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April 19, 2021, 10:54 AM ET [433 Comments]
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Insufferable Buffalo

The Sun Also Rises (In Buffalo)
Don’t look now, but the Don Granato Sabres are 5-2-3 in their last 10 and are playing the most exciting games we have seen all season. The Krueger cloud has moved onto some far corner of the world making his case on why he would be an excellent Cricket coach as spring sunshine once again rises in Buffalo. The Sabres are at a crucial point with both their fans and their best player (Zenon Kenopka) and need an excellent offseason to restore their faith in both parties. If his mind isn’t already made up, this is truly the last chance the team has to convince Eichel of the team’s potential.

It seems with each game, Don Granato endears himself more to the fans in both his on ice results and his post game interviews: “I feel responsibility to the fans and Sabres contingent. You know, we’re in the entertainment business; it should be entertaining. I want to be entertained.” Granato will and should be considered for the head coaching position, but that doesn’t mean Kevyn Adams and newly anointed AGM Jason Karmanos shouldn't do their homework. To be clear, I am all for Granato’s consideration, but I am also tired of the Sabres head coaching job being handed out like Tops Monopoly tickets. Gerard Gallant and Bruce Boudreau are two excellent candidates with proven track records that deserve interviews regardless of Granato’s brief success so far. This is no knock against Granato, and I would confidently/ hopefully think Granato’s success gives him the upper hand over a coach with no NHL experience like Nate Leaman.
I don’t want to spend too much time regurgitating coaching since a previous writer went into that, but Boudreau and Gallant’s resumes speak for themselves. Excluding the two incomplete seasons in which he was fired, Boudreau’s teams have made the playoffs 10 times and missed only twice. The initial reservation I had with Boudreau was his potential volatility with players (i.e. Teemu Selanne), but perhaps a coach who will hold veterans to the same standards would be a good thing. Lord knows we endured enough veteran spoon feeding to Eakin, Okposo, and Sobotka under Ralph Krueger.
Gerard Gallant on the other hand is a surefire “players coach” who is universally beloved by his players. Gallant of course recently united the ragtag, inaugural Golden Knights and took them on that miracle Stanley Cup run. Gallant followed that up with another season of playoffs and was fired last year with his team very much in contention and that would go onto finish first in their division under Pete DeBoer. Despite players loving to play for Gallant, he seemingly always gets the short end of the stick too soon with management. Still in contention, the Florida Panthers once fired and left this man at the airport and made him find his own way home in a taxi. Ouch.
Let’s be patient and see how Granato finishes the season; if he goes on a real tear he may give Adams and Karmanos no choice but to hire him. Oh and please, I love John Tortorella interviews as much as anyone, but we don’t need another reason to keep good players out of Buffalo (see Dubois and Panarin in Columbus). If you missed it, every single Tampa Bay player, coach, and trainer once played a game of “Don’t tell John” and didn’t invite him to their own Stanley Cup after party in 2004 because of how little they liked the guy. Yikes.

At this point, I expect Rasmus Ristolainen’s soul is doomed to haunt Buffalo forever until we all learn a very important lesson about love and friendship. It’s clear he’s still regarded highly by both internal management and management around the league because he is big, can skate, shoots right, plays lots of minutes, and is physical. The problem is and has always been that he just isn’t good. Before this becomes universal knowledge, the Sabres need to trade him. They also need to do it before the expansion draft or else they will be leaving one of him, Jokiharju, or Borgen exposed. Any successful trade scenario involving Ristolainen will be heavily reliant on another team’s GM vastly overvaluing him.

Trade Scenario One: Buffalo trades Ristolainen to Philadelphia for Konecny
Coming off a season with terrible defense and goaltending, Philadelphia may be impulsive reactive to make a shakeup. Philippe Myers and Justin Braun are their only right shot defensemen under contract for next season and maybe Philadelphia overestimates the emergence of Joel Farabee to part with Konecny. This would be a dollars in, dollars out move as Risto makes “only” 100K less than Konecny. Konecny put up 61 points in 66 games and always plays with a chippiness you love on your team but hate to play against.

Trade Scenario Two: Buffalo trades Ristolainen to Vancouver for J.T. Miller
Cue the Vancouver riots part two. Maybe ownership and management is upset with Miller for speaking out against the NHL’s handling of the Canuck’s return to play. Never underestimate Jim Benning to do the wrong thing. Jim Benning needs to figure out how to fit Quinn Hughes and Brock Boesers’ next contracts under the cap so he first signs Tanner Pearson to a 9.75 million extension. Vancouver loves big Buffalo defensemen who look, but don’t act the part- ahem Tyler Myers. This trade is reliant on Benning thinking Quinn Hughes needs a Big BoyTM to let him play more freely. In Ristolainen Vancouver gets a yearly Norris Norse finalist. In J.T. Miller, Buffalo gets a guy who can play winger and center and put up 72 points in 69 games last season.

