The good news is the Buffalo Sabres have one of the top young centers in the league right now in Jack Eichel. The 22-year-old is becoming an elite play-making pivot-man for his club. Eichel entered play last night tied for ninth in the league in points with 34.
For at least the next 10 years the Sabres are set with their number one center, which is a great thing to have figured out.
Now, the bad news, there’s not much behind the superstar center in terms of depth down the middle.
Filling the Void
Going back to July when Jason Botterill moved Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for five pieces, is where this problem began. The immediate concern became, how are the Sabres going to replace O’Reilly’s production?
While, of course, there were issues off the ice that likely resulted in O’Reilly’s departure and he’s putting up good numbers for the Blues. However, that club is currently tied for the last place in the league right now in the standings.
Regardless of the circumstances, the Sabres needed to figure out a way to replace the 55 to 60 points a season that he produced, or at the very least a portion a of it.
Narrator: “they didn’t”
Botterill may have thought he had some depth help at center with two of the pieces he acquired in that deal with the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund. Both have had stints at center this season, but have provided little in offensive production.
Sobotka has three goals and five points in 26 games. While Berglund, who has been a healthy scratch at times, has produced two goals and four points in 22 games. Having these two players combine for a pace of 16 goals on the entire season is probably not what Botterill envisioned.
Berglund scored at 27 goals per 82 game pace last season with the Blues and recorded 23 goals in 82 games the season prior. Sobotka had 11 goals and 31 points in 81 games last season after returning from the KHL.
It’s not out of the question to have banked on 30 goals combined from those two heading into this season. Instead, the Sabres are getting half of the production you may have expected.
The other question when O’Reilly was moved was; how much is 20-year-old Casey Mittelstadt ready to have thrown on his plate as a rookie trying to adjust playing center in the NHL?
There have been some flashes of solid play through 29 games from the 2017 first-round pick, but he’s not ready to handle the responsibilities of a second-line center, yet. Mittelstadt has been a surprise defensively to start the season but has not been able to produce offensively at a consistent pace. He’s produced four goals and nine points so far.
An 11 goal and 25 point season (his current pace) isn’t anything to sneeze at for a rookie center who was playing high school hockey two years ago. This isn’t an indictment on Mittelstadt’s play. It’s more of a disappointment in the play of others around him at the position that has not allowed him to be sheltered and develop this season. The lack of production from players like Sobotka, Larsson, Berglund, and Rodrigues has put some unfair pressure on Mittelstadt to become more of an offensive presence.
The future for the young center is still very promising.
Bottom of the League
Overall the Sabres are receiving some of the lowest offensive production at the center position. As you’ll see below they’re ranked 27th in the entire league with 61 points from centers on the roster. Only ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, and Los Angeles Kings.
If you remove the points of each team’s top scoring center (including Eichel) you can see below just how bad it is with depth scoring from other centers on the roster. They’re 30th in the league with 27 points, only ahead of the Hurricanes.
The unfortunate part is the Sabres may not be able to address this issue until the offseason. They don’t have anyone in the AHL with the Rochester Amerks that can come up and provide offense in the NHL. Sean Malone is a fourth-line center at best in the NHL, Rasmus Asplund isn’t ready to make that jump yet, and Kyle Criscuolo is injured. Although, we got a glimpse last season of what you get from Criscuolo at the top level.
They could explore the waiver wire or trade market if they desire. However, the salary cap situation makes that difficult. According to Cap Friendly, the Sabres only have a little over $500 thousand in cap space and are only projected for $2.5 million in trade deadline cap space right now.
Any trade would have to be a money in, money out deal. Not impossible, but also not easy to find at this stage of the season.
The position as a whole needs to be addressed in the offseason by Botterill. The organizational depth even in the prospect pool isn’t great at the position. Only Marcus Davidsson, that is a few years away, is the prospect of note at center.
In July the unrestricted-free-agent market has a few prominent players like Kevin Hayes, Derrick Brassard, Matt Duchene, Brock Nelson, and Marcus Johansson who all would be an upgrade for the Sabres.
Also, the trade market would be an option as well. Especially with eight picks in the top two rounds of the NHL Draft over the next three years.
We’ll see what the Sabres end up doing to address to the position, but for now, they need to hope some players turn things around...or that Eichel carries them on the top line to a playoff spot this season.
*note: data in charts via Hockey Reference