After becoming the NHL’s first ever 31st place team, Buffalo Sabres’ GM Jason Botterill didn’t waste any time this off-season before drastically changing his roster.
Botterill let Robin Lehner become an unrestricted free agent, shipped out Ryan O’Reilly, all while bringing in Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick, Carter Hutton, Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund.
While there have been some mixed feelings amongst Sabres fans regarding some of the moves Botterill has made, it’s tough to ignore what he has done.
To get a sense what the hockey world thinks of Botterill and the Sabres heading into 2018-19 and beyond, I talked with Matt Larkin, an Associate Senior Writer at The Hockey News.
On O’Reilly, Sheary and Hutton
“I was worried in particular about the O’Reilly trade because I figured if you ship out O’Reilly then defensively who’s going to take on those matchups,” said Larkin. “ But what I love is he got a really big return in that trade, but it wasn’t just getting Tage Thompson as a prospect it was getting Sobotka and Berglund was great because both guys can play left wing and center.”
While some consider Sobotka and Berglund “throw-ins” it’s important to note that with their versatility they can help off-set the loss of O’Reilly.
Both are very good face-off guys and can help shelter Casey Mittelstadt until he is ready to take on the second-line center role, something that Larkin agrees with.
“Sobotka in particular is a really good face-off guy, they both have good defensive games so they’re actually insulating their young guys by adding those two, and it kind of offsets the loss of O’Reilly so I really like that.”
They might not have the same skill O’Reilly does, but they drastically improve Buffalo’s bottom six, which is something that is desperately needed within the organization.
Botterill’s other off-season trade seemed to be universally liked amongst the fanbase, the Sabres added Conor Sheary and took on Matt Hunwick’s contract for a very small fee. This trade brought in what will be the Sabres’ top-line Left Wing.
“Conor Sheary didn’t cost much to get, and he has proven he can hang with an elite player before in Crosby, so I think if he ends up with Eichel there is a nice fit there,” said Larkin
The other off-season move that Botterill made was releasing Robin Lehner and replacing him with former Blues goalie Cater Hutton.
Hutton was a very good singing by the Sabres because he didn’t cost them much, a 3-year deal at $2.75 million per makes him the 33rd richest goalie according to Larkin.
“Nothing suggests that last season is trend, it does seem like it’s a fluke but at the same time the Sabres didn’t give up too much money for Hutton and they didn’t give him too much term.”
It’s no question that the Sabres needed a new goalie, Lehner wasn’t working out in Buffalo despite his abilities and they needed someone to come in and improve their crease.
“I think it’s okay to give him (Hutton) a chance and if he is anywhere close to last year, even if he is 80% as good as last year he is still going to be an upgrade over Robin Lehner.”
“Lehner is a volatile guy emotionally, even if you look at Ryan O’Reilly he was a well-spoken guy but he was also an emotional guy, and I think that Botterill’s moves sort of cut out the guys that were getting too negative in the room, and I think it was time for Lehner to move on and Hutton is going to be an adequate replacement for him.”
Based on these moves, Larkin believes that Botterill has improved the Sabres.
“If you look at all of those moves, those are probably their biggest moves I think that Botterill has improved the team.”
On The Sabres Culture Change
On the surface, when you look at three of Botterill’s biggest decisions (trading O’Reilly and Evander Kane, and releasing Lehner) it looks like he is erasing the Tim Murray era from Buffalo.
“They’re going for a culture change. Every GM likes to bring in his own guys, guys that feel like they’re his,” said Larkin “And even in recent conversations that I had with Botterill, I know that he really believes in the Pittsburgh model and that applies in multiple ways.”
“One is you’re going to develop some elite stars, and they’re the ones who are going to get your big money and you’re going to build around them.”
“Guys who are second tier and earning top tier money like Ryan O’Reilly go out because your big money is going to be going to Jack Eichel, and eventually Casey Mittelstadt to Rasmus Dahlin, you’re going to build around a smaller group of big-time stars,” said Larkin.
“Pittsburgh that’s what they did with Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang and they repeatedly replaced the depth all around them so I think in the long-run I can see Buffalo employ that kind of strategy.”
The Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and have been one of the best teams in the NHL for over a decade. So if Botterill tries to employ a similar strategy in Buffalo, it’s safe to say that he will do whatever he can to set the Sabres up for long-term continued success.
Another strategy that Botterill is trying to employ from the Penguins is building his team through the center. When you look at Buffalo’s center depth you have the likes of Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Patrik Berglund, Rasmus Asplund, Sean Malone and others that have the potential to make the Sabres in the future.
“Botterill told me this he really believes in building your team down the middle above all else, so you got your Eichel and Mittelstadt to build around, and you did lose O’Reilly but I still think they’re deep enough at center they still have the depth behind them,” said Larkin
On How the Sabres Stack Up Against the Atlantic
While the Sabres were busy adding all these new pieces to their organization, and instilling hope into the fans hearts the Leafs and Lightning basically shattered that in a matter of days.
The Leafs signed superstar John Tavares to a 7-year deal, and rumours are swirling that the Lightning are still working to acquire Erik Karlsson. Even with the additions of Dahlin, Sheary Hutton and the package from the Blues, the Sabres are still far away from the elites of the division.
“I think he (Botterill) has to take his time, I still think Buffalo is a ways away from being able to compete with those big guys and I think that what you need to see in Buffalo this year is just progress, signs of positivity that you can finally grab onto because we’ve seen so little positivity,” said Larkin.
“What you want to see is Jack Eichel get through a season healthy, have that all-star caliber 40-goal, 80-point season which I really think he’s capable of if he can get through a whole season. And ideally you wanna see Eichel elevate to more of a leadership role, I personally think O’Reilly was such a strong voice that it almost took away from Eichel.”
There’s no question that the Sabres aren’t in the same tier as the other teams in the division, so especially for next season it’s important to just worry about themselves.
“I think what you’re looking for from Buffalo this year is progression, particularly from Eichel and hopefully you get Calder contention from Mittelstadt and Dahlin and just signs of positivity from areas,” said Larkin. “Progress of any type, even if it’s 10-15 points in the standing will go a long way, I don’t think you’re necessarily looking for playoffs though, you’re just looking for a sign that the fans can feel we’re improving, we’re going in the right direction.”
On Realistic Expectations for 2018-19
With the young core in place, and the youth movement looking to make it’s impact fans need to come up with realistic expectations. Last season it was expected by the Sabres community to compete for a playoff spot, and that was lightyears ahead of where the team actually was.
So this year it is important to set the bar at the proper height.
“85 points, that’s the number I have in my head,” said Larkin about his expectations for the team. “That said there is the team that arrives ahead of schedule in its rebuild every season.”
While there needs to be realistic expecations for the Sabres 2018-19 season, fans can think “why not the Sabres?” in terms of making a wild card playoff, because Larkin himself thinks they could be that team in the east.
“It’s funny the last two teams to do it were the last two teams to have the first overall pick, it was Toronto and it was New Jersey so I actually think Buffalo is that pick,” said Larkin. “The team that might not necessarily make the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be an absolute shocker if they were better than everyone would expect. Buffalo is my pick to be that team in the east.”
It wouldn’t be a shocker, if everything goes right.
“What if Rasmus Dahlin really is as good as everyone says he’s going to be, then he’s going to have a huge impact on the defence core, not just for himself but also it’s going to take a lot of pressure off of Rasmus Ristolainen and probably change the face of that defence.”
“What if they get good goaltending from Hutton, what if Mittelstadt and Eichel both have full healthy seasons, Mittelstadt is a high-impact rookie.”
The Sabres are doing the right things, and it seems that Botterill is following the model to long-term sustained success. With a great young core in place, and newly acquired depth the Sabres should be a much different team in 2018-19 and beyond.
Whatever your feelings on his moves, he has done exactly what he said he is going to do. He added speed to the wing (Sheary), he improved his goaltending (Hutton) and he made moves to drastically change the core of the team (O’Reilly).
The team will be drastically different when the puck drops in October, and they could potentially be the team to surprise everyone.
“I think that Buffalo does have the pieces in terms of talent, to surprise everybody. I think the floor in terms of expectations is just improvement but I think the ceiling is you’re fifth in the Atlantic and you get the eighth seed.”
Follow Matt on Twitter (@THNMattLarkin) for great NHL insight and articles