Sabres Mailbag: Botterill, Cozens, free agency, trades, and more

Enjoy a bye week Sabres mailbag

In my three years with Die By The Blade, I don’t think I ever did a mailbag piece. I found myself in a mood during the bye week and decided to connect with the fans and put one together. I wish I could have included everyone’s questions, but I had to cut it off with all the responses. If I didn’t get to your question here, I made sure to answer on Twitter.

Let’s get to it.

Does winning truly “fix everything”? (@SilentOne_77)

This was one of the first questions that came in and I found it interesting. I think that winning solves attendance in your building. We’ve seen that work in places like Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. Other issues such as botching things in the club’s 50th season anniversary are not solved by winning. The poor state of your building isn’t solved by winning. Perhaps the noise won’t be at a booming level, but it’ll still exist.

What immediate improvement(s) would you make to the arena/plaza area to improve the atmosphere? (Peter Fitzgerald)

I think the obvious fix inside the arena is to put in new seats at the very least in the lower bowl and 200 level. The entire arena needs it, but I won’t ask for too much. I’d also do my best to widen the concourse in the 300 level. Not sure if that’s possible with how the building is constructed, but I would look into it.

The plaza could use some love too. How about another statue of Hasek? How about anything else that pays so homage to your history? Also, please change the images on the walkway that goes from the parking garage to the arena that goes over the plaza. Tyler Myers hasn’t played for the Sabres in years. Not mention the countless other players that have been gone for a long time.

Are we approaching the point where we stop talking about shipping our superfluous defensemen for a useable forward and instead start considering futures? (@vovaantonovich)

If we’re not at this point yet, we’re very close to it. The only defensemen that realistically could be traded with value are Rasmus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour. The Sabres have killed any value that Colin Miller probably has on the market with the continued scratches while Zach Bogosian struggles on the ice.

If Botterill doesn’t want to move either Ristolainen or Montour then we’re looking at using picks and prospects. Some of you may say what about Sam Reinhart, but we’ll get to that later.

Any prospect in the system besides Dylan Cozens should be available for discussion in a trade. That includes older prospects like Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt.

Depending on where the Sabres finish in the standings, I’ll even discuss their first-round pick in the 2020 draft. For too long this organization has talked about the future. Unless the Sabres are in the top 10 (very possible) to grab one of the handful of forward prospects in the upcoming draft, that first-round pick should be on the table. Use it to go try to pry a promising young NHL forward out of a team looking for a change. Package that along with any of the handful of defense prospects in Mattias Samuelsson, Ryan Johnson, Oskari Laaksonen, Jacob Bryson, and Linus Cronholm. All of them should be available regardless of where they were drafted.

What do you think they do with Cozens next year? (@BfloIrish)

Dylan Cozens is having a great season in Lethbridge and had a solid World Junior performance for Team Canada. He’s a promising prospect, but we must remember to set proper expectations. He’ll only be 19-years-old to start next season. We all know of the other 19-year-old that entered the lineup with inflated expectations.

Due to the CHL/NHL rule, it’s either juniors or Sabres for Cozens next season. It would be ideal to send him to the AHL to get his career started, as I believe he’s too good to return to junior hockey. Sitting here today, I believe they plan on him being on the opening night roster next season. At the very least, he’ll get that nine-game trial period before his entry-level contract kicks in.

I hope the organization has learned from their past mistakes and don’t expect him to walk in as the answer at second-line center. Shelter the kid and let him get familiar with the pro game. Also, get some linemates for him to play with.

Have discussions started with 23 on an extension? How big do you think? (@sabresbills18)

I told you we’d get to Reinhart later. I don’t believe discussions have begun yet on a new deal. That’ll probably start in the summer. My feeling is Reinhart will cost the Sabres between $6.8 to $7.25 million in annual average value (cap hit). He’s an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent on pace for close to 70 points, which would be a career-high again. Like him or not, that is the going rate for a player that produces at his level. I’ve always looked at the William Nylander deal ($6.97 million cap hit) with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the ballpark for Reinhart and his agency.

Some people have discussed the idea of using Reinhart as a trade chip and I’m not there at all. The Sabres need more impact forwards not less. Trading Reinhart in a package for another forward seems counter-productive. I’m also not saying he’s untouchable, but for me, it would have to be a really sweet deal to move him off the roster. I feel like he provides more than what is measured in terms of production that the Sabres can’t afford to part with right now.

I’d be in favor of moving him onto another line to give him a chance to drive his own line as the general manager has previously alluded to. I think it would help spread out the scoring and they can explore this when they get healthy at forward. If the Sabres don’t take him off Eichel’s like that isn’t a deal-breaker for me. A lot of good players play with other good players. Top lines all over the league consist of more than one good player on that line. It’s not a knock against him. Eichel and Reinhart do things in their game to benefit each other.

