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. Continue reading

Post-Camp Musings Ahead of Final Cuts

The Sabres are about to get down to playing some honest to god, regular season hockey games this week. Before they jump in to games that count for something, they need to make a few decisions on their roster.

Preseason hockey is tough to take too much information from given the irregular rosters on a game-to-game basis. One night you could see an NHL-heavy roster and on another night you might only see three or four NHL regulars in the lineup. With that being the case, it can even be hard to be impressed by individual performances since the level of competition they can come against can vary so much.

There’s also the Preseason Pledge to consider. You can’t get too high or too low on a player or the team given the volatility of the roster during the preseason. But that can go out the window when Vladimir Sobotka skates on the second line and the coach says a lot of really nice things about him.

On the eve of the regular season opening, there seems to be more concern and annoyance than excitement across Sabres nation. Jason Botterill went out and acquired a handful of players who could really help this team turn a corner this year. Only, he forgot to get rid of anyone from last year’s group. This preseason was thought to be the one where we’d finally see some dead weight stripped off the roster. The likes of Sobotka, Zemgus Girgensons and Marco Scandella have been the most popular candidates in that regard. But with the season almost upon us, that’s looking more and more dire.

I, for one, seriously expected Sobotka to spend the final year of his contract in Europe. I’m glad I attached the caveat to my opinion that we couldn’t take solace in it happening until Botterill filed the paperwork. Given the state of the roster, Sobtoka seems to be safe. It’s disappointing for a number of reasons, primarily because Sobotka is bad at hockey. The silver lining here is that it appears that Sobotka is simply keeping Conor Sheary’s seat warm on the second line. He may just be the extra forward, meaning he’ll spend plenty of time in the pressbox this season.

Still, the fact that he’ll be an option to dress on a nightly basis is extremely disappointing.

I suppose there’s still a chance that we get surprised by the noon waiver notifications. But I’m not expecting any fireworks from the Sabres. That’s not to say they shouldn’t make some noise with their roster decisions. While about two-thirds of the roster was set before camp opened, I think there have been a few eye-opening performances the should have affected Botterill and Ralph Krueger’s thinking on the final 23-man roster. Continue reading

A Five Days too Late Look at Sabres Training Camp

The Sabres kicked off training camp on Thursday of last week which doesn’t make this much of a preview since camp is nearly seven days deep.

Even though I’m tardy with this post, I still wanted to put a few thoughts together on the players the Sabres have in camp, particularly after seeing the first group take on the Penguins at Penn State.

Buffalo sent a veteran-heavy roster to Happy Valley and needed overtime despite tripling the Penguins in shot and bottling a 4-1 advantage against a roster that was much lighter on NHL talent. The result really couldn’t matter any less given how lopsided the rosters and the possession was, but there were a few high points to take away from the evening.

Conor Sheary did a few things that should give you confidence he can occupy Jack Eichel’s right wing, Henri Jokiharju and John Gilmour showed off their wheels and each netted a goal to boot. Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Jeff Skinner can probably hang out in a suite and eat popcorn for the rest of preseason while Ralph Krueger and Jason Botterill figure out the roster.

In light of Monday’s preseason tilt and the fact that I’m nearly a week late in offering a camp “preview”, I thought I’d try something a little different in terms of this post. I’ll highlight a few players and positions that stand out to me while trying to avoid some of the more traditional training camp storylines. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Jokiharju Deal Sets Table for Big Decisions

Jason Botterill hasn’t been shy about making changes to his roster this summer. It’s the third summer in a row where he’s taken strides to overhaul the roster and this offseason has been defense-heavy.

His latest transaction was certainly the biggest surprise of the offseason, though the deal probably won’t be remembered as a blockbuster. Acquiring Henri Jokiharju in exchange for Alex Nylander saw a pair of former first rounders shipped to new locales under two different sets of circumstances.

Jokiharju had become a fan-favorite for the Blackhaws, playing big minutes early last season under Joel Quenneville. As players began returning from injury, Jokiharju’s minutes rolled back before he was loanded to the Finnish World Juniors team and then Rockford, following Jeremy Colliton’s hiring.

There were be questions about Jokiharju’s long-term outlook with the Blackhawks with Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell in the pipeline. But he still won a whole lot of favor early on, with many seeing him as a star in the making.

Unlike Jokiharju, who appeared to be a fan favorite for the Hawks, Nylander had really fallen out of favor with most of the Sabres fanbase. He had struggled to gain the footing to earn a full-time NHL job. Injuries played a big role in that and his work ethic has often been credited as another major contributing factor in his inability to stick in Buffalo. Still, he never looked completely out of place during his NHL recalls. Perhaps it was just an attitude issue and he needed to be in the NHL to give an honest effort – not something you’d care to deal with in your organization – but it doesn’t feel out of the question.

Nylander certainly wasn’t on anyone’s list of untouchables, but just based on his 12-game cameo it seemed like he was going to get an opportunity to win a spot in the fall.  Instead he’s off to Chicago in a deal that involved two players you wouldn’t have thought would be on the move just a few weeks back. In a way these are the best kind of deals because it’s a hockey trade. It’s didn’t involve futures for a player or leveraging a cap dump, it was a simple player-for-player swap.

It’s a little bit like the Cody Hodgson/Zack Kassian deal from a few years back. I’m excited to see the Sabres snag another good skater who has a good aptitude for driving play offensively. He’s shown the ability to manage zone entries well and his passing ability ought to make him a threat offensively.

This trade adds yet another body to Buffalo’s already bloated blueline, putting Jason Botterill into a unique game of chicken when it comes to his roster. Continue reading

Another Look at the Center Market

As the season was slipping away the general consensus was that the Sabres needed help at center to help reverse their slide down the standings.

That help never came, of course, with a number of potential targets swapped ahead of the deadline, leaving the Sabres to move for Brandon Montour and look ahead to 2019-20. As the deadline approached, I wrote this post to see just what was available around the league at center.

With whispers that Rasmus Ristolainen will be moved growing into a dull roar, I thought it might be wise to run down a similar list to see if anything has changed between January and now. Ironically, many of the same names I highlighted in January could conceivably still be acquired despite being moved prior to the deadline.

There aren’t too many centers around the league who fit the Sabres’ need on the second line, are on favorable contracts and who are truly available. That might make it more favorable for the Sabres to leverage their best trade chips to acquire a more skilled winger as opposed to taking a lesser center just because that happens to be on the to-do list. It’s tantamount to drafting the best player available or drafting for need.

If a center is what the Sabres hone in on between now and training camp, here is a look at which teams may be worth reaching out to and which players would make some sense. Continue reading

The Instigator Podcast 7.36 – Season Finale? Jokiharju’s on You

The Marcus Johansson signing was reason enough to get together for our tentative season-ending podcast, but then Jason Botterill served up a whopper on Tuesday afternoon. The Sabres acquired Herni Jokiharju from the Blackhawks in exchange for Alex Nylander. It’s a big deal that sees a pair of former first rounders swapped and another young, puck-moving defenseman added to the Sabres stable. It also slots in another solid, right-hander to an already crowded blueline. We run down the acquisition of Jokiharju, potential Ristolainen deals and how the Sabres blueline could shake out.

You can listen to The Instigator Podcast on most podcast streaming services, including large providers such as iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio and TuneIn and most other third-party podcast streaming apps. You can find links to subscribe and rate the show below:

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