Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pool Outlook for Buffalo

The Buffalo Sabres haven't been to the playoffs since the 2011 season and this year was looking like it was finally going to be their triumphant return to the post-season, as the stars were aligning, goals were being scored and the wins were piling up... all before the flip of the calendar to the New Year.  A 10-game winning streak in November saw these Sabres at the top of the heap for a while, but the injuries really took their toll on this team and the crash was hard, falling all the way down to 27th overall in the league.

When you look at harsh falls, mostly due to injury, you have to blame organizational depth for that, as the team obviously doesn't have the quality of players that could take over for their fallen comrades and give the team an adequate solution for a brief period of time.

In all fairness, the Sabres have been rebuilding for quite some time already and now that they are seeing their team blossom into a decent group of NHL'ers, they are still fairly young and their result this season is a stark reminder of just how young they are.  It goes all the way up to the management team, which is still fairly fresh, in the broad scheme of things, but the foundation that he has put together to this point has been good and it shows some real promise.

The bright side to this season, now that it's over, is that this team can only really move forward from here.  You shouldn't be able to regress from 27th overall in a rebuild situation.  It's possible, I suppose, there are 31 teams, but it should only get better from here... in theory.

A brief absence in the season for Jack Eichel certainly didn't help things for the Sabres, as their franchise player has been very good for them, when healthy, and he showed a little bit more of what he can do for this team with a great 2019 campaign.  In total, he played in 77 games, scoring 28 goals and posted 82 points, ranking him 27th overall in hockey pool scoring, just outside of a 1st round pick in this year's draft of 25 teams.  He was 23rd among all forwards and was over a point-per-game player.  Once the Sabres can give him some quality depth, this team will be going places.

Of course, the depth is really thin, only 10 players in total were deemed pool worthy this season, including Eichel.  Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner were very complimentary to the team's cause, both in the top 100 in overall scoring, but then it was a long wait to see the next Buffalo forwards, Conor Sheary and Jason Pominville, who were 30 points back and ranking closer to the bottom of the top 200 forwards.  The defense got a huge boost from rookie sensation Rasmus Dahlin, 23rd among all defensemen, followed closely by Rasmus Ristolainen and a deadline acquisition in Brandon Montour.  The goaltending was great at times, but then they had their issues, but both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark made the top 50, splitting the minutes for a good portion of the season and made names for themselves in the year.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

Get a goalie! A good goalie. Jonathan Bernier is set to become an unrestricted free agent... he played well in Colorado. Get him! Just do something better in net. The Sabres have a lot of good pieces on their squad, they do have to overcome some bad luck and some injury bug bites, but overall, they do have some pieces that could make them competitive in the 2019 season and possibly right this ship. Add a full-time Mittelstadt and Dahlin to this mix, they'll be playing a boat load of talent and with the right amount of tinkering in this off-season, they could be looking for a wild card spot, not unlike what the Devils did this year.

I wouldn't necessarily would have banked on Carter Hutton as my guy to get exactly, but in the first half of the 2019 season, he was looking rather sharp and so were the Sabres.  They were challenging for that playoff spot, as Rasmus Dahlin came in and took off, but it all came crashing down in the New Year, as some injury troubles did hamper the team, to the point where they just couldn't get their groove back on track.  They certainly showed flashes of what they intend to be and that was a huge positive, but it just didn't last for them to the end of the season and the playoff push.  So very close though.

How did my intriguing or breakout player fare?

There were plenty of eyes on rookie forward Casey Mittlestadt, as he was being looked upon to be a catalyst for success for this Sabres team, right off the hop.  It wasn't exactly what happened, as he only posted 12 goals and 25 points in 77 games and he didn't have that dominant force on the games, like he did at the junior level.  It isn't to say that it isn't coming, because he certainly has the talent to get there, my guess is that the move to pro was somewhat overwhelming.  I don't usually expect a lot out of sophomores, but he could be an exception next season.

2020 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Jack Eichel 10.000 Rasmus Ristolainen 5.400 Carter Hutton 2.750
Kyle Okposo 6.000 Zach Bogosian 5.143 Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen 0.793
Sam Reinhart 3.650 Marco Scandella 4.000
Vladimir Sobotka 3.500 Brandon Montour 3.388
Conor Sheary 3.000 Matt Hunwick 2.250
Scott Wilson 1.050 Rasmus Dahlin 0.925
Casey Mittelstadt 0.925 Lawrence Pilut 0.925
Tage Thompson 0.925 Casey Nelson 0.813
Andrew Oglevie 0.925
Alexander Nylander 0.894
Rasmus Asplund 0.845
Matej Pekar 0.776
Victor Olofsson 0.768

For us hockey pool enthusiasts, the Sabres only have a few names on their roster for next season that is of any interest, highlighted in green, but they are nothing, if they are not flexible going into this off-season.  They have contract and roster spots open in their organization, which means they will be busy getting business done.  Right now, pre-business, they are not an exciting team to plan around, but when September rolls around, this will be a much different looking roster.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Against a projected salary cap ceiling of $83 million or a cap floor of $61 million, the Sabres are much closer to the latter, still yet to reach the floor with the 23-man roster above and a small buyout still on the books.  This means that the Sabres have some money to throw around and they are not shy about it, almost spending to the ceiling in the 2019 season.

Free agency has taken away some pool worthy names from the list above, Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville are both headed to the open market on July 1st, if the Sabres don't get a deal done, while goaltender Linus Ullmark is a restricted free agent, in need of a new deal.  The real key will be Skinner and his 40 goals in 2019, because if he goes, where are those 40 goals going to come from?  The Sabres are just hoping they did enough to keep him from hitting the open market.

The player that drew some interest with a late-season was Swedish rookie Victor Olofsson, who posted 2 goals and 4 points in six games at the end of the year.  His teammates were singing his praises upon his arrival and he showed a little bit of flair in his brief stint in garbage time for the club this season.  He could be a hidden little gem next season, assuming he can find a role on this team from the get-go.  He'll be 24 at the start of camp, so he really could be coming into his own at a maturity level as well.

Needs at the 2019 Entry Draft

The Sabres are putting together a solid foundation of young players and their system is regarded quite highly among some groups, which means this team has the potential to really turn things around soon.  They still should be looking for more scoring help and now that we're to the 7th overall pick in the draft, it's a bit of a crap shoot.  US Development Team forward Trevor Zegras fits the bill of a two-way player with some agitating attributes to his game, not unlike some of the best pests in the game, something they could certainly match-up with against divisional teams, like Boston.  Versatile, plays centre and wing, posted some decent numbers and will try his hand at college to mature.  It's a long-term pick, but one that could certainly work out.

The nucleus of this team's core is still rather small: Eichel, Reinhart, Dahlin and Ristolainen, so parts need to be added to it before we can really start getting excited about this team.  Mittelstadt is one of those players looking to jump in, same with Nylander and Montour.  To get there, you need to be able to be leaned upon in the clutch to get where the team needs to go.  I think this team still needs some goaltending and it will need to re-sign Skinner or at least shop for a sniper in the free agent marketplace to replace him.  There is a good base to work from and flexibility to get the Sabres where they need to go.  The playoffs are not very far off, if that 10-game winning streak was any indication, but the work this summer needs to get done, before they get anywhere.  The playoffs can happen for this team, but it all rests on management's shoulders.

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