The unexpected happened for the Buffalo Sabres. The ping pong balls finally bounced in their way and they won the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery. This will be the first time they’ve selected first overall since 1987 when they picked Pierre Turgeon.
Fans are still riding high from the win. The Sabres haven’t had a franchise defenseman to anchor their blue line in a very long time. Rasmus Dahlin, who is expected to be the pick, is just that type of player. A special talent not only defensively, but his offensive ability is off the charts as well.
Picking up such a talented player for essentially nothing besides suffering through a bad season, changes the dynamic of the offseason.
A trickle-down effect of having the first overall pick has a direct impact on a few different players, primarily on defense. If you count Casey Nelson and Dahlin, the Sabres have nine defensemen in the picture for NHL playing time next season.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Marco Scandella, Brendan Guhle, Jake McCabe, Nathan Beaulieu, Zach Bogosian and reportedly soon to be signed Lawrence Pilut rounds out the group of blueliners under contract next season.
Also, don’t forget Victor Antipin is a restricted free agent, but the writing may be on the wall that he won’t return to Buffalo next season.
Of the eight defensemen not named Dahlin, only Guhle and Pilut are likely locked into roster spots. Guhle is currently the top defensive prospect in the system. While Pilut, who was named the best defenseman in the SHL from this past season yesterday, likely doesn’t agree to come to the Sabres without a promise of NHL playing time.
What Sabres general manager Jason Botterill does with the remaining of defense group is a giant question mark. Do they no longer re-sign Nelson who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in July?
Does Botterill explore the trade market for Scandella, Beaulieu, Ristolainen, Bogosian, and/or McCabe?
Regardless it seems unlikely that October comes and all of these defensemen are on the roster. We’re not even discussing the possibility of Botterill signing another defender via free agency or the trade market.
Dahlin crosses off the number one priority of finding a top pair defenseman for the future. The focus now shifts to finding at least one if not two top-six wingers. While the young Swede will help generate offense. The lack of scoring within the forwards is still a big concern.
By no means is the work done on the defense with the addition of Dahlin, but the bigger need does flip to adding scoring up front.
If Botterill desires to get that top-six scorer outside of free agency, it’s going to likely come back to trading one of two players we’ve discussed moving previously, Ristolainen and Ryan O’Reilly.
The Finnish defenseman becomes a little more expendable with the additions of Dahlin and Pilut for that matter. O’Reilly’s name has been in trade discussion since locker clean out day when he expressed that he lost his love for the game at times.
Management has failed to find a true running mate for Jack Eichel in his three years with the Sabres. Using the two aforementioned players in a hockey trade to acquire scoring is the quickest way to remedy this issue, outside of taking a big swing in the free agent market. This conversation is what we’ll likely focus on throughout the summer.
At the end of the day winning the lottery changes a lot about this offseason. It opens more doors for Botterill to explore, as well as allows him to focus on a specific area of need.
This offseason is already set up to be one that could drastically change the direction of the franchise.