Recent Sabres draft pick Ryan Johnson was quickly described as a modern, or new-age, defenseman by the pundits on NBCSN. A swift skating player who can serve as a one-man breakout and effectively push the rush up ice. It’s a descriptor that can be applied an ever growing segment of Buffalo’s blueline, from prospects right to the top pair.
Whether or not he’ll be around to see the fruits of his labor, Jason Botterill appears to have a fairly specific way to be molding his defense corps; with mobile defensemen capable of driving play in the offensive zone and positively affecting breakouts. Look no further than the last two acquisitions he’s made on defense for evidence of the type of player he’s targeting.
Brandon Montour’s defensive contributions are quite minimal, but he’s a high event player in the offensive zone and an absolute joy to watch in person. He’s a world-class skater who isn’t shy about joining the rush or getting active in the offensive zone. In the right situation where his partner and deployment can help lift his defensive impacts, he’ll be an extremely effective piece.
Colin Miller shows tremendously well on the analytics side, demolishing easy deployment and translating that into a pair of quality offensive seasons. His 41-point year in 2017-18 helped earn him the contract he’s on right now.
Ken Boehlke of Sin Bin Vegas noted that Miller’s shot and skating are his two biggest strengths. Boehlke described Miller as a terrific skater who is able to get himself out of trouble with his skating ability. Boehlke did note that Miller would struggle at times in his own zone with positioning, but when he was playing detail-oriented hockey, he was perhaps even an underrated defender compared to the common perception.
Those strengths may not be a complete surprise regarding Miller as he bagged both the hardest shot and fastest skater competitions at the AHL All Star Game while he was still in the Kings system.
Miller’s previous results indicate he may be capable of stepping up from easier deployment and taking on a top-four role. He doesn’t fit the definition of a true top-pair defenseman, but given Rasmus Dahlin’s ability to carry a partner, pairing Miller with Dahlin could provide the Sabres with a steady pair to build around. Whether Miller is capable of taking that big of a leap remains to be seen.
Adding Miller and Montour have been the two biggest signals of the apparent overhaul Botterill is making with the blueline. While you or I (or our dogs for that matter) could have selected Rasmus Dahlin, he too is another player who possesses the modern skill set that Botterill appears to covet.
Update: Buffalo’s acquisition of Henri Jokiharju adds another excellent skating, puck-moving, play driver to their defense corps. Further reinforcing their stockpile of new-age defenders.
Dahlin, Jokiharju, Miller, Montour and Lawrence Pilut all check the boxes of strong skating, puck distributors that appear to be exceedingly important on the bluelines of successful clubs. For example, look how valuable Torrey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have become in Boston. Or the role John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov play for the Capitals. For as much bluster as there’s been about how big and tough the Blues are, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko’s ability to drive and control play are pivotal to their success. It’s a strength possessed by Vince Dunn, Joel Edmundson and Carl Gunnarsson as well. Gone are the days of filling the blueline with battleships. The game is trending hard towards defensemen capable of pushing pace and it appears the Sabres are on board with the change.
The groundwork for this transition goes back to Botterill’s first draft when he selected Oskari Laaksonen and Jacob Bryson with mid-round selections. He followed with five more defensemen in 2018, through no one in that group have received the plaudits of Laaksonen or Bryson. Additionally, Mattias Samuelsson is something of an outlier from the group, though he’s hardly a statue on the ice, he’s definitely more of a throwback than a “modern” defenseman.
Johnson, selected with pick 31 this year, is yet another addition to the pipeline who can boast excellent skating, among other traits. Factor in Casey Fitzgerald and even July 1 signing, John Gilmour and the scales tip strongly in favor of a group that’s heavy on mobility.
Exactly when all of this talent will arrive in Buffalo is a big question. Dahlin, Miller, Montour and Pilut will make up more than half of the defense corps should the roster shake out as expected. But the likes of Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick and Zach Bogosian are still under contract. When healthy, Bogosian would have been a model example of the type of player the Sabres were seeking out, with an added physical edge. But he’s been dogged by injury that’s stripped him of some of his greatest attributes.
The acquisition of Miller raised expected questions about Rasmus Ristolainen’s availability via trade. Conceivably, he’s the most valuable trade chip the Sabres possess. But between a terrible plus/minus and even worse underlying numbers, he may not curry much favor in both the eye-test or fancy stats communities. So he may not even carry as much value as some fans hope he would.
Assuming for the moment that Ristolainen sticks around, he’s under contract for three more seasons. Bogosian, Hunwick and Scandella are likely gone next summer. Casey Nelson is unrestricted next summer and may be gone too. Jake McCabe would make for an intriguing trade chip but he’s also still a restricted free agent. Depending on his contract, he may be around for a couple of more seasons. There are some moving parts involved but as many as four new faces could be in Buffalo as early as 2020-21.
The leaders in the clubhouse for that promotion are Will Borgen and Bryson. Borgen will be first on the recall list in case of injury. Both will have the opportunity to play big minutes in Rochester this season before having a prime opportunity to earn a full-time NHL role the following year. Fitzgerald will get a chance to push for some time, as will Brandon Hickey. Laaksonen is probably at least a year away from signing his entry level deal, Johnson is probably two away at a minimum. Add at least one more year for nearly the entire class of 2018 save for Samuelsson.
The reality of the slow cooking process for NHL prospects is awfully stark when considering the timeline for some of these players. Barring a couple of big trades, it seems pretty likely that the fruits of Botterill’s efforts will ripen for another GM. So long as it’s a guy who also values the “new age” NHL defenseman, the Sabres will be prime to fill their blueline with a host of dynamic players.
For now, we can revel in the fact that the Sabres should have at least four defensemen on their roster capable of pushing pace. Whether via trade or simple competition, there could be room for a couple more should the likes of Scandella and Hunwick get pushed down the depth chart.
The potential is there for the unit to finally serve as a strength for the Sabres. Leaving the GM to solve the minor, insignificant issue of lacking talent at forward.