Sure, hindsight is 20/20 but using the knowledge and data available at certain points in Botterill’s tenure, he should have yielded much better results and a stronger team overall since he was hired on May 11th, 2017.
As an experiment to show how it actually isn’t that hard to get out of this seemingly never ending hole this organization is in, I wanted to construct: A roster based on what he started with and going move by move of where he went wrong, what I would have done differently, and ultimately end up with what the current roster could be today to show that the rebuild did not need to be this difficult and the team could be significantly better than it is now.
This article will not fit well with, “The tank killed everything” folks who don’t seem to have any statute of limitations for when that point in Sabres history will stop having an impact. Using your standard Butterfly Effect theory, technically any success or Stanley Cup from here on out can get traced back to the tank season but I won’t continue to beat that dead horse any longer.
For the draft pick changes referenced below, I am using my own personal draft rankings lists from those years to eliminate any cherry picking of players who have panned out since then.
For trades, I will basically be saying, “Yes I would have done the same”, or passed on a trade and retained the players/picks that were moved and a reason why. I will not be making any crazy trades that have no credibility, but will be making some that never came to fruition that were rumored to have been close to materializing, or were minor deals that are not far fetched.
This will ultimately end with a roster of my choice had I been given the opportunity to make decisions as GM of the Buffalo Sabres.
General Signings and Player Removals
Over the 3 offseasons, I would have found a way to remove such players like Bogosian, even if it was for a very late round pick. Also, I am not extending Girgensons, but resigning Larsson to a friendly deal. I’m not messing around with Rodrigues and signing him to a decent contract. I think bringing in Pilut, Lazar, Ruotsalainen, Marcus Johansson were all good moves that I wouldn’t change and will be using in my roster construction.
Along the way, there are other players that I would have tried to sign but without knowing if they’d actually want to play in Buffalo I won’t include them in this effort. Players that fit this category would be someone like Brandon Pirri.
I would not have re-signed Remi Elie or Dalton Smith as those are wastes of professional contracts that count towards a team’s 50 total limit. While we are not up against that limit currently, moves like those just don’t make sense to me.
Sam Reinhart would have been locked up long term a while ago by me and not bridged. This was a big mistake by Botterill and one that could come back to haunt him in the upcoming season. Being more proactive in understanding the negative impact of players like Bogosian and getting them off your cap/payroll would have gone a long way to ensuring you had the cap flexibility to support extending Reinhart long term sooner rather than later.
Botterill’s most noteworthy trade in 2017 was right out of the gate as a GM, sending Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis to Minnesota for Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville. This is a trade that I agreed with at the time and would have done.
For the remainder of the trades in the calendar year 2017, they were pretty minor so I am also operating under the assumption that I would not have changed a thing with any of those.
I was not big on Casey Mittelstadt in the 2017 draft, so my first big change to the roster happens here as I would have attempted to first trade back a few picks. Without knowing who was willing to trade up to this spot, I would be taking sniper Owen Tippett who is having a strong season in the AHL currently. He is a pure goal scorer that I was very high on in this pick range and while he has yet to make a significant impact at the NHL level, his development has been steady and promising as he looks to make the full time jump next year with Florida.
Knowing the similarities between Rasmus Asplund and Marcus Davidsson going into the draft, I would not have taken Davidsson in the 2nd round.
I would have made a significant effort to move up a few spots to take Nicolas Hague whom I had a 1st round grade on at the time. Sitting at 37th overall and seeing that Vegas took him 34th overall, I would have been attempting to move up after the 31st overall pick was made. For this I’m going to assume 37th overall and Cliff Pu (No Skinner Trade?!?!) is enough to move up to 32 or 33 and I select the big left handed defender Nicolas Hague who is currently starting for Vegas and averaging 16:05 TOI with 11 points in 38 games.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was talked up quite a bit in round 2 and there were rumors the Sabres were in on him so I am not changing their other 2nd round pick this year as the organization was dying for a top goaltending prospect and UPL was a perfect fit so props to Botterill for staying put and letting his guy fall to him.
While I did not like the Laaksonen pick at the time, I also did not have any favorites that were clearly good picks in this range, or the remainder of the draft so he, Bryson, and Weissbach all make the cut from this draft class and become a part of my prospect pool.
The year 2018 had two major trades, the first being at the deadline where Botterill sent Evander Kane to San Jose for a few picks and prospect Danny O’Regan. I’m not changing anything about this trade as I did not see Kane as a part of the future though I would have liked a bit better of a prospect in return. I’m not aware of any rumors associated with a Kane trade here so this one stays as is.
