Complete Guide to the 2015 Offseason for the Buffalo Sabres
Congratulations, Buffalo Sabres fans, the tearing down is over.
After following up their 52-point 2013-14 campaign with an equally atrocious 54-point effort this season, the Sabres are now ready to look to the future—and hopefully toward a much brighter one.
But the Sabres' future relies on a lot more than just this year's draft, which has been deservedly at the forefront of many Sabres fans' minds. Their future will rely on the guys who will remain on the roster moving forward, the guys who will join the roster next season and the new guy who will lead the charge from behind the bench.
Needless to say, Buffalo's offseason could be one of the most intriguing in the entire NHL.
2014-15 Season Recap
If you were to travel to Buffalo and find a seat at the (716) Sports Bar right outside of the First Niagara Center and asked the person next to you how successful the Sabres' season was, you may be surprised.
That's because it's likely you'd hear as many positive reactions as negative ones.
A good portion fanbase has adapted to three really tough seasons by looking toward the positives—and the biggest positive is June's draft. The months of March and April may have been the oddest in team history, with general manager Tim Murray selling off a good number of assets and fans still glued to their televisions every night to see if they would finish in 30th place or not.
But they did, and in turn, they guaranteed themselves either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the process.
Yet the path to 30th was, as one would expect, rough. The on-ice product was unwatchable most of the season, with Ted Nolan's team doing everything from playing traps the pre-2004 lockout New Jersey Devils would be jealous of to twice mustering 10 shots in a game.
It would take all night to list all of the statistical categories in which the Sabres finished last, but the highlights include power play, penalty kill, shots for, shots against, goals for and faceoff percentage.
If you look at their advanced stats, things get even worse, especially at even strength. However, there were some bright spots.
Tyler Ennis and Rasmus Ristolainen got stronger as the season progressed, both showing they are legitimate building blocks for the future.
Many prospects got significant NHL time, hopefully jump starting their development.
The trade that brought in Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian showed fans Murray was willing to make big moves.
Overall, things were rough, and the season ended with Ted Nolan losing his job as the Sabres coach for the second time.
Biggest Storylines to Follow
Can McDavid/Eichel Make a Difference Right Away?
The Sabres guaranteed themselves one of the two best prospects entering the league since Sidney Crosby, so how much will they contribute from the get go?
Crosby finished with over 100 points in his first season, per hockeyDB.com, and given the suppression in scoring this year, it's unlikely McDavid or Eichel will reach that level, but could they score more than 60 points? What about 70?
A lot will depend on linemates and how quickly they can adapt to the NHL. Odds suggest whichever stud the Sabres end up with will make a big difference from Day 1.
Who Will Be Between the Pipes in October?
The entire Sabres roster will be shaken up this offseason, but the most important decision may be regarding who will start in net most nights. Chad Johnson remains under contract, but he was never meant to start.
Will the Sabres look to trade for a guy such as Cam Talbot, who earned a starting spot this year in relief duties, or will they look to the free-agent market, which includes players such as Antti Niemi, Michal Neuvirth and college free agent Matt O'Connor?
The answer to this question may be the most important in determining whether they compete for a playoff spot next season.
Who Will Be Behind the Bench in October?
After firing Ted Nolan, the Sabres are on an extensive search for a new head coach, their first as an organization since the last time Nolan was fired by the club. Ron Rolston was promoted from within on that occasion.
Does Evander Kane Mesh Well with One of the Sabres' Talented Centers?
The Sabres have done an excellent job stockpiling young, talented centers over the past couple of drafts, and one of them will next season be given the opportunity to play with Kane, one of the better goal scorers over the last couple of seasons.
Kane has had 40-goal potential over his entire career, but he has not had the ability to play with a true first-choice center. If McDavid/Eichel or Sam Reinhart can become that guy for Kane, he will be that 40-goal guy year in and year out.
What Else Is Up Tim Murray Sleeve?
If Murray has shown Sabres fans anything, it's that he's not unwilling to make a splash. The Ryan Miller and Evander Kane deals were some of the biggest in recent memory, and Murray may be willing to do more.
The biggest focus will be on the Sabres' second first-round pick in June, a pick that Murray has said he is willing to move. Given his track record, one can expect any such trade to be a sizable one. Will he shake up the NHL once again?
Notable Players Hitting Free Agency
Murray did quite a bit of work to unload most of the impending unrestricted free agents over the course of the 2014-15 season, but a few UFAs remain.
