The Buffalo Sabres’ future went from bleak to encouraging with the way the ping pong balls fell two weeks ago, breathing new life into the franchise by winning the first selection in the upcoming entry draft.
Barring unforeseen planet-altering phenomena, Buffalo Sabres’ sophomore general manager Jason Botterill will name Swedish wunderkind defenseman Rasmus Dahlin the number one overall pick. Cinching up the defense will allow the blue and gold to concentrate on unrestricted free agents to address their new primary problem position – left wing.
The Sabres’ strength is down the middle. Budding superstar Jack Eichel and his brand new contract are backed by face-off master Ryan O’Reilly and skilled 19-year-old Casey Mittlestadt. Assuming the water-cooler talk about O’Reilly being trade material is not reality, these three spots are the only ones that are 100% locked up. After all, almost nothing is for certain coming off a last-place finish.
Kyle Okposo will take another of the top six slots, hoping for a big rebound year. Restricted free agent Sam Reinhart, who tripled his production from the first half to the last half of last season, will likely be signed and also claim a top wing slot.
That leaves two of the top four wing slots wide open. It also leaves the entire fourth line up for grabs. There should be some healthy competition from within that may or may not provide some answers.
Already under contract are four expensive veterans: Jason Pominville, exiled Matt Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Johan Larsson. None of these players are on the top of Jason Botterill’s depth charts. Also under contract are a bunch of young players hoping to demonstrate that they belong in the big league, all signed for well under $1 million per year; Andrew Oglevie, Alex Nylander, Victor Olofsson, Cliff Pu, Eric Cornel, Vaclav Karabacek, Evan Rodrigues, Kevin Porter, and Kyle Criscuolo. Olofsson, Pu and college linemate of Jack Eichel, Rodrigues, are the brightest of the bunch.
The Sabres have nine RFAs who will also fight for employment. These players, aside from Reinhart, are led by C.J. Smith, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste. This group, combined with three UFAs, are most likely to play in Rochester, if they play in the organization at all.
Filling the Sabres Needs at Wing
The glaring roster need is the wing position. While both sides are thin, there is a particular dearth on the left. GM Botterill has a checklist of qualities desired in players who might step in to contribute without breaking the bank.
The top of this list should be the winning attitude the organization so desperately craves. It comes from a history of winning, an expression of talent and passion that manifests as confidence, and an absolute desire to outwork opponents. Speed, skating, skill, passing, vision, chemistry, and other traits are on the list as well. Ideally, UFAs signed would check as many of Botterill’s boxes as possible, economically, for at two or three years while the in-house youthful talent develops.
While all of these players could be valuable additions to the team, they’re only legitimate options at the right price. The team cannot afford to be stuck under another heavy contract.
Sabres Top UFA Targets
#1 David Perron
6-foot, 200 pounds, 29 years old
Perron is a left-wing stud coming off a great season with the Vegas Golden Knights in which his cap hit was $3.75 million. He’s strong with the puck and tough in the corners. Perron is known as a team player. He had 16 goals and 50 assists for 66 points in 70 games last season. He had good possession metrics, too. It was a career year for the good-natured winger from Quebec. Vegas cannot pay all of their successful players who were allowed to blossom and Perron is likely one who can be picked up for a reasonable price.
#2 James Neal
6-foot-2, 221 pounds, 30 years old
Neal is another left wing stud who had a great season with Vegas. His tremendous shot has produced ten consecutive 20-goal seasons. “The Real Deal” Neal potted 25 goals and assisted on another 19 for 44 points in 71 games last year. He represented Vegas at last year’s all-star game. The Whitby, Ontario native had a cap hit of $5 million in the last campaign and will likely be looking for a $6-$7 million payday but might be had for less depending on the term.
