Sabres Weekly: Changes Are Coming, Mittelstadt on the Wing and More

Welcome to Buffalo Sabres Weekly, where you can catch up on the last week of the Sabres throughout the 2019-20 season. From trending topics to news and notes, this is your weekly update on your favourite team.

Buffalo Sabres Weekly Rasmus Dahlin Jack Eichel Jeff Skinner

This space is specifically designed to resonate with Sabres fans in Western New York and abroad. Consider this your go-to source for the news and insight you need during the Golden Season. We will feature our Royal Blues (things that are trending up), Buffaslugs (things that are trending down), French Connection Awards (three stars of the week), Hot Wing (hot take) and much more.

Sabres’ Royal Blues- Changes On the Way

The engine light is a funny thing.

In my first car, the light came on. Like most, I was very concerned initially. However, I noticed that as I kept driving the car kept moving forward. It didn’t blow up. It didn’t disintegrate. It just kept going and, 230,000 kilometres later, I never did find out what caused the light. If something had actually happened to my car, I would have been forced to upgrade much sooner.

The Sabres’ engine light has been glowing for some time, and they need some upgrades.

As discussed in our last Sabres’ Weekly, regression has been having its way with the team lately. Once tops in the league, they are now outside the playoff picture and heading the wrong way.

With regression comes the trade winds. In TSN’s Trade Bait segment, Pierre LeBrun mentioned that the Sabres are looking for a top-nine forward and would like to get something done “sooner rather than later.” Part of this is due in part to the injury Vladimir Sobotka suffered. Still, the lack of depth scoring has also played a part.

Vladimir Sobotka Buffalo Sabres
The injury to Vladimir Sobotka builds the urgency of making a move to add a forward (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the Sabres were still rolling along, they might simply call up Tage Thompson from the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans rather than disrupt the locker room. While Thompson continues to tear it up with the Americans, the Sabres are obviously looking for a bigger shakeup.

Changes are long overdue. The organization was apparently ok with watching last season’s hot November be all for naught. As the team crumbled down the stretch, general manager Jason Botterill sat on his hands and made no moves of consequence. Even though the light was on, the pressure wasn’t and minimal improvement was made over the last year.

The smoke is billowing now. There is no way that they can continue to play this way without another march to the bottom. As enticing as another top-five pick would be, Botterill may not be here to make the pick if that’s where they land.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill
Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill faces some tough decisions in the days to come. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

Now that the mirage of the beginning of the season is over, the warts are exposed. The pressure is on Botterill and changes are imminent. It seems unlikely that we’ll enter the new year with the lineup as constructed. With a roster that could have nine defencemen on it in the coming days, new blood is inevitable.

It’s sad when an engine light is the best thing you have going for you.

Sabres’ Buffaslugs- Depth and Deployment Issues

Where do we start?

The Sweden trip, while it could have been season-changing, was a complete disaster. Despite the close scores, the Sabres were skated out of the building in the first game and were out-classed by a superior Tampa Bay Lightning squad in the second. In all fairness, this trip could really be season-changing- see above.

The lack of depth is on display. Since the game against the Anaheim Ducks, a span of 11 games, only nine forwards have scored at even strength. Of those nine, only five have scored more than once. The forwards have scored 22 goals in that span, 10 of them from Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

Kyle Okposo? Evan Rodrigues? Johan Larsson? Jimmy Vesey? They’ve combined for zero goals in 422.42 minutes during this stretch. The forward pool is more of a puddle.

Conor Sheary Buffalo Sabres
Conor Sheary has struggled to put the puck in the net (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Additionally, the defensive deployment has been questionable at best. The number one pair in terms of time on ice is Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe. Over the same stretch of games, both have struggled at times. McCabe has an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 42.4 percent and Ristolainen has a 43.31xGF% according to Evolving Hockey. Those stats rank sixth and fourth respectively among defencemen on the team over that span.

Beyond the numbers, their overall performance has been substandard. They’ve shown an inability to outlet the puck to the forwards. Those types of players are typically heralded for their strong, no-nonsense defence in front of their own net. Ristolainen and McCabe and have been unable to clear pucks from high-danger zones as illustrated by this back-breaking goal scored at the end of the period in the game against the Lightning Saturday.

They were in the game and just had to wrap up the period and prepare for the third. With 10 seconds left, they needed to conservatively kill it off. Nope. Not with this pair. Both Patrick Maroon and Yanni Gourde walked in and took about eight stabs at the puck untouched before finally getting the puck over a sprawling Carter Hutton.

Usually, your minute-munching defence pairing is indispensable. You play them at every crucial moment. For the Sabres, they would be better off sitting their top pair most nights. Not often is your top deployment suitable for trade fodder. Alas, that is where the Sabres sit.

