Recently there’s been a lot of anguish from folks here at DBTB about our favorite team (for better or worse). Lack of faceoff victories, lack of hitting, lack of shooting, lack of goaltending, lack of just about anything and everything, depending on the person posting. So let me step back and try to offer some perspective.
First, I know the Sabres have been a sinkhole for the better part of 15 years now. And so, patience is hard to come by. Truly, I get it.
Second, I know the Sabres have been in a seemingly perpetual rebuild for more than a decade. I would argue that Kevyn Adams’ rebuild is only a couple years old – since Krueger departed – and is actually the 4th rebuild of the recent vintage, but that doesn’t make people feel any better or more confident.
All that said, if you take a step back, I think you’ll see this is an assessment year. Yes, I know. Another one. While the season is only 20 games in, let’s look at some things that were legitimate unknowns coming into the season:
What is Tage Thompson? Flash in the pan, or Top 6 center?
How good can Ower Power be as a rookie?
· Can Dahlin take that next step?
· Can Mitts be a Top 6 center?
· Can some or all the kids (Krebs, Quinn, Peterka, Power, Cozens, Samuelsson) step up?
· Who’s going to stop pucks?
I would argue that most of these things are being answered in the positive. Which is good! Thompson is clearly still ascending and is almost certainly not a flash in the pan. Even if he’s not on the same plane as, say, McDavid, he’s still going to be a legitimate #1C for this team in a way Derek Roy never was. Power, in playing the toughest position to learn at the NHL level, and at times for 25 minutes a night, has been exceptional. Dahlin – if the season ended today – almost certainly finishes in Top 5 in Norris Trophy voting. So that sounds to me like a next step. Most of the kids’ names on that list are improving game over game. Now, I will readily admit there’s still issues with stopping pucks. And Mitts is struggling every night, it seems. So it’s not perfect by any means. But here’s where I think you come out of this year:
· You’ve got a #1 center in Tage Thompson.
· You’ve got a #2 center in Dylan Cozens, who could easily hit 50+ points this year.
· You’ve got 3 Top 6 wings (Tuch, Quinn, JJP).
· You’ve got a #1D (Dahlin), a #2D (Power), and a #3D (Sammy).
· All of these players are 26 or younger.
That’s a pretty darn good skeleton to build a team around. Does it mean they’re a playoff team right now? No. In fact, I would argue the Sabres are not. Nor were they coming into the season. Again, going back to the patience point earlier, I know it’s extraordinarily frustrating. I’ve been a Sabres’ fan since the late 70s and have been frustrated with them for most of my life. But this is how you build a winner in the modern NHL. You grow your own foundational group, then you add pieces from outside to supplement that group. But we’re getting close now to the really hard part: we tore down the house, we’ve started to frame a new one…but now we’ve got to actually build the new house.
So, if I were Adams, what would I do next?
#1) Start calling around the GMs targeting certain players. If players are going to be moved – players that can help this team, preferably ones in the right age window – I want to be part of the discussion. Give me a chance to make an offer. I suspect this is already happening (see the 32 Thoughts on Chychrun a couple weeks ago).
#2) Have 1-on-1 meetings with Girgensons, Okposo, Hinostroza, Anderson. What do you want to do at the Deadline? Do you want to go chase a Cup, or stay in BFLO? No hard feelings, but I need to know now what you’re thinking, so I can prepare for the next few months. And just to be clear, sticking around does not guarantee you a contract next season.
#3) Start preliminary conversations with Cozens, Dahlin, Asplund, Jost about extending. This may already be happening. Know what you might be walking into $$$-wise for next season.
Now I know what I’m dealing with going forward. So let’s hit the fast-forward button all the way to the Trade Deadline. As the calendar turns to March, the Sabres are hovering around 52-7 points. About a point per game. They’re probably perched around the 11th spot in the East. Playoffs are not imminent. Fortunately, I’ve already had those conversations with my veterans and I’m ready to listen to offers. In those conversations, Girgensons expressed a desire to go chase a Cup…I certainly don’t blame him. He’s been a good soldier but he’s had nearly a decade of losing. So I start floating his name. Word is out. And a team comes calling.
TRADE: Zemgus Girgensons (50% retained) -> DAL ’24 2nd, ’25 2nd
For what could be a 30-game loaner, I get a pair of 2nd round choices. Dallas has a number of young kids, and can use some size, speed and veteran grit on their 4th line, and they’re not afraid of giving up draft picks to take a run (see their trade for Nils Lindqvist from the Rangers). But they’ve already given up their 1st in the 2023 Draft, so they ask if they can move the 2nd back a year…in exchange, they move the 2025 choice from a 3rd to a 2nd. Given how many 2nds Adams already has in the 2023 Draft, he agrees. The West is kind of wide open, and the Stars have as good a chance as anyone to come out of there. Girgensons agrees. For BFLO, this also frees up a spot for guys like Murray, Weissbach, Biro and the like to come up from ROCH and play in the League for a bit. Show your wares coming down the stretch. This is the only move they make.
