You don't need a weathervane to know which way the wind's blowing. This is a disaster of unparalleled proportions.
Quite simply: The Sabres are a soft, perimeter team on offense; a soft, unaware, and unaccountable team on defense; and a bunch of doofuses attempting to transition from defense to offense. This isn't just a matter of firing the coach, or putting new pieces around the core. This team needs a complete overhaul, as painful as that may be.
Before we start though, we have to ask ourselves how we envision a successful hockey team.
On this point I recommend reading the excellent book Tape to Space by Ryan Stimson. I think the book does a good job summarizing a lot of key areas where the Sabres go wrong and what, exactly, is meant by the phrase "playing connected." Stimson favors a largely positionless game in which players are given freedom to read and react what is in front of them, and what their teammates are doing. The structure is there, but each players role within the structure will change depending on what happens during the play.
To give you an example using one of the fanbase's most pressing frustrations: in this system, you would never tell Rasmus Dahlin not to activate in the offensive zone. If Dahlin had an opportunity to come down from the point and find open space you would want him to do that, and you'd want one of his linemates to recognize this run and drop back in coverage. In fact, what you wouldn't tolerate is Rasmus Dahlin just sitting by the blueline and not putting any pressure on the opposing defensive structure. You would demand that all five players in the offensive zone fluidly move in and out of areas and replace each other depending on what is going on with the play. Movement, motion, and unpredictability are the calling cards of this system in the OZ, NZ, and DZ.
The theory here is that this constant movement creates pressure, which will open up lanes for high danger shot assists (across the slot or from below the goal line) instead of you traditional and predictable cycle with pinching and retreating. Another theoretical advantage is, like I mentioned, unpredictability. You won't necessarily know what guys are going to do by what position they play.
Because we are playing essentially positionless hockey we can eschew the traditional way of setting up a roster. We don't need to necessarily have 4 forward lines and 3 defensive pairings. What we need is
4 groups of 3 groups of 5 players that will work together as a cohesive unit. If that can't be done effectively, we will look to build 3 groups of 5 players that work together as a cohesive unit and have the remaining 5 The remaining players be able to contribute something to the team when called upon: whether that be penalty killing, power play, shootout, faceoffs, etc.
To effectuate this system you will be looking for well rounded players who can read and adapt to a variety of looks, styles, and situations.
With this ideal in mind, let's turn to the Sabres' future.
PHASE 1: Deadline Deals
Deal 1: Buffalo trades Victor Oloffson to Minnesota for RHD Calen Addison + 2021 2nd
Addison is exactly the type of player we are talking about. Per Scott Wheeler:
He moves beautifully across the offensive zone blue line, side-stepping laterally to create angles to the net for his shot (which is hard without being heavy) or through passing seams. He also plays an aggressive style, regularly sliding off the point and out of those rotations across the line to attack down the wall and look backdoor as a passer, or to jump into the high slot as a shooting threat. He has also always had good four-way mobility, which is now complemented by improved power in his stride. The questions with Addison have always been about his defensive approach and his smallish size, but he’s sturdier than he looks and willing to engage in board battles physically.
Addison is a 2nd round pick from 2018 that has already gotten a cup of coffee in the NHL. He's currently got 8 points in 7 AHL games and could step in immediately.
For Minnesota this deal makes sense because they have the league's worst powerplay (6.8 percent), and could convince themselves that they would be contenders with a stronger PP unit. Olofsson is a nice piece, but his pricetag is going to get steep and we have a good replacement player in Ruotsolainen moving through the minors.
Deal 2: Buffalo trades Eric Staal to Minnesota for F Adam Beckman
This one is pretty self explanatory. Staal should be turned into an asset and Minnesota is one of the only teams we know that he will go to. Staal could also help with their poor powerplay, and could provide strong leadership for a playoff run.
Beckman is a former 3rd round pick who has dominated in the WHL and is now getting his first taste of AHL hockey with 2 goals in his first 7 AHL games. He could be ready for a role in 2021-2022 if all goes well.
Deal 3: Buffalo trades Colin Miller to New York Rangers for a 2021 2nd
Colin Miller is an example of the "dead weight" described above. In the offensive zone he lacks the poise necessary to react to offensive zone situations and is better suited for a team that is trying to "get pucks to the net." In his own end he is often not reading and reacting well and is frequently out of position. He also brings very little in the NZ.
