Part one of this post appeared yesterday, detailing the negative points of the Buffalo Sabres current rebuild. Part two focuses solely on the good points that are pointing to a promising future.
Amending the mistakes and shortcomings on Buffalo’s roster certainly won’t be an easy feat. Some oversights simply won’t ever be fixed. For example, unless Robin Lehner becomes a Vezina contender or steals a playoff round (or two) it’s unlikely the price Murray paid to acquire him will ever be justified. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a sufficient starter for the club either. That he’s shown to be a capable starter – and that Anders Nilsson has enjoyed a resurgence in a backup role for the Sabres – gives Murray and the Sabres time to evaluate their long-term options.
Both Lehner and Nilsson are restricted and unrestricted free agents, respectively, Lehner has arbitration rights so all signs point to him being retained for at least another season. Nilsson’s play may motivate him to explore the open market for a team offering more money and more minutes, but I’m expecting to see him for at least another year in Buffalo.
While it may pain some fans to read, if either of Buffalo’s goaltenders are likely to move on, it would be Nilsson. Linus Ullmark has turned into a workhorse for the Americans this season, earning AHL All Star honors while facing the most action in the entire league. Ullmark’s development is likely reaching a point to where further AHL action won’t be of much value compared to taking the step into the NHL.
Ullmark’s overall development may ultimately fall short of being a true number one in the NHL as his play in North America has been more than encouraging, but he hasn’t shown the dominance you’d expect to be considered the answer in goal for a franchise. Even still, he’s a young asset for the Sabres to utilize and taking over the backup role next year seems to be the next logical step.
That isn’t to say that retaining Nilsson shouldn’t be done. He’s played very well for the Sabres this year and will likely record career best numbers at the NHL level. He’s proven himself as a viable option in net capable of maybe taking on a larger workload in tandem with Lehner.
Buffalo’s long term outlook in net isn’t as bright as other teams around the league as Cal Petersen and Jonas Johansson are the only non-contract assets in the pipeline at the moment. Johansson is still plying his craft in Sweden and likely won’t make the jump to North America for at least another year.
Petersen, however, has starred at Notre Dame, racking up over 70-straight starts for the Gold Domers and establishing himself as one of the stronger goalies in the NCAA ranks (). He’s probably the clubhouse leader when it comes to being the Sabres Goalie of the Future although he still has some growing to do once he gets around to signing his first pro deal.
It’s important that fans understand that Petersen won’t likely be stepping into a full time NHL role after signing his pro deal. His next NHL game will be his first and that learning curve isn’t imaginary. Even if he’s signed and gets some NHL action before this season ends, it’s likely that he gets at least one full season to grow at the professional level with the Amerks. So it’s probably not realistic to think that Petersen will be stepping in as a playoff-bound starter before the ink is dry on his contract.
So while the Sabres are hardly without talent in net, it’s probably the one position you can question as it pertains to the organization’s long-term plans. Lehner and Nilsson are more than capable of continuing on for at least the next season as the big dogs with the main club and Ullmark is knocking on the door for NHL minutes. Petersen should probably be playing professionally and progressing towards his own era in the Sabres’ crease before this season ends, giving the team at least three quality professional options this summer with Nilsson being the fourth depending on his choice as a free agent.
Expect Murray to spend at least one draft pick on a goalie this year, perhaps even a relatively high one, in an attempt to help fill out the pipeline. An adept free agent acquisition wouldn’t be out of the question either and would likely be dependent on the view the front office has on Jason Kasdorf. Finding a long-term answer is a bit trickier, however. Does Murray opt to return to the trade market in 2018? Does he splash the cash on a big name free agent? Or does he bide his time and use drafting and development as the route to securing a true franchise goaltender?
None of those options are exactly ideal since I don’t think it’s safe to count Lehner as a core piece at this point. He’s played very well and I think if the team continues to improve, his numbers will as well. But I don’t feel he’s done quite to solidify himself as a long-term option for the club. However, my view on the rest of team’s core is probably in lock step with a vast majority of the fan base: Eichel, Reinhart, O’Reilly, Okposo, Kane, Ristolainen and McCabe. And this is where I think the Sabres are in very good hands.
Eichel is obviously a known quantity. He drives possession, makes his line mates better and generates more high danger opportunities than almost anyone else in the league. Reinhart, while not a flashy player, might be the second most dangerous player on the roster with the puck on his stick. Reinhart’s vision, hockey sense and creativity make him one of Buffalo’s most effective offensive weapons, only for a different reason than a finisher like Eichel or Okposo. Both Okposo and Kane have proven to be quality, consistent goal scorers this season and the opportunity for each to string together multiple seasons with flashy goal numbers is there for the taking. Meanwhile Ryan O’Reilly is a 200-foot force who despite missing two chunks of games, is still on pace to be one of the team’s top producers while also handling some key defensive responsibilities. Ristolainen and McCabe have been put on something of an island this year but they’ve performed admirably. While #RistoIsActuallyGood, McCabe is growing into a physical force capable of playing off Ristolainen and forming a quality top pair.
