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Three Thoughts on the Buffalo Sabres offseason activity so far

Feb 29, 2024; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Arizona Coyotes forward Jason Zucker (16) hits Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (44) into the boards during the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Fans that were hoping for an early big splash – trade or free agency – have been quite disappointed

It’s been a very hectic week or so since last Monday night. First, the Florida Panthers were able to quell what would have been the greatest comeback in the history of the game with the Edmonton Oilers leveling the Stanley Cup Finals at 3-3, winning the trophy for the first time in franchise history with the kind of ground-out, defensive performances that they have become known for over the last two seasons.

Then the Buffalo Sabres traded down from their 11th pick the day before the NHL Entry Draft, adding a second round pick and fueling hopes of a big trade. However, there were no more fireworks at the draft with Buffalo turning that 43rd pick into defensive forward Beck Malenstyn. If it was any consolation though, the Sabres 14th overall pick Konsta Helenius has already won plaudits for being one of the most NHL-ready prospects in the draft, but once again, not one that can help this season’s playoff push.

By all reports though, the Sabres once again had a good-to-very-good haul of prospects from the draft as they restocked the defensive corps, added some brawn and hockey IQ, and a goaltender that had slipped far further than anyone had expected as well.

That was quickly followed by the news that the Sabres were going to use the buyout option on forward Jeff Skinner, which raised hopes that with the decks cleared, some big fish were going to get landed either via trade or free agency.

Once again, nothing big really came to pass with the Sabres only adding a few (key) pieces to the roster without really catching anyone’s eye.

There is still time though, and as teams sit and settle with the rosters they have, opportunities for trades will still arise especially when Buffalo has about $20million of cap space, granted that is with four RFAs still unsigned.

With that in mind, here are three thoughts about the Sabres activity this summer so far, and how the franchise looks today.

Are Buffalo Now Tougher To Play Against?

If there’s one thing that’s common between all the new faces in the franchise that have come in (not counting the draft), it’s toughness. The Sabres under Adams have repeatedly stated that they want to be tougher to play against, and adding Malenstyn, Jason Zucker, Sam Lafferty, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Dennis Gilbert does just that.

If Malenstyn, Lafferty and Aube-Kubel form the new fourth line, that adds a total of 542 hits from last season. Buffalo had only three forwards cross the 100 mark last season. Don’t think other teams won’t notice that about the Sabres.

The act of firing Don Granato and replacing him with Lindy Ruff was just the first move that is going to trigger a change in mindset of how Buffalo plays hockey going forward.

Some of the greatest teams in the history of hockey have had that kind of balance in the roster, with a good mix of skilled players that can do what they do best ‘protected’ by some solid muscle. A team full of finesse players might be fun to watch on the odd night, but when all is told 82 games later, they’re not always sitting on top. And the grind of the playoffs dulls the edge of even the finest offensive talent, just ask Connor McDavid.

Apr 10, 2023; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Beck Malenstyn (47) checks New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho (25) into the Islanders bench in the first period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Where Will The Goals Come From?

Between 2022-23 and 2023-24, the Sabres scored fifty fewer goals. An overall regression, or general malaise throughout the top six, meant we had fewer games last season where Buffalo were able to simply outscore their opponents. So even though they tightened their defence by 56 whole goals, the offense (especially the power play) was unable to take advantage and push the Sabres into the playoffs.

Now, with Jeff Skinner and a collective cast of minor players gone, the Sabres have lost about 50 goals. If the new faces can replicate last season’s numbers, that adds up to about 30 goals. If some of the big names among the forwards on the Sabres – Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, Dylan Cozens – endure another miserable season like last year, then we could be on the outside looking in, again.

The wildcard here might well be Jack Quinn who missed a large part of the season recovering from injury. In the third of a season he manages to up his points per game from 0.5 to 0.67, while also sparking an anemic power play unit. If he steps up like JJ Peterka blew up last year, it would take a lot of pressure off the top line.

Sep 30, 2023; Buffalo, New York, USA; Buffalo Sabres left wing Jeff Skinner (53) celebrates his goal with right wing Kyle Okposo (21) and right wing Tage Thompson (72) during the second period against the Columbus Blue Jackets at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Is This a Better Roster Than The Last Two Years?

This one is truly up for debate. The Sabres have lost some talent, some skill, and some leadership with the departure of veterans Okposo, Skinner and Zemgus Girgensons. On the flip side, they have gotten younger in average age and tougher with their free agent additions.

With no clear third line center being added to the roster, the spotlight is on Peyton Krebs to sink or swim. But then, the young core of Cozens, Quinn, Zach Benson and Peterka are a year older and hopefully much wiser. Will it be enough to move the needle?

It’s looking pretty clear that Adams is gambling that the young talent on the Sabres will return to their goalscoring ways, and Lindy Ruff’s experience and tactical nous should be enough to let them flourish while making Buffalo harder to beat.

Speaking during his media availability at the end of the first day of free agency yesterday, Adams said –

“I really like the steps we took today. I think we took a big step towards being the type of team that we need to be.”

Let’s put it this way – Adams should be aware this might be his last season in charge of the Sabres as the GM, and adding another season to the playoff drought is very likely going to lead to him losing his job. If looking through that lens he has decided that this is the way to ensure the Sabres make the playoffs, then it’s quite the gamble. We’ll see how that works out for him.