Heading into the offseason, the Sabres’ areas of weakness were well documented. The blue line was a mess and there continue to be glaring holes on the offensive side.
The Sabres started the talent acquisition process last weekend when they made the long-awaited selection of Rasmus Dahlin first overall. Yesterday, Jason Botterill made the first of what should be several moves to improve on the wing by trading a conditional fourth-round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Conor Sheary (and Matt Hunwick).
While the acquisition of a speedy, two-time Stanley Cup winner is a start, the team still lacks depth and overall talent on the wing (particularly on the left side), which leads us to ponder what the bottom-six will look like in 2018-19. While the team still has needs at the top of the forward lineup and along the blueline, scoring depth needs to be a priority this summer.
For the better part of the last decade, the Sabres have forced bottom-six talent into top-six roles. It’s a big part of the reason the team finished dead-last in goals-for in 2017-18. With that said, let’s take a look at what the bottom-six might look like when Buffalo hosts the Boston Bruins on October 4.
As it stands, there is (arguably) only one spot in the top-six that is unaccounted for. Unless Botterill plans on making another big trade or two, Sheary would play on one of the top two lines. Between Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt and (maybe) Ryan O’Reilly, the team is set down the middle while Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo have the right side locked-down for now.
Assuming Botterill acquires an additional scoring winger on the left side (not necessarily a safe assumption, but for the sake of argument, let’s say they do. Perhaps in an O’Reilly deal?), who comprises the bottom-half of the roster?
At this point, it’s probably a safe bet that Jason Pominville will be back with the blue-and-gold next season. The Sabres aren’t in a position to start sacrificing futures to dump cap, so in all likelihood, he’ll hold down the right side of the third line.
Last year, the 35-year-old started red-hot, posting 11 points in his first nine games. A streaky remainder of the 2017-18 campaign (where he went on a 17-game point drought from January 11 to February 19) led him to finish the season with 34 points. It remains to be seen whether he can muster up one more productive run for the Sabres in what will likely be the end of his tenure in Western New York (and perhaps the league). As one of only three players over 30 years of age currently in the organization (not counting Matt Moulson), he can still provide veteran guidance to the faction of youngsters at forward, some of whom will be getting their first taste of NHL action.
If Pominville appears to have lost another step, he could be relegated to fourth line duties, especially if Swedish import and 2014 seventh-round pick, Victor Olofsson looks ready for NHL action to come training camp.
On the opposite side, after being one of the few pleasant surprises from last season’s disastrous campaign, Evan Rodrigues could also spend time on the third line (unless the Sabres fail to make another addition, in which case he may need to serve in the top-six). After receiving a call-up in December of last year, the 24-year-old never looked back, spending the remainder of the season in Buffalo. With 25 points in 48 games, he proved deserving of a permanent spot on the roster.
At center, the third line is in excellent shape for the time being. One of Mittelstadt or O’Reilly will play pivot should the Sabres elect to keep the 27-year-old for another season. If O’Reilly is dealt, Botterill could very well scour the free agent market to fill the void.
Turning our sights toward the fourth line, things become a little less clear. While an argument can be made that Sean Malone and CJ Smith have earned the opportunity to fill two of the spots, there is an issue of redundancy between incumbents Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson.
Botterill would be remiss to begin the season with both of them still on the books. These two under-achievers fill what is essentially the same role. They are the physical representation of everything wrong with what the Sabres’ bottom-six has been in recent history. Ideally, the team would find a way to rid themselves of both players, allowing a young upstart to take a crack at NHL action, however, it may not be that easy.
After looking like a future core piece in 2013-14, Girgensons’ regression has reached groan-inspiring levels. Offensively, he is utterly useless, posting a pedestrian 15 points last season, a career-low. He can still serve to some degree as a penalty-killer, but with Larsson fitting the same description, that niche role isn’t very valuable.
For as pathetic as Girgensons has been in terms of production, Larsson has somehow managed to be even worse. After registering just 17 points as a minus-30 last year, his welcome has been worn-out regardless of whether or not he is the best penalty-killing forward on the team (a debatable assertion).
At this point in time, it is unclear which of them could garner any sort of return on the trade market. Perhaps Botterill can convince a team to take a chance on Girgensons given his first-round pedigree, but one way or another, one of them (if not both) has to go.
So where does that leave us for the last spot on the fourth line? If the Sabres pull off a miracle and rid themselves of both players, Danny O’Regan would be an appealing option. In 49 games between the San Jose Barracuda and the Rochester Amerks last season, he posted a respectable 40 points, the second-best points-per-game rate on the team (behind Seth Griffith). Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste are options as well, though neither of them was particularly impressive last season.
Scott Wilson could also make a return to Buffalo after failing to receive a qualifying offer this week. As a heady, defensively responsible veteran, he would certainly add value in limited minutes. Botterill did indicate that the team would pursue a free-agent contract with him after July 1.
Obviously, most of this speculation hinges on the Sabres acquiring another left-wing to play in the top-six, while also parting with at least one of Girgensons and Larsson. Should they fail, scoring depth will continue to be an issue in a league where the best teams can roll four lines that are all capable of producing offense. They simply cannot continue to hamstring their elite group of centers in the top-six with inferior talent beside them.
While there is an undeniable lack of clarity when trying to determine who the bottom-six will be comprised of in 2018-19, the future is still incredibly bright in that area. Prospects Cliff Pu and Rasmus Asplund will both be making the leap to the AHL next season and as mentioned above, Olofsson has all the makings of a consistent offensive contributor. Alex Nylander, while polarizing, is still just 20 years old. If he can get himself off to a hot start in Rochester, he can erase the prematurely placed “bust” tag he has seemingly acquired.
There is work left to be done, especially if the organization plans on making immediate strides, but even if the bottom half of the offensive depth chart doesn’t impress this season, they aren’t far off. Within the next few years, an offensive core of Eichel, Mittelstadt, Reinhart, Olofsson, Nylander, Pu, and Asplund is nothing to sneeze at. We’d also be remiss if we forgot about collegiate All-Star Linus Weissbach and two-way Swedish center, Marcus Davidsson who have shown promise as well.
In short, if the Sabres plan to compete for the playoffs as early as next season, several moves need to be made to ensure that there is adequate scoring depth across the roster. If they fail, there is still a great deal of hope on the horizon.