The way forward - Part 2

March 22, 2018 - 12:13 pm
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Two weeks ago, I dropped the first installment on what I thought were the best ways to improve the roster of, yet, another last place edition of the Buffalo Sabres. I’ll admit that I put off the forward group because it’s kind of murky. The blue line and goaltending are pretty straight forward as I see them.

As a refresher, on defense, re-sign Nelson, add Guhle full-time, maybe give Antipin more time and hope for lottery balls to deliver Rasmus Dahlin to your rink. Look, I know, winning a lottery isn’t much of a plan. But Nelson and Guhle can really help this team and while I’m less sure that Antipin can, I still think there’s a skill set there that could be beneficial to have in the lineup. Winning Dahlin would be amazing.

In goal, bring Linus Ullmark up and pick a veteran on a short-term deal to pair him with. Chad Johnson would be fine. I think I’m done with Robin Lehner.

Up front, well, it’s a little trickier. The sit back and let the kids show up and help approach is a little harder to pin down right now. Does Casey Mittelstadt turn pro? If so, is he ready to play in the NHL? If he’s ready to play in the NHL, is he ready to really have an impact? The same questions can be asked of Alex Nylander, who has been piling up points over the past 20 games or so in Rochester. It has been sort of easy to get bummed out about Nylander while the Sabres flounder, but he just turned 20-years old in March. There’s still time for him to become the player Sabres fans were hoping for when he was selected eighth overall in 2016.

Are there any other signs of help on the way in the system? Seems a little early to be banking on Cliff Pu. Is C.J. Smith capable of scoring in the NHL? What of Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey? I’ve long loved their skating, but is it going to happen for them at the NHL level?

You getting sick of the question marks yet? There’s another one. Sorry about that. It’s just that there are a lot of questions without definitive answers in this forward group. Maybe Sean Malone or Hudson Fasching carves out a role, but neither projects as an impact player right now.

The top-end of the roster is weighted down by some tough contracts and slow footed players. In the case of Kyle Okposo, there’s a serious lack of production and that signing is looking more and more like the Matt Moulson deal of a few years ago. Okposo also has a no-move clause in his contract, so you’d need his approval even if you can find a place to trade him.

Ryan O’Reilly has been pretty much what we should have expected when he was acquired. The contract was probably too large the minute it was signed, but O’Reilly isn’t the Sabres' biggest problem. He produces reasonably well, plays a lot of minutes and can be pretty dependable at both ends of the ice. The reasons he becomes a trade candidate comes down to two things: He has value and he is slow.

The Sabres need to upgrade the speed of their team overall. The NHL is only getting faster, and if I’ve got average skaters like Okposo and O’Reilly holding down top-six forward spots, I’m slow.

Add in Sam Reinhart and now three of your top-six forwards are slower skaters. I’m not looking to move Reinhart, mainly because even with a new contract coming this summer, he shouldn’t be too expensive, and I think they need his production.

So, how to put it all together.

If the kids mentioned above, most notably Mittelstadt and Nylander, are ready to crash the party next year perhaps there isn’t much to be done. Maybe they show up, impact the overall speed of the team positively and push the slower guys down the lineup. Pick anyone out of the Sabres current group of forwards not named Eichel and not already mentioned above and they can be replaced.

Obviously the problem with this approach is it hinges on the kids being ready. What if they’re not? Maybe you just wait until they are and try not to get fired in the mean time. Or you make a big move at the top of the roster. Maybe Jason Botterill has reasons other than his lack of foot speed to want to move Ryan O’Reilly. I’m not sure what the return in that trade is but it would sure change the look of the team. It also would provide you with some much needed cap space, again, depending on what kind of money you get back.

I don’t anticipate the Sabres being big players in free agency. Opening up cap space could allow you to dream the John Tavares dream, and I guess if I’m going to mention lottery balls here I should also mention Tavares. Much like winning the lottery, it’s just not an outcome I’m counting on but it sure would allow you to jump ahead a few places on the board.

Botterill said on trade deadline day that the group he has isn’t working. Well, moving Zemgus Girgensons or Johan Larsson doesn’t really have the look of an overhaul. More is needed.

My bet is if the likes of Mittelstadt, Nylander, Bailey, etc. can’t be counted on, then an O’Reilly trade is the move we see this summer. It may not make for a dramatic improvement right away, but it would change the group immensely and clear the decks for when at least a couple of the kids are ready to show up.

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