At the start of the Sabres season I circled January 1st on the calendar, but my reason for doing so had nothing to do with the Winter Classic. Once the new year hit I was going to evaluate the team and decide how I would like Jason Botterill to approach the rest of the 2017-18 campaign. Due to the lackluster play in the first quarter of the season, I feel comfortable deciding the fate of this year’s team a month early.
The Rochester Americans
The Amerks are currently tied for 2nd place in the North division with the Laval Rockets (Montreal). Basement dwelling hasn’t been exclusive to the big club, Rochester has been near or at the bottom of their division the last 3 seasons and hasn’t qualified for the AHL playoffs since 2013-14. Botterill preached the importance of a successful farm team at his introductory press conference and I believe he will do his best to ensure the Amerks continue to succeed, even at the expense of the Sabres.
For once the organization has the opportunity to bring along a group of young players in a positive environment. I believe CJ Smith, Alex Nylander, Hudson Fasching, Brendan Guhle and Linus Ullmark should play the entire season in Rochester. Having a prominent role on a winning team is invaluable experience for a player in their formative years of development. The fanbase will have to come to terms with the fact that under the Botterill regime most of our prospects will spend a considerable amount of time in Rochester before becoming an NHL regular.
Now that we have gotten the positive (singular, how depressing) out of the way, lets get knee deep into the mess that is the Buffalo Sabres. In my opinion, every move made from today until the puck drops on the 2018-19 season should be made with the future in mind. The goals should be: mitigate the damage made by Tim Murray’s decisions, even if it hurts in the short term and adding options for the rebuild by acquiring picks and prospects while shedding salary.
Yes, you read that right, I said the “R” word, the team is rebuilding. We may finally see the fruits of our past labor next season or we may not be a winning team for another 3 years. I’m sorry if you don’t have the stomach for the possibility of more losing, feel free to check out and come back when the team is good or you can choose another team to follow, there are 30 options now and NHL.tv makes it convenient to watch out of market games.
The Trade Deadline
Jason Botterill has players I think teams will find very attractive come deadline day. Any contender who needs an insurance policy in goal should find Robin Lehner intriguing. He has ample starting experience, a Jack A. Butterfield trophy (the AHL’s Conn Smythe) and a very palatable cap hit if the Sabres decide to retain 50% of his salary. Moving on from Lehner will be therapeutic for some Sabres fans, but for me its all about saving money. It is safe to assume Linus Ullmark will provide similar production at a fraction of the cost.
Trading Evander Kane will be an unpopular decision, but its something that needs to be done. I have warmed to him as a player, but tying up somewhere around 33 million dollars in Eichel, O’Reilly, Okposo, Kane and Reinhart doesn’t sit well with me. Although their talent is obvious, they haven’t elevated the team from its usual standing at the bottom of the league. Generally speaking when you sign a player in their late 20s (Kane will be 27 at the start of the 2018-19 season) you are paying for a player’s past success and not future production.
Kane’s value is sky high and as I suggested in the Robin Lehner trade scenario, the Sabres can retain 50% of his salary, which will lengthen the list of potential suitors. There is also a great possibility of a bidding war when you have the best player available at the deadline, especially if he carries a very economical cap hit. Alex Nylander is the player I have pegged to fill the void next year created by a potential Kane departure. Ideally, Nylander would provide 2/3s of Kane’s production at 1/7 the cost. It should also be noted, that although unlikely, even if the Sabres trade Kane they could sign him as an unrestricted free agent July 1st, similar to what they did with Matt Moulson.
Benoit Pouliot is another player that should be dealt at the deadline. I know a lot of people are smitten by the fact that someone we signed is actually capable of scoring, but I assure you it’s not as rare as you may think. Pouliot is a great example of using unrestricted free agency properly. Jason Botterill bought low on a player who is double dipping because of a buy out. That sort of rationale toward the UFA market will hopefully be used throughout the longevity of Botterill’s tenure as GM because free agency is for bargains and role players, not core pieces of your franchise. The situation is similar to Jamie McGinn, there was a fair amount of fans who wanted us to re-sign him, but check out his stats since the 15-16 season, trading him was the right call.
The Sabres trade bait list isn’t limited to the players mentioned above. Anyone not named Jack Eichel should be considered, if the trade is for the betterment of the team.
I wanted to isolate Alex Nylander because I think a lot of fans expect him to play for the Sabres this season. As I mentioned earlier it is better for his development to stay on the farm, but there is also a financial reason to keep him in the minors. Alex is a unique situation, he signed his entry-level contract at 18 which is not uncommon, but because he was never drafted into the CHL he isn’t subject to the CHL rule that prevents teenagers from playing in the AHL. If Nylander plays less than 10 games for the Sabres this year his entry level contract will slide like it did last season. Essentially allowing him to play 5 years of pro hockey on an entry level deal, rather than the standard 3.
With each highlight that is posted on Twitter, the eagerness to see Casey don a Sabres sweater ratchets up another notch. It is in vogue for teams to burn 1 year of an entry level deal as incentive for a college player to sign their first pro contract. I think it’s a business practice the Sabres should try to avoid with Mittelstadt. Making an effort to sign him to a 3 year deal may cause Casey to play another year for the Golden Gophers, but I’m willing to take that minor risk. If need be, we can revisit the idea of burning 1 year of his entry level contract next season to ensure he will play for the Buffalo Sabres in the future. Having a handful of players like Mittelstadt and Nylander producing on entry level contacts is how the Sabres are going to survive paying Kyle Okposo 6 million dollars a year not to score goals.
I don’t think there is a single person alive who was more pro tank than me. Watching the Sabres stumble so hard after selecting Jack Eichel has been excruciating, but it hasn’t changed my opinion that it was a smart decision. The Tampa Bay Lighting selected in the top 10 four more times after drafting Steven Stamkos first overall in 2008. I’m sure Lightning fans wish their sustained success happened much sooner, but I doubt they regret the losing season that brought them Stamkos. I don’t know when the Sabres will be a good team, but I believe when they are, Jack Eichel will be our Steven Stamkos, the straw that stirs the drink of a true contender.