed a team-friendly two-year deal for $1.625 million. It’s a terrific signing for Botterill.
Healthy Competition on the Blue Line
With the top six slots locked up, several players will be vying for depth positions. Some of them are established veterans who have something more to contribute in a supporting role while others are up-and-comers with some maturing to do.
The Sabres traded a third-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Beaulieu. At the time, it was a fairly low-risk move for the Sabres who desperately needed able-bodied blueliners who could chip in some offense. It didn’t happen.
As much as it was a forgettable season for the Sabres, it was an equally disastrous one for Beaulieu. He scored just nine points this season and was often lost, out of position and giving the puck away with more regularity than a politician making campaign promises.
Pilut, another Swede, could crack the top season-opening roster. The 22-year-old recently won the Salming Trophy as best native-born blueliner in the Swedish Hockey League. He paced all defensemen with 38 points in 52 games. It was a breakout year for Pilut, who pushed his SHL totals to 15 goals and 56 assists in 191 games.
While he may start out in Rochester, it’s unlikely Pilut would’ve come to terms with the Sabres without some form of a promise of NHL playing time.
The 44th overall player selected in the 2012 draft had a rough season. Whether it was due to his health issues or his play actually regressing, or both, is for Botterill to figure out.
McCabe had thumb surgery and later, once the team’s non-playoff fate was sealed, shoulder surgery. He averaged roughly 19 minutes, 30 seconds per game and often played on the third pairing. He chipped in 12 points in 53 games.
Analytics wise, his possession metrics improved minimally compared to last season, however he was typically playing against weaker competition this year.
Next season will be McCabe’s final year of his three-year, $4.8 million contract. He’ll be a restricted free agent on July 1, 2019. Decision time. At his salary level, he’s likely a keeper or decent trade bait. His trade value is probably that of a third line forward.
Bogosian has been as brittle as advertised. He suited up for only 18 games this season, choosing to have season-ending hip surgery. Last season was the third straight that he played fewer games than the prior year. And over those three seasons he played just half (138 of 246) of his team’s total games.
He posted a whopping total of one assist and had a minus-9 rating.
Justin Falk (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Falk skated in just 46 games in 2017-18, scoring one goal and one assist while logging 121 hits. He bounced between the ice and the press box, only having four stretches of five or more games played in a row.
The 6-foot-5, 222-pound defenseman averaged 18:14 of time per game. His 121 hits are impressive given his limited opportunities, and his 2.6 hits-per-game ranked second on the team. The 29-year-old is an unrestricted free agent and could very well find another home besides Buffalo. At $650,000, he’s a cost-effective, serviceable depth defenseman.
Zach Redmond (Unrestricted Free Agent)
Redmond, drafted in the seventh round in 2008, had a great season in Rochester. In his first season there, he had 15 goals and 32 assists for 47 points in 66 games, leading the team in points. He appeared in three games for the Sabres.
Rounding Out the List
Will Borgen, Devante Stephens, Brycen Martin, Matt Tennyson and Taylor Fedun will likely be in Rochester. Vojtech Budik, Jacob Bryson, Ivan Chuckarov, Casey Fitzgerald, Oskari Laaksonen, Philip Nyberg and Austin Osmanski have yet to sign a professional contract.
Botterill Building a Modern Defense
Successful modern NHL defenses are becoming faster and more skilled than ever. Coaches are employing a style that focuses as much about getting the puck up ice as it does about reliability in their own zone. Puck-moving defensemen are gold.
Unlike years past, there will be competition to make the Sabres defensive roster, which should raise everyone’s game. Dahlin’s talent raises the talent around him.
Dahlin’s Further Impact
Dahlin’s impact on the Sabres immediately affects the team’s offense, too. His smooth skating and slick outlet passes should help generate offense. However, perhaps Dahlin’s other instant impact is freeing up General Manager Jason Botterill’s attention to bring in a top-six goal scorer. Though not likely, that could come via free agency or more likely, via trade. The Sabres desperately need an NHL-ready left wing.
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.”