What Offseason Challenges Will the Sabres Face?

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General Manager Kevyn Adams Photo credit: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

By Colleen Meosky

Here we are again folks; watching rivals compete for the Stanley Cup while Buffalo’s hockey players are well into their golf seasons. With a decade-long playoff drought, the Buffalo Sabres franchise has now tied the league record. Second-year GM Kevyn Adams will surely have his hands full this offseason with coaching, drafting, free agency, captain drama, and protecting players from the expansion draft. It’s hard to keep up with each crisis that arises for this team, but one way or the other, the Sabres will undoubtedly have an interesting offseason. 

Coaching

Buffalo’s head coaching position is hockey’s version of the Defense Against the Dark Arts post (although this has been caused by poor management rather than Voldemort). Since Lindy Ruff’s termination in 2013, the franchise has gone through no less than five coaches. After the dumpster fire of Ralph Krueger’s reign as head coach, many hockey fans throughout the league are curious how the Buffalo Sabres will bounce back. Krueger had a record of 6-18-4, including a 12 game losing streak. He was replaced by interim head coach Don Granato, who is now being considered for the long-term position.

Granato seemed to improve many of the issues ignored, augmented, and created by Krueger. Six games after he assumed the position, the Sabres finished out the season 9-11-2, and player development was evident. Younger prospects looked encouraging, especially Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin. Mittelstadt told the press, “A lot of guys, including myself, owe Donnie quite a bit. He challenged me when he took over and pushed me to become a better player… Obviously, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I owe Donnie a huge thank you.”

Photo credit: AP Photo/Derik Hamilton, File

GM Kevyn Adams has made it clear that Don Granato is being considered, but he’s conducting a thorough search and interview process of other candidates as well. Personally, I enjoy seeing this professionalism from Adams, and I hope Granato ultimately lands the spot. 

This offseason, there are several notable coaching names available for hire, but the one I’ve heard the most about is John Tortorella. He and the Columbus Blue Jackets mutually parted ways once their season ended. Tortorella was coach for the Rochester Americans back in the ‘90s and has since coached for four NHL franchises. This would be a very controversial choice due to his harsh coaching style. Some fans think it’s exactly what the young players need to be kicked into shape. However, it’s important to remember that this roster has been through the mill and has already been ridiculed throughout the NHL. Tortorella has a history of shaming players while speaking with the press, and at this point, I highly doubt they need another voice to tell them they’re not good enough.

Photo credit: Paul Vernon (AP)

This coaching hire should be very telling about what vision management has for the organization moving forward. Overall, I think Granato did an impressive job developing growth in his players while the season was down the drain, so I’d like to see him running the bench in the fall. 

Captaincy

This one’s a doozy. Following captain Jack Eichel’s comments at locker clean out, there has been tons of speculation about his relationship with the organization. Basically, Eichel has a herniated neck disk and wants to have a surgery that’s never been done on an NHL player before. It seems that, for the most part, medical experts agree patients should undergo a 12 week conservative recovery period after getting injured. Before this period was up, Eichel spent most of his press conference painting management and the Sabres medical staff in a horrible light. While a player’s right over his own body should be respected, teams also hold significant power over their recoveries, and it’s usually not an issue.

Photo credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The captain’s interview was on a Monday with GM Kevyn Adams set to speak on Wednesday. In that time, the media and fanbase was left to wonder if the Sabres cared about their leader’s health at all. Following the GM’s press conference, the consensus was that Jack Eichel threw management under the bus and is clearly fed up and ready to leave Buffalo. It’s also important to note that Eichel was Ralph Krueger’s biggest supporter, and his injury has prevented him from experiencing Granato as head coach.

Evidently, that was a whirlwind of Sabres news to handle, but my favorite part was on Tuesday when the younger players spoke to the media. While they were respectful, it didn’t seem like any of them would be devastated if the All-Star left. If anything, they seemed eager to step up and take charge of the team, with 1st overall pick Rasmus Dahlin adding that he considered himself a strong leader back in Sweden. Furthermore, centerman Dylan Cozens has been complimented on his leadership skills numerous times by teammates and coaches. He also explained he is actively looking for opportunities to be a leader in the room, despite being only 20 years old. 

