While the playoffs are ongoing, many teams have already started their offseason planning. What storylines lie ahead around the league? Our Offseason Keys series begins with a look at the Buffalo Sabres.
Things were looking up heading into the year in Buffalo. In came Jason Botterill as GM and Phil Housley as head coach but the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Instead of making a push for the postseason, the opposite happened as they finished dead last in the league, creating a whole new set of questions that will need to be addressed in the months to come. Here are the keys to their offseason.
Determine Their Starter
Three years ago, former GM Tim Murray dealt a first-round pick to Ottawa in a deal for Robin Lehner with the expectation he’d be their goalie of the present and future. The results were okay early on but have gotten worse each year. In 2017-18, he posted a 3.01 GAA with a .908 SV% in 53 games, numbers that were below average for a backup let alone a starter.
Accordingly, it’s fair to wonder as to whether Lehner is still in the long-term plans, something that is exacerbated by his contract situation this summer. The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent with arbitration eligibility and sits one year away from UFA eligibility. (His qualifying offer checks in at an even $4MM.) This is the time where a team would typically want to commit a long-term deal rather than risking having the player opt for arbitration and a one-year deal but given his recent performance, that’s far from a guarantee.
If Lehner isn’t in the long-term plans anymore, than Botterill will have to be active to try to find someone who will be. Youngster Linus Ullmark isn’t ready to step into a number one NHL role just yet (and backup Chad Johnson isn’t likely to return) so they will have to look outside the organization to find that player. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the UFA market isn’t ripe with long-term options so a trade may be the way they have to go.
Add A Top Defender
Last summer, Botterill rebuilt the defense, adding Nathan Beaulieu, Marco Scandella, and Victor Antipin to give them more mobility. The idea made sense in theory as the league trends towards a quicker style of play but the results were not pretty as the team had a league-worst -81 goal differential.
What they added in quantity last summer didn’t compensate for the lack of top defenders they have. Rasmus Ristolainen is a quality blueliner but the rest of their back end are role players or youngsters that aren’t quite ready for top minutes yet. That’s not uncommon for rebuilding teams but bringing this same group back with another year of experience likely won’t change too much.
Top-four defensemen are typically in short supply and high demand but if Buffalo wants to get out of the cellar this summer, finding a way to add one has to be a must for Botterill.
New Deal For Reinhart
Last summer, getting a contract extension done for center Jack Eichel was a top priority and they accomplished that. This offseason, they have another core youngster to lock up in Sam Reinhart and an interesting decision to make along the way.
With Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly down the middle, Reinhart spent a lot of this past season on the wing and he responded well with a career-high 25 goals and 50 points. However, the 22-year-old was drafted as a center but right now, he’s blocked. Eichel isn’t going anywhere but could O’Reilly be on the move? Some of his comments from the end of the season have fueled speculation that he could go which could open up a spot for Reinhart to play his natural position long-term.
As for the contract, has he done enough to bypass a bridge deal? He has been fairly consistent in his three NHL seasons with his point totals ranging from 44-50. Does Reinhart have another gear in him to become a top-line player? If so, then perhaps the time is right for the Sabres to commit long-term. If they think this is more of his ceiling though, a shorter-term pact may be on the horizon. It’s not as big of a commitment to make compared to the eight years and $80MM Eichel received last summer but a new deal for Reinhart is still a big item on Buffalo’s to-do list.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy often doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but in 2018 the high-profile nominees should turn some heads. The three finalists, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, were announced by the league tonight as the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, the Vegas Golden Knights’ William Karlsson, and the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly. Whoever of the three is judged to have “exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” will take home the hardware at the NHL Awards in June.
In many ways, this Lady Byng race is almost a runner-up competition to the Selke Trophy. All three of Barkov, Karlsson, and O’Reilly could have been a finalist for the best defensive player award this season. Barkov is a two-way wizard, Karlsson led the NHL in plus/minus, and O’Reilly continues to be one of the best face-off specialists of his generation. There was no lack of offense either, as Barkov and Karlsson each set career-highs with 78 points, while O’Reilly notched his fifth-straight season of 55+ points. However, they all have shown an adept ability to avoid penalties as well – a major criteria for the Lady Byng. O’Reilly in particular was a shockingly clean competitor in 2017-18, taking just one two-minute minor penalty in 81 games for an average of just one second worth of penalty minutes per game. This was far and away the most impressive mark on the year. Karlsson played in all 82 games, accumulating only six minor penalties for 12 PIM. Barkov was guilty of just seven minors, a total of 14 minutes in the box, all season.
