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The Majority of Sabres Help Must Come From Within the System

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For the Sabres, key additions must come from within, and further subtractions may not be the best move

Winnipeg Jets v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Many agree that change is needed, but where? What change is needed? Winning would be nice, and so would not selling at the deadline and finishing last in lotteries. The time has come for the Buffalo Sabres to stop trading good hockey players off the roster and granted, Evander Kane was really the only big fish the Sabres have dealt over the past two years.

The point is going forward, the Sabres need to hold all their top veteran assets and build around the current roster. Some have talked about moving O’Reilly, but is further subtraction really the answer here? And let’s be real, they don’t have many good players, to begin with.

And just how do we get better with addition?

For this team, there are three ways: trades, free agency, the potential top four pick in the 2018 NHL draft.

We can’t bank on free agency alone


I would be ok with spending big money it was for a player who I felt could make a huge difference. It’s no secret this year’s free agent class will be headlined by John Tavares and John Carlson. To be honest, if you’re Buffalo, I would pursue John Carlson because he is that type of player. The Sabres do have a need for another right-handed defenseman or any defenseman for the record. Especially one who generates offense, and with the monster year that Carlson is having, you can’t tell me that he wouldn’t make a major difference here.
Not to mention, the impact he would have on relieving some of the pressure on Rasmus Ristolainen, who is really the only defenseman we have capable of generating more than 40 points. Carlson has 63 points from the blueline, and I would gladly take that. Carlson may get somewhere in the range of $7.5-8.5 million on the open market, and I would gladly pay it. To me, Bogosian is making a little over five million, and I would rather pay an additional two-three million for a much better, more durable player.

But realistically, I am not expecting the Sabres to land any big fish including Tavares or Carlson if they do pursue one. To come onto a team that will finish dead last in the NHL standings will be a hard sell for any top tier player. I am not even counting on them to go after a player in the class of a James van Riemsdyk. I am surely not expecting them to bring back Evander Kane if San Jose lets him walk because this is such an unfavorable situation for many top players to come into.

They may be able to land free agents, but it will be more of the second tier nature. Because of that, I can’t trade one of the few good, top tier players I do have in O’Reilly.

It’s best for Ryan O’Reilly to stay….for now


Of course, if Buffalo can make the big fish like Tavares happen, I’d be all for trading O’Reilly. Not to mention, if that was the scenario that played out this summer, they might have to move him in order to make the money work long term. Such a scenario would allow you to add a high caliber player, and then move out O’Reilly for assets, and defensive help. But, I don’t think Tavares would ever sign here, especially with most of the league interested.

As much as this team might need help on defense, and as much as O’Reilly may fetch a big return that may yield a defenseman, I cannot potentially open up a hole at center to close off another hole on defense. I’ve mentioned Casey Mittelstadt as a potential replacement for O’Reilly, but there are no promises that he will pan out as a center, although I think he can be a center.

If I trade O’Reilly and Mittelstadt does not work out at center, I am essentially left with Jack Eichel as my lone top-six center with no clear option in the organization for the second line. Let’s see what Casey Mittelstadt can do at center before we make a decision there.

With Ryan O’Reilly here, we have the luxury to slowly work Mittelstadt into the role if we chose to do so. Centermen are very tough to acquire, and before the tank began in 2014, it was something the organization has needed for a long time. We have two very good, albeit very different players down the middle, and we could even have a third with Mittelstadt. It’s not hard to see the Sabres being improved next year with Eichel, O’Reilly, and Mittelstadt down the middle.

Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make


A couple months ago, I wrote a case study article on Sam Reinhart’s development, mostly preaching for patience, and on how it would be a mistake to trade him. I referenced Tim Connolly and how it took him several years to finally break through in the NHL, although stylistically Connolly and Reinhart are different players, and I thought if Reinhart ever broke out into a point a game player, it may take a couple more years.

Guys like Tim Connolly, and Olli Jokinen, are both prime examples of why patience with young players is important. This will be no different for a player like Alexander Nylander. Where would we be right now if we would have sold him off with his value being so low?

Now, after such a strong showing of late, I think number of people who wanted to trade Reinhart has dwindled. We always knew Reinhart can play in the NHL and produce. What we don’t know is where his ceiling will ultimately lie. Is the Reinhart we have seen of late for real? The next goal for Reinhart should be maintaining consistency, and doing this over 82 games.

Under the radar and mid-tier acquisitions are desired


If you can land a player at the level of Carlson, that would be huge, but maybe not realistic. Mid-tier and under the radar free agents are needed here, and realistic. I do think a couple of these additions in free agency are plausible, but I also think they need to they need to be the right kind of player.

I’ve mentioned bringing Thomas Vanek back in the past mainly because he can still play at age 34, albeit he must play more sheltered minutes. He has 21 goals, and 50 points this year, and was one of the league’s best bargain signings, again. He may not be the ideal fit for the team the Sabres want to be going forward, but he can still play, and still generate some offense.

For next year’s free agency, one player I am a huge fan of is Tyler Bozak. Bozak is not exactly under the radar, but he’s a good example of a mid-tier free agent who could come in and help any team he goes to. If the term was right such as a four-year deal, as he is 32-years-old, I would love to have him here next year as a solid two-way, middle six forward, or third line center. Going into free agency next year, Bozak would be my top target.