I contend that you could line those players up against nearly any other core group in the league – certainly against those clubs they’re battling with in the standings – and come away thinking the Sabres are right on track when it comes to having quality top-end talent. At the very least you could accept that the Sabres aren’t as far off as some may think. The holes, of course, are evident, even at their best, Ristolainen and McCabe probably dont’ compare favorably to many other top pairs. Other shortcomings were laid out in detail above and that’s where Tim Murray still needs to do work. But the foundation is here and it’s strong.
Barring some sort of stunning turnaround over the final 30 games, Dmitry Kulikov looks destined for free agency. While his role may be filled by Brendan Guhle, the Sabres will still be searching for some help in the top-four come summer. Starting Guhle in a slightly lesser role is probably best for the team and the player, so finding at least one more defender for the top four will be a necessity.
Plenty of fans, myself included, see Zach Bogosian as a prime candidate for Vegas to select in expansion. There’s no guarantee that actually happens but removing his salary from the books would do wonders for maneuverability. The drawback is that you lose another capable defenseman from the roster. In a scenario where Bogosian is selected by Vegas and Kulikov chooses to sign elsewhere, you have two gaping holes in the top four and Cody Franson’s spot to be filled.
As a side note, if the above scenario were to play out – Kulikov and Bogosian both stricken from the books – the Sabres would have just over $18 million in cap space if adding in their current expiring contracts. So there’d be plenty of room for additions.
The good news is that regardless of who walks or who sticks around, the Sabres have picks to squander and cap space to utilize. For all the bellyaching about Murray expending all of Buffalo’s currency in the trade market, he still boasts five top-90 picks in this year’s draft. For a draft in which the top-10 doesn’t boast too many household names, this could be the perfect year to deal another first for more immediate help at the NHL level.
That trade fodder encourages me for the coming summer. Murray has shown a willingness to gamble with his picks, particularly if they’re outside the top-15. Assuming he seem his team like so many of us do, you would assume he’d be quick to attack the trade market. That first round pick and the two seconds will certainly carry value on their own while the third round picks could serve as an enticing sweeteners in a larger package.
Filling the blueline will be the priority and with a relatively small group of attractive free agent defensemen to compete for, the trade market may be Murray’s best friend. When analyzing the potential Expansion Draft choke points for certain clubs around the league, Murray may be wisest to act ahead of the expansion deadline as the Sabres are in a position of power when it comes to who they need to protect. It’s a luxury few teams have as the Sabres only have a few players who will absolutely need to be protected. Should a deal come to fruition, Murray could easily fit a newly acquired defenseman onto his protected list while also offering a fellow GM quality return and relief from their own expansion challenges.
Those draft picks could also be used to further supplement Buffalo’s prospect pipeline. Some of Murray’s previous dealing pulled talent from Buffalo’s pipeline, leaving some depth concerns in his wake. However, the Sabres cupboards are completely bare when it comes to pieces to look forward to in the coming seasons.
The usual suspects here are obvious; Alex Nylander, Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Guhle are all names that the fan base is salivating over and it isn’t a stretch to think all four will be filling a regular role for the Sabres next season. Will Carrier has already stepped into a full time NHL role and Hudson Fasching is hardly a lost commodity. Fasching may be the least sexy of Buffalo’s propsects and could probably use a bit more seasoning in the AHL, but he still shows plenty of promise as a big bodied, power forward.
Around the corner are Rasmus Asplund, Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald along with whomever Murray selects with the picks he holds in this year’s draft.
After that is where things thin out. Players like Eric Cornel and Vaclav Karabacek haven’t quite laid the foundation to become stars in their first professional seasons. However, as they adjust to the professional game, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that some of Buffalo’s quieter prospects turn into quality depth contributors.
Even still, those players really aren’t on the radar when it comes to truly contributing for the Sabres. That will be left to the likes of Asplund, Bailey, Baptiste, Borgen, Fasching, Fitzgerald, Guile and Nylander. Combined with future trade acquisitions and free agent signings and the Sabres are still set up well to add quality, complimentary pieces to their already impressive core.
All of this adds up to a team that’s incomplete but truly closer than currently advertised. They won’t be a playoff team this year. A nasty combination of injuries and inconsistent play likely doomed them in that regard. But just like last summer, they’re no longer in need of sweeping changes.