Improving from within: Amerks who need to compete for NHL spots in 2019

There’s plenty of Sabres story lines to follow during the 2019 off-season, will Skinner sign? Who will go 7th overall? Will Ristolainen be traded? etc.

While everyone will be focusing on the additions Jason Botterill makes to the Sabres’ roster, I am interested to see what improvements will be made from an internal perspective.

Good teams develop their own talent and see prospects make the jump from Junior, Europe, College or the AHL.

Within the Sabres organization there are six names that should be pushing to become full-time Sabres next season. Of these six, at least three of need to make the team straight out of training camp (barring any major additions this summer).

Victor Olofsson

Olofsson was Rochester’s best player for a majority of the 2018-19 season, putting up 30 goals, 33 assists and 63 points in 66 games.

The 2014 7th round pick also had a positive impact during his brief six-game NHL stint. Scoring twice and recording four total points during that time-span.

Olofsson was a positive impact player, albeit in a small sample size, he had a CF% of 59.66, and a SCF% of 65.33 (at 5v5). Playing with Jack Eichel as your most common linemate will allow you to look as good as Olofsson did with Buffalo, but I wouldn’t use that to hinder Olofsson’s impact.

Olofsson showed that he can play with a play driving center and produce positive results. When the 2019 season kicks off he will be 24-years-old, he should already be penciled in to the Sabres opening day roster.

Projected Role
The data speaks for itself Olofsson’s game translates very well to the NHL, it may have only been six games but Olofsson showed some instant chemistry with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. I would start Olofsson on a line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner (if he re-signs) and go from there.

Olofsson on the top-line allows the Sabres to drop Reinhart to the second line, while still being able to load up Jack Eichel’s wing with scoring talent…Spreading the wealth amongst the top-six next year is key for the Sabres and Olofsson could be the key to that.

Alex Nylander

Alex Nylander is coming into his fourth season in the Sabres’ organization, if he doesn’t make the jump to full-time NHLer this season…well his time in Buffalo will be up (it possibly is already).

He got his biggest taste of the NHL last season, appearing in 12 games with the Sabres. He managed two goals and four total points…he played most of his 5v5 time with Conor Sheary as his wing partner, and the two developed some chemistry in a small amount of time.

Nylander was a positive impact player in terms of shot attempts, and scoring chances. He recorded a 55.69% CF% and 50.44% SCF% with the Sabres and showed that he can be a very good middle-six winger when given the chance.

He set career highs in every offensive category with the Amerks, scoring 12 goals, 19 assists and 31 points in 49 games.

As long as he trains hard and stays healthy this summer he should be able to grab a spot on the Sabres’ right wing.

Projected Role
In a perfect world, Olofsson would be RW1 alongside Eichel, Reinhart would be driving the second line from the RW2 spot and carrying the load for budding young center Casey Mittelstadt…so where does that leave Nylander?

If Nylander is still a Sabre come 2019-2020, he will be competing with Tage Thompson for the RW3 spot. A potential line of Sheary-Rodrigues(or an outside addition)/Nylander is a very intriguing third-line. It would at least bring a threat of secondary scoring to the lineup next year.

William Borgen

Out of all the Amerks who saw time in Buffalo last season, Borgen may have the hardest time making the Sabres out of training camp. He played in four games last season, seeing a lot of time with Rasmus Dahlin and looked very comfortable.

Borgen’s difficulty making the roster won’t come from his inability, it will likely be because the Sabres’ blueline is extremely crowded right now. If he doesn’t make the Sabres he will likely be one of the first call-ups.

In his four games in the NHL Borgen was solid, he was a defensive defenceman that surpressed the other team’s chances and allowed a creative player like Rasmus Dahlin to use his offensive capabilities freely. Borgen’s 54.33% CF% and 55.17% SCF% were nothing to scoff at (even in a small sample).

Borgen will be an NHL defenceman sooner rather than later, and he will allow the Sabre’s offensive blueliners (Dahlin, Pilut and Montour) to do what they do best.

Projected Role
I would expect Borgen to have a Marc Methot type role in the NHL. Methot allowed Erik Karlsson to jump into the rush and create offence any time he wanted to.

Borgen would be suited for a similar role, he was effective in this role when paired with Dahlin.

When he does become a full-time NHLer, Borgen will be someone the Sabres rely on to eat a lot of minutes and shut down the opposing team’s better players.

Tage Thompson

A lot of people aren’t going to like hearing that Tage should make the team out of training camp…but I really do think that a new coach and his brief stint in Rochester will make Thompson a different player next year.