With an offence as dry as your front lawn in August and a “defence” that is anything but, the Sabres are in a world of hurt. If they can move a defenceman or two and add some depth up front, they could push for a playoff berth. Until changes are made, however, expect more of what we saw last season.

The French Connection Awards

Third Star- Victor Olofsson

Olofsson managed to get the even-strength monkey off his back, scoring a nice goal following up on his shot. We discussed Olofsson’s even-strength weaknesses a couple of weeks ago and he appears to be improving. If he can bring that momentum back from Sweden it could buy him some more time on the top line and will mean only good things for the Sabres.

Second Star- Linus Ullmark

Ullmark stood on his head in the opener of the Global Series. He stopped 31 of 34 shots and looked good doing it.

Buffalo Sabres Linus Ullmark
Buffalo Sabres’ Linus Ullmark (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP)

There is no way that game should have been 3-2 as the Lightning outplayed the Sabres quite easily. Ullmark has had a good start to the season and needs to continue to build on what he’s been doing.

First Star- Sam Reinhart

Reinhart had two very good games in Sweden. He boarded the plane home with three more goals and an extra assist in his carry-on. On pace for 39 goals and 72 points, Reinhart is looking to cash in on this season by way of a big payday. Look for him to continue putting up big numbers all season.

Sabres Prospect Focus- Ryan Johnson

Johnson is off to a fairly unspectacular start with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Through 10 games he has produced three assists. You can see his first NCAA point here:

Putting up monster points on the boxscore is not Johnson’s game. He is an excellent skater with a knack for aggressively eliminating chances against. He is a modern defensive defenceman. He will continue to develop for at least one if not two more seasons with the Golden Gophers. He will get a shot to star with the United States at the World Junior Championship this winter. If his development path continues, he could be a future top-four rearguard for the Sabres.

Sabres’ Hot Wing- Casey Mittelstadt Is a Winger

When Mittelstadt was drafted eighth overall in 2017, it was with the goal of having him play up the middle. To this point in his career, the centre position has been overwhelming for the young man. Of 20 skaters who have suited up for the Sabres this season, he ranks 16th with a 42.5xGF% at five-on-five.

There’s no denying his skill. He has an excellent shot and great hands. His skating is not elite but it keeps him in the play. He has yet to have truly elite linemates but has still struggled early on.

Rather than continuing to do the same thing and hoping for different results, why not try deploying your offensive weapon on the wing?

Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt
Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt should be playing the wing (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

His current position is easy to fill. Surely, they can bring up someone from the Rochester Americans to skate around with Jimmy Vesey and Connor Sheary and watch them not score. In the meantime, Mittelstadt can continue to ply his trade with more skilled linemates and work on building his offensive game.

With players like Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Asplund and Marcus Davidsson on the way, there are plenty of players who can work at filling in the centre role. Mittelstadt should be used in a position that allows for less responsibility and more creativity. It’s at least worth a try. What’s the worst that could happen? He falls from 16th to 19th in xGF%? Play him with Eichel.

Sabres Week Ahead

Thursday, Nov. 14 vs Carolina Hurricanes

This has the makings of a very difficult game. The Hurricanes are an excellent team. Although they have played one more game than the Sabres and have only one more point, they are a very strong possession team, ranking first in the league with a 55.84xGF% at even strength compared to the Sabres’ 28th ranked 46.36xGF%. Add to that the fact that the struggling Hurricanes are coming off an 8-2 thrashing of the lowly Ottawa Senators, we could be hearing a number of boos at KeyBank Center.

Saturday, Nov. 16 vs Ottawa Senators

A month ago, Sabres fans were eager to get to this game. The Senators looked to be easy pickings and a guaranteed two points. While still poised to finish around the bottom of the league, the Senators are playing a pesky style of hockey. Brady Tkachuk is a stud and J.G. Pageau leads the league with eight goals in the month of November. While certainly not a “gimme” game, these are two points you need if you want to be considered a contender for a playoff spot.

Sunday, Nov. 17 @ Chicago Blackhawks

The Sabres finish off the weekend with a trip to Chicago to face the Blackhawks. These aren’t your slightly older brother’s Blackhawks. This team has struggled out of the gate, sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference.

Alex Nylander Chicago Blackhawks
The Sabres will face former Sabre Alexander Nylander. (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

Although they have not played up to their standards, the Blackhawks will be a tough out. Facing Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and old friends Alex Nylander and Robin Lehner should make for an entertaining game. Watch for a motivated Nylander to score a goal and an assist. These are another two points they simply need to get.