It seems to happen every year. Teams that looked out of it spring back to life. Perennial contenders slide into the “has been” category, and lots of teams simply spin their wheels year after year. So who are the best teams going forward? I am going to spend the next 31 days breaking down each team to sort it all out.
This team by team breakdown separates them into three groups. Contenders, Pretenders, and League Filler Teams. Lets get started
I know, I know. This is such an obvious one with year after year of scraping the bottom of the league but for the sake of being complete I will go over the team’s recent history and see if there is any hope for the future in Buffalo. Is it possible that there is some hope on the horizon?
It is incredibly difficult to get a feel for the drafting abilities of this team as they have had a carousel of coaches and general managers since the end of the Darcy Regier / Lindy Ruff combination in 2013. Since that time no GM or coach has lasted more than two years so we will have to look at them as a whole.
In 2012 the Sabres organization decided they needed to address their weakness at the center position and drafted Mikhail Grigorenko 12th overall and Zemgus Girgensons 14th overall. Currently Grigorenko is plying his trade in the KHL and Girgensons is playing 3rd line left wing in Buffalo. It could be argued that Taking Tomas Hertl and Radek Faksa instead but this is cutting hairs. 2012 was an incredibly weak draft overall and an absolute wasteland for drafting a center. It produced zero top line centers and one possible, top six center in Alex Galchenyuk although the jury is still out on that one. Had they chosen to target defensemen before centers, they could have had their choice of Cody Ceci, Olli Maatta, or Brady Skjei.
In 2013, the last year under Darcy Regeir, the Sabres decided they had center all locked up so they moved onto drafting defense. With two picks in the top 20 they drafted Rasmus Ristolainen at 8th and Nikita Zadorov at 16th. With these picks they could have chosen Bo Horvat who went 9th or Nikolaj Ehlers who went 14th. Both would be incredible upgrades over the centers they took the year before.who went one spot after Ristolainen and would still have left them Zadorov who is developing into a very good two way defenseman in Colorado.
In the last 4 years their first round picks are Sam Reinhart (2013 – 2nd overall), Jack Eichel (2015 – 2nd Overall), Alex Nylander (2016 – 8th overall), and Casey Mittelstadt (2017 – 8th overall). Looking at the individually:
Sam Reinhart is beginning to look like a potential bust for his draft position it is hard to blame the team for picking him. He was easily the consensus best player available when the Sabres picked.
Eichel is an incredible talent but he is very young and has shows signs of immaturity. He is still the best pick at a huge asset for the Sabres. He will outgrow the attitude more than likely and learn how to help the team win.
Alex Nylander is an extremely talented winger but this pick shows a GM out of touch with the needs of his team. With Mikael Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy still on the board, picking a winger was a poor move and the last draft Tim Murray oversaw as GM.
Casey Middelstadt looks like a gem and shone at the World Junior tournament.
Other than the first round picks, the only NHL players the Sabres have picked outside the first round since 2010 are Jake McCabe, J.T. Compher, and, from the looks of it starting next year, Linus Ullmark. This is a complete and utter failure of their drafting department.
The Sabres are an organization that makes a fair number of trades but very few of the impact variety. When they do step out and make those impact deals they have a mixed bag of results. The Ryan O’Reilly trade in 2015 is a win for the organization. The trade was Grigorenko, Zadorov, Compher, and a 2015 2nd round pick for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn. Even with the development of Zadorov, players like O’Reilly are such a valuable commodity. So much so that Colorado has been trying desperately to replace him since losing him.
The bad news for Sabres fans are the bad trades. In 2015 Bryan Murray, then GM of the Senators, thought he could get a huge return for Robin Lehner at the deadline. It was widely reported that when this was not happening and time was running short he called up his son, Sabres GM Tim Murray, and asked for help to get him out of the mess. Tim Murray then overpaid by giving up a 2015 first round pick for Lehner and Ottawa salary dump David Legwand. Lehner has never been a difference maker and looks to be leaving Buffalo after this season. The draft pick was Colin White at #21 but could have been one of the budding superstars Brock Boeser (23rd) or Sebastian Aho (35th).
So what can we make of all this? Are Buffalo fans doomed to being the league laughing for the foreseeable future? Sadly, the answer is yes. For all their futility Buffalo has not drafted well and have given away a lot of talent in trades gone bad. They have two very good centers in Eichel and O’Reilly but other than those two, up front is a mix mash of middle of the road veterans and Evander Kane who they will likely move at the deadline. They are also paying Kyle Okposo far too much money for far too long based on the numbers he put up being John Tavares‘ wingman.
On the back end they have Rasmus Ristolainen, an injury riddles Zach Bogosian and a career second pair man in Jake McCabe. Then it is all spare parts.
In Goal, it is likely that a new pair of faces will be in the crease next year. Expect a free agent signing and to see Ullmark as the full time back up.
RESULT: LEAGUE FILLER (and that is being kind)
Buffalo is a case study in how to not only be bad year after year but how to stay bad. Perhaps winning a draft lottery to get Rasmus Dahlin would help but even with such a talent on the back end, it is not a guarantee of success with how this team has been managed. A mass fire sale of every player not named Eichel, RIstolainen, O’Reilly, and Kane (if he will re-sign) should be the order of the day.