Where and How Does Botterill Trim the Roster?

For the third-straight offseason, Jason Botterill has been active in adding new blood to the Sabres locker room. For the first time in his tenure, he also faces a near necessity of needing to shed bodies as well.

There are quite a few usual suspects who have been along for far too much of Buffalo’s prolonged playoff drought and many fans were looking forward to the fat being trimmed by Botterill’s “roster surgery”. Improvements came quickly once the draft wrapped up. Jimmy Vesey, Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju and Marcus Johansson all figure to feature prominently for the Sabres this year. As far as attrition goes, the only body to be shipped was Alex Nylander, sent to Chicago in exchange for Jokiharju, leaving fans wondering when the other shoe will drop.

There’s still over a month until training camp opens and it’s not completely unusual for deals to come through into August or September (Jeff Skinner and Erik Karlsson just last year), so it’s not as if Botterill is out of time to clean up the roster. But he has work to do. The right side of the defense is packed with bodies and the left side isn’t far behind while the Sabres could compile about three fourth lines with the number of bottom-six forwards they have.

Just looking at potential fourth line candidates is a waking nightmare in terms of skill and salary:

W

 

C

 

W

Zemgus Girgensons

Johan Larsson

Kyle Okposo

CJ Smith

Vladimir Sobotka

Curtis Lazar

Arttu Routsalainen

JS Dea

Scott Wilson

Rasmus Asplund

Remi Elie

Looks awesome. Can’t wait.

Thanks to qualifying so many restricted free agents, the Sabres plugged three more names into an already crowded competition for the fourth line. Creating more roster competition ought to benefit the Sabres as there’s been far too much of the same these last few years. The only issue is that many of the same players are likely favored for those roster spots.

There are a few obvious names you can trim from that group as you try and determine the final roster. Rasmus Asplund will start the year in Rochester and it’s likely that Remi Elie and Curtis Lazar join him. Count J.S. Dea in that group as well, though it’s been theorized he could surprise some and steal a roster spot.

Bye, Felicia

Just about every person who counts themselves as a Sabres fan is hoping Vladimir Sobotka finds himself playing somewhere in Europe for the rest of the season. Location doesn’t matter, so long as he’s not on the Sabres roster. But until he’s officially waived, he’s still in the conversation, though probably on the periphery of it.

Arttu Routsalainen is an x-factor as a relative unknown. If he has a big camp his profile may even raise above and beyond a fourth line role. It seems more likely that he returns to Ilves for the season, utilizing the European out clause in his contract, and returns next year when things should be a bit clearer. Barring him putting in an eye-opening performance, that leaves six players vying for four spots at the bottom of the roster. Not a terrible breakdown, but if you’re sick of watching Girgensons, Larsson and Okposo, I think you’re going to be disappointed.

Things look better the higher up on the roster you go. There’s still a question as to who will play wing with Jack Eichel and what is to be done at center. But on the whole, the top-nine should be in a better place than it was last year.

Eichel will center Jeff Skinner and a player to be named later. Sam Reinhart is expected to slide to a new line and carry it from the right wing. While Marcus Johansson, Conor Sheary and Jimmy Vesey round out the wings with better offensive talent than Buffalo could boast last season.

When it comes to Buffalo’s fabled “roster surgery”, it’s best to hope for another addition to the top-nine. Whether that’s a second-line center or someone capable of playing next to Eichel, one more quality talent would go a long way in shoring up Buffalo’s forward group.

I don’t think it’s out of the question that Vesey or Sheary could claim that first line right wing role should things stay the same. It’s a less than ideal scenario, but given their linemates, I’d assume either would produce well enough to justify the promotion in lieu of acquiring a proper talent for that top line. The same can be said if the next acquisition is for a second line center. Maybe that locks. in Sheary or Vesey on the first line, but that new center would strengthen the position while pairing with Reinhart and either Johansson, Vesey, Sheary or Victor Olofsson to strengthen the forward group outside of Eichel’s line.

Acquiring one of those talents will likely come by dealing Rasmus Ristolainen. Even before Henri Jokiharju and Colin Miller were acquired, it was assumed Ristolainen would be shopped. Now it’s going to be a surprise if he’s still with the club when camp opens. Dealing Ristolainen would be the first, and most significant, step in right sizing the blueline at the NHL level.

The Sabres have Zach Bogosian, Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Casey Nelson and Ristolainen on the right side alone. Not to mention, Will Borgen was on the verge of challenging for an NHL job prior to this summer’s acquisitions. The left side of the doesn’t boast as much talent after Rasmus Dahlin, but it’s similarly crowded with Dahlin, Matt Hunwick, Jake McCabe, Lawrence Pilut and Marco Scandella all capable of earning minutes. John Gilmour is there too but he seems destined for Rochester.