Trade Scenario Three: Buffalo Trades their 2021 first round pick to Seattle for Jeff Skinner
This is the least exciting trade you can make because it’s losing out on a future impactful player just to undo a managerial mistake. I highly doubt the Sabres will do this, but given the long term flexibility a move like this could provide it is an interesting one to consider. I really like Jeff Skinner and he is still a useful player, but he will never score 40 goals again and is signed into his mid 30s at 9 million.

I’m trying to win Eichel back this offseason like a scorned lover. I am not entertaining any Eichel trades.

Expansion Draft (July 21st, 2021)
It’s safe to assume the Sabres go the 7-3-1 route in the Seattle Expansion Draft. Depending on whether or not they trade Ristolainen or resign McCabe, the Sabres will be forced to expose one or both of Borgen and Jokiharju. In my instance, the Sabres have traded Ristolainen and resigned McCabe. It’s a shame Borgen got hurt so soon into being called up because he wasn’t able to leave a full impression. Hopefully he returns before this season is over so he can make the Sabres decision more difficult. If no trade happens between Buffalo and Seattle, I expect Seattle would select Borgen in the expansion draft.
Forwards: Eichel, Skinner (NMC), Reinhart, Olofsson, Mittlestadt, Bjork, Asplund Defense: McCabe, Dahlin, Jokiharju
Goalie: Ullmark
Notables Exposed: Borgen, Thompson

The Draft (July 23rd, 2021)
Barring a blockbuster trade, Buffalo will keep their first round pick and have a chance at the draft lottery. That being said, I hope they lose the first overall pick so they don’t draft Owen Power. My fear for Power is that with his excellent size and mobility he could still develop into 2009 third overall pick: Erik Gudbranson. Now I do think Gudbranson would be an extreme low for Power’s trajectory, but both their pre scouting profiles emphasize their large frame, mobility, and number crunching ability- essentially every coach’s wet dream. One NHL scout told Bob Mckenzie: “He’s not Hedman, not really, because Victor, at the same age, was elite in every category. Power is very good in every category, not elite.” I’m not trying to be pessimistic, just weary in expectations for a first overall pick touted as not as good as Hedman was. That being said perhaps it’s just the Napoleon in me being salty that this 6’ 5” 17 year old kid is my height backwards.

The Sabres already have a decent defensive collection in the pipeline with Ryan Johnson (left shot, 2019, 31st overall), Mattias Samuelsson (left shot, 2018, 32nd overall), and Oskari Laaksonen (left shot, 2017, 89th overall) who have all been developing positively. Ryan Johnson has taken a big step forward this year, winning gold in the World Juniors with team USA and putting up 14 points in 27 games in his sophomore season for University of Michigan. Johnson was taken with St. Louis’ first round pick from the infamous O’Reilly trade, so his development into a top four player would ease that resounding sting if ever so slightly. Though it’s hard to gauge their total impact as Rochester and most of the AHL has been a mess due to NHL teams' taxi squads, it is encouraging to see Laaksonen and Samuelsson form the top defensive pairing as rookies. Laaksonen is fourth in scoring on the Amerks with 2 goals, 10 assists and averaging .71 p/pg, while Samuelsson is more modestly touting 2 goals, 7 assists and .50 p/pg.
With the successful graduation of Dylan Cozens, I would prefer to see the Sabres add some more high end forward talent to the prospect pool. Perhaps the Sabres’ healing scouting department will see it unavoidable to not pick a defensemen given the quality projected in many top 10 lists: Owen Power, Luke Hughes, Brandt Clarke, and Simon Edvinsson. I understand the allure of each of these prospects, but I’d prefer to take a shot on two-way center Matthew Beniers. Some draft lists have Beniers actually ranked over Power as the top pick due to Beniers well rounded 200 foot game that draws parallels to Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. In 24 games for University of Michigan as an 18 year old freshman, Beniers has gone point per game with 10 goals and 14 assists. I really like the fact Beniers has faced slightly older and bigger competition than prospects coming out of Canadian Junior leagues, which potentially would make his professional transition much more seamless. I also think the addition of Beniers would perhaps relax this current experiment in Rochester of top forward prospect Jack Quinn moving from right wing to center. Quinn essentially had to play in Rochester due to the OHL’s cancelled season and although I’m all for players rounding out their games, a goal first player like Quinn I’d rather see on the wing. The great thing about the development of Cozens is that Beniers doesn’t need to make the Sabres right away. Instead, he could do what 2020 2nd overall pick Quinton Byfield is doing on the LA Kings and develop his professional game in the AHL. 19 year old winger JJ Peterka is having a very good DEL campaign right now after an excellent World Juniors and hopefully will be on the Amerks next season. Picturing a potential Rochester top line of Peterka - Beniers - Quinn genuinely makes me excited and would make the Sabres farm system exciting for the first time in a long time.

