Botterill revamps right side of Sabres’ defense

Since the trade deadline, Jason Botterill has almost completely overhauled the right side of the Sabres’ blue line, while also creating a contract logjam that needs to be addressed

In reviewing at the Buffalo Sabres’ defensive depth chart, it’s hard to believe just how much it has changed in such a short period of time. Since the 2019 trade deadline, Jason Botterill has made that position group his top priority. In his end of the season press conference, he made it a point to mention that he expected more out of his team’s play in their own end.

“I just think we still have a lot to improve on defensively,” Botterill said. “It’s why we went out to get a Brandon Montour. There’s things we need to work on from a structural standpoint defensively, but I still think we need to move pucks out of our D-zone quicker and spend less time in our own D-zone.”

He didn’t stop with the Montour acquisition. Just days before start of free agency, he acquired right-shot defenseman, Colin Miller via trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. Yesterday, he finalized another addition on the right side by trading polarizing prospect, Alex Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for 20-year-old blueliner, Henri Jokiharju.

Even prior to yesterday’s trade, there appeared to be a logjam on the Sabres’ defense. Sure, injuries to Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut could cause them to miss the beginning of the season, but having 10 (arguably 11) NHL defensemen under contract still seemed excessive. Now that they’ve added yet another asset on the right side, trade speculation has been reignited, especially considering the team’s remaining needs up front.

Let’s first take a look at the defensive depth chart. The following list includes every NHL-ready/capable defender currently under contract in Buffalo (please note that these are not meant to be viewed as pairings, but rather a listing of available assets on ether side).

(L) Rasmus Dahlin - (R) Brandon Montour

(L) Lawrence Pilut - (R) Colin Miller

(L) Jake McCabe - (R) Rasmus Ristolainen

(L) Marco Scandella - (R) Zach Bogosian

(L) Matt Hunwick - (R) Henri Jokiharju

(R) Casey Nelson - (R) Will Borgen

Unless Botterill makes a move to unload one of the veteran entities above, the organization will end up either scratching or waiving a group of players worth more than a combined $11 million in salary cap on defense alone (Scandella, Bogosian, and Hunwick). Simply put, the Jokiharju and Miller acquisitions have led to a very strong likelihood that one, perhaps even two of the players on the list above will be moved in the near future.

By all accounts out of Chicago, Jokiharju is ready for a full-time NHL role. Miller and Montour are obvious top-six locks for next season. Bogosian on the other hand, is likely to miss time and he carries a significant cap hit, so they could end up scratching him if the young Finnish defender proves ready for the big club.

As of right now, Ristolainen is still a Buffalo Sabre and until that isn’t the case, he too will occupy a spot on the right side. In the increasingly unlikely event that he remains with the team for the start of the 2018-20 campaign, he will certainly have a role in the top-six. Theoretically, Botterill could still scratch Bogosian in that case, while also sending Jokiharju to the minors, but again, the consensus indicates that he is ready for the NHL on a full-time basis, and another year in the AHL could be a wasted venture.

We cannot forget about Nelson either, a player who, in his own right, has proven himself as a capable rotational presence on an NHL defense, at the very least.

If the right side ultimately remains as is for the start of next season (an increasingly slim and perhaps infinitesimal possibility), a similar issue still exists on the left. The organization should have no qualms about sending Hunwick through the waiver wire to serve as a veteran piece in Rochester, but that still leaves Scandella. Would the front office truly be content with placing both he and Bogosian in the press box on a nightly basis (when the top-six is fully healthy, of course)? Probably not, but very few would argue that either of them belong in the top-six.

Any way you slice it, a veteran asset needs to be shipped out. Like it or not, Ristolainen is by far the most viable trade asset. The Sabres have holes up front that still need to be addressed, and those deficiencies cannot be resolved by trading the likes of Bogosian or Scandella. His name has been attached to trade speculation since the middle of last season. If said speculation comes to fruition, Buffalo will debut a completely different set of defenders on the right side to open the 2019-20 season (remember, Bogosian will likely still be recovering from surgery).

Regardless of whether or not you support a Ristolainen trade, the amount of work Botterill has put into addressing the right side in short order, is pretty incredible. In his acquisitions of Montour, Miller and Jokiharju, he has made shrewd, asset conscious transactions while sacrificing very little.

For the cost of Brendan Guhle, a 2019 first-round pick, 2021-second round pick, and 2022 fifth-round pick, and Alex Nylander, he has obtained three NHL-ready players at a position (RHD) that has notoriously held an obscene price tag on the trade market. All three of the players he acquired are also young, talented transition players, who move he puck very well from the back-end. Ultimately, it shows that his sentiments from the year-end presser were legitimate, as well as calculated.

It’s amazing to think about the fact that Will Borgen, who was thought of as one of the Sabres’ top defensive prospects at the end of last season, could end up being the odd-man out if the team extends Montour’s contract after next season.

The changes (or should we say, subtractions) on the blue line are probably not finished taking place, but as it stands, it isn’t unreasonable to say that in five short months, Botterill has taken an area of weakness and turned it into an area of strength. If he manages to make one more acquisition to address the top-six forward group, he will have completed an incredible amount of re-constructive work in one offseason.

By the time the Sabres open against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 3, there is a distinct possibility that two-thirds of the starters on the back-end will be different from last year’s opener, which featured the following pairings:

Scandella - Ristolainen

McCabe - Dahlin

Nelson - Beaulieu

Any way you arrange the defensive top-six in 2019-20, it represents an undeniable improvement overall. The term “roster surgery” has been thrown around a lot this summer (even though Botterill never actually uttered those words himself). While the forward group remains a work in progress, the Sabres have executed a full-scare transplant of multiple failing organs on defense, and for that, he deserves a great deal of credit.