There’s no doubt that Thompson struggled in his first real chance as a full-time NHL player. He was a negative player in terms of shot attempts and scoring chances, he couldn’t produce anything (7G, 5A in 65GP), and looked lost large stretches.

While he was a disaster for a majority of his NHL time, I don’t think it was *entirely* his fault.

Poor Usage
For starters, Thompson’s most common linemate during the 2018-19 season was Vladimir Sobotka (354:28 TOI with Vlad at 5v5). Sobotka was arguably the worst forward in the league last season, and hitching a rookie to his hip was a terrible strategy by Phil Housley.

Having an offensive-minded complimentary winger like Thompson play with a “defensively responsible” center incapable of creating any offence was a major failure by Phil Housley and his staff.

As stated Thompson is a complimentary offensive player, meaning he won’t be the guy driving the play and creating everything, but last year he had no choice but to try and be that guy.

It didn’t work and that’s a big reason why he tried to do too much every time he touched the puck.

Secondly, Sobotka was a guy Housley leaned on for defensive responsibility…Thompson shouldn’t have been relied on for the same responsibilities, but at 5v5 Thompson started 51.1% of his shifts in the defensive zone.

Thompson needs be with a play-driving center who can create plays, allowing Thompson to get into the scoring areas and finish off chances (like he did in his short AHL stint this year).

He also needs to start a majority of his shifts in the offensive zone so he doesn’t have to worry about defence first. If given the right usage, Thompson can be an effective NHLer sooner than people think.

Projected Role
For the second straight year I think Thompson will be competing with Nylander for the RW3 spot. Hopefully this year coach Ralph Kruger will use someone other than Sobotka as the Sabres 3C.

Thompson and Rodrigues had a positive impact together in their brief time last year, so at worst he should be the Sabres third-line center next year.

There is a lot of Tage Thompson hate on Sabres social media, but there isn’t any reason to give up on him after one year of being glued to Sobotka’s hip.

Lawrence Pilut

Other than Olofsson, Lawrence Pilut is the other name that should be guaranteed a spot on the Sabres straight out of training camp. He split last year between the AHL and the NHL and is the type of defenceman Kruger needs to play his “high-tempo” style.

Pilut proved that he was a star at the AHL level with 26 points in 30 games with the Amerks, and added six points in 33 games with the Sabres.

It’s almost unanimously believed that Pilut is ready for the NHL, he had a 53.22% CF% and a 55.25% SCF% while spending most of his 5v5 ice time playing with Rasmus Ristolainen (who was a disaster in his own zone).

Pilut was one of the better Sabres at breaking out of the defensive zone, and anyone who could make Ristolainen look good in his own zone last year is good enough to be in the top-6 defenceman in my books.

Projected Role
Pilut will likely be on the third pair to start next season, if he can minimize Ristolainen’s mistakes then it’s possible he can minimize Scandella’s negative impact as well.

He should also be given the Sabres’ 2nd PP unit, being that Dahlin will run the top unit and Montour is oddly “meh” on the man advantage.

It will be a welcomed site to see Pilut playing regular minutes next year, rather than being sent to the press box every other night like he was during his time in Buffalo during 2018-19.

CJ Smith

Smith will be 25-years-old next season and has been the Amerks best player over the last two seasons…he scored 28 goals and 58 points in 62 games last year and got an 11-game stint with the Sabres.

During his 11 games, Smith managed to score twice and bring some much needed speed and offensive ability to the Sabres’ bottom-6 forward group.

The time is now for CJ Smith, he may not be a top-6 forward but he would certainly be a huge upgrade to the third or fourth lines for the Sabres. I think the Sabres move on from one of Girgensons or Larsson, and Smith will likely slot in as their replacement.

Projected Role
Smith is a great AHL scoring talent, and he would bring some much needed speed and scoring talent to the Sabres. But I think his ceiling is a third-line winger, so I would slot him into a fourth line scoring role to start next season and see how he improves from there.

Working under the assumption that these six names will be competing for roster spots next year, and without accounting for any major additions to the roster the team would hopefully look something like this:

Skinner-Eichel-Olofsson
Sheary-Mittelstadt-Reinhart
Okposo-Rodrigues-Nylander/Thompson
Smith-Larsson-Wilson

Bogosian-Dahlin
McCabe-Montour
Pilut-Borgen
Scandella-Nelson

Ullmark
Hutton

*stats provided by NaturalStattrick and Hockey-Reference*

@austin_broad
@TheChargingBUF

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