The Ryan O’Reilly trade seems to have been the catalyst in a downward spiral of public confidence in Botterill. I was not adamant about needing to retain or trade ROR, but one thing that I was certain of was that if he absolutely had to leave, then the return had better be worth it.
My immediate reaction to the trade was disappointment as I knew it was ultimately a bunch of little parts put in a package to try and add up to the value of ROR. There’s been rumors that another deal was on the table with Carolina for Elias Lindholm, so long as Buffalo paid the post July 1st bonus due to O’Reilly. I would’ve taken this deal all day long and if the Pegulas tried to force my hand on the matter, then I would have fought hard to keep ROR on the roster.
Whatever the case may be and whether the decision to move him came from the GM, owners, or both, I’m operating under the assumption that I would have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure the return on investment was worth it and landed Lindholm. So in my scenario, I’m convincing Terry to pay the bonus or quitting my job if forced to take the St. Louis deal.
I thought the Sheary trade was a nice move so I am keeping that one in this experiment and since I moved Cliff Pu earlier, I am saying the Jeff Skinner trade never happens. I am okay with it not happening because given the current state of the roster, it is still lacking enough depth and talent where you can justify waiting to make a trade for a Skinner type player, who is entering a contract year and on the wrong side of the age curve for production.
With the team more than one piece away from being a cup contender, moving assets for a guy that you will ultimately be forced to overpay in free agency, doesn’t make sense to me at this point in time. It’s not that I’m anti-Skinner or acquiring talent, it’s the fact that his age, contract, and overall added value to the current roster doesn’t fit with the timeline I am currently operating in for long term success.
For the sake of this experiment, I am also assuming things like team success haven’t changed and that they are still drafting in the same spots which may or may not be likely. Because of this, we still win the lottery and draft the stud Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin 1st overall.
I can say with extreme confidence that I was not taking Mattias Samuelsson at 32nd overall but instead choosing between Serron Noel and Jonatan Berggren. With my rankings from the 2018 class, I did give a slight edge to Noel who is still playing the OHL. A big power forward with speed, I think Noel still has NHL potential and is a nice add to the forward prospect group that is so weak right now though Berggren is looking like the better player right now.
While I do love Matej Pekar, I was and still am a big fan of Adam Mascherin who re-entered the draft in 2018 after going unsigned by Florida. The former 2016 2nd round Panther prospect was taken by Dallas in the 4th round a few picks after Pekar so sticking with my whole philosophy in this article, I’m going with my guy Mascherin who is playing in the AHL right now and appearing more like a bust than anything else but could still crack the bottom 6 of an NHL roster and adds organizational depth at forward.
After this point, I am not in love with anyone else over who we ended up taking so Cronholm, Kukkonen and Worge all end up in the prospect pool from this draft.
While it was a bit of an overpay and there are concerns about Montour from an analytics standpoint, I am still doing this trade. In hindsight I think there was some value in retaining the 1st seeing what talent dropped in the 1st round of the 2019 draft but Montour will remain a Sabre for this experiment. He has a lot of offensive strengths to his game and I’m not convinced that his underlying numbers won’t improve when the roster in front of him gets better.
Botterill moved up a few times late in the 2019 draft and again, I don’t love the players but seeing what was there at those picks I can’t say I had anyone ranked higher that I would’ve preferred so no change in draft day trades this year.
The Jokiharju and Miller trades were fantastic in my opinion so those obviously will not be changing here. I will be making 2 changes though for the rest of the 2019 trade section:
- Cancelling the Vesey trade. I hated it then, I hate it now, and if I were GM, Jimmy would not be a Sabre.
- I’ve seen some notable people on Twitter report some rumors about a Ristolainen trade for Ehlers. I have no idea if there’s truth to it but I’m going to operate as if they are true. As far as further details to the trade or if it was a 1 for 1 swap, I have no clue so I’m just going to do a 1 for 1 swap in this experiment while acknowledging that there was probably a few pieces on either side that would’ve also changed places.
Had it not been for the draft lottery, I believe that Alex Turcotte would have fallen to us at 5 and that would have been my choice all day but that is not what happened and Dylan Cozens fell to us at 7. This pick was great at the time and has since looked even better with Cozens emerging as a star in the WHL. A separate article from this will speak to him more as a player and why we should be excited about him but he was my best player available at the time and is looking very worthy of being taken 7th overall.
Much like the 2018 draft, I was not a fan of Botterill going safe and taking Ryan Johnson a bit higher than I anticipated anyone would. There was a TON of talent left here at forward and that would’ve been my choice all day long. Now at this point, I have neglected the defense a bit in our prospect pool so this may come back to bite me when all is said and done but I digress.