The gentlemanly conduct is apparent among the finalists, as is the high standard of ability at both ends of the rink. All three played nearly game this season as well, showing the most important ability of all – availability. So what could decide the race? Sportsmanship, which is where O’Reilly’s recent remarks could hurt him. The Sabres center recently went on record as saying that he has lost his love for the game while playing in Buffalo. Compare that attitude to those of Karlsson, arguably the best skater on the team who has been the biggest story in hockey in their inaugural season, and Barkov, who has grown into a leader in Florida and led his team to an unlikely late-season surge, and you can see how O’Reilly could lose some votes. We’ll know for sure how it turns out at the NHL Awards on June 20th in Karlsson’s new home town.
There will continue to be speculation surrounding Los Angeles Kings superstar Drew Doughty until an extension is signed and filed, but it doesn’t sound like he expects to go anywhere in free agency when it rolls around in 2019. Doughty spoke today with the media and made it clear that he wants to stick around. Doughty’s comments via Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider:
It’s not that they have to show me or prove to me anything for me to sign here. I’ve always wanted to be an LA King and stay an LA King.
Doughty has been clear all along with the fact that he loves playing in Los Angeles, but like with Erik Karlsson and John Tavares, contract extensions for superstar players are tricky. Doughty will be just 29 when he hits the open market and is likely looking to become the highest paid defenseman in the league. A deal like that isn’t one you hand out easily, even to a player of his caliber. He can officially sign an extension on July 1st.
- Robin Lehner’s time with the Buffalo Sabres is coming to an end, at least that’s what John Vogl of the Buffalo News examines in his latest piece. After Jason Botterill listed just Linus Ullmark as one of the goaltenders for next season, Lehner’s future is unclear in Buffalo. He’s a restricted free agent this summer and could be moved to another team looking to take a chance on the 26-year old. Vogl looks at other options for the Sabres as a partner to Ullmark, including goaltenders like Carter Hutton, Anton Khudobin and Jonathan Bernier.
- Tyler Myers is expected to play tonight for the Winnipeg Jets, after taking morning skate and feeling good enough to go. That means Sami Niku likely won’t get his playoff debut, but gives the Jets an even better chance to eliminate the Minnesota Wild. Steve Mason left practice with an apparent injury, but Connor Hellebuyck is expected to start anyway.
Yesterday, the AHL season came to a close and 16 teams advanced to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Though it’s not exactly like a Stanley Cup pursuit, the AHL playoffs are a battleground created specifically to test the mettle of young players, while providing a chance for glory to veterans who may not get another opportunity in the NHL.
Below are the eight matchups, with some interesting storylines to watch in each one:
All times CST
Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia) vs Providence Bruins (Boston)
Game 1 – Fri. Apr 20, 2018 – 7:05PM | LV @ PRO
Game 2 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 7:05PM | LV @ PRO
Game 3 – Fri. Apr 27, 2018 – 7:05PM | PRO @ LV
Game 4 – Sat. Apr 28, 2018 – 7:05PM | PRO @ LV
Game 5 – Mon. Apr 30, 2018 – 7:05PM | PRO @ LV
While the Flyers and Bruins do battle in their respective NHL playoff series, their AHL affiliates will take each other on in the first round. Phil Varone, fresh off winning league MVP, will try to lead the Phantoms all the way to the Calder Cup finals. He’ll have to go through the previous MVP to do it, as Kenny Agostino heads a diverse Bruins attack.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh) vs Charlotte Checkers (Carolina)
Game 1 – Fri. Apr 20, 2018 – 6:00PM | WBS @ CHA
Game 2 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 5:00PM | WBS @ CHA
Game 3 – Thu. Apr 26, 2018 – 6:05PM | CHA @ WBS
Game 4 – Sat. Apr 28, 2018 – 6:05PM | CHA @ WBS
Game 5 – Sun. Apr 29, 2018 – 2:05PM | CHA @ WBS
Daniel Sprong was the top scorer for the WBS Penguins this season, recording 65 points in 65 games. That kind of production is excellent from anyone, but Sprong is in just his first full season of professional hockey and looks poised to make the jump to the NHL before long. Charlotte has their own talented offensive piece though in Lucas Wallmark, who had 55 points in just 45 AHL contests between NHL call-ups.