Do you think GMJB will still have a job at the end of this season? (@BrandonKahm)

There’s no denying that things have not gone well for Botterill this season. Outside of Henri Jokiharju, his offseason acquisitions have not given him the return he’s hoped for.  Barring some kind of a crazy collapse, I think he’s the GM through the summer and into next season. I’ve always felt that the moment he was given the power to hire his second head coach, that he has at least two years of a leash. He blew year one and this summer is year two.

Do you trust Botts to be in charge of our most important off-season since 2015? (@BrassMaster418)

To be honest, my confidence level in Botterill is low right now. He needs to make that “big” move to help his team become a playoff contender at the very least. He’s pulled off low-risk moves since getting burned in the Ryan O’Reilly trade.

He has a lot on his plate this summer. He has new contracts to hand out to restricted free agents like Montour, Reinhart, and Linus Ullmark. He’ll also have a lot of cap space and roster freedom to set the lineup. If he whiffs again this summer, it could set the Sabres back a few years that a player like Eichel may not be willing to wait out.

Like I said, my confidence level is low, but I think he’ll be the general manager, so we need to hope he can pull it off.

Assume no pending FA re-signs with their current team, which free agent forwards would you target in the offseason? (@MichaelRPower)

Right now, I have four guys on my list that I would target. The first one is Tyler Toffoli. I thought he would have been a great trade idea back in November, but that ship has sailed. He could be a perfect fit in the top six as a two-way scoring winger. He’ll only be 28-years-old in July and shouldn’t come at an outrageous price on the open market.

The next player on my list is current New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider. The 28-year-old winger could be a nice addition of goal scoring and speed to the top six. The problem here is I could see his price getting a little rich as an unrestricted free agent. He’s arguably the second-best forward option scheduled to hit the market behind Taylor Hall.

I have another Rangers forward on my list in Jesper Fast. He’s not flashy and would be a bottom-six addition. However, I love his two-way game and I think he’s the type of player you want on your third or fourth line in the NHL today. He’s only 28-years-old and again shouldn’t be an expensive addition. He’s also a solid penalty killer and the Sabres could use help in that area.

The fourth forward is Erik Haula. The Finnish forward was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes last summer, but he may be on the way out. He was a healthy scratch in the Hurricanes last game and there are reports of a personality clash with Rod Brind’Amour.

The catch with Haula is the injury situation. He’s had some issues with his knee that have forced him to miss time this season. On a short-term deal, the 28-year-old could be a nice middle-six addition to the roster.

Do you believe RK’s philosophy of having his team prioritize limiting scoring chances against will-as he said-lead to more offense? (@lazytown716)

In a season of poor results, I think you can see some promise with Ralph Krueger behind the bench. To his credit, he has done a great job suppressing shot attempts and quality against. He’s also got the players to buy into what he’s selling, but roster talent has allowed it to show up on the ice. Some decisions are head-scratching at times (playing Zach Bogosian) but for the most part, he has been good behind the bench.

Now, do I think that this defense-first directive could result in more scoring? Sure. Look, a lot of goals are scored on the rush in hockey. I wrote an article early in the season how transition scoring is what the Sabres live and die on. Their best player is a transition monster (Eichel) and Johansson is solid at it as well. They also added a handful of defensemen to the roster to help improve their transition game. Cozens is going to be another player that is dangerous in transition and that is one of the better traits with Mittelstadt.

If they can get some more scoring on their roster, I think that they can springboard a strong defense into offense. If you have nights where the offense is stagnant, your strong defense should be able to bail you out.

Do you think Ullmark is the starter next season with Hutton as a backup or do you they bring a vet/Georgieve-type player to battle for that role? (@mikeyscav)

I think Linus Ullmark has played better than he did last season. However, I’m not sold on him as a starter that can handle playing 60 games in a season. I think he would have the most success in a platoon situation. I know the Sabres like Alexandar Georgiev but the price is too high right now.

This is probably the last season for Hutton with the Sabres as well. I believe the Sabres would like to move on and it may best for Hutton as well. You have to wonder if they try to move him at the trade deadline this season.

If I was the general manager, I would investigate a free agent like Aaron Dell to bridge to Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen with Ullmark. Antti Raanta could be another interesting trade target in the summer. DO NOT sign an expensive goaltender like Braden Holtby in free agency.

Is there anything the fans can look to and say, “positive changes are ahead?” (@Ted_Podosek)

Let’s end on a positive note. There are a few things that are positive that fans can look to in the future. Of course, Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin are at the top of that list. Cozens will be an exciting player to watch. Going back to royal blue sweaters will be fun. They also have a ton of cap space and flexibility to overhaul the roster this summer. That’s exciting, but you have to hope the man in charge can get it done.