Botterill will need to walk the tightrope of clearing out a few bodies without sacrificing quality depth. Things can go from overloaded to Brandon Hickey and Jacob Bryson on the second pairing awfully fast. The issue at hand is that beyond Ristolainen, basically any player on the periphery of these roster battles doesn’t hold much value. That doesn’t change the fact that Botterill needs to move a few of them out, it’s just going to be a little more difficult than we’d all care to think.

The Sabres have upwards of 30 players who could be vying for a spot on the 23-man NHL roster. As noted above, some of that work will take care of itself as the likes of Asplund, Dea, Elie (assuming they don’t walk from his arbitration award), Lazar and Routsalainen are likely to be in Rochester or Europe.

Sobotka should be placed on waivers and loaned to whatever team he’d like to play for overseas. I don’t think there’s any question about that. Perhaps he’d even accept a contract termination, though I highly doubt that. The issue at hand is having to wait until he’s officially put on waivers. He’ll be something of a roster boogeyman until that’s made official.

Other fan favorites for the waiver wire are Matt Hunwick, Marco Scandella and Zach Bogosian. The latter will be on the shelf into October or November, so they he’ll be back burner for the time being. I also think his healthy makes him extremely unlikely to be moved, so I don’t consider him a realistic target for attrition. The other two are more likely to be moved but present a larger challenge due to their perceived value.

Hunwick can and probably should be snuck through waivers and assigned to Rochester. Or another AHL club if veteran limits are of concern. Let him serve as a quality piece in the AHL and recall him in case of emergency. I wouldn’t expect much of a market for him but if a team wants him for a lower pick, then go for it. Worst case scenario is he’s claimed on waivers and if that’s the case, it’s one less headache to deal with.

Scandella is a tougher nut to crack. I don’t think he’ll be getting the Matt Moulson treatment and the Sabres would probably need to retain salary on him to get any sort of return in a trade. The greater benefit at this point would be the roster spot over the full $4m in cap space anyway. The larger question, to me, is if the team would take the step to actually demote him or if there’s a team willing to acquire him. Most fans would be pleased to see him dealt from just about anything and even though that wouldn’t be the best course of business, it would nip another excess piece from the roster.

Note: The original version of this post noted that the Sabres didn’t have the space to retain salary on Scandella. That was the result of poor math skills on my part.

Jake McCabe may represent a more valuable solution to clearing space on Buffalo’s blueline.

One alternative I’m curious about is if Scandella is deemed unmovable and they bury him on the third pair (or in the press box), if Jake McCabe is the one who is traded.

He’s been mentioned in trade rumors this summer and while he’s the lefty not named Dahlin or Pilut you’d least want to lose; he also has the most trade value of that group. Further, if McCabe was part of a package that brought back a second center or more help on the right side, it may be a talent-in, talent-out scenario. That may force a righty to play his off-side, but the end result may give the Sabres more talent from top-to-bottom.

The bottom line is that trading most of these guys is a tall task. Bogosian has health issues, Scandella’s salary isn’t huge but he’s not cheap, either. Okposo’s deal is an albatross and Hunwick, Sobotka and Girgensons carry next to no trade value. So shedding these players isn’t as easy as we’d like to think. Well, shedding some of them isn’t as easy as we’d like to think.

Waiving Sobotka and Hunwick should be two of the easiest decisions Botterill makes this year. He’d get a couple million worth of cap relief and shed two players who are simply in the way. The others won’t be quite as easy to dump.

My fear is that Botterill winds up being painted into a corner on moving Ristolainen or even McCabe and he opts not to utilize waivers for Sobotka or Hunwick. Instead running scared and only sending down waiver exempt players like Pilut and Jokharju.

Not making a trade is understandable enough, given you’re hoping he’s able to find significant return for Ristolainen. I’d say it’s better to make no trade than a bad one in that situation. But failing to rid him along with players like Sobotka, Hunwick or some of the other easily waived players who are simply in the way, would be a failure on his part.

Botterill has had a good summer acquiring talent. But he’s going to have to finish the job and clear out some of the dead weight if he wants to finish the offseason strong.

2 thoughts on “Where and How Does Botterill Trim the Roster?

  1. Jo Thor July 19, 2019 / 12:38 pm

    SO many typos. Come on, be better.

    Like

  2. Kirk R. Agthe July 20, 2019 / 11:45 am

    I can’t find fault with the conclusions. The Sabres have some real boat anchors that everyone would love to see disappear, and failure to jettison the mediocre players won’t reflect well on Botterill. There’s no way to spin a positive out of Elie, Hunwick, Sobotka, etc. They have had their opportunity and been found wanting. High time for a house cleaning.

    Like

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