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Sabres learn another harsh lesson on the consequences of poor player development

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Player development continues to be a problem for the Sabres as Lawrence Pilut heads back to Europe

Detroit Red Wings v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The reports last of Lawrence Pilut heading to the KHL were confirmed today. Traktor Chelyabinsk announced his new two-year deal with the club.

In the release from the team, they also put a dent in hopes that he would return to the Buffalo Sabres when the 2020-21 season begins. Here is part of the translated statement according to John Vogl of The Athletic:

“We are glad that Lawrence decided to pursue a career in Tractor. He had an offer to stay in the NHL but we managed to convince him that in Tractor and in the KHL he would be able to get slightly different role and more playing time.”

European Free Agents

Pilut is now the second European free agent defenseman to head back overseas while still in a restricted free agent status. Victor Antipin returned to the KHL after one season with the team. Like Pilut, he didn’t get the opportunity that was warranted.

Pilut was the better of these two defensemen, but the outcome was the same. The 24-year-old defender put together two All-Star seasons in the AHL but only played 46 NHL games in two years.

There was an argument to be made over the last two years that Pilut was no worse than the third-best left-shot defenseman in the organization. The club failed to understand that a player with years of pro experience in Sweden and his age, didn’t need a lot of time developing in the minors. Not to mention he signed with the team off a season where he was named the Defenseman of the Year in the SHL.

Yet they continued to bury him on the roster and not give the opportunity in the NHL. In the middle of this past season, he became displeased with his situation and from what I understand, the team was aware of his feelings. They decided to move him at the trade deadline if they didn’t have long-term plans for him and also didn’t give him a lot of playing time before the season was suspended.

Now, you’re left with this outcome. A player with promise and showed the ability to play in the NHL leaves the organization for nothing. The Sabres can maintain his rights, however, it’s unlikely he plays for the Sabres organization again.

Poor Player Development

The mismanagement of player development has been a trademark of Jason Botterill’s tenure as general manager. Part of the reason Pilut was buried in the NHL this season is that the Sabres planned on Henri Jokiharju starting this past season in the AHL, according to a source. When he played so well in the preseason they were forced into putting him into the NHL and didn’t have a contingency plan in place to clear the log jam on the blue line.

A handful of data points painted the picture of Jokiharju being ready to play in the NHL when they acquired him, but I digress.

They rushed the development timeline of Casey Mittelstadt after trading away Ryan O’Reilly and now have a prospect on their hands that is a big question mark after being considered one of the best in the league.

Tage Thompson’s development plan was another head-scratcher for the Botterill administration. After acquiring him in the O’Reilly deal they wanted to give him a look in the NHL. That decision is understandable, but after showing early on in the 2018-19 season that he wasn’t ready yet they decided to keep him with the team and scratch him for long stretches. It wasn’t until late in the season when they sent him down to the AHL, about three months too late.

Now, we have to trust that they won’t make the same mistake with top prospect Dylan Cozens next season. You would hope they learned their lesson and don’t rely on a 19-year-old to play a large role for the team. You also need to hope that losing Pilut doesn’t force them to rush their timelines on two young left-shot defensemen in Jacob Bryson and Mattias Samuelsson.

They’ll get their third crack at developing a European free agent properly with Arttu Ruotsalainen next season. He’s 22-years-old and could be ready to step into the NHL right away. We’ll see the approach they take with him and if we’re talking about a good signing next offseason or another player heading back overseas.

For a general manager that preaches development like Botterill, you could make a case that it’s one of his biggest shortcomings as head of the Sabres hockey department.