As the din of free agency begins to soften, it’s time to look at the retooling of the Sabres and how their GM has put his franchise in a position to succeed in the future.
In winning the draft lottery, Buffalo GM Jason Botterill got a gift from the hockey gods in Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, but Botterill didn’t rest on that good fortune. Through trades and free agency, he has put the Sabres on the right track. Will they be a playoff team in 2018-19? Probably not. Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston are near-locks for the post-season, while Florida should be better: the only question is if the Panthers can accrue enough points to snag a wild card spot in the East.
But let’s look at what Botterill has accomplished during his short tenure.
Drafting Dahlin was the no-brainer, but it will have an immediate impact on what had been a poor defense corps. Knowing all I do about the Swedish teen, I have no doubt Dahlin can come right in and make an impact, to the tune of sturdy minutes and likely some special teams play. Dahlin’s presence will take pressure off Rasmus Ristolainen, who has pretty much always been overburdened in Buffalo. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Marco Scandella, who was very good in Minnesota before getting traded to the Sabres. I believe Scandella can be a key piece again.
The Ryan O’Reilly deal with St. Louis was a huge move, but I was impressed with the return Botterill received. Vladimir Sobotka is a solid two-way player, Patrik Berglund will bring size and experience, while Tage Thompson is a smart kid with great reach and potential. But let’s not forget that Buffalo also got Conor Sheary from Pittsburgh recently. Sheary has proven he can play with an elite center thanks to his work with Sidney Crosby (and no, that’s not easy - you have to be smart enough to know where to be) and I wonder if Sabres coach Phil Housley will try the same concept with Jack Eichel as Sheary’s center. If not Eichel, there’s also incoming rookie Casey Mittelstadt, who gives the Sabres a second potential Calder Trophy candidate alongside Dahlin. If Mittelstadt can benefit from match-ups thanks to Eichel’s presence, the rookie has the skills to do damage right off the hop.
In net, the Sabres cut ties with Robin Lehner and managed to sign one of the best options on the (admittedly weak) market in Carter Hutton. He was St. Louis’ best goaltender this past season, though there is some risk as he has never played starter’s minutes. His previous career high for appearances was 40 as a member of the 2013-14 Nashville Predators, but he did have a .910 save percentage that year. More importantly, Hutton had a .931 save percentage with the Blues this past season and that’s the kind of stopping power Buffalo needs - if he can deliver full-time.
Perhaps the best sign of the future however is the fact Buffalo currently has three picks in the first round of the 2019 draft. Their own pick could be a high one again, while picks from San Jose and St. Louis will likely be in the latter half of the round but are still good chips to have at the table.
This is not a complete team, but it is a team that is being assembled nicely. Botterill is on the right track and this summer should be deemed a success already - and we haven’t even seen what Dahlin and Mittelstadt can do over an 82-game schedule.