Heading into this offseason, many echoed the sentiment that this would be another incredibly important offseason for a franchise that continues to find itself rudderless. The past has brought head scratching decisions, while many questioned the direction of the Buffalo Sabres.
With general manager Kevyn Adams getting his first full regular season under his belt, it is safe to say that all eyes in Western New York were pointed in Adams’ direction with the offseason rapidly approaching.
What we have witnessed from the end of the regular season to the start of free agency appears to be a changing of the guard in Buffalo.
If anyone had doubts about the power and control that Adams has over the franchise as a whole, those doubts should be put to bed. Early last season, rumblings around Buffalo pointed toward Adams wanting to put his own stamp on this team and understandably so.
If you take a step back for a second, you can recognize that the state of the Sabres roster is a grim one. Multiple head coaches have worked with multiple general managers over the last handful of seasons to patch together a roster of ineffectiveness, unhappiness with some bloated contracts sprinkled in.
Adams took his first swing at rebuilding his team, like a power hitter sits on a 3-0 fastball. The swing was strong and had only one result in mind - a home run.
Shortly before the 2021 NHL Draft, confirmation came down that the Sabres had traded defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Robert Hagg, a 2021 first round pick (14th overall) and a 2023 second round pick. The prevailing thought was that Ristolainen, an unrestricted free agent after the 2021-22 season, would be dealt because his perceived value throughout the league was relatively high.
Despite Ristolainen apparently being allergic to any sort of skill-set that would make him an analytical darling - as made apparently by his 3% wins above replacement, per JFresh Hockey - general managers around the league just love his raw skillset. By raw skillset, we mean the hockey minds love his ability to hit people at a high rate.
To further that point, since entering the NHL in the 2013-14 season, Ristolainen ranks 15th in the league with 1,355 hits. For general managers who love a heavy-hitting defenseman and live by the old-fashioned eye test, Ristolainen is your guy.
The second foundation-shattering trade to take place during the draft saw forward Sam Reinhart move to the Florida Panthers in exchange for a 2022 first round pick and goaltender Devon Levi.
While it appears that old general managers might have fumbled their opportunity to lock Reinhart up long-term, Adams determined that Reinhart’s value to the franchise was more valuable as a trade piece and not a first line winger.
The 2021 NHL Draft saw the Sabres draft 11 new players. This goes in the books as the most players taken by the organization since the 2013 NHL Draft, where Buffalo also drafted 11 players. The nine forwards selected by Adams is tied for the most Buffalo has taken in one draft in franchise history, and the most since Buffalo selected nine forwards in 1998.
Buffalo selected four Russian players, marking the first time since 2016 that a Russian player was drafted by the organization. To go one step further, Buffalo had drafted four Russian players in the last 16 drafts combined.
Even if all of these facts are merely a coincidence, it is clear that a philosophy has changed somewhere within KeyBank Center.
Buffalo also just so happened to nab themselves another stud of a defensive prospect in University of Michigan sophomore Owen Power.
Not a bad day for a franchise looking to add more surefire talents to their pipeline.
The change in Buffalo’s philosophy has been further echoed throughout the first few days of free agency. Instead of going out and making flashy moves that send ripples around the NHL, Adams appears to have chosen to keep the current state of the franchise at the forefront of his thinking.
Adams added Vinnie Hinostroza, Sean Malone, Mark Pysyk, Jimmy Schuldt, Craig Anderson, Aaron Dell, Ethan Prow and John Hayden, while also bringing back Drake Caggiula and Brandon Davidson.
What do all of these deals have in common? They are all one-year deals, which provides ultimate flexibility for the Sabres.
It is presumed that only a few of the aforementioned names will spend most of their season in Buffalo, but those players will essentially be putting on a showcase for not only Buffalo, but the rest of the league come time for the NHL Trade Deadline.
Can a strong season earn a player like Pysyk a longer term deal with the Sabres? Certainly.
Could that same strong performance earn a player like Caggiula interest from a playoff-bound team looking to strengthen their bottom-six? Absolutely.
The Ristolainen and Reinhart trades, coupled with the picks in this year’s draft and the quiet, yet, calculated moves in free agency tell us that we are witnessing a changing of the guard in Buffalo.
Adams has begun putting his stamp on this franchise and will continue to do so with an impending Jack Eichel trade hanging over the Sabres’ head like a black cloud.
While next season might involve a large amount of growing pains, including getting to know the top prospects in the 2022 NHL Draft, Adams has begun the transition of taking a Frankenstein-style roster and molding it into something that might just develop into a group of players that actually resemble an NHL roster.