Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY IMAGES
The Buffalo Sabres are uh… not a very good hockey team. Some would even describe them as trash.
Whatever the case, they finished with a -36 goal differential and ended up 17 points out of the playoffs. I’m not totally convinced they’re in a worse position than the Detroit Red Wings who finished a point ahead of them in the divisional standings, but yeah, they weren’t all that great either. They haven’t been a playoff team “in a minute” as the kids say, and much of their fanbase is currently in a dilemma of when their rebuild actually started as well as what stage of the rebuild they’re in.
Even though it seems like their push has always been to be better than the Toronto Maple Leafs basically since inception, they hit 47 years without a Stanley Cup this spring. Fans are getting a little restless, though the hiring of a new GM tends to cool some fears a little bit.
After ending a confusing three-year love affair with Tim “TMGM” Murray (who never bought them any real success besides finishing second in a draft lottery he spent the whole season planning for), the Sabres find themselves hitting the reset button. Dan Bylsma is gone, and despite being in an arena that changes its name about once every two months, it’s a new era in Sabresville. And boy, has it been rough. Lost lotteries, losing better players in the draft, poor signings and one-sided trades aside, the on-ice Sabres product has been one of the league’s worst going back longer than the most recent lockout.
The Sabres were the target of the most interesting offseason story we’ve had in a while, where Jack Eichel spoke out allegedly and then within the week the two most important front office staff were out the door.
Though they’ve replaced the GM, hiring a coach is a major next step for these folks, and may honestly be their most important decision of the summer. The Sabres this upcoming season either hit their seventh straight year without a playoff berth, or take a real step forward into their hopes of being competitive.
GMTM’s replacement, Jason Botterill, definitely has his work cut out for him this summer has he attempts to push Buffalo back into the playoffs.
Defensively, they have just about no one. It’s easily one of the league’s roughest defensive corps. They allowed more shots against at 5v5 than every single team except the Arizona Coyotes. The problems start at the team’s top pairing.
Rasmus Ristolainen might be the worst defensive player of any who is known for being an offensive d-man in hockey. If you’re ever on the side of the argument where the rest of the league is telling you your player is bad in a particular way, you’re probably on the losing side of things. Say what you want about his offensive stats. They’re pretty solid… on the power play, where he picked up 25 points compared to 16 at 5v5. He’s a premier power play option, and a middle of the pack offensive talent.
This next sentence is a mouthful, so maybe read it once over to fully understand it: No team in the NHL over the course of an 82 game season in the past eight years has been as good offensively in terms of average shots as bad as Ristolainen was defensively in terms of average shots allowed.
For every 60 minutes Risto was on the ice at even strength, 36.48 shots were fired that hit the Buffalo net. If you push it to his Corsi numbers, 65.17 shot attempts against came out every 60 minutes. Against defenders with at least 60 games played, that’s better than literally one player in the league: Luke Schenn. If you were to average the offensive capabilities in terms of shot generation of the abilities of a Risto’s opposition into a single player, you’d be looking at Evgeni Malkin. Malkin scored 72 points in 62 games, and is a first ballot hall of famer who’s won a whole whackjob of individual awards. Playing against a matchup of Malkin every night is okay if you’re in the playoffs, but over 82? Yeesh.
Admittedly, he’s shown oodles of skill even at the NHL level, but he’s running towards the stage where his underlying numbers need to reflect that. If I was the one running Buffalo’s stats department, my key priority would be finding Risto a partner. Or find a deal where you can sell high to a bad team for a comparable level player. I know it sounds like blasphemy, but Buffalo needs to really figure out what they’ve got with that guy.
rasmus ristolainen has a worse score, zone and venue adjusted relative corsi than andrew copp
— Emmanuel Perry (@MannyElk) January 2, 2017
And that’s just their so-called best defenceman!
They had two full time d-men hit above a 49.0 Corsi For percentage (Cody Franson and Justin Falk). They signed Viktor Antipin on Thursday, who is a question mark solely because we haven’t seen him in NHL minutes.
In their prospect pipeline, they’ve got: Brandon Guhle, who put up a whopping 33 points in 47 WHL games this season, and Casey Nelson, who toiled around with the Rochester Americans bottom two pairings mostly. Neither are blue-chippers.
Up front, Jack Eichel is a special boy and should be protected at all costs. He’s already a top player in the league and will be for years to come.Also a second overall pick, Sam Reinhart, is waiting for his breakout year in what is also a contract season. Last season he dropped 47 points, which is respectable but still perhaps a little under what he should be capable of.
Beyond their top four or five forwards, honestly, it’s a whole lot of bleh.
Brian Gionta finished sixth in scoring with 35 points. That should tell you everything you need to know about the 2016-17 Sabres. Zemgus Girgensons, Tyler Ennis, Evan Rodrigues and Marcus Foligno all had disappointing years and are you honestly really still reading about the Buffalo Sabres bottom six? They’re obviously not very good, just skip ahead a little bit.
