For any attempt the Sabres use to improve their team in the offseason, Rasmus Ristolainen will likely be the key to making this happen. While the value of Ristolainen is controversial in the hockey world, there will still be interest from several teams for his services. However, I would not expect a 1-for-1 swap where Buffalo instantly acquires a proven top six forward, first round pick, or top prospect. I simply just don't see the market working in the Sabres direction for that type of return at the moment.
I do however believe that Ristolainen can fetch some assets that can be used to obtain pieces to improve the roster. One way or another, the Sabres need to move on from Ristolainen and give bigger roles to Brandon Montour, Colin Miller, and Henri Jokiharju. It's nothing against Ristolainen, the Sabres just have a surplus of defenseman, unlike the center position when the organization moved on from Ryan O'Reilly. With a little creativity and quality planning, Buffalo can set the organization up for success in the offseason.
Overall, the goals I want to achieve are:
1.) Acquire more center capable players, and if possible, acquire candidates to play second line center
2.) Improve the penalty kill
3.) Upgrade backup goaltender
4.) Acquire a bottom pair depth, physical defender to bring in for competition
5.) Improve at the faceoff circle
Draft Day Deals:
Buffalo acquires Austin Watson, Frederic Allard, a 2020 second round pick (37th overall) and a 2021 conditional second (or third round pick in 2021) from the Nashville Predators for Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo retains 1m in salary)
Nashville had a very disappointing season, especially one year post P.K Subban. The Predators probably won't be doing a full on rebuild any time soon, but with a lot of their core still locked up and under contract, I won't be stunned if they look to shake up their roster in the offseason to try to get back to their central division championship form. The best way to do that will be to address one of the biggest weaknesses on the roster, and that's the right side of their defense. They also need help on the power play.
I personally cannot find a more perfect partner for Ristolainen than Nashville. If Nashville wins the draft lottery in 2020, they may even be much more inclined to be aggressive this offseason as Lafreniere would be a huge boost to the organization. Either way, they have the assets, they have the old school GM in David Poile who may look past Ristolainen’s analytical shortfalls, and they have the need. Their defense has taken a step back with the departure of the pricey P.K Subban. One of their biggest needs however is with the power play as they are ranked 25th in the league. Since 2016-17, Ristolainen is 11th in the league in power play scoring for defenseman, with Roman Josi 12th.
Austin Watson comes in return to provide bottom six grit and toughness, and can provide a capable penalty killer. He’s also willing to drop the gloves. Frederic Allard was a former third round pick from 2016, and he’s a 22-year old right shot defenseman who could develop into a sound top four defenseman someday as a ceiling. Allard is a strong skater, has good offensive upside, and can play on the power play. While it doesn’t look like an overwhelming return, The only issue here is Ristolainen may be viewed as a rental in terms of value due to the expansion draft. I don’t believe Ristolainen will fetch a legit top six forward in a one for one trade, but only because I don’t see the partner out there as of today. This could change as the offseason unfolds, or if the Sabres keep him into the start of next season, it could also change at the deadline. I do think he has value, and I do think he can fetch a good return of assets that can be used as currency to make a trade with another team, but I also believe many will be disappointed in the return because the market for RHD is saturated with potential UFA options, and trade market options. There are also not enough teams who are in playoff contention who have the parts Buffalo needs in a straight up trade to get Buffalo what they need. But the assets obtained can be used in a separate deal, which brings me to my next trade.
Buffalo acquires Chris Tierney, 2020 3rd round pick from the Ottawa Senators for two 2020 second round picks (37th and 38th overall), F Marcus Davidsson.
Right after Keith Ballard was traded for Steven Reinprecht, Reinprecht was flipped and packaged in a deal with Rhett Warrener for Chris Drury. Reinprecht was coming off a career year of 51 points, needless to say, Buffalo made the right move here.
Buffalo follows a similar pattern here, using Rasmus Ristolainen as the piece to get something of value from another team to package in another deal to get a player they need. But in this case, it’s not a player they are sending to Ottawa, it’s a couple top 40 draft picks to obtain one of the more underrated centers in the league.
No Chris Tierney is not Chris Drury, and the only thing they have in common is their first names. But, for a team in need of a centerman, Tierney is exactly what the Sabres need down the middle. Drury was acquired at a point in his career where he was ready to take the next step at 27 years old Tierney is coming in at age 26, ironically an RFA who will likely get a bridge deal, and can come in to help facilitate the development of the Sabres young centers. He also is a penalty kill monster, and a great faceoff man. While he will probably never produce the offense Drury did, or even make the impact Drury did, the point is he can hopefully provide the Sabres with a stabilizing presence down the middle that can hopefully serve as a shutdown centerman, and penalty kill ace.
