Sabres Rebuild: The Good

Part one of this post appeared yesterday, detailing the negative points of the Buffalo Sabres current rebuild. Part two focuses solely on the good points that are pointing to a promising future.

Amending the mistakes and shortcomings on Buffalo’s roster certainly won’t be an easy feat. Some oversights simply won’t ever be fixed. For example, unless Robin Lehner becomes a Vezina contender or steals a playoff round (or two) it’s unlikely the price Murray paid to acquire him will ever be justified. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a sufficient starter for the club either. That he’s shown to be a capable starter – and that Anders Nilsson has enjoyed a resurgence in a backup role for the Sabres – gives Murray and the Sabres time to evaluate their long-term options.

Both Lehner and Nilsson are restricted and unrestricted free agents, respectively, Lehner has arbitration rights so all signs point to him being retained for at least another season. Nilsson’s play may motivate him to explore the open market for a team offering more money and more minutes, but I’m expecting to see him for at least another year in Buffalo.

While it may pain some fans to read, if either of Buffalo’s goaltenders are likely to move on, it would be Nilsson. Linus Ullmark has turned into a workhorse for the Americans this season, earning AHL All Star honors while facing the most action in the entire league. Ullmark’s development is likely reaching a point to where further AHL action won’t be of much value compared to taking the step into the NHL.

Ullmark’s overall development may ultimately fall short of being a true number one in the NHL as his play in North America has been more than encouraging, but he hasn’t shown the dominance you’d expect to be considered the answer in goal for a franchise. Even still, he’s a young asset for the Sabres to utilize and taking over the backup role next year seems to be the next logical step.

That isn’t to say that retaining Nilsson shouldn’t be done. He’s played very well for the Sabres this year and will likely record career best numbers at the NHL level. He’s proven himself as a viable option in net capable of maybe taking on a larger workload in tandem with Lehner.

Buffalo’s long term outlook in net isn’t as bright as other teams around the league as Cal Petersen and Jonas Johansson are the only non-contract assets in the pipeline at the moment. Johansson is still plying his craft in Sweden and likely won’t make the jump to North America for at least another year. Continue reading

Sabres Rebuild: The Bad and The Ugly

An interesting story line has begun to emerge as the Sabres have struggled to move past the improvements made during the 2015-16 season.

With the team stuck in roughly the same spot they ended 2016 in, more fans are questioning the moves made by Tim Murray in an attempt to turn the Sabres from the basement dwelling fixer upper he inherited to the Cup contending team the fans and ownership are so desperate to see.

Due to a host of reasons, many self-inflicted, the lack of serious progress has raised questions ranging from the GM’s ability to evaluate talent to why the coach has made certain systemic decisions. Most of the questions that are being asked are well founded while others are simply ridiculous.

There seems to be a growing sense in the fan base that Buffalo’s rebuild has stalled or is even irrevocably broken and doomed for failure. That latter opinion, of course, is lunacy. There are some obvious holes left on Buffalo’s roster but looking at the big picture, this thing is still heading in the right direction. If nothing else, the foundation to head in that direction has been laid, it’s just a manner of covering the gaps.

Given this prevailing feeling that nothing the Sabres have done is worthwhile, it seemed like a good time to evaluate the Sabres current situation. That meant giving an earnest evaluation of the good, the bad and even the ugly. This isn’t mean to be a dripping apologist post but an analysis that includes the nuance that so many in the fan base seem to ignore when criticizing the club. Continue reading

The Instigator Podcast 5.30 – Missing Pieces

Since all we seem to do is jinx the Sabres with most of our post-game shows, we figured it would be best to talk about something other than the game that was just played. So Chris and Tyler sit down to see what’s still missing from Buffalo’s rebuild as the season progresses. Most of the conversation hinges on the blueline, which should surprise nobody. Be sure to listen and subscribe on iTunes, Google Play or on another podcast app.

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Taking Inventory of the Rebuilds in Buffalo and Toronto

Saturday was a good day for Sabres fans. The team rebounded from a brutal start and beat the Jets, 3-2. Winning is always nice, but how the Sabres did it had me particularly pleased.

Hudson Fasching, days after signing his rookie deal, make Jacob Trouba look like a turnstile as he bulled around him and buried his first NHL goal. It was a prototypical power forward move, the type Sabres fans had heard so much about as Fasching excelled at the University of Minnesota. After Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel completed the comeback, the Sabres had three goal scorers aged 20 or younger and Eichel had his 50th point.