Matthew Zator of The Hockey Writers does an excellent and exciting breakdown of Beniers’ game which you can find here: https://thehockeywriters.com/matthew-beniers-2021-nhl-draft-prospect-profile/

Free Agency (July 28th 2021)
Though there hasn’t been an official announcement yet, it’s looking like the salary cap will remain flat next season. Using a rough estimation, the Sabres are looking like they’ll be approaching free agency with approximately 28 million dollars in cap space. I’m comfortable with the Sabres qualifying RFAs Borgen, Mittlestadt, Jokiharju, and Asplund. Assuming all of them accept their offers (Jokiharju may be the hardest sell), let’s say that the remaining cap space is down to 24 million. I’m really hoping Buffalo locks in Dahlin and Reinhart on long term contracts. A long term Dahlin contact would take advantage of his inconsistencies in his young career and could turn into a steal if he breaks out in a big way like he was projected to. I’m looking at Morgan Reilly’s contract with the leafs: 6 years 30 million worth 5 million a year. Remaining cap space 19 million.
Due to Botterill’s bad choice of a bridge contract, Sam Reinhart is set to get paid in a big and rightful way. Reinhart has been one of the bright spots this year, leading the team in goals and points mostly without Eichel and playing center, often supporting inept even strength wingers Okposo and Olofsson. If I get the Sabres writer position, know that I will make an effort to embed video evidence, much like Sheng Peng did successfully on this site and will not just through out of context underlying statistics at you- trust me, I’ve seen too many James Tanner (RIP) comment sections to do that. That being said if you’re a Sabres fan you know Reinhart passes the eye test and unsurprisingly, his underlying stats support his success too. On a team that has a worse finishing ability than a 93 year old with erectile dysfunction, Reinhart is better than 75 percent of players in the league in goal scoring and finishing. Something like 7x7 million may be realistic and worth it for Reinhart. Remaining cap space: 12 million.
We were truly robbed of the sensational defensive season Jake McCabe was having. McCabe is a player that eye guys and stats guys can get married over. He is a rock on the back end and is so defensively sound he was even convincing us for a moment that Ristolainen could actually be good. It is essential to sign McCabe. Without exaggerating, he is quite literally one of the league's best defensive defenseman and is better than 95 percent of his peers. Outside of his defense, he is the kind of player that we often pine for on the Sabres; McCabe is a heart and soul player who isn’t afraid to stand up for his guys. He is exactly the type of player I’d want leading the Sabres young D core and hopefully the injury is a small blip on his career. Contract wise maybe you get something to the tune of 5 years 5 million. Remaining cap space: 7 million.
The last in house player you have to worry about locking up is Linus Ullmark. Ullmark channeled his best 2015-17 Robin Lehner and posted a .917 save percentage on a truly abysmal at times Sabres team. Ullmark certainly isn’t a league best goalie yet, but he did play very well and had some astounding moments. If he hadn’t gotten hurt the Sabres loss streak would not have reached such a dismal point. Injury concerns are fair considering the multiple lower body injuries he’s had this year, but he’s a must sign. Ullmark’s next contract is the one I have the hardest time evaluating. Thatcher Demko resigning with Vancouver at 5x5, may be the closest comparable as he also posted a .917 save percentage this year. I still think Demko projects higher long term having a better Goals Saved Above Replacement on a similarly bad defensive team and being 2 years younger than Ullmark, however the Sabres may have to overpay Ullmark to ensure he stays. Remaining cap space: 2 million.

Until the Sabres build real success, free agency is going to be a tough sell for any big names without giving them the Jeff Skinner treatment. I’d love to see Dougie Hamilton opposite Dahlin or McCabe, but his impending 10 million dollar contract just doesn’t align with what Buffalo has available. 28 million looks like a lot until you allocate it internally. If Kyle Okposo goes on LTIR, given another season ending injury he just suffered, then that potentially changes the scope of what the Sabres can do. One thing is for sure, the need for competent backup goaltending is dire. If more funds become available I would love to take a chance of the oft-maligned Freddy Andersen from our neighbors to the North. Andersen, and all of us, could use a breath of fresh air away from Toronto media and fans and he could be the perfect 1B complement for Ullmark. Given his shortcomings in Toronto he could be had on a shorter 1 or 2 year contract, which also gives Ukko-Pekka Luukonen more time to develop his game and judging by his season so far in Rochester, UPL isn’t ready for the NHL.

In conclusion
The Sabres’ decisions this offseason are paramount to winning back Eichel and their fanbase. I want nothing more than a successful offseason that leads us all to being able to tell Darren Dreger and the rest of the league to f off, when Eichel announces he wants to stay in Buffalo. Until Eichel makes it clear he doesn’t, there is no reason not to continue to build this franchise around the generational talent.

Stats referenced: Capfriendly, JFresh x Top Down Hockey, HockeyDB
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