Where do the Sabres go from here into 2019-20?

(AP Photo – Jeffrey T. Barnes)

The question in the title is not a rhetorical question, I genuinely do not know and no one else does. I’d be skeptical of anyone suggesting they have the answers to propel this team into the playoffs next season. There are issues at all three positions, behind the bench, in the front office and all the way up to ownership. One high draft pick (and another late first rounder) won’t turn the Sabres into playoff contenders next season.

The Sabres will be lucky to see their top pick in the blue and gold next season as long as their names aren’t Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko and their second, first round pick will be at least a year or two away from playing in the NHL.

The draft is imperative for the future of the franchise if the Sabres can draft well, but it’s not a solution for the 2019-20 season. Joe and Luke covered the Sabres poor drafting history and how that’s effected the Sabres to this day on The Charging Buffalo Podcast, it’s been a common theme for people to reflect on what goes us into this cesspool of mediocrity.

Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill said on multiple occasions during his tenure that he doesn’t want to overpay for UFA’s, likely in part due to the overpriced market, and UFA’s should really be used to fill the holes of role guys.

I agree with this thought process.

Obviously you don’t overlook the importance UFA’s, especially if you have the chance to sign a special player, but I’m gun-shy on UFA’s as well after both Moulson and Okposo were handed huge contracts that I didn’t like when they signed, let alone how it’s effecting the team now. Also, it’s not their fault, players should be getting the best contract they can. Blame the GM that gave the contract.

That all being said, I don’t see the Sabres signing the big UFA’s (Panarin, Duchesne, Karlsson or Pavelski) this offseason. Should they make their best offer that the team would be able to handle? Yes, I’d say so because it’s worth a shot, but again, overpaying in the summer will come back to haunt them.

Things are also getting a little worrisome on the Jeff Skinner front. It’s pretty clear he wants to stay in Buffalo but is also willing to listen to other offers come July 1. Whether the Sabres think he’s too streaky to pay a huge, eight year contract to or Skinner and his agent looked at how the end of this season ended and pumped the brakes, all we know is an extension isn’t signed. Until pen hits paper, I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, you can’t 100% pencil him into your 2019-2020 lineup.

So the draft probably isn’t going to improve the Sabres in 2019-20 (at least don’t depend on it) and free agency will likely only be used to shape the bottom six forwards and depth defensemen, so that really only leaves offseason trades to improve the Sabres roster next season. Don’t get me wrong, retooling the bottom six will definitely benefit the Sabres with their horrible depth scoring woes, but it’s evident there needs to be more skill throughout the lineup, especially in the top 6-9 forwards.

I do like summer trades more than deadline moves for two reasons. First, the price dips from the premium the players were shopped at during the trade deadline. Second, it gives any player that gets moved time to adjust to a new team. The latter isn’t as important as the former, but imagine what’s going on with Brandon Montour.

Montour was tossed into the complete dumpster fire the Sabres are pouring fuel on in the second half of the season. He came from a bad team and I’m not acting like he alone was going to change the course of the season, but I’m sure he’d rather not have his first 20 games in Buffalo to be what we are witnessing and what we’re going to continue to witness until the final horn tomorrow in Detroit.

I’m sure it would have been easier to move in the summer to Buffalo and start anew on opening night in October. He didn’t, so this is more or less revisionist history with a dash of “I digress”, but it has to be easier to get moved in the summer as opposed to mid-season.

Back to trades, this isn’t NHL 19 or CapFriendly’s Armchair GM, it’s the National Hockey League with some of the smartest hockey minds in the world heading franchises. You’re not going to absolutely fleece a team in a trade very often. The Jeff Skinner trade was an exception to the rule, which I’ll touch on later.

GM’s know the decreasing value of Ristolainen, they know Scandella and Sobotka are near untradeable, except for late round picks (which won’t help the team next year) and Kyle Okposo is going nowhere because no one is taking on that contract.

To obtain the talent needed to push the Sabres into the playoffs next season, serious assets would need to be going the other way. The biggest one floating around right now is Rasmus Ristolainen.

I’d assume fans want him traded before he plays his way out of any kind of value and I can understand that, but lets not act like his stock is very good to begin with. NHL GM’s see the poor play that makes it even worse, so don’t except to have some grand return for a guy who has shown he’s not a top pairing defenseman.

