If Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill went into next season with virtually the same lineup that got him to 26th in the NHL last season, one would expect the collective psyche of Sabre fans to be a blown gasket. The Peace Bridge Authorities would be on high alert for fans wanting to jump from the bridge. Ace hardware and big-box DYI stores would run out of tiki torches and pitchforks while police in and around KeyBank Center would be on the lookout for any and all potential signs of trouble.
Yeah, it would be bad. Maybe not as bad as described above save for social media and various chat-rooms. The furor there would be fueled by the rage and angst of a pertetually afflicted Buffalo sports-base venting mushroom clouds of anger and blame directed at anyone and everyone even remotely associated with the organization. Hell, it might even include Rip Simonick, Brian "Spinner" Spencer or Taro Tsujimoto as well as the entire fictitious Tokyo Katanas hockey club.
Yes, Sabres fans, after eight playoff-less seasons centered around a tank-induced suffering, it really is that bad but it's on the upswing. Ever so slowly. Two team presidents, three general managers and six coaches later, Buffalo's hockey club has shown signs that it may be lifting itself off of the canvas, but there's a long way to go before they begin to smell respectability
For the 2019 off seasons, anything less than at least a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman (preferably both) would mean utter failure to most in Sabreland and one might strongly believe that GM Jason Botterill is aware of his teams holes and is trying to address them, albeit in his own methodical and calculated way. Buffalo is in need of a No. 2 center, a top-six winger and a top-four defenseman, preferably one who can play at least 70 games and not look as if he's fresh from Junior-A playing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
As of now it's been a rather slow off-season for the Sabres with their main priority being winger Jeff Skinner and keeping him in the fold long-term. Botterill made a great trade but gambled somewhat as Skinner was a pending UFA this season and there were no guarantees he'd re-sign in Buffalo. Botterill and Skinner got it done with an 8 yr./$72 million deal that will keep the 40-goal scorer with the Sabres through all of his prime years and into the beginning of his ride off into the sunset.
However, the quest for one of those positions of need hasn't gone as well and by the looks of it, we may not see much, especially with the free agent market pecolationg to the point where overpay might be an understatement. The Philadelphia Flyers, never ones to shy away from exorbidant contracts for players they believe fit the orange and black, sent huge dollars Kevin Hayes' way to keep him after trading for his rights. Speaking of right, no one in their right mind would dish out a seven-year deal for a cap-hit of over $7 million for a solid No. 2 forward who hit 20 goals only once in his five-year NHL career (25 last season.) Yet, there were the Flyers, getting the jump on stupid season which is supposed to start July 1.
And it probably won't end there as pending UFA defenseman Tyler Myers, a Calder Trophy-winning ex-Sabre who was on the third pairing in Winnipeg, is projected to get a seven-year contract for upwards of $7 million on his free agent deal.
There are a couple of free agents out there like Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin who will be getting huge market-driven that are at least within range of their production. It won't be surprising to see Duchene get a long-term deal for around $10 million as he's a bona fide No. 2 center who's hitting the market with really no alternatives for his role. Panarin should get at least that as he's been one of the elite wingers in the league for years.
Free agent players of interest to the Sabres might include San Jose right wing Joe Pavelski who's coming off a 38-goal season at the age of 34. It might take a hefty three-year deal to get him to play in Buffalo, which wouldn't be all that bad, but word on the street is that there's no contact between the two sides regarding an interview yet.
Anders Lee of the NY Islanders is said to be a player of interest for Buffalo but it might take a big contract to sign the 6'3" 231 lb. left winger and the Sabres might be a little gun-shy about tapping into former Islanders anyway as they've signed two such players that have added very little to the team. Matt Moulson, was a complete bust while another winger, Kyle Okposo, is underachieving to the point where he's hovering a little above that status. Moulson was signed at $5million/season while Okposo chimed in at a $6 million AAV. Moulson scored 35 goals in three seasons before the Sabres waived him and he ended up with the Ontario Reign (AHL) for the better part of the last two seasons while Okposo has 48 goals in three seasons for Buffalo.
Fact is, unless Botterill has a trade up his sleeve, there doesn't look like there's much he'll be doing much for top-end free agents come July 1 and we may not see a significant move until the dog days of summer, much like the Skinner trade on August 2 last year. If he could pull a move off like that again we might see the Peace bridge back to normal and all the torches and pitchforks away.
Yet, fans are already grimacing at the prospects of the Sabres heading into next season with virtually the same lineup as last season and they should. This blogger would be a bit dismayed in that respect but also feels it would be an interesting case study in the value of coaching.
Former Sabres bench boss Phil Housley was in way over his head and did severe damage to the organization. We don't know how much of a direct affect he had on Ryan O'Reilly's "lost love for the game" but in retrospect, it could have been significant as could the play of many Sabres, especially those on defense. Buffalo was a mess defensively for the better part of Housley's reign with structure lacking and roles ill-defined. It made for and endless reel of Keystone Cops moments and eventually his firing.
The mess on defesnse most definitely had an affect on goaltending with both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark taking huge steps back. Andrew Allen, Buffalo's goalie coach under Housley, was let go as was Davis Payne, who oversaw a powerplay that went from first in the league to 16th-overall in the league last year. Chris Hajt, son of former Sabres defenseman Bill Hajt, was moved from the bench to the pressbox before last season after oversseing a trainwreck on defense in 2017-18. He was replaced by Steve Smith who took the Sabres penalty kill from 26th in the league under Hajt to 12th in the league last year.
Smith, a three-time Cup-winner as a player, was retained by new head coach Ralph Krueger and was joined by Don Granato and goalie coach Mike Bale as assitants to Krueger.
Make no mistake, it's the belief here that Botterill really needs to do something to upgrade his team or we'll be looking at another lower-third finish, especially with the way the Eastern Conference has gained strength these past two months. Should he not, oh my what these threads could become.
That said, just one solid move might be enough to keep the restless natives at bay.