There is only one predictable occurrence for the Buffalo Sabres as the NHL Draft approaches: selecting Rasmus Dahlin. Immediately, the course of the franchise will be altered due to the defenseman’s dynamic skill set. Acquiring Dahlin is similar to having a fourth, phenomenal forward on the ice. He can dance with the puck in a way many forwards cannot.
As important as the decision is with the first pick in the Draft, it will also be GM Jason Botterill‘s easiest. Dahlin will have an impact but as all know from the past season, the Sabres have holes galore. The worst goal-scoring team in the NHL needs more skill and speed to its forward group. The back end group requires addressing as Buffalo defenders did little to support offensively. Lawrence Pilut, signed out of HV71 in Sweden, helps the system overall but they need improved skating ability to close gaps on the ice.
Want to name more Sabre flaws? How much time do you have? This could go on all day. And Botterill knows these challenges. With the issues in mind, the front office can have significant movement as the draft approaches and during. The question is what can they do that makes an impact?
Buffalo Sabres’ Draft Week Priorities
I cannot imagine the complexity of being a General Manager in sports. I will never pretend I can do their jobs, though some GM’s do make the public scratch their head. If granted the opportunity to run a professional hockey team, I would diligently work with my front office to focus on the following items.
Listen to Ryan O’Reilly Trade Offers; Jump on a Great One
To declare that Ryan O’Reilly was a major reason for the Sabres’ plight is unfair. He was 2nd in points, his best in Blue and Gold. The problem is that he was not exactly the solution either as his play, night to night, was inconsistent. Based on his interview locker room clean out day, O’Reilly was not where you want him to be mentally. He calls himself out consistently but that is just getting old. Although O’Reilly has many fine qualities, skating/speed is not one of them. And there are too many below average skating players on the roster to begin with. He has played more minutes than he should have, resulting in a drop in scoring rate over the past three seasons. If the Sabres commit to Sam Reinhart, a similar player, where does that put O’Reilly?
Regardless of how it worked out in Buffalo, there are teams reportedly interested in a good two-way center. There is not a rush to trade Ryan O’Reilly but it is important listen to offers. Montreal and Carolina are reported to be in on O’Reilly but who knows who will pop in late. I am not sure Montreal has much I would be interested other than their first round pick. This is a shame as any GM should make a trade with Marc Bergevin. If Don Waddell (Carolina) suggests Noah Hanifan (D), I am listening and seeing how else to sweeten the deal.
If I am trading Ryan O’Reilly, the offer must be a no-brainer. Thinking about a deal too long means my gut is telling me no. The 27-year old has strong value for a team but it will take adding speed around him for success. Having Casey Mittelstadt will help regulate minutes as the likely third-line center to start the year. Depth down the middle can support O’Reilly to not play more than needed. But if I say “wow” at an offer, I will be pulling the trigger on a trade.
Focus on Day Two Draft Board
Day one is easy. Barring a trade back into the first round, day two takes priority. The best teams draft well throughout the entirety of the weekend. Not all picks are slam dunks but developmental gems are found.
With the Sabres’ love of all things NCAA or Europe, I hope developmental prospects like Rasmus Kupari or Joel Farabee fall to me. It is unlikely due to their upside and skills but I take them if other teams get stupid. After that, I am looking at someone like Nils Lundkvist, a mobile defenseman from Sweden, or Sampo Ranta (Wisconsin-bound left winger). Both have development roads ahead but they possess qualities that valued by the Buffalo Sabres. Ranta, especially, is seeing his stock rise.
The front office should stick to the draft board, regardless of any glaring needs. I might select a goalie in the latter half of the draft but I do not want to pass up on an opportunity. Best player available is the way to go even if more forwards are needed.
Who Can I Flip?
The Sabres have skaters that do not need to be in Buffalo any longer. From top to bottom, a makeover is needed in the forward grouping. Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson are two of those pieces I am looking to move. Each with one year remaining on their contract, I attempt to persuade another team to trade a mid-late round pick. Girgensons may have the most value here and it may be good for his career to go elsewhere. It just has not worked as planned. There could be 2-4 teams the admire his strengths and can trade a pick for him. C.J. Smith could be looking to make noise while I am also interested in re-signing Scott Wilson to be in the bottom-six. Removing a few million never hurts either. And with the draft picks, I have more opportunity to find gems over in Europe. Win-win.
It is Not Over
The NHL Draft is exciting to fans but I imagine it is suspenseful for NHL front offices. After the first pick, there will be 30 teams not named the Carolina Hurricanes biting their teeth. Do they pick Andrei Svechnikov or do they covet someone else? The logical choice is Svechnikov but who knows where everyone ranks prospects. Right or wrong, each franchise spends countless hours organizing their draft boards and weighing other trade options. It will be fun to see how it all unfolds but I know that Jason Botterill will have just as much to do once it is over. Even if his selections and trades are wins for the Buffalo Sabres, life goes on. There will be more challenges to face as 18 year olds not named Rasmus Dahlin will be at least a year away. Immediate needs must be attended to.
Overall, Jason Botterill has a great opportunity to move his team forward and excite a loyal, yet disgruntled, fan base. Hockey has not been fun in Buffalo. Fewer season ticket holders enjoy games, evident by the low dollar amounts requested on Stub Hub. When hockey is fun, fans are happy. A big, yet sensible trade would provide optimism for the franchise. Reading about the steals in the second or third round of the draft will wet appetites for the future. Moving “dead weight” impresses upon fans that mediocrity will not be tolerated and they will upgrade where needed. As I wrote in a previous article, it is unfortunately Botterill’s job to pump-up fans as the entertainment side has underwhelmed. Prioritizing the next week will make a world of difference in restoring faith in the franchise.