Again, the fast forward button takes us to the end of the season. Let’s say the Sabres finish with 84 points. An improvement to be sure. That would mean they’ve gone from 37 points to 75 points to 84 points; it also means they would have their best season since Lindy’s last full year in BFLO (2011)…over a decade ago.
I’m going into the loaded 2023 Entry Draft with 5 selections in the Top 62 players. How? Well, I’m going to assume that the Sabres do not sign either Ryan Johnson or Erik Portillo. And by not signing Johnson, the Sabres are ‘rewarded’ with a 2nd round pick that essentially matches the position of the 1st round choice used to draft Johnson. So I’m guessing that will be #62 (he was chosen with pick #31).
DRAFT DAY ONE:
1#10: Dalibor Dvorsky, 6’1 C, SVK – do-it-all 2-way centerman with a killer shot.
TRADE: PHI #38, BFLO #42 -> CAR #26
The Sabres see a player on their Board that is sliding, and given their volume of picks, they move up to get him. Carolina loves to trade down and net more picks.
1#26: Oliver Bonk, 6’2 RHD, OHL – rapidly improving offensive game lends itself to strong D.
But while the Sabres are stockpiling draft picks, there are hot and heavy conversations going on with San Jose GM Mike Grier. After all, the free agency period starts in just a week or so. And they have a prime piece heading to free agency (assuming he doesn’t get dealt beforehand). The Sabres want to get in before a bidding war starts. They make a deal with the Sharks, on the Day 2 of the Draft.
TRADE: Casey Mittelstadt, Matthew Savoie, ’24 1st (Top 3 protected) -> SJS Timo Meier
Conversations have already been had with Meier’s agent, and the structure is in place for a new contract before the trade is consummated. Meier gives them a player who fits into their window (he’s a year younger than Alex Tuch; a year older than Tage), he’s scored 30G+ twice, and is on pace for 40 goals this season. He’s a bear around the net, something BFLO doesn’t have very much of, and is a physical presence who is still quick enough to get up and down the ice. High-effort guy who can play on either side. Gets immediately paired up with Tage. The Sharks get a centerman who’s only 24, is on pace for 46 points despite having a rotating cast of wings and has room to grow; they get a former Top 10 pick and an A prospect with speed and creativity who could be a star in the future, and 1st rounder. Considering Meier was going to be Unrestricted in under a week, the Sharks made out.
SIGN Timo Meier -> 6 years @ $9.05M (limited No-Trade Clause)
I pegged this deal to somewhere between Matthew Barzal’s deal ($9.15M AAV) and Patrick Laine ($8.7M AAV). It’s fewer years than the similarly-aged Barzal’s, but more than the younger Laine’s (who’s numbers are more comparable to Meier’s).
DRAFT DAY TWO:
2#59 (LVG): Arttu Karki, 6’2 LHD, FIN – puck-moving Finn with a ton of creativity.
2#61 (Compensatory): Matthew Soto, 5’11 LW, OHL – blazing fast forward who’s not afraid of anything.
3#74: Dylan MacKinnon, 6’3 RHD, QMJHL – big, physical defensive D-Man, can skate.
4#106: Hannes Hellberg, 6’1 W, SWE ** - slick, goal-scoring over-age forward.
5#138: Jiri Felcman, 6’4 C, CZE – big power-center who has pretty good hands in tight.
6#170: Kalen Parker, 6’1 RHD, WHL – smooth puck-transporter with a little bit of snarl.
7#202: Josh Neidermayer, 6’0 LHD, NCAA **- fantastic skater and smart positional player.
On Day One of free agency, I don’t want to wait around. I get out there and make my first (and only) big purchase.
SIGN Scott Mayfield, RHD, NYI -> 4 years @ $3.75M
I wanted a right-shot defender who has length, strength, and a veteran presence. I looked at some trades, but Mayfield was my favorite choice if he doesn’t get extended. BUT, that said, I think Mayfield is the Islanders’ 5th defenseman (Pulock, Dobson, Pelech, and Romanov are ahead of him). You’re not going to get a lot of offense out of him, but that’s OK. Signing him also deepens the team depth – you have a bottom pair of Joker and Boosh with Bryson as your 7th guy and Fitz down in ROCH as your #8. I wanted to give him only 3 years, but I think it might take a 4th year (and a few extra bucks) to convince him to come to BFLO.
Now that I’m done with that, to take care of the homegrown crowd…
SIGN Dylan Cozens -> 5 years @ $5.9M
This was a tough one to peg. Ottawa has 2 young centers that they paid $8M+ to without a lot of track record to back those pay days up. Cozens, after this season, will almost certainly have the history to show he’s improving every season, I think will be better all-around than either Norris or Stuetzle. So I came down a little from term (so fewer UFA years accounted for) and price tag (a little lower on the production side than the above two). So this way I eat up all of Cozens’ RFA years, AND a year or two of UFA, so he’ll be 26 when there’s a new deal coming up – and Skinner will be off the books, which clears up a lot of dollars.