Players likely to hit the open market on July 1 include Anders Lindback, Pat Kaleta, Matt Ellis, Andrej Meszaros, Tyson Strachan, Andre Benoit and Matt Hackett.
Of those, most, if not all, are expected to find new homes this offseason. Lindback and Hackett may be the most likely to return, if only because of the huge hole at goalie next season, but Hackett may be relegated to a two-way deal so he can play some time in Rochester again.
The biggest drama will be surrounding the team's restricted free agents.
The RFA list includes a number of players who should play a pretty big role on the NHL roster next year, including Mark Pysyk, Mikhail Grigorenko, Johan Larsson and Tim Schaller.
While most will likely be relatively painless to re-sign, the biggest storyline could revolve around Grigorenko.
He's been shuffled around between the QMJHL, Rochester and Buffalo the past three years, so it's possible he's not the happiest camper. He showed flashes of belonging during his final stint with the Sabres last season and will likely be given a "prove it" bridge deal to show he can do it consistently.
Top Free-Agent Targets
If the Sabres' season couldn't get any weirder, the fact a head coach may be their top free-agent target is the icing on the cake.
The talk of Mike Babcock leaving the Detroit Red Wings and finding his way behind another NHL team's bench next season has gotten much louder the past few weeks. Even Bob McKenzie, the gold standard in hockey rumors, weighed in a few days ago.
Depending on what happens with Babcock and the Red Wings, though, the Sabres will have other targets—and actual players at that.
As it stands, Buffalo is a bit thin at right wing. The problem is there aren't many game-changers available at the position, especially at a top-six level. There are a few intriguing options out there, including Justin Williams, Antoine Vermette and two guys who played for the Sabres this season in Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart.
The Sabres will likely also look to add some veteran defensive help, with players such as Jeff Petry, Paul Martin, Cody Franson and Johnny Oduya standing out.
The other, less traveled path Murray and the Sabres could go down would involve attempting to sign some restricted free agents to an offer sheet. According to Spotrac, there are a few teams that find themselves in pretty precarious salary-cap positions, such as Los Angeles and Chicago. Both teams have players the Sabres could be interested in, including Tyler Toffoli, Martin Jones and Brandon Saad.
Another scenario could involve Patrick Sharp and the Blackhawks. If the Sabres were to sign Saad to an offer sheet, Chicago may counter with a trade offer for Patrick Sharp, who would instantly become the Sabres' top-line right wing for the next few seasons.
Best Options in the NHL Draft
The Sabres have two picks in the first round, and everyone knows what they're doing with either the first or second overall selection, so what about the other first-rounder?
As the exact spot of that pick is not set, it's hard to say who they will be looking at—it's possible they could be picking anywhere from the mid-teens to 30th. However, there are a few players Sabres fans should be hoping fall their way regardless.
Daniel Sprong is a high-end offensive talent with pretty good skating ability. The knock on his game is his defense, or lack thereof, so that's why he may fall to the end of the first round. An interesting note about Sprong is that he hails from the Netherlands, which is not exactly a hockey hotbed.
Sprong was ranked as the 20th North American skater in Central Scouting's final rankings.
2. Paul Bittner, LW (Portland Winterhawks, WHL)
Paul Bittner is a 6'4", 205 lb wing who can play with jam and scoring touch. Bittner scored 34 goals for Portland this season and has shown the ability to be an archetypal power forward in the NHL. Another positive with Bittner is the Sabres' lack of depth at left wing.
Bittner was ranked as the 26th North American forward in Central Scouting's final rankings.
3. Mackenzie Blackwood, G (Barrie Colts, OHL)
Mackenzie Blackwood is a 6'4" goalie who takes up a bunch of the net but also moves laterally extremely well.
Only a handful of goalies have been picked in the first round in recent years, but Blackwood's 2.39 goals-against average and .936 save percentage have put him in the running. Given the Sabres' uncertainty in goal moving forward, a goalie may be high on their list.
He could also be a target with the 31st overall selection if he lasts that long. Blackwood is the first-ranked North American goalie in Central Scouting's final rankings.
Essentially, the Sabres will likely look to bolster their forward ranks with a player who will spend a year or two more in the juniors or college. The same would go for a potential goaltender.
Buffalo seems to be in a great spot on defense with Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov leading the way, so expect a few depth picks in later rounds and not much more.