It would be nice if the Sabres can find an under the radar player similar to Pontus Aberg. He’s recorded eight points in twelve games since being dealt from Nashville to Edmonton. He’s gone from playing 11 minutes a night in Nashville to 15-16 per night in Edmonton and is seeing a more regular role with the Oilers. He was also a player with tremendous speed, and skill, as one of Nashville’s top two prospects.

Aberg had a tough time getting the chances on a deeper team like Nashville, but he has looked quite good in Edmonton being juggled on several lines and seeing a bump in ice time. Aberg was traded on the cheap and probably could have been had by Buffalo. It would help if we can find some more of these guys.

You’re going to miss on a lot of these reclamation projects, but there is no harm in trying if you can identify a player who is underused and undervalued. I was hoping Danny O’Regan was one of these players in San Jose, but if we do see an impact player with O’Regan, we likely won’t see it until next year.

Landing a nice high-quality NCAA free agent would also be a great way to find a good, quality player on the cheap without having to give up any assets. Would Buffalo appeal to Will Borgen’s college teammate Jimmy Schuldt?

The formula to win: improve from within


At a minimum, the Sabres should be adding at least three impact players onto the roster next year in Brendan Guhle, Mittelstadt, and whoever the Sabres select in the top four next year, and that top four pick is a major wild card. There is no debating the impact that a player like Rasmus Dahlin could have. I’d be happy with a top two pick again next year as I’m quite sure both Dahlin and Svechnikov will be in the NHL next year and make a strong impact.

Even if we are even more unlucky and fall to number four, I like the prospects of Filip Zadina, and Brady Tkachuk of playing in the NHL next year, and making an impact on the Sabres, although it may not be as big as the impact Svechnikov, or Dahlin will make.

What if the Sabres draft second overall? If Svechnikov has an impact like Patrik Laine did, I would gladly take a 36 goal rookie campaign next year. Eichel and Svechnikov would bring back some memories of LaFontaine and Mogilny. Svechnikov has recorded 40 goals in 44 OHL games and has been a flat-out dominant goal scorer in the OHL.

Imagine him on a line with Jack Eichel next season. Going into next year, you could potentially roll out Eichel with Svechnikov on one line, O’Reilly with Reinhart on another line, and possibly Mittelstadt with Okposo, if you wanted to spread out the scoring. Of course, those are all RW-C combinations I laid out, which is another way of saying left wing could be wide open next year. Mittelstadt on the top line with Eichel could also be seen.

Left-wing being wide open brings a big opportunity for many of the kids. We haven’t even talked about the possibility of adding Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, C.J Smith, or Alexander Nylander. I think Nylander would be least likely right now, but if he has a strong showing early on in Rochester, he could easily find his way on the main roster by the middle of next year. I’m not ruling out a strong camp for Nylander either.

Still, I believe Bailey, Baptiste, and Smith are closer right now. Will Borgen is another player who could also factor into the Sabres next season. Let’s also not forget about Victor Olafsson, Cliff Pu, or Rasmus Asplund.

Conclusion


Why are the Sabres in the position they are in? They are simply devoid of good, high quality hockey players. A lot of players on this team are playing about one or two notches above where they really should be playing. We have second liners who should be third liners, third liners who should be fourth liners, and fourth liners who probably who should be in the AHL. Scott Wilson is a good bottom six player, but i’m not sure I want him playing with O’Reilly, and Okposo, just like I am not sure I want Reinhart playing with Johan Larsson, and Jordan Nolan on the third line.

For next year, keep O’Reilly, add Mittelstadt, Svechnikov, and sign a guy like Tyler Bozak (as an example), in free agency. If this is your top nine, you’re a lot better off:

Mittelstadt-Eichel-Svechnikov (or Zadina)
Girgensons-O’Reilly-Reinhart
Smith or Bailey-Bozak-Okposo
*****I have Bailey on his off wing here since RW is well stacked here. Additions in bold

And that looks a lot better than this:

Girgensons-Eichel-Pominville
Wilson-O’Reilly-Okposo
Nolan-Larsson-Reinhart

But, of those nine guys, I would say only five are suitable for an NHL top nine, let alone top six. The rest of this roster needs to fill out and the majority of that is going to have to come from within the system. We can’t spend our way out of this, or trade our way out this.

I’m not even going to talk about the defense because we know we need upgrades there was well. We need a full season of Guhle, and it would help a lot if Zach Bogosian could ever get healthy. We really don’t even know what Bogosian can do because he’s always hurt. Hopefully, Casey Nelson and Will Borgen can make an impact next season. If we won the lottery and added a difference maker like Dahlin, that would also be a game changer.

For me, adding players is the key from this point forward, not further subtraction (O’Reilly or Reinhart). We need to continue to fill out the remaining holes on the roster, and allow the youth from within to earn some of these open spots. Mittelstadt, Guhle, and Linus Ullmark are a big start, and now we need to wait for further reinforcements to come through the draft, Rochester, and free agency.