SIGN Kyle Okposo -> 1 year @ $2.1M
Part of this deal is for services already rendered. Okposo is the Captain, he’s weathered much of the hard times associated with the franchise and his own health-related hard times to become a valued member of the community and the team, and I’m betting still has a little left in the tank. This deal is signed with the unwritten option to join the front office in some capacity as soon as his playing career is over with the intention of making him a Buffalonian for life.
SIGN Tyson Jost -> 1 year @ $810K
This is a show-me deal. This kid has, at least so far, come over and played fast, hard, and heavy even for a guy his size. The knock on him has been consistency of effort. Let’s assume getting waived has woken him up; he’s got some skill and hands, but he’s just not skilled enough to be a Top 6 forward. His game is going to have to be puck pursuit and defensive responsibility if he wants to make this team and stick around. If he’s committed to that role, we might have something here. But he fits the age window and is a more than adequate stop-gap while kids like Kulich, Rosen, and Bloom figure things out.
EXTEND Rasmus Dahlin -> 8 years @ $9.3M
This was the easiest of the deals. Dahlin is an elite-level, Norris-Trophy caliber blueliner. He’s also one of the unquestioned leaders of the team, and quite possibly the Captain when Okposo calls it quits. Now as a comp, I looked at Cale Makar’s deal…he of the Norris and Conn Smythe winning seasons. He took 6 years at $9M. So I think if I gave Dahlin a 6-year deal, he comes in somewhere in the 8’s just because he hasn’t done everything Makar has done…yet. But since I’m buying an extra couple of UFA years, I’m throwing in the additional $2.5M. When he’s done, he’s almost certainly the best defender the Sabres have ever had in franchise history, but thus far Adams has done a nice job getting guys at a little less than what they might get on the open market. Hoping that holds true here.
SIGN Rasmus Asplund -> 2 years @ $1.9M
This was a tough one for me. I like Asplund a lot as a bottom 6 player generally, and a defensive conscience on a Top 6 line if needed. He’s versatile, understands his role, is defensively sound, hustles and probably at his best maybe a 35P player. There is some value here. I was thinking about signing him to a longer term. But other than last season, he seems to get nicked up more than his fair share. And his skill set (and spot on the roster) seems replaceable. So I decided to offer him basically a plussed-up Bryson contract.
SIGN Brett Murray -> 1 year @ $945K
SIGN Linus Weissbach -> 2 years @ $865K
Two younger forwards who I think have proven themselves at the AHL level get their shot at the NHL level. This is not set in concrete; obviously they can still be sent down, if they clear waivers, but two players: one with a ton of speed and some skill, the other with some size and net-front presence. They know the system, they’re known to the coaches, and may not play much…but if they’re needed, they should fill in admirably and let the kids continue to percolate down in ROCH.
Skinner (9) – Thompson (7.15) – Meier (9.05)
JJP (.85) – Cozens (5.9) – Quinn (.86)
Olofsson (4.75) – Krebs (.86) – Tuch (4.75)
Jost (.81) – Asplund (1.9) – Okposo (2.1)
Weissbach (.865) – Murray (.945)
Samuelsson (4.3) – Dahlin (6)
Power (.915) – Mayfield (3.75)
Boosh (2.75) – Joker (2.5)
Comrie (1.8) – UPL (.84)
CAP Hit: $72.6M (Projected Ceiling: $83.5M)
OPENING NIGHT in ROCH:
Rousek – Malone – Kulich
Rosen – Kozak – Mersch
Kisakov – Biro – Cedarqvist
Nadeau – Warren – Bloom
Jobst – Pekar – Olischefski
Clague – Fitz
Davies – Lyckasen
Novikov – Prow
Tischke – Laaksonen
Subban – Levi
C: Ostlund – Dvorsky – Biro – Huglen – Constantini – Von Barnekow – Kozak – Karlsson – Felcman
W: Rosen – Neuchev – Bloom – Kisakov – Cedarqvist – Poltapov – Marjala – Nadeau – Richard – Soto – Sardaryan – Hellberg
D: Bonk – Lindgren – Lyckasen – Komarov – Karki – Novikov – Laaksonen – MacKinnon – Parker – Neidermayer
G: Levi – Leinonen
· Extend Power; Bridge Krebs and UPL
· Make Determinations on Joker, Comrie, Okposo, Boosh, Bryson, Jost
· Okposo Retirement?
· Promote Rosen; Kulich
· Promote to ROCH: Von Barnekow, Komarov, Lindgren, Ostlund
· Draft: 2 2nds, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th