Toronto Marlies (Toronto) vs Utica Comets (Vancouver)
Game 1 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 3:00PM | UTI @ TOR
Game 2 – Sun. Apr 22, 2018 – 3:00PM | UTI @ TOR
Game 3 – Wed. Apr 25, 2018 – 6:00PM | TOR @ UTI
Game 4 – Fri. Apr 27, 2018 – 6:00PM | TOR @ UTI
Game 5 – Sun. Apr 29, 2018 – 3:00PM | UTI @ TOR
Toronto had the best goaltending in the league en route to a historically dominant season, but if there was a team that could match them in net it would be Utica. Thatcher Demko put up a .922 save percentage as the absolute MVP of a relatively average Comets team, and could end up stealing a series if the Marlies aren’t careful.
Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay) vs Rochester Americans (Buffalo)
Game 1 – Fri. Apr 20, 2018 – 6:00PM | RCH @ SYR
Game 2 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 6:00PM | RCH @ SYR
Game 3 – Wed. Apr 25, 2018 – 6:05PM | SYR @ RCH
Game 4 – Fri. Apr 27, 2018 – 6:05PM | SYR @ RCH
Game 5 – Sat. Apr 28, 2018 – 6:00PM | RCH @ SYR
Though the Buffalo Sabres didn’t have much fun this season, but their affiliate is headed back to the playoffs for the first time in four years. If the Sabres want to build a different culture for their organization and expose their young players to the idea of winning, having Rochester go deep in the playoffs is the first start. They’ll have to topple one of the league’s best teams to do it, as Syracuse is still loaded with future NHL talent.
Chicago Wolves (Vegas) vs Rockford IceHogs (Chicago)
Game 1 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 6:00PM | RFD @ CHI
Game 2 – Sun. Apr 22, 2018 – 3:00PM | CHI @ RFD
Game 3 – Thu. Apr 26, 2018 – 6:00PM | RFD @ CHI
Game 4 – Sun. Apr 29, 2018 – 3:00PM | CHI @ RFD
Game 5 – Mon. Apr 30, 2018 – 6:00PM | RFD @ CHI
You could call this this All-Chicago series, as Blackhawks prospects will take on the Wolves in a series that spans only about 75 miles. Though technically the Vegas Golden Knights’ affiliate, the Wolves still house several players from the St. Louis Blues including Beau Bennett, who put up 57 points in 60 games this year.
Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit) vs Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg)
Game 1 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 1:00PM | GR @ MB
Game 2 – Sun. Apr 22, 2018 – 1:00PM | GR @ MB
Game 3 – Wed. Apr 25, 2018 – 6:00PM | MB @ GR
Game 4 – Thu. Apr 26, 2018 – 6:00PM | MB @ GR
Game 5 – Mon. Apr 30, 2018 – 6:00PM | MB @ GR
If you think the Winnipeg Jets are good, just wait until the next wave of talent comes up from Manitoba. Sami Niku was named the league’s top defenseman, while Mason Appleton earned Rookie of the Year honors. Both will be on full display when they take on the reigning Calder Cup Champion Griffins.
Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona) vs San Jose Barracuda (San Jose)
Game 1 – Thu. Apr 19, 2018 – 6:00PM | TUC @ SJ
Game 2 – Sat. Apr 21, 2018 – 6:00PM | TUC @ SJ
Game 3 – Wed. Apr 25, 2018 – 6:05PM | SJ @ TUC
Game 4 – Fri. Apr 27, 2018 – 6:05PM | SJ @ TUC
Game 5 – Sat. Apr 28, 2018 – 6:05PM | SJ @ TUC
Like the Americans, the Roadrunners will try to make up for their NHL parent team’s failures this season. The Coyotes minor league team got a huge boost when Dylan Strome was returned, perhaps for the last time in his professional career. Strome is expected to make the jump to the NHL next season, and could put a stamp on what has been a solid year with a long playoff run.
Texas Stars (Dallas) vs Ontario Reign (Los Angeles)
Game 1 – Thu. Apr 19, 2018 – 6:00PM | ONT @ TEX
Game 2 – Fri. Apr 20, 2018 – 6:00PM | ONT @ TEX
Game 3 – Sun. Apr 22, 2018 – 2:00PM | TEX @ ONT
Game 4 – Tue. Apr 24, 2018 – 6:00PM | TEX @ ONT
Game 5 – Mon. Apr 30, 2018 – 6:00PM | ONT @ TEX
If the Los Angeles Kings bow out quickly enough we could see the Reign get a boost for their playoff chances, as Michael Amadio, Paul Ladue, Jonny Brodzinski and Oscar Fantenberg are all eligible for the AHL playoffs. The Kings could be eliminated as soon as tomorrow night, meaning the Reign could welcome back several key names for Game 1.
