There’s only a week and a half remaining in August, which means this will be the last month without hockey being played in the NHL until next June. At this point, most of the rosters are set for the teams around the league. There are a handful of clubs still needing to resolve contract disputes with restricted free agents.
For the Buffalo Sabres, the roster looks like it could use one or two more moves. Although Jason Botterill has made some acquisitions to bring in some depth with Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey, they still lack that top-end forward.
The plan this year should be to break up the big line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to spread out the scoring. That brings up one of the big questions going into training camp. Who will play on the top line with Eichel and Skinner? Head coach Ralph Krueger has a few options, but nothing on the roster that is an obvious choice.
The first idea may be one of my favorites in Eichel’s Boston University teammate, Evan Rodrigues. The 26-year-old forward has the skillset to step up into that role.
Pro: Rodrigues is one of the better defensive forwards on the Sabres roster and that could be a good addition on that top line. He could have a defensive impact on that top line like what Jason Pominville did with Skinner and Eichel last season.
He lacks the high-end finish that you would hope for in a top-line winger, but he does have some offensive creativity. His speed and hockey IQ also allow him to be a fit on that top line.
Con: The biggest problem with this idea is that he’s in line to play center right now. With how the roster is currently constructed, the Sabres will need him to play that third-line center role behind Casey Mittelstadt. His position versatility really is an asset for them when building a lineup.
The Sabres could go to one of their new additions in Jimmy Vesey to fill that void. Botterill has mentioned Vesey’s ability to play on either wing a few times since he was acquired from the New York Rangers. If Krueger is less concerned about LW/RW and has a focus in a F1, F2 and F3 system this type of move could make sense.
Pro: Vesey hasn’t ever scored more than 20 goals in a season, but he can be a finisher on the first line. Most of his goals are scored around the net and he’s good with the puck down around the goal line.
Although Skinner is a better scorer, he had a career year with a similar skillset playing with Eichel. We’ve discussed in the past Eichel’s knack for setting up his teammates with his playmaking and generating rebounds with his shots. Vesey could excel with the opportunity.
Con: Vesey’s defense is bad. Not just sort of bad, but he’s been one of the worst defensive impact forwards in the league. According to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model, he had the 17th worst expected goals against per 60 last season. Over the last three years combined, he’s ranked the 11th worst in xGA/60 in that same RAPM data.
It probably makes more sense to put Vesey with teammates that can help shelter him defensively so he can continue to provide around 15 goals in a depth role and not give it all back defensively.
Veteran forward Marcus Johansson is another new addition that could step in to fill the void on the top line. He’s played in a top-six role throughout his career and would be familiar with that type of responsibility. The question is: can he do it at this point in his career?
Pro: Johansson is another player that can help Skinner and Eichel in the defensive zone. He’s by no means a shutdown defensive forward but is good positionally. The 29-year-old is a solid transition player that could allow that top line to get the puck out of their own end more effectively and make them more dangerous on the rush.
Con: The downside here is not a slight against the Swedish forward, but more of an overall lineup decision. Eichel is more of a playmaker on that top line and Johansson has a similar skill set offensively. His primary shot contributions would probably be better utilized on another line.
Conor Sheary is another player that has been deployed in a top-line role. He played with Sidney Crosby while with the Pittsburgh Penguins on that top line during his breakout 2016-17 season. That even included some time playing on the right side.
Pro: Sheary had some success at the start of last season playing with Eichel. I just wrote a few weeks ago how the 26-year-old may be in line for a bounce-back season in terms of production and his tendency to attack from the right side. It feels like almost a certainty that Sheary will switch wings as Botterill has touched on his ability to play either side on numerous occasions this summer.
Con: In an ideal situation Sheary is not a top-line winger. He’s probably better off as a third liner that can add depth scoring and move up the lineup in an injury situation. While he has shown the ability to ride the wave of a good center, Sheary, lacks the talent to finish consistently.
If you’re one of those people that like to draw up lineups, I’m sure you’ve done it and forgot about Tage Thompson. His first year with the Sabres wasn’t good and should have spent a lot more time in the AHL.
Pro: Thompson has the dangerous shot and potential to be a top-six winger one day in the league. The tools are there if he can put it all together.
Con: Thompson got a small taste with Eichel last season, but it didn’t last long. In fact, according to Natural Stat Trick, he only played 30 minutes with Eichel at 5 on 5. The numbers in possession (44.83 CF%) and expected goal percentage (32.31%) were poor. Realistically, he should probably start next season in the AHL and not be thrown into a top-line role against difficult opposition.
Is the best option for the Sabres still on the free agent market? Jason Pominville has stated he would like to come back to Buffalo next season and he was good playing on that top line last season. The 36-year-old could come cheap to them on a one-year deal and still be a contributor offensively.
Pro: The veteran forward filled this role for most of last season. He scored 16 goals and 31 points in 73 games for the Sabres. He’s not quickest skater anymore, but he knows where to go on the ice to score goals. His overall on-ice impacts at 5 on 5 were impressive and could still be a useful player next season.
Con: If Pominville is brought back, then the Sabres have another winger that could push some new blood out of the lineup. It’s also not the best look to the fanbase to essentially return the entire roster from last season. That shouldn’t matter, but it’s still a point worth making. Also, if he returns they should make it clear to him that there’s a chance he could be the 13th forward at times if his game slips during stretches of the season.
The Sabres have done a good job this summer adding more depth to their roster on the wing. However, the lack of that final top-end forward is still evident on the roster.
We’ll see if Botterill has one more move in his bag of tricks or if they’ll decide from this list to fill in on the top line.