The price paid may seem a little high with two top 40, second round picks, and a B prospect in Marcus Davidsson who joins his brother with the Senators organization, when you look at what Andreas Athanasiou went for, it’s more than a fair offer for a cost controlled, 26-year old, top six center. Athanasiou was also traded for second rounders that will likely be later, and over the course of two years. With this trade, Ottawa now has an astonishing six second round picks, to go with their three first rounders. This trade also would give them six draft picks in the top 38. They would also have plenty of currency to execute other trades. For Buffalo I included their third round pick coming with Tierney (65th overall), so Buffalo is not completely taken out of the middle rounds of the draft.
An alternative target for the Sabres with this package could be Radek Faksa, center from the Dallas Stars. Faksa would occupy a little more cap space than Tierney and is a more physical and has a reputation as one of the toughest players to play against in the league. Faksa can also serve as a front net presence on the power play, something the Sabres were looking for all season.
The final return of the Ristolainen trade ends up as Chris Tierney, Austin Watson, Fredric Allard, a conditional 2021 second or third, and a 5th round pick.
Buffalo selects C Anton Lundell, HIFK (Liiga) 8th overall
Here Buffalo acquires the best defensive forward in the draft, and also acquires a player who’s defensive game is already polished enough to play in the NHL right away. There are a lot of people who are scared away from Lundell because of fears of his offensive upside.
While he may not project as a flashy 80-point forward in the league, he could still develop into a Sean Couturier type player for the Sabres. Couturier was also drafted 8th overall, and jumped right into the NHL finishing his rookie season with 13 goals, and 27 points. He even gathered a few Selke votes finishing 41st. He was also one of the team’s penalty kill anchors. As Couturier progressed, he became a consistent 40 point player in the league within three years, and broke out as a consistent 70-point player at age 25.
Anton Lundell could easily follow a similar pathway as Couturier, and in Buffalo, he could slide in right away and be the team's fourth line center to start the season and push for third line minutes as a left wing or centerman. Buffalo also needs to improve as a possession team, and Lundell is one of the most dominant possession forwards in the draft.
Buffalo selects LW Luke Tuch, USDP 65th overall (From Ottawa)
The former president of the Jr. Sabres Kevyn Adams sticks to familiarity here, and goes for a former Jr. Sabre alumni, Boston University committ, Luke Tuch, a 6’2, 207 two-way pound power forward from central New York, and a Buffalo Jr. Sabres alumni. Ironically Buffalo ends up with the younger Tuch here as an extension of the trade tree of Rasmus Ristolainen. Some fans have often mentioned Alex Tuch as a potential trade target for Ristolainen with Vegas. Luke Tuch plays a much more physical game than his brother and while his upside may be limited and may never be top line player, or a game breaker, Tuch should serve as a player that every team loves to have on their roster.
Aside from the first round, due to the Sabres cut in scouting staff, and given that the Sabres new director of scouting, Jeremiah Crowe has a background with the U.S National Development program, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sabres to potentially shift from taking more players from the program, and stick closer to North America.
Buffalo selects D Jack Thompson, Sudbury Wolves, in the 4th round
The Sudbury Wolves prospect has been largely overshadowed by being teammates with the highly touted prospect, Quinton Byfield, but he is still a nice sleeper prospect who has top four upside. Thompson’s ceiling is likely a fourth or fifth defenseman with power play upside.
As of right now, Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju are the two players who will be long term fixtures on the blueline, and within the next two years, we could see Mattias Samuelsson and Ryan Johnson work their way in. We also could see an older defenseman like Brandon Montour, or Jake McCabe get locked up for a few more years down the road. The physical Will Borgen should begin challenging for a roster spot next season, and the pipeline should include: Jacob Bryson and Oksari Laaksonen further developing in the organization. In this scenario, the Sabres added Fredric Allard who should be ready to challenge for a spot as soon as next year, but is more a bet to be ready for 2021-22. With Ristolainen being traded, the Sabres should continue to add to the blueline depth at some point in the draft.
Erik Haula, three years, $14 million
I think Buffalo will try to acquire a middle-six center in free agency to upgrade a little over Marcus Johansson, and Haula fits the bill. More importanlyt, the Sabres need to improve in the faceoff circle, and Haula is a 51.3% career faceoff man. Haula can also play all three forward positions. Johansson is quality player, but for what the team currently needs, Haula fits more of the bill at the moment.
His value may be down a little bit because of his age heading into free agency, and his injury history, but he would be an improvement over relying on Johansson to be the second line center.
Anton Khudobin, one year, $3.4 million
The Sabres could look to upgrade their backup goaltending and there’s not a better way to do it than adding one of the best backups in the league. Carter Hutton could likely get bought out or buried if a backup goaltender is added.
Carson Soucy, two years, $6 million
Soucy comes in to add depth to the blueline that just traded away Ristolainen. He gives the Sabres a physical presence and penalty killer on the backend. As a younger defenseman at age 26 hitting free agency, Soucy could be a sleeper pickup for the organization. Soucy should factor in as a number four or five defenseman.
Wayne Simmonds, one year, $1.25 million
Simmonds is brought in to compete with Kyle Okposo for the final roster spot with the organization, and to provide veteran leadership within the organization.