He would be a good fit for NY insomuch as they need help on D if they are going to make the playoffs and they convince themselves they can get value out of Miller in a 3rd pairing roll.
Deal 4: Buffalo trades Rasmus Ristolainen to the Kings for RHD Brock Faber + 2021 2nd
Ristolainen is another player who just doesn't fit in our system. Simply put, we cannot tolerate players who are unable to effectively pass or skate their way out of pressure and who insist on giving the puck back to the opposition with low percentage plays such as blind dump-ins and chipping it up the boards where there are better options available. Again, our system requires players to read, react, and attack accordingly. This is just not Ristolainen's strong suit. He is better suited for a system where he is asked to play within himself, bring physicality, and man a PP (something he's not needed for here).
The Kings would be interested in a player like Ristolainen for their playoff push. They are a franchise that has long valued physicality and size.
Faber is a 2020 2nd round pick. He is known for his all around game--a theme you may be picking up on. He's not particularly great at anything (except for his A+ skating) but again--he's a guy that will add value in all three zones.
Deal 5: Taylor Hall to Carolina for C Jack Drury + 2021 2nd
Taylor Hall fits just fine with the type of player we are looking for. His compete level is fine in all three zones; he can skate; he can read and react; and he has the kind of skill to put pressure on the opposing defense. However, his age and contract status are not good fits for a rebuilding team. The Sabres get Jack Drury--another well rounded prospect that has been very good in the SHL this season putting up 24 points in 35 games in a man's league. Drury projects nicely as a middle six center who can contribute on either special teams unit. We also add yet another 2nd round pick--giving us quite a lot of dart throws in the NHL draft.
I thought about asking for a 1st but would rather have the prospect and a second.
Carolina makes this deal because they are going for the cup and another elite forward could put them over the top. Hall is attracted to the small market and competitive team and agrees to waive his no trade clause.
Deal 6: Linus Ullmark to Washington for C Aleksi Protas
I like Linus, but he is an unrestricted free agent and it seems like the Sabres could afford to start over at the goaltending position. Washington needs an improvement over their sub-.900 save percentage if they are to make the playoffs.
Protas is a 6'6" guy with a big shot who is playing 18-20 minutes a night in the KHL and doing fairly well. Assuming he can be convinced to come over and sign an ELC he could start out in the AHL and be a mid-season call up if all goes well.
Deal 7: Brandon Montour to Edmonton for a 2022 2nd
Edmonton could use some help on D. I believe that Montour has some untapped potential that Krueger stifled with his usage and with the system, but he's a UFA and it's time to get some value for him.
Summary: We've moved out Oloffson, Staal, Miller, Ristolainen, Ullmark, and Montour and we've gotten back: Addison, Beckman, 2021 2nd (Min), 2021 3rd (Min), 2021 2nd (NYR), Faber, 2021 2nd (LAK), Drury, 2021 2nd (CAR), Protas, and 2022 2nd (EDM)
Post deadline we can rock the following lines:
PHASE 2: UFA RE-Signings/Buyouts
Jake McCabe- 1 year 3.5 million
There are no UFAs that need to be re-signed for our system. However, becuase we are going to have one of our 5-man units be a little more geared to defensive zone starts and key defensive situations, it makes sense to bring back McCabe on a 1-year prove-it deal. McCabe will be interested in this deal because he will want to (a) show he is healthy; and (b) show that his play to begin this season was not a fluke so that he can cash in on the open market the following year.
PHASE 3: Draft
#5 Matthew Beniers (6-1, 174), C, Michigan
In this scenario the top 4 dmen are gone leaving us with the draft's best forward. Beniers is exactly what we are looking for. He is active and moves well in both the offensive and defensives zones, is tough on pucks, is excellent at zone entries, and has enough skill to anchor a 2nd line in the NHL with top line upside if everything shakes his way. Other than Trevor Zegras, he was the USA's best player at the world juniors.
PHASE 4: RFA Re-signings
Sam Reinhart: 7 years 56 million
Reinhart is another player whose well rounded, heady game will fit well with our system. He's been criminally underappreciated since he's been a member of the Sabres. He gets his payday at just 8 million AAV.