Peter Chiarelli isn’t in Edmonton anymore, you’re not getting Ryan Nugent Hopkins for Ristolainen straight up. There I said it. Regardless of his value, it seems like the writing seems to be on the wall that he’ll be dealt, but would it improve the Sabres?

Going of Housley’s lefty on LD and righty on RD method, trading Ristolainen would force Zach Bogosian into a top-4 role. That’s not an improvement on an already shaky defense. That’s getting dangerously close to the disaster that is the Maple Leafs blueline without the high octane offense to bail them out.

Oh and I’d choose Fredrick Anderson over Hutton and Ullmark any day, so that doesn’t help either. Trading Ristolainen might be the best thing in the long run, but it utterly depletes the back end for the Sabres in 2019-20 without quality defensemen coming back or getting signed.

So, what assets could be put into a trade package that bring in a game changer for the 2019-20?  At this point, if you want high caliber, top 6 players, Buffalo is likely going to have to open their trade assets to include Reinhart, Mittelstadt, Thompson and the second, first round pick the Sabres have.

Side note: We all in agree that Thompson wasn’t sent down to make the O’Reilly trade look even worse than it was, right? You never hear NHL GM’s or coaches say a player getting less ice time, less games and therefore, less production, as part of the development plan when they’re eligible to go to the AHL. It makes no sense, but at this point that horse has been beaten and Thompson is now helping Rochester make a Calder Cup push.

Anyways, using the second, first round pick packaged with a young player for a skilled top six winger would be ideal at the right price, but you’re back to the glaring holes in the defense and pretty inconsistent play from the goaltenders (take that with a gigantic grain of salt because the team in front of them has been brutal for months).

Then there is the fact that Phil Housley has misused players and the players don’t seem to follow the game plan that is put in front of them. Yes, it’s the players responsibility to play the system, but it’s also the coaches job to make sure they do and to make sure the system isn’t getting easily out-coached. Ultimately, the responsibility is on the coach.

So, where’s the hope? I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if I can provide as much as you’d like. There are probably trade opportunities that Botterill will pursue that are unknown to anyone on the outside, but anything I’d suggest has little to no backing besides “it’d make sense for both teams”. I’ll still come out with some players to target in the coming weeks, but that’s pure speculation.

Here’s what we can hope for. We can hope for the natural progression of young players should help assuming none stay stagnant or regress. We can hope for players like Olofsson, Asplund, O’Regan, C.J. Smith and Malone can create a formidable bottom six, even if some are still in Rochester to begin with. The same goes for Pilut and Borgen filling in on the bottom two defensive pairings.

We can hope for another trade line the Jeff Skinner one where the Sabres won the trade before Skinner ever dawned the Sabres crest. I wouldn’t bank on this though, it was the exception to the rule (the rule being don’t trade a top 6 scoring forward for peanuts) and on top of that, you’ll probably have the same contract situation like you do now with Skinner, leaving fans anxious/worried.

To the fans reading saying to themselves, “Well, just make more than one trade and they’ll be better”. It takes two to tango. Another team isn’t going to just give away a top six forward or a top four defenseman for nothing just because you want it to happen. Unless the Sabres are shelling out assets, some of which fans would be up in arms about moving, you’re probably not going to find the players that are desperately needed to take this team to the next level.

At this point, all Sabres fans can do is to hope GMJB will make Buffalo one of the most active teams at the draft and after July 1 with trades and smart free agent signings.

If I had to find a silver lining, it’d be the Sabres’ best players are still very young. Eichel will turn 23 at the beginning of next season and Dahlin can’t have a legal beer until April 13 2021. It’s the building around them that’s the most crucial part of all of this. We’ve found that one line and a few other alright players scattered around the lineup isn’t a recipe for success.

All of this being said, I still believe in Jason Boterill.

I know, it doesn’t seem like it, but I can see what he’s building through the draft and think he’s finally getting the Sabres on the path of long term success. Do I think he’s made mistakes? Yes, but look around, every GM makes moves that I wouldn’t agree with as a fan. It’s a huge summer for him, so we’ll have a better sense of how well GMJB fared after the bulk of the free agents are signed and trades have been made.


For coverage of the draft, free agency and much more, throw @TheChargingBUF a follow.

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