2016 first round pick Alex Nylander will see himself make the jump to the roster at least part-time next season I assume, but even he’s not a sure thing to step onto the NHL stage and be good right away. He had a slightly disappointing AHL rookie year, with only 28 points in 65 games. Part-timers Hudson Fasching and Nick Baptiste may be ready to make the jump next year up to the big club, but neither are guarantees.
Their goaltending was a non-issue this year as the team had the league’s 5th best goaltending in all situations, but they don’t currently have anyone signed for next season. Could either goalie be an expansion draft claim, maybe????
Conclusion: Defence is the team’s obvious weakness, but while there’s talent in the offence, it’s still in need of some tweaking to be more than just a really really good power play.
*Antipin not included because his contract details have not yet been released.
The Sabres come in with a relatively decent cap situation for next season. They have a good amount of flexibility and have enough of a core under contract for at least next season. They’ve got 16 players signed and just under 20 million in cap space to work with.
There’s only two problems: they aren’t exactly very strong as a group all together, and they’ve handcuffed themselves to Kyle Okposo and Ryan O’Reilly until 2023 at a combined cap hit of $13.5 million for two forwards not named Jack Eichel. Okposo played at a 56-point pace this season over 82 games, while O’Reilly put up a 62-point pace over the same timeframe.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that level of production with your two-three forwards. The highest scorer on Nashville, who is in the Cup Final, has just 61 points. But the issue does come with their age and the position the team is in right now. O’Reilly is 26 and Okposo is 29. That’s not all that troublesome now, but four or five years down the line? Yeesh, it could get rough.
Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel both come off their RFA contracts next season… which means we get another whole year to speculate their second deals. Evander Kane is the interesting one. The forward carries a $5.25 million cap hit for just a lone more season before hitting UFA status.
On the team’s worst deal, Matt Moulson is paid $5 million for the next two seasons, which probably isn’t a great deal because he put up 53 points… over the past two years combined. He missed just two games. On maybe the team’s second worst deal, Zach Bogosian is getting paid $5.1 million over the next three years. It’s not the best stat to evaluate a defender, but his career high is 30 points. This year, he had 11. Over 2013-14 to 2016-17, he’s got a 47.1% CF at even strength, which sits 7th (of 12th) amongst regular Sabres defencemen. He’s never really blossomed into the true top pairing guy some figured he’d be at the start of his career. Josh Gorges is a “whatever” contract as he’s got one year left on his deal and probably won’t re-sign.
I’ve already gone on my Risto rant. He scores a lot and gives up a lot of goals and gets shelled. A fair tradeoff, I suppose? If his defensive game gets sorted out, he’s on a pretty good deal for a #1 defenceman, and if he doesn’t, well, that’s problematic for the Sabres.
Conclusion: The Sabres don’t have any bad players on really, really, bad (long-term) contracts, but they don’t have any great steals and the Moulson and Bogosian contracts aren’t pretty. Next year will be a bit more of a cap crunch year, but their best bet is probably to sign a few one or two year deals so they don’t have to worry about that.
Offseason game plan
Whoever told you the Sabres were just a few injuries away from competing this season were probably huffing glue. As stated, they missed by 17 points and were 36 goals away from being even in that category. No players’ injuries account for that much of a goal differential. Put simply: If they want to be competitive moving forward, they’re going to need to make some major upgrades.
I’m not going to try to speculate which RFAs going to make X dollars for Y years and how they should handle each contract, because frankly that’s pretty dull and they don’t appear to have too many confusing decisions there.
In terms of UFAs, they’ve got five. Cody Franson might move on to the market in search of a decent pay day. Dmitri Kulikov is young enough to resign but wouldn’t be a major loss if he left, and Taylor Fedun is probably the guy they use to judge if a player is above replacement level. Anders Nilsson probably earns a new deal, but I can’t say whether it’s in Buffalo. I’d hope Botterill is smart enough to not sign Brian Gionta to a loyalty contract. He’s only been on the team for three seasons, and despite putting up 35 points this year, does not have any point in the long-term future of this team. Give a prospect or a younger signing a chance. Gionta’s not going to be around a competitive Sabres roster in this lifetime.
Put Jack Eichel as the captain of this franchise. He’s already the coach and the GM.
If the Sabres want to make a real splash, Evander Kane is the big-name easiest contract to move and his deal expires after next season as he potentially becomes a UFA for the first time. If Buffalo doesn’t show signs of improvement, it isn’t hard to think he’d want out after next year and might be a trade target for a team looking to make a run. I’m not saying #TradeKane, but like, if the deal’s there and he’s not coming back, trade Kane.
Buffalo should be looking to the offseason for a chance to improve down the line, as a win-now mentality doesn’t make much sense considering their cap situation and the fact that their most talented players have yet to blossom. That being said, they’re running out of space for long-term forward deals, and should be looking to add young defence if they’re able to.
Conclusion: Buffalo isn’t going to lose anyone too notable in free agency. But if you run relatively the same lineup next year, I can’t imagine it being a whole lot better. Maybe Eichel explodes for like 85 points and the team stays healthy, but whatever the case, this team has quite a few holes that probably can’t all be fixed in one offseason.
(Stats from stats.hockeyanalyis.com and hockey-reference.com)