It was no secret that Jason Botterill was facing a tough road in putting together a well-rounded blueline when he took over the Sabres. Turns out that the unit needed more of an overhaul than reshaping that stretched into this past summer.
Winning the Ramsus Dahlin lottery would make any rebuild a much easier task and a lucky bounce of the lottery balls has helped the Sabres take a major step forward.
Dahlin was really the only true addition the Sabres made to their backs blueline but he’s already meeting expectations, if not exceeding them. His confidence is growing by the day and combined with his vision and skating ability has led to a number of plays along these lines:
There’s a noticeable difference in Buffalo’s breakout and flow when Dahlin is on the ice, something that was lacking at almost every point of the 2017-18 season. Some of his underlying numbers took a hit recently after a few lopsided showings, which tipped him below 50% Corsi, though Dahlin remains a positive influence relative to his teammates. Zach Bogosian’s Corsi jumps ten percentage points when paired with Dahlin as opposed to without him. So he’s not just passing the eye-test, though his current trend is creating at least one eye-popping play per game.
Without Dahlin, the Sabres blueline would look about the same as it did last year with Jake McCabe and Bogosian’s health being a differentiating factor in terms of the total unit. After all, Matt Tennyson, Taylor Fedun and Viktor Antipin played significant minutes for the Sabres last year.
Those three played a fair bit on the right side and while the Dahlin Effect has mostly impacted the left side, the rising tide has lifted all ships.
Getting Bogosian and McCabe back has certainly played a role as well as the replacement-level players who saw so much action last year haven’t been forced into the lineup and players who were relied on heavily have seen their roles reduced.
Botterill bought low on Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu last year and though Scandella was serviceable, albeit overused in a top pairing role, Beaulieu’s year wound up being defined by injury and underwhelming play. As it stands now, Scandella’s minutes had been rolled back prior to going on the shelf (topping 20 minutes in only seven of 23 games) though he’s still leaned on heavily on the penalty kill. Beaulieu has been better than a lot of fans probably care to give him credit for, as he’s been a good fit on the third pairing. The juxatposition from last year, when both were seen as pieces to drastically improve the unit, to this year where their roles have been better adjusted to their skillsets is telling.
Suddenly Buffalo’s defense corps has the look of a passable unit that’s on the path to further improvement with the addition of another quality addition or two. And thanks to a combination of diligent drafting and acquisitions, the pipeline has the ability to provide some of the bodies to complete the transition to a unit that’s envied around the league.
Lawrence Pilut has only played three NHL games but the 17-18 SHL Defenseman of the Year wowed in Rochester and hasn’t been out-of-place in his NHL debut. Pilut has been good enough that fans are trying to determine how he stay in Buffalo for the remainder of the season. We discussed why he’ll likely make the trip back to Rochester on the most recent Instigator Podcast – long story short, the combination of Buffalo’s roster and contract situation makes sending the waiver-exempt Pilut down as the logical short- and long-term move.
Pilut will be up a while longer due to the injuries to Casey Nelson and Jake McCabe so we can all delay the frustration that will come with him being sent down.
The good news about all this is that the Sabres finally have players who are really and truly pushing for NHL jobs. This isn’t a case of pushing AHL talent into jobs they’re unfit for or accelerating the development of key prospects at the risk of harming their development. Pilut checks about every box for a defenseman in today’s NHL. Brendan Guhle has had a number of strong games at the NHL level but he’s fallen victim to a similar numbers game that Pilut has regarding waiver exemption and the difficulty in moving existing contracts.
Guhle and Pilut are certainly the two most tantalizing defense prospects Buffalo holds. They’re both terrific skaters and offer the opportunity for the Sabres to boast an incredibly mobile set of left-handed defenders.
Botterill went out and grabbed a pair of lottery tickets in Brandon Hickey and Jack Dougherty, who along with Will Borgen are seeing valuable time with the Amerks. Buffalo’s unsigned, drafted pool is awfully impressive as well. Buffalo’s 2018 second-round pick, Mattias Samuelsson boasts the best draft pedigree of the group but it’s the previously unheralded Oskari Laaksonen who has been grabbing attention post-draft. Laaksonen is another mobile puck-mover whose post-draft development has people thinking he may become a mid-round steal. Yet another mid-round 2017 pick, Jacob Bryson is no slouch himself when it comes to moving the puck or contributing offensively. Like Laaksonen, his post-draft growth offers a fair bit of hope for Buffalo’s outlook on the blueline in the coming years.
Samuelsson was one of five defensemen chosen in 2018, injecting that much more depth into the pipeline on defense. Samuelsson is poised to step into a role with the United States World Junior side while fourth-round pick Linus Cronholm has garnered positive reviews early in the 2018 season.
That’s a solid group to lean on as we look towards the future for a growing team. Obviously Dahlin is the cornerstone and though Rasmus Ristolainen isn’t well regarded by analytically focused fans, he doesn’t seem to be close to falling out of favor any time soon. Beyond those two, Borgen, Pilut, Guhle, Samuelsson, Laaksonen and Bryson all boast their own exciting traits. Hickey, Dougherty, Cronholm, Casey Fitzgerald, Miska Kukkonen and William Worge-Kreu may be further from being a sure thing, but they’re all young, capable prospects who are at least extra darts for the Sabres to throw. At best one or more of them will round into effective players for the Sabres. That’s 12 bodies in total who may impact the Sabres blueline in the future.
That growing stable of defensemen provides the framework for Botterill to identify the one or two external, complimentary pieces who can be added via trade or free agency who can put Buffalo’s unit over the top. Should the players who are trending in the right direction remain on their respective trajectories, the Sabres would be in a position to ice a skilled and diverse six-man unit in the coming years.
It’s a unit that could just vault Buffalo to the top of that hill Jason Botterill was staring up at last summer.