Post Free Agency Trade:
Buffalo acquires Marcus Foligno and Ryan Donato from the Minnesota Wild for Casey Mittelstadt and Marcus Johansson
This is a hockey trade here for Buffalo and Minnesota. This also only happens if so am able to sign Haula or another center capable player. The way I break this deal down is in two parts. First Buffalo and Minnesota swap young players, and i'd say in this deal as of today. Donato is probably the better NHL player than Mittelstadt, however, he is tremendously underutilized in Minnesota, and has found his role to be buried on the wings. Mittelstadt still has tremendous upside to be a dynamic top six center which is a long term need for Minnesota. However, with the presence and hype of Dylan Cozens, combined with the need to win sooner than later, I don't think the Sabres would be the best place at this point for Mittelstadt to develop as his pathway to the NHL will only get harder. For the swap of the veterans, Marcus Johansson is the more valuable asset than Foligno for sure to balance out this trade. Foligno however brings something totally different to the table than Johansson. Since he has left Buffalo, Foligno has become one of the league's better defensive forwards. Last season he even finished 24th in the Selke voting, and had a solid defensive season this year.
The thinking here is, I don't think Minnesota is going to be able to trade for the franchise center they are looking for (sound familiar ?) and they will still like to improve their depth down the middle. I personally won’t be stunned if they try to even re-acquire Haula in free agency, but I think it will depend on how much money and term they can afford. Either way, Minnesota does need a long term option at the position, and not sure if exists in the organization. Mittelstadt is a player who likely needs a change of scenery and going home to Minnesota where he will be needed will be the perfect situation for him as opposed to being rushed into a second line center role after moving Ryan O'Reilly.
He still has top six center upside with superstar potential. However, with Dylan Cozens on the way, and the possibility that Buffalo will sign or trade for a center in the offseason, as well as the possibility that the Sabres could take another center in the draft, Mittelstadt's path to the NHL will not be easy.
For Minnesota, Johansson provides an extremely versatile option who can play all over the top nine, and can fill in as a middle six center if needed, and if the season next year goes south, he can be flipped at the deadline for a pick. Johansson is not an ideal second line center, but he can do it if needed, he can probably be a better 3C if he’s placed into that role and if he’s not asked to carry the offensive production of a scoring line. Johnasson probably will be best used as a middle-six winger for whatever team he plays for.
Marcus Foligno is a player Kevyn Adams is very familiar with and for a new rookie GM, familiarity may be a nice bonus. Adams coached him before as an assistant under Lindy Ruff. Buffalo really could use Foligno back, and although Johnasson may be the better veteran forward in this deal, Foligno fills a need with his leadership, penalty killing, and toughness and slides right into the third line. Buffalo needs to improve the penalty kill and Foligno has developed into one of the better two way forwards in the league with a strong penalty killing presence.
Donato provides the Sabres with a similar prospect to Mittelstadt, but unlike Mittelstadt, he has been developed as a winger in his career. Donato is a little more established than Mittelstadt at the NHL level and could do more with a bigger role, but with Kirill Kapriziov in the fold, his role could be even more diminished in Minnesota as the Wild seem to have issues with his usage. Donato is capable of playing both wings, and can even play center in a pinch. In fact, Donato has played center his whole life until he arrived in the NHL with Boston and Minnesota.
While Mittelstadt has been developing as a center with the Sabres, Donato hasn’t had much of an opportunity to play the position he’s played at his entire life because Boston started him off as a winger, and Minnesota has essentially kept him there. Minnesota has also buried him in the lineup numerous times, and has only averaged close to ten minutes a night this past season. Donato has a very heavy shot and shoot first mentality, which has made him more of an intriguing option as a winger than a center. He still needs to work on many details of the game to be a centerman in the NHL, especially faceoffs, but he is a great possession player and has a high hockey IQ. Needless to say, both Mittelstadt and Donato are two players who could use a change of scenery with their organizations.
He is an intriguing enough player to swap out for Mittelstadt as both players were once ranked as top-15 prospects in all of hockey, with Mittelstadt at one point being the third ranked prospect in hockey.
For Buffalo, after acquiring Haula in free agency and Tierney on the trade market, they essentially have several options to fill the middle six center voids with Dylan Cozens and Anton Lundell also in the mix. In an disaster scenario where several players fall to injury, they could even experiment with Dominik Kahun and Ryan Donato at the position of they needed to.
Opening Day 2020-21
Skinner- Eichel- Haula
Olafsson- Cozens- Reinhart
Kahun- Tierney- Foligno
Watson- Lundell- Donato
***these lines of course are obviously not set, it’s about creating competition, someone like Ryan Donato for example could easy challenge for a top six role, and different matchups will produce different combinations.
Olafsson- Eichel- Reinhart
Skinner- Cozens- Kahun
Haula- Tierney- Foligno
Watson- Lundell- Donato
Extras: Simmonds, Okposo, Lazar, Asplund
7th D- Borgen