While the Montreal Canadiens season didn’t go as planned, the team must now figure out what went wrong as general manager Marc Bergevin attempts to right the ship after a disappointing season. To that point, Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette hands out grades for the Montreal Canadiens disappointing season. As can be expected there were more D’s and F’s than top marks, starting with the performance of Bergevin, who received an F for multiple questionable moves, including his “first come, first served” contract offers to winger Alexander Radulov and long-time Canadien Andrei Markov, in which both opted to leave and the team failed to find replacements for either.
The scribe was quick to throw a D towards most of the team’s star players, including goaltender Carey Price, whose eight-year, $84MM extension begins next season. While the team’s defense wasn’t there to support him, he’s supposed to be the team’s best player and he wasn’t even close after putting up a 3.11 GAA and a .900 save percentage in 49 games. Bad grades followed to Alex Galchenyuk, Jonathan Drouin, Jordie Benn, Max Pacioretty and the scouting department for thinking that Karl Alzner was worth a five year, 23MM contract in the offseason.
- Ottawa Senators’ Guy Boucher’s status as coach has not been decided yet as general manager Pierre Dorion is focused on scouting before evaluating the coaching staff. However, if the head coach loses his job, much of that might have to do with the team’s practice schedule or lack thereof, according to Chris Stevenson of The Athletic (subscription required). After Dorion was critical of Boucher’s option to often rest his players, rather than practice, the scribe looked into some of the reasons why the coach opted to rest his players, pointing to special events like the trip to Sweden, the outdoor game and multiple team functions as well as the Senators were tied for the most back-to-back games this year with 19. Add in a 17-day span in which they did not play at home in December and the team had a exhausting schedule. However, the lack of practices didn’t help a squad who truly struggled this year under the head coach.
- Jon Vogl of the Buffalo News writes that despite Buffalo Sabres’ Kyle Okposo’s poor season, the one positive is that a year ago, he had just been released from the neuro-intensive care unit and wasn’t even sure if he would play hockey again. With little time to train last summer, Okposo put up just 15 goals this season, his lowest since the strike shortened 2012-13 season. With five years remaining on his seven-year, $42MM deal he signed two years ago, the 29-year-0ld believes that he will get himself into elite shape this summer as he is finally healthy and ready to show the Sabres that the deal wasn’t a mistake.
With the Buffalo Sabres at the bottom of the standings, you can expect that general manager Jason Botterill plans to shake things up. However, where do you start? The obvious answer is start looking at players who don’t want to be there and it looks like center Ryan O’Reilly has made it clear he wants out of Buffalo, according to the Buffalo News’ Jon Vogl.
The talented 27-year-old shocked a lot of people during his exit interview when he revealed that he was fine with losing and has started to lose his love for the game. Vogl writes that it isn’t just a coincidence that O’Reilly admitted these things on his way out the door for another offseason. He believes O’Reilly and his agent have orchestrated this to force his way out of Buffalo as he and his agent have had a major role in dictating every stage of his pro career, from his entry-level deal to his restricted free agent years to his trade from Colorado.
While his numbers are good as the center has scored 65 goals and 111 assists in three years in Buffalo, a trade would still likely to be difficult as he has five more years on his contract at $7.5MM. Even with the salary cap likely to go up, that’s a big contract that many playoff teams couldn’t afford unless the team intends to retain salary, which they’d likely prefer not to do.
“The sense that I’ve been given from the management in Buffalo, is yeah of course he’s going to listen on Ryan O’Reilly,” TSN’s Darren Dreger said on WGR Friday. “But it would take an absolute sweetheart deal for the Buffalo Sabres to consider. In saying that, he’s a hell of a player. On pretty much every team in the league he’s at least a #2 center isn’t he? There’s going to be a market for Ryan O’Reilly and Jason Botterill is going to have some tough decisions specific to O’Reilly. Teams who need centers will do whatever they need to do to get in that conversation…Botterill will be big game hunting.”
Throw in the fact that Botterill will be looking for a big payday after finding himself on the losing end of the deal when he traded away forward Evander Kane to the San Jose Sharks for much less than what he had hoped. So a trade partner might even be more difficult to find.
- Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News writes that besides O’Reilly, the team will likely also seriously look to trade defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, even suggesting he should find a real estate agent. Ristolainen is another player who puts up solid numbers, but seems to lack the leadership skills that Buffalo needs to take that next step. The 23-year-old blueliner had six goals and 35 assists this year.
- Harrington also admits the team will attempt to trade goaltender Robin Lehner, but after a difficult season in which he had just 14 wins and a 3.01 GAA, the team might have trouble moving him. The good news is Lehner does not require surgery on his hip injury, which should make him a little easier to move. Harrington believes that the team may choose to let him walk as a restricted free agent if the team fails to find a trade partner, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.
The Sabres have yet to hold any contract talks with pending restricted free agent forward Sam Reinhart, reports Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald. The 22-year-old caught fire in the second half of this season and as a result, he posted career highs in goals (25) and points (50) and will be set to earn a considerable raise on his next contract.
Speaking with reporters at a news conference, GM Jason Botterill acknowledged that their situation in the standings played a role in their decision to put off contract talks until after the year, a decision that might cost them a bit given the way Reinhart ended his season. Botterill also confirmed that head coach Phil Housley will return for 2018-19 and that goaltender Linus Ullmark will be one of the Sabres’ goaltenders next season, meaning that at least one of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson will be heading elsewhere.
Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill took the podium today for the team’s season-ending press conference, and spoke on several topics including the future of Phil Housley—who, not unexpectedly, will be back next season—and the comments made by players like Ryan O’Reilly. Admitting that things need to change drastically right down to the culture of the team, he also touched on a goaltending situation that remains in flux.
Botterill announced that he is excited to have Linus Ullmark as one of the NHL goaltenders next season, but couldn’t say at this point who would be paired with him. That’s partly because of the free agent situation both current netminders find themselves in, but likely also because of the disappointing season that preceded the presser.
Chad Johnson is an unrestricted free agent come July 1st, and after posting an .891 save percentage this season is unlikely to return for the Sabres. Though Johnson has posted fine numbers in the past, pairing him with the relatively inexperienced Ullmark seems like a recipe for disaster. He’ll be 32 in 2018-19, and looked lost in the net at some points this season.
More likely—but perhaps only barely—is the return of Robin Lehner. After using a first-round pick to acquire him from the Ottawa Senators, Lehner actually put up two very strong seasons behind lackluster teams in 2015-17. Posting save percentages of .924 (albeit in a small sample) and .920, he looked like he truly could be a long-term option in Buffalo. There were some questions about his consistency though, as the emotional goaltender could sometimes get in his own way. Those inconsistencies were the story this season, as his numbers dropped across the board and led to questions about his future.
Lehner will be a restricted free agent this summer, but is coming off a $4MM salary this season. That means his qualifying offer would need to be at least that much, something the Sabres might not feel accurately portrays his value. If Ullmark is given the keys to the club and is expected to handle at least a good chunk of the starting duties, it’s not clear if Lehner would be re-signed or moved.
If he is put up for trade, there are certainly clubs that would be interested. As stated above, Lehner clearly has the talent to be an above-average goaltender in the NHL. Put on a stronger team, with a healthy leadership core, perhaps the best of him would come out once again. Still only 26, there is even room for him to grow as a professional and squeeze out some of the inconsistency from his game.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images
The Buffalo Sabres have signed an NCAA free agent, inking Andrew Oglevie to an entry-level contract. Oglevie recently finished his junior year at Notre Dame, where he helped them to the title game in the NCAA tournament. Though the press release indicates that the contract is for three seasons, Oglevie’s age prevents him from signing anything longer than a two-year entry-level deal.
The 23-year old forward scored 39 points in 36 games this year for Notre Dame, his second consecutive point-per-game season in the NCAA. After playing with Anders Bjork last season, Oglevie was given even more offensive responsibility and still found plenty of success. That should bode well for his future, though an NHL career is still far from guaranteed.
In Buffalo, adding talented offensive players like Oglevie in ways other than the draft can only continue to help their organization. Though things haven’t gone well in recent years for the Sabres, the Rochester Americans are heading to the playoffs and GM Jason Botterill continues to add talent from any source he can. Oglevie could potentially join the Americans on an amateur tryout for the last few games, though the release does not indicate that he will.
Instead, he’ll be another name that should compete for a spot with the Sabres in training camp. There should be plenty of battles for the last few spots, as the team tries to find the right mix to help them climb out of the basement.