With one single flip of a card...seven years of disappointment and ineptitude were seemingly washed away.
Now...less than two months later. Common sense has also seemingly been washed away.
With the anticipated addition of super-prospect, Rasmus Dahlin, the Sabres appear to have a bona-fide #1 defenseman on the horizon. For many, it seems as though the Stanley Cup will be arriving next spring as well. Because if that's not the thinking...I'm confused as to all these trade propositions and rumors that have been flying around Sabreland in the days since the Draft Lottery.
Ryan O'Reilly? You're frustrated with losing and dared to be honest about it...you're out of here. We accept nothing but cliches on this team.
Rasmus Ristolainen? Our number 1 dman is to be drafted this summer, we clearly have no more use for you...you're out of here.
Sam Reinhart? Botterill emphasized speed as a need, you're below lightning fast...you're out of here.
What do we want in return? Draft picks (cause clearly we enjoy the never-ending rebuild...see OILERS, Edmonton), middle-aged talent with expiring contracts (see SKINNER, Jeff and PACIORETTY, Max), or any defenseman that is not ours (see FAULK, Justin, TANEV, Chris, DE HAAN, Calvin, and HAMILTON, Dougie).
I get that this team hasn't sniffed the playoffs in seven years. I get that the arrival of Dahlin brings hope and optimism. But I don't get that it means we should blow up everything that's been done (and despite the common perception, there has been a lot of good building up in Buffalo) for a quick fix.
Last year was exceptionally brutal. As fans, hopes were high...new coach, new GM, some new faces...time to challenge for the playoffs. But for a number of reasons, that did not happen. Not even close.
But it did get us Dahlin.
However, one player...especially an 18-year old defenseman, can't be expected to turn this dumpster fire around. So the common theory is, we need to make some drastic moves to avoid the same fate. I would argue, and I would argue strongly, no. No we don't.
Let me present an example I feel is very similar to the Sabres.
This is a team whose record two years ago was actually worse than the Sabres this past year.
2016-17 COLORADO AVALANCHE - 22W 56L 4OT/SO 48PTS 166GF 278GA
2017-18 BUFFALO SABRES - 25W 45L 12OT/S 62PTS 199GF 280GA
The Avalanche were scary bad. All hope was lost. But in one year, they did a complete 180 and found themselves in the playoffs.
2017-18 COLORADO AVALANCHE - 43W 30L 9OT/SO 95PTS 257GF 237GA
Clearly, they blew it up. They traded away some of their top-producing players (because they had tons of value) and landed different top-end players to help them change the culture. They were aided by the drafting of a generational talent who stepped right into their lineup and help lead this once storied franchise back into contention.
Wrong. While they did trade Matt Duchene (a 26-year old, blazing fast talent who once recorded 70-points but had only managed 41 in the season prior to his trade), this was player who had worn out his welcome and was considered somewhat of a cancer on the team. The only player who they received in return that contributed was 19-year old defenseman, Samuel Girard. Girard pitched in 20 points and was a -8 through 68 games played with the Avalanche last year.
The biggest factor in the Avalanche's rise from dead-last to 8th in the West was...PATIENCE.
Take a look at the comparison of numbers from four key players (the top 4 scorers in 2017-2018). All four are relatively young pieces of the core.
YEAR GP G A PT AGE YEAR GP G A PT AGE
Nathan MacKinnon (16-17) 82 16-37-53 (22) (17-18) 74 39-58-97 (21) +44p
Mikko Rantanen (16-17) 75 20-18-38 (20) (17-18) 81 29-55-84 (21) +46p
Gabriel Landeskog (16-17) 72 18-15-33 (24) (17-18) 78 25-37-62 (25) +29p
Tyson Barrie (16-17) 74 7-31-38 (25) (17-18) 68 14-43-57 (26) +19p
The difference is astounding. Now take a look at who was subtracted from the 16-17 squad, and who was added the following year.
