It could be a busy summer for Jason Botterill

April 10, 2019 - 6:29 pm

The big story around the Buffalo Sabres these days is the search for a new head coach.

My mind is elsewhere when it comes to the team with the longest active playoff drought in the National Hockey League. In case you forgot, it is now at a franchise record eight straight years. Did you know the previous longest stretch of missing out on playoff games was just three seasons? I’m not saying hiring the right coach doesn’t matter, but let’s face it - the pressure is on general manager Jason Botterill this offseason to fix the roster.

Signing Jeff Skinner and filling the multiple critical holes on this roster are the major tasks. Botterill's first two years on the job have produced two of the worst seasons in franchise history.

I think the Sabres have at least four holes to fill in the forward ranks and two on defense. I went through the roster the other day and, basically, did my version of keep him or move him. I ended up keeping eight forwards and five defensemen. Despite their uneven performances, I expect both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark to be back in goal next season.

The eight forwards that have spots on my Sabres depth chart are:

  • Jack Eichel
  • Jeff Skinner (assuming he re-signs)
  • Sam Reinhart
  • Casey Mittelstadt
  • Conor Sheary
  • Kyle Okposo
  • Evan Rodrigues (RFA)
  • Victor Olofsson

It was a small sample size, but at this point, I’d expect Olofsson to not only be here at the start of next season, but to also occupy a spot on a top-two line.  

I think you have four of the top-six forwards in that group. Eichel and Skinner are on the top line. Olofsson could be on the right side of that line, or he could be at left wing on the second line. Which takes us to the first major hole to fill: second line center (If Skinner isn’t re-signed, that spot obviously becomes a huge hole to fill too). Mittelstadt had an up and down first full season in the NHL, which should not a shocker for someone who was playing high school hockey in Minnesota just two years earlier. Mittelstadt is the third line center on my depth chart. The anchor of the second line is not currently on the roster and isn’t in Rochester either. Botterill will need to go out and get one, whether its via a trade or free agency. Reinhart is the right wing on the second line.

I have Mittelstadt and Sheary on the third line and Rodrigues and Okposo on the fourth line. While there are fans who would like to see the Sabres move on from Okposo, I just don’t see a team trading for his contract, and it doesn’t make any sense to buy him out and take eight years of dead cap hits.  

In case you were wondering, the forwards who wouldn’t be back are:

  • Jason Pominville
  • Vladimir Sobotka
  • Zemgus Girgensons
  • Johan Larsson
  • Scott Wilson

When it comes to defensemen, here is my list:

  • Keep: Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, Lawrence Pilut, Casey Nelson
  • Move: Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella, Matt Hunwick

That would make for an extremely young group since Bogosian (617 games played), Scandella (518) and Ristolainen (424) would all be gone, so Botterill would have to bring in at least one veteran, if not two. I have Ristolainen on the list because I think he has the most trade value and he could be part of a package that brings you the No. 2 center or another scoring winger that you desperately need. It's not out of the question that Bogosian is back since he has just one more year on his contract and the Sabres might want to put him on the top pairing with Dahlin. 

You could pair Dahlin with Bogosian or a veteran defenseman that is brought in, Montour and McCabe as your three/four, and then Pilut or Will Borgen with another veteran acquisition or signing as the third pairing. Nelson is here to compete for a five/six spot and if he loses out, he would then be your depth defenseman. 

Speaking of Borgen, that brings us to Rochester. There are a few players down there who could fill some of the holes on the depth chart, but they are all question marks. Olofsson was the guy I felt most comfortable putting down in ink. It's possible some combination of Tage Thompson, Alex Nylander and C.J. Smith make the roster coming out of camp, or perhaps they are offered around as part of trade packages. 

Botterill needs to hit it out of the park this offseason. If he doesn’t, he might not get another year to improve the Sabres roster.

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