We’re in the final stretch of another awful season for the Buffalo Sabres. Patience is wearing extremely thin in the fan base. The popular reaction to watching another season like we’re seeing now is to want drastic changes.
In other words, blow it up.
Blowing it up isn’t the best way to approach fixing this team and let me tell you why.
First of all, let me set the bar here on what I believe “blowing it up” means. I see blowing it up as trading away multiple core pieces of the club in question.
In the Sabres case, it would be moving two or more of the following players: Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Ryan O’Reilly.
Those four are the core roster players of this franchise. Anyone else outside of them in the organization is a prospect or complimentary player.
The Core Four
It’s quite possible general manager Jason Botterill could explore the idea of moving one of the aforementioned players in the offseason. That being said I don’t see that scenario being likely.
Eichel is going anywhere. A few weeks ago Botterill classified O’Reilly as a player who is part of the future plan. Ristolainen is unlikely to move since he’s one of the only legitimate defensemen on the roster currently.
That brings us to Reinhart, who may be the most likely one of the group to move. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Since the calendar flipped to 2018, Reinhart has been the player we’ve been expecting to see all season. The 2014 second overall pick is on pace for 18 goals and 40 points going into today’s game.
Makes you wonder if they didn’t mess around with Reinhart at center for a month and a half, what kind of season he would have had. The early struggles of trying to adjust to a new position set Reinhart back this season.
Getting back to the matter at hand. If you’re not moving any core players off the roster then when are we talking about blowing this team up?
Making a Jump
It’s not unthinkable that with a few of the right moves the Sabres could find themselves back in a respectable place in the standings next season. Look at teams like the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche. The two worst teams in the NHL last season find themselves in the midst of the playoff race this season.
The Avalanche enter play today three points out of a playoff spot. While the Devils occupy the first wild-card spot in the East.
The Devils created the blueprint the Sabres should follow. They moved on from players who were slow and didn’t fit the type of team they wanted to be in the long term. Those players were replaced by youth and speed.
Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher and Miles Wood stepped into those vacated roster spots. Those four players are second, third, fourth and fifth in points scored on the team.
The Sabres could have that same infusion of youth and speed coming next season. It’s not unreasonable to think Casey Mittelstadt, Brendan Guhle and C.J. Smith could all jump into the lineup.
Not to mention they’re likely going to add a top-five pick in June.
Then and Now
When the Sabres blew up their roster in 2013 and 2014 they had a core group that was in their late 20’s and were unable to take the organization to a championship level.
The core this time around is made up of four players who average the age of 23. The only player who is in the middle of their prime is O’Reilly. Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen are all still very early in their careers.
Instead of tearing apart a young promising foundation of the roster. The Sabres should properly build around them.
Evander Kane, Benoit Pouliot, Josh Gorges, Jacob Josefson, Justin Falk, Jordan Nolan, Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson are all unlikely to return next season as their contracts expire. Lehner is a restricted free agent, so he’s the only one on the list that carries the potential to be on the roster next season.
Without making any jarring moves and letting all of them walk, opens up eight roster spots. After that, it falls at the feet of Botterill. He needs to make the right moves to fill out the team.
They can’t go into next season with players playing in roles that don’t fit their skill set because the roster lacks the necessary talent. For example, Scott Wilson is a good bottom six option at forward. However, he cannot be relied on to fill a top-six role.
Getting the right players around the core group will also allow a guy like Ristolainen to not be overused. It’ll take some pressure off of Eichel and O’Reilly in terms of being the main driving forces offensively.
The idea of tearing apart the roster is an overreaction. I’m well aware of the type of hockey we’ve seen this season. They look disinterested at times and unprepared to play.
There might be an issue of effort, but that’s hard to measure. What can be measured is the lack of talent on the roster.
Also what can be measured is that this team has the second most man games lost this season. Zach Bogosian will only play 18 games. Eichel will only play 55 games if he doesn’t return by the end of the season. Nathan Beaulieu, Jake McCabe and Ristolainen all missed extended stretches of games.
The point here is that you have to take a step back and look at the big picture. They have talent in the lineup, but not enough of it. The Sabres have some speed and creativity on the roster, but not enough of it.
Botterill can make a lot of changes to the roster that could begin in a week at the trade deadline. He can do that without taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of the roster.