Matt Duchene (26) 41 points
Mikael Grigorenko (23) 23 points
Jerome Iginla (39) 18 points
Francois Beachemin (36) 18 points
Sven Andrighetto (23) 16 points
Fedor Tyutin (33) 13 points
Patrick Wiercoch (25) 23 points
Joe Colborne (26) 8 points
Alex Kerfoot (23) 43 points - college free agent signing
Tyson Jost (19) 22 points - 2016 1st round draft pick
Samuel Girard (19) 20 points - via Duchene trade
Colin Wilson (27) 18 points - via summer trade for 4th rounder
Nial Yakupov (23) 16 points - free agent signing
Patrik Nemeth (25) 15 points - claimed off waivers
Jonathan Bernier (29) 37gp 19wins - free agent signing
So what stands out? Nothing they acquired via trade was significant in making the jump. If anything the trades resulted in an addition by subtraction. If one of Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart of Rasmus Ristolainen were said to be cancers on this team, unwilling to work, be coached, don't play well with others, etc...I could see a case for moving them. But that isn't the case. Instead, what I see in this Colorado example is that patience and faith in the guys you drafted ultimately turned this thing around. Those four players...all original Avalanche draft picks...all players who had been immersed in a losing culture...made significant leaps together and pulled this team out of the garbage heap. Between the four of them, they increased by 138 points, an average of 34.5 points per player, all while playing two less games from a year before.
You could argue that the Avalanche's 48 point season was just a horrible one-off where everything went wrong. The two season's prior they had hit 90 and 82 points respectively, but missed the playoffs. Those teams were a little more veteran and were beginning to transition to a more youthful team. In comparison, the Sabres are a young team. Only a handful of players over the age of 25 play any type of key role on this squad (Scandella-28, Okposo-30, and Pomminville-35). But they key players, the four who you might throw into the comparison with the Avalanche are young. Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Ristolainen.
Jack Eichel is coming off of a career-year. He played just 67 games and yet recorded 25 goals and 64 points. Compare that to MacKinnon's 21-year old year, and one can get very excited. MacKinnon only managed 16 goals and 53 points despite playing in 15 more games than Eichel. Anyone who watches Eichel regularly can see that he is on the verge of superstardom. His game is powerful, exciting and fast. As his confidence grows he's only going to get scarier for the opposition. A full year, and I pray a full year with Reinhart on his wing, and I honestly believe 100-points is not out of the question for the 2018-19 season.
Sam Reinhart. This guy gets ripped on more than anyone on the Sabres. It is mind-boggling to me. No he's no burner. His game isn't flashy like Matt Barzel or Connor McDavid. He's not powerful like Leon Draistaitl. But he is sneaky good. And he is also poised for a massive season. Sam's 2017-18 season started with Housley trying him out at center. The problem being, Reinhart had yet to play center in the NHL, and was now being thrown onto the 3rd line where his minutes were as a result cut, and his linemates were not able to mesh with his skill-level. It was a disaster. Reinhart was tossed around for what seemed like an eternity with his confidence being chipped away game by game. But, once that experiment ended, and Reinhart finally found himself playing with the likes of Eichel and O'Reilly, things slowly started to turn a corner. And starting on January 18th, Reinhart would go on a tear that he would ride right to the end of the season. 37 points, including 18 goals, over his final 38 games. If you were to pro-rate that production? 39 goals, 80 points. Would you trade a 22-year old player who could do that? Would you possibly be able to get a fair return? And what could someone possibly give you back that would guarantee you the same type of production? Reinhart would be my Rantanen comparison.
While Casey Mittelstadt and Gabriel Landeskog have next to nothing in common, that's who I've decided to put in this spot. In actuality, Ryan O'Reilly is a much more similar player, but I don't see O'Reilly having, or needing, a spike in his production. We'll get to him later. Landeskog improved his production by 29 points over the two seasons. I believe Mittelstadt could come in and improve that position by a similar margin. The third line center was occupied by a large number of players. Johan Larsson (17pts), Evan Rodrigues (25 pts), Jacob Josefson (4 pts), Zemgus Girgensons (15 pts). The four pro-rated over an 82 game schedule added up to about a 21 point season on average. While 50 points may be a bit of a stretch for a 19-year old 3rd line center who may face similar hurdles that Sam Reinhart did. I think the difference here is he can expect to have better linemates. 40-45 points I think would be more reasonable for Mittelstadt, but 50+ wouldn't surprise me either. He's a special talent.
While I don't think Ristolainen will be able to produce offensively at the level that Tyson Barrie can, I think he can reach the 50-point mark for the first time in his career. With the addition of Dahlin and most likely Brendan Guhle, the Sabres d-corps is finally starting to take shape. Risto's minutes should be cut substantially. No matter who he plays with, he should have a competent partner who can move. In fact the entire group, and even 2-3 deep, looks very good for next year. A lot of players who will take a step forward with another year under their belts.
While those four players excite and give me hope, the beauty of this team is that they are much more than just those four. Obviously Rasmus Dahlin is another. History shows that rookie defensemen go through a steep learning curve and often need 2-3 years to start to make an impact. Such may be the case for Dahlin, and that's what my expectations of him will be. But...he's not an ordinary player, so he could surprise.