The vastly different tones of the older and younger cores during interviews illustrates a deep divide within the team. For instance, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart sounded like they have one foot out the door already while Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin are ready to face the challenges that lay ahead. 

As usual, Rasmus Ristolainen was more difficult to read than his teammates. As a 26 year old, it’s easy to understand why he doesn’t want to experience another rebuild of this team. He’s in his prime and has been losing hockey games here since he arrived in 2013. Still, in all that time, Ristolainen has never taken a shift off; when he’s on the ice, he’s hungrily fighting to win. With one year left on his contract, it will be interesting to see what happens with the 219 pound defenseman.  If he stays and Eichel leaves, I think Rasmus Ristolainen would be a top contender for the captaincy.

Photo credit: Bill Wippert

Free Agency

Restricted free agents to pay attention to:

  • Sam Reinhart — had a breakout year and became the team’s leader in points. He’s shown he cares about the team but most likely wants to leave.
  • Rasmus Dahlin — struggled under Krueger, but his talent is undeniable. He’s comfortable in Buffalo and wants to win here.
  • Casey Mittelstadt — was stifled under Krueger but thrived under Granato. He’s developed a strong work ethic and positive attitude. Casey is also comfortable in Buffalo and is great friends with Dahlin.

Unrestricted free agents to pay attention to:

  • Linus Ullmark — starting goalie who has been prone to injuries but has also proven to be talented. 
  • Jake McCabe — missed most of this season due to injury but is a reliable defenseman worth keeping.

Draft

Buffalo won the draft lottery and now holds the first overall pick. Although this is not projected to be a blockbuster draft class (due to the pandemic’s limitations), I don’t think anyone in Western New York objects to our win. There is a possibility that we trade away the top pick considering the many rumors surrounding Jack Eichel, but I think we will end up taking Owen Power in the draft. 

Power is a left-handed defenseman out of Mississauga, Ontario and is predicted to be #1 by many mock drafts. According to Elite Prospects, the 18 year old is already 6’5” and 214 pounds. His size will help him compete in the NHL next season. Power played for the University of Michigan this past season and recently won the IIHF Men’s World Championship as part of team Canada, earning player of the game in the semifinals. 

Photo credit:  EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

The Sabres drafted Rasmus Dahlin first overall in 2018, and he’s projected to be a generational talent. Despite the chaotic nature of the Sabres in his first years here, Dahlin is still producing well, and people continue to hold extremely high expectations for him. Drafting Owen Power would not mean Dahlin is failing at his job. As demonstrated in the playoffs, hockey teams need depth, not just an elite player to carry the entire team. While Buffalo needs stronger offensive talent, I believe in selecting the best talent available in the draft and going from there.

Luke Hughes is another draft prospect to keep an eye on. He’s only 17 years old and will most likely be playing at the collegiate level next year for the University of Michigan. Luke is the youngest of the successful Hughes brothers and is a defenseman like his brother Quinn. He is smaller than Power at 6’2” and 176 pounds (Elite Prospects), but he produces offensively using his incredibly smooth skating, similar to Rasmus Dahlin. People have predicted Luke Hughes to be in the top 10, but it’s unclear where he will likely fall in that.

Expansion Draft

With the addition of the Seattle Kraken as the 32nd team in the NHL, an expansion draft will be held to build their roster. 

Image from NHL.com

Jeff Skinner has a no-movement clause in his contract, so management must choose to protect him. NHL.com has the official rules explaining who is automatically protected. The expansion draft will be quite the headache to test out Buffalo’s new management.

Overall, this offseason has great potential to become a pivotal moment in our franchise’s history. Although there are many uncertainties, if Jack Eichel has played his last game in Buffalo, we will not be left empty-handed. I believe this offseason will be the cleanup of 2015’s failed rebuild, and we will be left with the talented, young core with lots to prove.

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