Arthur Kaliyev would have been my pick over Johnson 10/10 times and it’s frustrating that Botterill chose to go defense here. Continuing on, we have the 36th overall pick due to no Jeff Skinner trade and while I love Samuel Fagemo, Nils Hoglander is still available and is my pick.
The 3rd round was pretty deep in 2019 so I was definitely not taking a goaltender in Portillo with this pick. It is tough between Beaucage, Puistola, Legare, Dorofeyev and Kokkonen but Beaucage was a favorite of mine for most of 2019 so I am going with him,even though I think Kokkonen would be a smart pick on defense here as well. While Huglen has some upside, I probably also end up going with Michael Teply.
To touch on the goaltending point, I am not sure if anything was ever offered or declined but in the 2019 offseason, I was definitely going to try to sign college free agent goalies Hunter Shepard (Minnesota-Duluth) or Jake Kielly (Clarkson) to an ELC and help bolster my goaltending pool. Both players attended a Sabres development camp in the past so they are on the radar of the organization at the least.
We are very early on in the calendar year of 2020 and Botterill made 2 trades of very minor significance. He cleared a bunch of cap space by moving Scandella to Montreal for a draft pick and then undid that cap clearing activity by using that 4th to take Michael Frolik. I’m going to cancel the Frolik trade and keep the cap space and 4th round pick, which brings me to my final roster.
This draft is looking incredibly deep and with Buffalo looking all but locked into a top 10 pick, I will make an early attempt to predict who they will take in the 1st and 2nd round and assume their current draft spot doesn’t change.
2020 1st Round (7th Overall) – Marco Rossi – C – Ottawa (OHL) – 5’9″ 179 lbs
Rossi barely missed being eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft but even for being one of the oldest players in this years’ class, he has elevated his game to a level that should lock him in as a top 10 pick. He has the skill set of a top 6 forward in the NHL despite being relatively small. His vision with the puck and agility as a skater enable him to be very difficult to contain in the offensive zone and he’s relentless on his puck pursuit at both ends of the ice.
2020 2nd Round (38th Overall) – Jan Mysak – LW – Hamilton (OHL) – 6’0″ 176 lbs
Mysak started the season in the top Czech League and was very strong for a 17 year old, putting up 9 points in 26 games. He has since come over to join Hamilton of the OHL where he has put up 12 points in 11 games and is flying a bit under the radar.
This would be a home run of a pick for Buffalo at 38th overall as I have a 1st round grade on Mysak due to his high hockey IQ and complete game. He projects as a 2nd line winger in my eyes at this point in time and is not getting enough credit for the offensive skill set he has.
A strong shot to go along with good positional awareness to find open ice in the attacking zone should allow Mysak to rise up the draft rankings quickly here as he was outside of Bob Mackenzie’s recent top 31 list.
Below is a look at what I’ve constructed in this activity and here are my thoughts on where it all stands. While the roster is still a bit light on depth in the bottom 6, Cozens, Tippet, Kaliyev, Noel, and Hoglander are all expected to reach the NHL within the next year or 2. The talent on the team looks very deep especially from a forward perspective, which was the point of my experiment. Ideally, I make another trade for a left winger and/or UFA signing so that my bottom 6 is stronger for this season but regardless, the roster I constructed appears that it would yield much better results than the current roster, all the while being set up for the future.
The current top 6 very strong and will be bolstered by some very high end talent from the previous drafts I re-did. All of those players were all available when Buffalo was on the clock at various stages of the draft which really brings into question the drafting abilities of Botterill. Add Mysak and Rossi to the fold and things look really good in a few seasons. As evidenced below, this team could have some extreme offensive upside and the deals and decisions I made were all very reasonable/realitstic and set the team up for long term success.
When all is said and done, I think I could still be a bit deeper defensively even though a Dahlin/Jokiharju top pairing in a few years could be elite. It’s at this point in time where I feel moving a future 1st and or prospect in the pool for a well established or up and coming defenseman would be a wise choice and help solidify this roster’s cup contention chances on a yearly basis.
Sabres Starting Lineup 2019-20
Sabres Depth Chart/Reserves
Projecting out a few years, here is what things look like with some of the prospects another 2 years down the development path. This doesn’t include any deadline deals or UFA’s signings that could easily bolster the bottom 6 forwards and defense group given the team has a strong pipeline of prospects to deal and can also move future 1sts which are no longer needed to strengthen the prospect pipeline.