Ryan O'Reilly. When teams are lining up to grab this guy...you should maybe stop to think why. And how is it that a team who is as bad as the Sabres were last year...could afford to trade him away? Wouldn't we just then be in search of...another Ryan O'Reilly? Are we all of a sudden that deep at center that we can afford to throw one of the top two-way centers in the league away? This guy does not get the credit he deserves...and it's no more evident then in his own fan-base. So he said he was frustrated and hated hockey at points last year. No kidding!!!! He's spent three years without a sniff of the playoffs! He works his butt off every night and puts it all on his shoulders. If anything, he's guilty of caring too much. So what if he's not blazing fast. That skill set is currently the most over-rated in the game. You can play fast without being physically fast. Michael Grabner is blazing fast. Mikael Boedker. No thanks. Do you think the Blackhawks are complaining that Jonathan Toews isn't blazing fast? Or Patrice Bergeron in Boston? O'Reilly should be mentioned amongst the likes of these guys. He's that good.
Kyle Okposo. An off year. Understandably given what he went through. But he was starting to come on. He's a character player and a guy who can be relied on for secondary scoring.
Alex Nylander. Another player that the fans are all over without taking the entire picture into consideration. He'll be 20 years old for nearly the duration of next season. He's still developing. His development was most likely hindered by throwing him into the AHL at such a young age and putting him with players who don't compliment his skill-set. He still possesses impressive offensive capabilities. I am very hopefully that he'll be put on the big club to develop with some offensive talent and I think in short time we'll see some results.
Victor Olofsson. He intrigues me. Dahlin claims he has the best shot he's ever seen. Dahlin has never played in the NHL, but all the same, watching his highlights, his shot is deadly. He's quick and riding-high on confidence.
Linus Ullmark. He just has the look of a confident, quiet in the net, goalie. Lehner is a bit of an emotional spazz. Ullmark seems to be the opposite, which is a desirable trait for an NHL netminder. May be some growing pains...but I think the potential is there.
At the end of the day, this team is not a team that anyone should expect to compete for the Cup next year. There is only one champion each year. But, the margin of difference between the elite and weak doesn't seem as huge as it once did...thanks to salary caps and the readiness of drafted players. The formula to one day win (outside of Vegas) seems to be...a period of significant suffering, followed by a period of sustained success. And hopefully, during that period of success, the cards fall in your favor and you get to sip champagne out of the Cup a time or two. The Penguins, Blackhawks, Kings, and even Caps all went through it.
What would I want the Sabres to do this off-season?
SUBTRACT - Rid themselves of players that don't fit. You want to get faster, improve the speed of your bottom six. Give the kids a chance to become regulars. Is it possible to move Pommer? I love him. But he's not a very useful player any more...and much like Iginla in Colorado...he's taking the place of a younger player who could start to grow into a useful player.
ADD - a veteran back up goaltender. If you believe Ullmark to be the future, don't mess with his mind...bring in a non-threatening player to help him out. Carter Hutton and Jonathan Bernier come to mind.
ADD - a top line LW. This one may be easier said than done. But those guys that are being talked about in the ROR rumors are guys that can be had. Expiring contracts, but good players right now. Could a combination of a 2019 1st, Girgensons/McCabe maybe a 3rd rounder land you one of Hoffman, Pacioretty, or Skinner? If so...pull the trigger! That's not a move that is taking away from what you're building, but adding.
My projected 2018-19 line up:
Hoffman - Eichel - Reinhart
Olofsson - O'Reilly - Okposo
Rodrigues - Mittelstadt - Nylander
Wilson - Malone - Baptiste/Bailey
McCabe - Ristolainen
Scandella - Dahlin
Guhle - Bogosian
*2019 1st, 2019 3rd, Zemgus Girgensons for OTT - Mike Hoffman
*Johan Larsson to DET (or whoever) - 2018 (or 2019) 5th (or whatever)
*Nathan Bealieau to EDM - 3rd (2019) (via BUF)
*Sam Reinhart, $5.5 mill/7 yrs
*Scott Wilson, $1.1 mill/2 yrs
*Sean Malone, $800,000/2 yrs
*Justin Bailey $800,000/2 yrs
*Nick Baptiste $800,000/2 yrs
*Carter Hutton $1.75 mill/2 yrs
*Larsson, Pomminville, Girgensons, Nolan, Josefsson, Falk, Antipin, Gorges, Johnson, Lehner, Pouliot,
*Dahlin, Hoffman, Olofsson, Mittelstadt, Nylander, Malone, Hutton