Rasmus Dahlin: 5 years 25 million
We take a chance and bet on Dahlin's talent. In theory, he is someone that should fit beautifully in our system. He's essentially a 4th forward in the o-zone, has elite transition upside, and will be helped by the rotating approach of our new d-zone coverage where he won't be tasked solely with traditional d-men duties but will be able to read and react to a variety of different settings.
If Dahlin comes into his own over the next few years, this deal will end up being one of the better deals in the NHL. If nothing else, 5 million a year won't kill us if he the stalls in his development and is a 3rd pairing dman that plays sheltered EV minutes and contributes with his elite PP QB skills.
Henri Jokiharju: 2 years 4 million
Jokiharju is someone who the Sabres should want to see if they can get back on track. He showed promise early in arriving from Chicago and he generally fits the build of the jack of all trades dman that we covet. That beign said, we don't take as big a risk on him as we did with Dahlin becuase of the lack of big time upside. A bridge deal is appropriate for him, particularly in light of the fact that we have Borgen, Johnson, Faber, and Addison in the pipeline as RHD that we like.
Will Borgen: 3 years 6 million
We take a gamble on Borgen's upside and promise here and pay him a deal that we will come to regret mildly if he regresses, but that could be a steal if he continues his development. There is a lot to like with Borgen's game and his ability to play well with Dahlin in a small sample size is very intriguing.
Casey Mittelstadt: 3 years 5.5 million
Here we are assuming that Mittelstadt continues to show progress, but doesn't explode the remainder of the season. That earns him a deal similar to the one Thompson got, and a depth role (at the very least) moving forward.
Casey Fitzgerald: 2 years 1.6 million
Fitzgerald has shown decently as a top pairing defender in Rochester and his all around potential intrigues me. It's worth keeping him around for a couple of years as a depth option with upside.
PHASE 5: Expansion Draft
Exempt: Matt Beniers, Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn, Calen Addison, Faber, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Brett Murray, Matej Pekar, Brandon Biro and Dawson DiPietro; Mattias Samuelsson, Jacob Bryson, Oskari Laaksonen and Ryan Johnson, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
I'm going to go 8:1
Forwards: Eichel, Reinhart, Dahlin, Jokiharju, Borgen, Mittelstadt, Thompson, Fitzgerald
Goalie: Johansson (if he plays more than 23 games he needs to be exposed)--otherwise Tokarski
Based on this I would expect that the Kraken would take Zemgus Girgensons. Farewell sweet prince.
PHASE 6: UFA SIGNINGS
We are going to fill out our roster here with some short term additions. These should not be a problem becuase we have gotten rid of a ton of salary with Risto, Hall, Miller, Staal, and Montour.
Peter Mrazek: 2 years 7 million
Michael Granlund: 2 years 8 million
Kyle Palmeri: 2 years 10 million
OPENING DAY NHL ROSTER
Scoring Line 1: Mittelstadt, Eichel, Reinhart, Ruoatsolainen, Dahlin
Scoring Line 2: Skinner, Cozens, Thompson, Quinn, Bryson
Scoring Line 3: Granlund, Palmeri, McCabe, Jokiharhu, Borgen
Remaining 3: Lazar, Asplund, Addison
G: Mrazek, UPL
Addison can mix in for one of the 3 d-men on Line 3 and will also contribute on a 2nd PP line.
Lazar and Asplund are your penalty killers and can be sprinkled in for defensive zone starts and to manage fatigue throughout a game.
OPENING NIGHT ROCHESTER
Weisbach-Drury-Oglievie, Protas, Fitzgerald
Murray-Fogarty, Dea, samuelson, Laaksonen
Filler line 1
Filler line 2
Tokarski, Filler Goalie
TOP AFFILIATED PROSPECTS
Ryan Johnson-ETA 2022-2023
J.J.P.: ETA 2023-2024 (year before he arrives in ROCH)
Obviously we would need progressive coaches in Buffalo and Rochester committed to this brand of hockey for this all to work. I'm not even sure it would work. It could fail miserably. But it would definitely be innovative and something that we haven't tried yet.
NB: a commenter pointed out that I was having a brain-fart and was dressing 20 players. I have fixed the article to reflect that you can only dress 18.