#3 James van Riemsdyk
6-foot-3, 210 pounds, 29 years old
The second-overall pick in 2007 is a left winger originally from New Jersey. He’s a big man with good hands who hasn’t peaked. He lit the lamp 36 times last season for his career-high, producing 54 points in 81 games. He has a history of consistent scoring. The Leafs will likely be spending their money on younger talent just like Vegas. “JVR” had a cap hit just of $4.25 million last year.
Second Tier Gambles for Sabres
#1 Patrick Maroon
6-foot-3, 230 pounds, 30 years old
Maroon is a big man who plays tough on the left wing. Once viewed only through the lens of his penalty minutes, he showed that he can score with or without Connor McDavid. He’s had 44 goals, 41 assists and 85 points in his last 155 games. Maroon will be attractive as a player who can fill the net while watching over young talent like Eichel and Mittlestadt. His 2017-18 cap hit was only $2 million. He’s a blue collar and heart type of player.
#2 Rick Nash
6-foot-4, 212 pounds, 33 years old
Nash is the quintessential power forward. He brings strength and scoring with a 200-foot game. The right winger from Brampton has notched thirteen 20-goal seasons. He’s won gold once at Worlds, twice at the Olympics and owns a Rocket Richard trophy. His recent short stay in Boston was limited by injury. Nash, who has never hit unrestricted free agency, told NHL.com that he feels young and inspired. While his cap hit last season was a whopping $7.8 million, he will certainly be expecting to take a pay cut.
#3 Ilya Kovalchuk
6-foot-3, 230 pounds, 35 years old
The Russian left wing sniper reportedly wants to return to North America and play for a Stanley Cup. The Gagarin Cup and Olympic medal winner, he led the KHL in goals each of the last two years. Marty Brodeur has been quoted as saying that Kovalchuk is one of the best teammates and positive forces in the locker room with whom he ever played. Buffalo might not be his first choice, but with the right contract, Botterill might garner his attention.
The Sabres have all but anointed Linus Ullmark as their starting goaltender. It may be a case of throwing him in and seeing how if he can handle the consistent workload.
The backup position is open. Robin Lehner and Jason Kasdorf are restricted free agents. And old friend, Chad Johnson, an unrestricted free agent himself, might be talked into playing second fiddle. It’s unlikely Botterill will go with unproven Jonas Johansson.
Still, there are more than a handful of other goalies looking for homes for the upcoming season. The crease is covered or will be without many headaches.
Rasmus, Rasmus and the Defense
Adding Rasmus Dahlin to the Sabres’ blueline dramatically changes the defense, allowing current players to shine in more natural circumstances. Rasmus Ristolainen, the workhorse of the last few years, will no longer be expected to do everything, all the time, and do it perfectly.
Put into perspective, entering his sixth season this fall, Ristolainen will only be 23 years old, yet will have had more time on ice per game (TOI/game) than all but 13 other players since he entered the league. He’s been in the top five each of the last three years. It’s important to note that defensemen usually take until their late twenties to mature and peak. In fact, 30.5 is the average age of the defensemen who have more TOI/game over the last three years. And he’s the 37th highest paid at his position.
With the acquisition of Dahlin, the fatigue-related errors in Ristolainen’s game might vanish. It’s exciting to think what might happen to his typical half-point per game production, rested and fresh, playing as much as five fewer minutes per game. And potentially playing against opponents’ second lines.
The Sabres opening night top eight defenders will be Dahlin and Ristolainen, dependable Marco Scandella, talented young Brendan Guhle, veteran Jake McCabe, recent bargain re-sign Casey Nelson, forever injured Zach Bogosian and NHL rookie, Lawrence Pilut.
Botterill Determined to Turn Around Sabres
Botterill vowed that there are changes to come. Some of that will come from within the organization as players from Rochester challenge for roster spots in the fall. Other changes will come via trades and free agency.
“When you finish [in last place], you have to look at everything,” said Botterill. “That means looking at even changing up some of our core players. From a free agent standpoint, we’ll be involved in free agency. But I’m a believer that you just can’t build a team just through free agency. It has to come from within our organization.”
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.”