Two in the Mailbox: The Lines, The Outlook and The Goalies

Another season of Sabres hockey is underway and the 2ITB Mailbag is back for another run. This will be a weekly (sometimes) edition that runs down questions on the Sabres, Bills and just about anything else you can come up with.

I’m also going to use this as a quasi-season preview since I haven’t done one quite yet and it’s worth trying a different approach when it comes to a season preview. Especially when it’s written during the first game of the year and every other season preview is days or weeks old.

This is the first season in quite a while that I didn’t look forward to with some level of optimism. That’s softened a bit after Thursday’s performance, but it was still hard to really get up for the opening of the season with so many of the same faces on this roster. Not only are players like Sobotka, Scandella and Girgensons still around, but they’re all playing prominent roles. Add in the new coach giving them all sorts of love in the press and any frustration from the end of last year comes roaring back.

Sobotka got tons of credit for his play in the preseason, but I saw a lot of the same from last year. A black hole when the puck goes near him and very few positive traits. How he wound up in Buffalo’s top six is beyond me and I can only hope Krueger finds a new spot for him in short order.

It’s nice that Thursday went as well as it did, because that will help stoke the flames of optimism. The Mittelstadt line looked excellent and despite being an island of misfit toys, the Girgensons, Larsson and Okposo line was efficient as well. If there’s one spot on the roster I’m optimistic about, it’s the blueline. And that unit was quite good on Thursday. So, let’s see if they can string some wins together and prove everyone who was doubting their roster decisions wrong.

Now, on to the questions.

Kevin/@kevinpalmer – F/M/K Sobotka, Scandella, Okposo

F: Scandella – You can count on him in flashes. So give me a one night stand with him and hope it’s a good night.

M: Okposo – His contract is a bear and he’s badly fallen off. But I think he showed flashes of being a decent fourth liner in a role along the lines of a traditional power forward. If the Sabres can shape him into an effective asset in that type of role, you can at least live with the ugly contract. Even though that term isn’t going away.

K: Sobotka: I just think he’s washed. He was abysmal last year and despite what others have said, I didn’t see anything of note in the preseason. I wouldn’t play him over Johan Larsson. I don’t understand why he’s playing in a top six role. So, send him away from here.

Drew/@radtkedrew – Emotions aside, Sobotka with 53 and 90 is curious and I’m trying to unpack it. Is it a result of other pairings elsewhere? Is Krueger seeing chemistry there? Hoping those two will elevate him?

Credit to Drew for holding out with his optimism. I hope it pays off.

Krueger has said that he likes each line to have someone who has some defensive ability at one position. So my guess is that, despite what his underlying numbers say, Sobotka is with that pair to offer defensive cover. I also agree it is partially a result of how the lines came together. Eichel with Olofsson is a tantalizing combination and adding Reinhart to that line just adds to the ability to drive play. Sheary can provide some cover for Mittelstadt and Vesey himself. So that leaves Sobotka to either play as the 13th forward (preferable) or with Skinner and Johansson. I think that Rodrigues would look just as good on that wing as Sobotka would. But for the time being I think things are going to stay relatively the same.

Tim/@strikeforcetim – If things go wrong this year and GMJB is out, any chance Krueger stays and/or moves up to GM? Would that even matter?

I’m not completely convinced that a bad year guarantees Botterill gets run out of town. They were fairly quick on the trigger with Murray and Bylsma and ran Housley out at their first opportunity. I think the Bills’ success and the general theory that stability is key will play into the Pegula’s thinking. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t deserve to be fired if they finish 26th. But I could see a scenario where he keeps his job.

That being said, I think there’s some sort of line of succession in place where Krueger eventually moves up the organizational depth chart. Whether at the end of his current contract (assuming he sees the end of it) or in another year or two. He’s made multiple statements regarding his interest in holding leadership roles akin to a President of Hockey Ops. I could see a situation where he’s eventually promoted and either Chris Taylor or another up-and-coming coach steps into the coaching job.

My reticence regarding hiring a replacement for Jason Botterill – assuming the season goes so poorly that he’s relieved of his duties – comes from the Pegulas’ general track record with hiring. Yes, the Bills are doing quite well. But Sean McDermott isn’t going to be mistaken for Sean McVay anytime soon. So I’d slot him in as another fairly old school thinker when it comes to methodology. Between the Rex Ryan circus, Pat LaFontaine’s shadowy resignation, Murray, Bylsma, Housley, Doug Whaley and others, I think the hiring resume for the owners is pretty bleak. This is why, even if the season gets turned on its ear and they determine they need a President of Hockey Ops, I don’t have a lot of confidence they’d hire the right person.

