With just two games to go until the Buffalo Sabres officially hit the halfway mark of the 2017-18 season...they find themselves in familiar territory. Competing with the Arizona Coyotes for the rights to highest odds in this springs NHL Draft Lottery.
And while it seems like the same old story (something I wrote about earlier), it also feels slightly different. Yes, the Sabres continue to struggle scoring. They continue to find ways to lose. They continue to harp on "sticking to the system". And the overall result (2nd last) continues to be the same. But things are changing. The games are tighter. You can see them competing each and every night, and for substantial periods of time. Dare I say, you can see progress.
While this year appears to be a write off, a horrible start to the season ensured us of that, you can see the confidence slowly starting to build. And one can dream of where that might lead next year. Another positive is the play of blue-chip prospects Casey Middlestadt and Alex Nylander at this year's World Junior Championships. While Middlestadt has taken the hockey world by storm, Nylander is quietly going about his business as well, and showing us just what type of a player he may eventually evolve into at the pro level.
With the team showing signs (albeit small ones) of progress on the ice, one can assume GM Jason Botterill is formulating his plan to continue building this team towards becoming a legitimate contender in the coming years. Count me a huge fan of what he's done so far. He spoke of building up Rochester into a contender. We haven't even hit the halfway point of the season in Rochester and one can already consider this as "mission accomplished". He spoke of letting our young players marinade in the AHL (namely Brendan Guhle), and so far he's stuck to his guns and done exactly that. There is no need for the Sabres to have Guhle up this year.
I fully expect JB to continue making minor tweaks here and there to continue moving this team forward. Obviously it's been well documented that Eichel is off-limits. Which has people going off on how Buffalo's other two young stars (Ristolainen and Reinhart) are not, and therefore can be had. To that I say...I would be absolutely stunned if either were moved.
Sam Reinhart may be having an off year, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is a supremely talented player. The kid is barely 22 years old and has already amassed 46 goals and 102 points. That...is not normal. The majority of players aren't even pulling regular duty at the age of 22. This kid is still special, and when the Sabres have are able to put together 2-3 lines of talented, offensively-skilled players, Reinhart will more than pull his weight.
The other guy, Rasmus Ristolainen is an absolute stud that every other team in the NHL would dream of adding to their back end. Guys like Risto don't come around every day. And guys like Risto only end up in Buffalo if they are drafted by Buffalo. So what on earth could anyone offer Botterill that would allow him to move a player of this caliber?
So what do the Sabres need to turn this thing around...and quickly? From an outsiders perspective...I would say offense. If this team could start scoring goals consistently, I really believe the defensive end would take care of itself.
In all likelihood, Evander Kane is gone. So Botterill will navigate through a host of offers to find the one that helps the Sabres the most. What will it be and from whom? It seems these types of trades often head in a different direction than everyone thinks. I have no idea. But I'm excited to find out. There is no shortage of playoff teams that could use a player of Kane's skillset. Let the bidding war begin.
One interesting name out there is Anthony Duclair of the Arizona Coyotes. Duclair's career started hot with him registering 20 goals and 44 points in his first full season. But since then, things seemed to have dried up (12 goals in his last 89 games). The Coyotes talk of this kid possibly just needing a change of scenery, which has left a lot of Sabres fans wondering if that could be Buffalo, where his former world junior linemate currently resides (Reinhart). Why not? Duclair projects as an offensive player, we are lacking offensive scoring punch. We have a guy in Zemgus Girgensons who seems to be in a similar situation here in Buffalo. Square peg, round hole. Maybe there could be a fit there.
I don't see Botterill making any major changes to his roster. The draft should land us another big piece. Middlestadt, Nylander, CJ Smith and Guhle all seemed primed to challenge for spots next year.
The last thing, and maybe it should be the first thing, that I think the team needs to do...is name Jack Eichel captain. I understand the hesitancy early in the season. Eichel was not showing that he deserved the "C". He seemed lazy. His body language was downright awful (eye-rolls, shoulders slumping, quitting on plays). But over the last 3-4 weeks he has been impressive. And not just with his offensive numbers...which have steadily risen as the season has progressed. But in his 200-foot game. His effort on the backcheck has been more than noticeable, it's been outstanding. He is growing into a leader right before our eyes. And I fully believe that if the team puts its trust in him to be the leader, his game, and confidence, will rise even more. This is Jack's team. The young guys coming in need to know who it is that they can follow. I would do it before this season ends. Having that title makes a difference. And if he can come into next season already having worn it, he can run with it right from the start. I believe everything will run much smoother.