Players Who Could Be on the Trading Block or on Their Way out of Town
If there is one thing that is certain on this Sabres team, it's that the roster for next season is still very much in flux. Given the building that is still being done, there is the possibility that a few guys will be traded or let go in the offseason.
The one that leads that list is Cody Hodgson.
Hodgson had a rough season. A 31-point drop off is not a positive, and the overall state of the team this year is not an excuse, especially given Tyler Ennis' year. But he is a talented player who showed improvement through every other season with the Sabres.
But the NHL's collective bargaining agreement may stand in the way of him getting another chance in Buffalo.
If Hodgson were to be bought out this offseason, the Sabres would only have to pay one-third of what remains on his contract over the next eight years instead of the typical two-thirds. That is because the CBA states that if the player is under 26 years old, they are only owed one-third. Hodgson turns 26 before the end of next offseason, making any buyout a lot more expensive.
As it stands, Hodgson would be owed $5.661 million spread over eight years if bought out this offseason. If they wait until next season and he continues to disappoint on the ice, they would owe him $11.339 million spread over six years. That's well over a million dollars more per season, which could be needed if the Sabres start being competitive in a few years.
Otherwise, the Sabres are still flush with prospects and may look to make another move this offseason akin to the Evander Kane deal, but you shouldn't expect much movement from guys who were on the roster this past season.
Prospects Most Likely to Debut in 2015-16
Surprisingly, there aren't too many Sabres prospects who will see NHL time next season who have not already had at least some experience at the NHL level.
That's mainly due to the midseason trades Murray made and injuries, but most of the marquee Sabres prospects have had the ability to suit up for an NHL game.
Instead, it will mostly be some prospects graduating to full-time NHL duty next year.
That list likely includes Mark Pysyk, who was finally given a clean bill of health recently and will suit up for the Rochester Americans on Saturday, per the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Johan Larsson, Mikhail Grigorenko and possibly Jake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel also feature.
Of course, either McDavid or Eichel will make their true NHL debut as well, while current OHL players Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey may find their way into a few NHL games next year based on performance or injuries.
Projected 2015-16 Depth Chart
There is going to be a lot of turnover this offseason, but it's possible to step back and get a decent idea of who will be contributing for the Sabres next season, especially on defense.
The forwards should look something like this, without too much attention paid to specific line combinations:
|Evander Kane||Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel||Tyler Ennis|
|Matt Moulson||Sam Reinhart||Mikhail Grigorenko|
|Marcus Foligno||Zemgus Girgensons||Brian Gionta|
|Nic Deslauriers||Johan Larsson||Cody Hodgson|
A few things to keep an eye on with the forwards.
First, Grigorenko is likely going to have to move to wing to find a spot on the NHL roster to start next year. With the addition of McDavid or Eichel, plus the likely addition of Reinhart, the Sabres will be set at center when you add Zemgus Girgensons into the mix. It's less likely that one of those three and not Grigorenko shifts to the wing.
Secondly, Cody Hodgson is not a fourth-line winger no matter what his season amounted to this year. As it stands, however, he would be the fourth guy on the depth chart at right wing. This gets even more precarious for him if the Sabres sign or trade for another right wing if they're not comfortable with Grigorenko (or one of the other centers) making the jump.
Finally, Johan Larsson showed he has some offensive capabilities during his run as the Sabres' first-line center at the end of the year, but he's the victim of younger, more talented players finding their way to the roster. Putting him with the gritty Nic Deslauriers and Cody Hodgson could make for a plus fourth line.
As for the defense, it should shake out close to this, again not paying particular attention to pairings:
|Nikita Zadorov||Rasmus Ristolainen|
|Josh Gorges||Zach Bogosian|
|Mike Weber||Mark Pysyk|
There's also a few notes on the defense.
It seems likely that Murray will be in the market for a veteran defenseman to give the team a bit more depth. Assuming major steps forward for Ristolainen and Zadorov, the team will be better suited with a quality guy as the seventh defenseman.
Jake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel are victims of the logjam at the moment, but performances or injuries mean both will likely see a good chunk of time at the NHL level.
As for the goaltenders, it's still not known who the Sabres' starting goalie will be next year. Chad Johnson is the only goalie under contract who will definitely start in the NHL, but the aim is likely for him to start as the backup. The draft and free agency will have to play out before a starting goaltender can be discussed.
Advanced stats courtesy of war-on-ice.com.
Follow me on Twitter for Sabres news all offseason long: @mattclouden.