All was well for me until I came across an article with the headline “Maple Leafs Keep Doing Things the Right Way, Expect to be Rewarded by Hockey Gods.” This was the second article in the span of about a week that heaped praise upon the storied franchise just up the QEW while taking a subtle, or not so subtle, jab at the way the Sabres have executed their rebuild. The previously mentioned article, from The Hockey News, goes off a quote from Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock and praises the play of the prospects getting their first extended playing time in Toronto. Earlier in the week The Score came out with an article claiming the Leafs were better at rebuilding than the Sabres. To support this stance the author used such hard hitting facts as: Mike Babcock picked the Leafs over the Sabres, the Sabres fired their director of performance and the Leafs haven’t fired their director of sports science. Oh, and the Leafs beat the Sabres in meaningless late March game. Continue reading

Murray’s makeover moves forward with aggressive draft day moves

It was a whirlwind of a weekend for Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres as Buffalo’s GM maneuvered to acquire a new starting goaltender, a legitimate top-six forward and a potential franchise defining talent with the first three picks at his disposal.

Oh, yeah, NOW you smile. – Terry Pegula.

The selection of Jack Eichel was all but guaranteed the moment the Oilers card was pulled during the draft lottery. But trading for Robin Lehner, David Legwand, Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn was hardly an expectation. The new acquisitions, coupled with this week’s signings, set the stage to push Buffalo’s rebuild forward significantly.

In January I wrote about the arsenal of assets Murray had at his disposal. At that time Murray held five of the first 60 picks in the draft along with a boatload of prospects at various levels of development. Today his roster is drastically altered. O’Reilly, Kane and Eichel are set to redefine the team’s top-six while Zach Bogosian and Robin Lehner will be vital pieces on the backend. Murray’s moves at the draft table completed a vital step of the rebuild and should push the Sabres firmly on the path back to competitiveness. Continue reading

Trade route might unearth the answer in net for Buffalo

With the lottery balls still left to be pulled, there are very few positions in the Sabres organization that have an immediate need to be addressed for both the short and long-term. In fact, you could argue that the Sabres’ pipeline is well stocked at nearly every position.

The one area that needs attention, particularly in the near future, is goaltender. While the Sabres have a number of quality goaltending prospects, including four who are at least a year away from their professional debuts, they’re short on NHL-ready talent between the pipes. The recent trade of Jhonas Enroth, while a good decision, demonstrates the shallow depth the Sabres have atop their goaltending pipeline.

While Linus Ullmark, Jonas Johansson and Cal Petersen provide a fair bit of long-term stability from a development standpoint, only Ullmark is under contract at this time. Further, Ullmark will be making his North American debut next year, meaning he is at least two years away from being truly prepared for significant NHL action while the others in the pipeline are still a year or longer away from getting an NHL contract, let along professional playing time.

There is a gap between where the team is expected to be in the coming years and the earliest point you can hope Ullmark makes a serious impact at the NHL level. That means one of two things for Tim Murray and the Sabres. They can either sign a veteran free agent to serve as a bridge for the organization or they can work to trade for another young, promising goaltender who’s further along the development track. The former option may be unavoidable as there is a very good chance that Murray needs to look past Michal Neuvirth as his answer in net regardless of his long-term plans.

Even with the prospect of Ullmark shaping into a star, using a portion of Buffalo’s impressive array of assets to acquire a goaltender who is ready to step into a significant NHL role isn’t just an option that should be considered, it’s the option they should take. Murray is likely going to be stuck signing a veteran this summer whether he likes it or not, but as an organization that is clearly serious about becoming a contender in short order, speeding up their presence in net should be a priority. Considering how weak the free agent class will be, pursuing a trade for a goaltender who is ready for a bigger role represents the best option for the Sabres to improve for both the short and long-term. Continue reading

The Deck is Stacked in Murray’s Favor

Nearly a full month removed from their last victory, plenty is being said of the Sabres express trip to the NHL’s basement. The ethics and direction of Buffalo’s season bring about accusations and arguments over tanking, the skillset of the head coach and the ability of Tim Murray to move the Sabres from cellar dweller to contender.

At this point of the season the Sabres are nothing short of a roaring dumpster fire. The scalding hot play of Jhonas Enroth, Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson – the quartet that helped power their late November surge – has all but disappeared while the rest of the roster has been battered by injuries. With the roster limping around, the tactically feeble head coach has been unable to find a way to turn around Buffalo’s month-long slump and the team’s slow starts and weak finishes should bring about question surrounding his famous motivational skills.

The result of Buffalo’s 11-straight regulation losses is a spot in 30th place and an increasing probability that they’ll be the proud owners of the highest or second highest chance of drafting first overall. As is widely known, finishing 30th guarantees the Sabres the opportunity to draft Jack Eichel as a consolation if their 20% chance at winning the lottery doesn’t pan out.

While a grand debate has raged all year over the ethics and logic surrounding the push or hope for the first overall selection, it would seem that far too many individuals who follow the Sabres have ignored the arsenal that Tim Murray has at his disposal. While getting McDavid or Eichel remains up in the air, there is little doubt that the 2015 Draft will represent the point in which Murray puts the pedal to the floor on this rebuild. Continue reading