Hopefully Thursday’s performance is a sign of things to come. I may dislike a lot of the lineup decisions they made, but I do like the forecheck that Krueger runs. If he gets his style of play dialed in, it could be a nice little year. And that would buy both he and Botterill more time.

Ryan/@burgmania – Did you get the #Sabres EBUG job?

I haven’t applied yet, and I’m not sure I plan on doing so. I like playing around with the idea that I’d be on speed dial if Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark got the runs at 5:45. However, I’m well aware of my abilities as goaltender. At my best I wouldn’t stand a chance filling in during an NHL game. I don’t think it’s wholly appropriate to throw my hat in the ring since the only option is to submit an application.

Scott Foster, who gained notoriety for his partial shutout of the Jets last year, was on Mike McKenna’s podcast and his playing career included four years at Western Michigan. While he never became a full time starter for them, he was skilled enough to play in the NCAA. I was…not…that. If I could do what Jorge Alves did and get credit for stepping in for the last six seconds of a game, sign me up. But I’m not going to pretend like I’d even come close to making a save if ever called upon in an NHL game.

If the Sabres opted to hold a tryout like the Kings and Panthers did, I’d love to participate. That’s low stakes and worth just for the experience. Maybe I’ll toss in an application on the off chance that a tryout is the next step in the process. But don’t expect to see me rocking a backup towel any time soon.

Kevin/@ntrider825 – What’s up with mccabe

I don’t know but I really liked him on Thursday night. I don’t mind pairing him with Ristolainen and should they get appropriate minutes, I think they’ll do quite well together. They got a lot of minutes on Thursday, which isn’t ideal, but I happened to like what McCabe had to offer in the first game of the year. Let’s hope he stays healthy and offers them some quality middle pair minutes.

@bfloirish – What number of starts would you project for Hutton/Ullmark?  If they both struggle again, is there a conceivable midseason move available for GMJB?

I may be crazy, but if things get messy in Minnesota, sign me up.

I expected they’d work out a 50/30 split last year as they set out on a path to transition to Ullmark serving as their number one goalie. They almost hit that mark exactly as Hutton had 48 starts to Ullmarks’ 37. They were probably counting on Ullmark taking a bigger step forward (any step really), so they may stay in that timeshare again this year. Maybe it trends closer to an even timeshare, but I’d still lean towards Hutton getting more starts.

As for finding a potential replacement, that’s a tough call. They’d either be looking at pulling a young guy from another team’s pipeline (think Tristan Jarry, Pheonix Copley, Ville Husso) or waiting to see if teams on the edge of a rebuild falls out of contention and start looking for picks. Devan Dubnyk is an interesting candidate to me should the Wild spiral and if Jason Botterill decides to try for an upgrade.

It’s worth noting that if things go sideways for either goaltender, Botterill could look to ship one of them out with an eye on resetting as the season progresses. I heard a rumor they got a couple of inquiries on Hutton near the deadline and I could see the Blue Jackets poking around if they determine their very green duo isn’t strong enough to lean on. If there was any move made in the Sabres’ crease, I think shipping someone out is more likely than bringing someone in. Although the idea of pulling Dubnyk out of Minnesota is one of my favorite new pet theories.

Dan/@danielzielinski – How improved can we expect this team to be when they are trotting out so many of the same forwards that don’t contribute? Hard to sell they care about icing the best team when they guys who had a good camp lose out to Sobotka, Girgensons, Larson, etc.

The good news is that for at least one night, they were better. In fact, that fourth line was pretty darn good. But I feel your pain. It didn’t help that Elliotte Friedman coined the phrase “roster surgery”, but given the additions they made, it was only logical to assume they’d trim some of the proverbial fat.

The same goes for playing Rasmus Ristolainen over 23 minutes a night. If he’s not being traded, that’s just fine. I can deal with that. But don’t just do the exact same thing the last three coaches have tried and assume something different is going to happen.

It’s hard to have faith in things getting better when so many things are exactly the same. I’ll give Krueger rope though. I’m not going to condemn him without seeing them actually play games. But if he makes questionable decisions, my faith is going to be a heck of a lot lower. Thursday was a good first step though. Here’s hoping there’s more of that in our future.

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