The Buffalo Sabres were the lucky team that got to draft franchise-changing defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the first-overall pick. He automatically improves the team before stepping on the ice for his first NHL game.
But, the Sabres – a team that was dead-last in the league in three out of the last five seasons – need more than just Dahlin to turn the ship around . They need to keep improving through trades like the one GM Jason Botterill made with the Pittsburgh Penguins for Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick in exchange for a conditional 4th round pick.
Sheary, the major point of the trade, has had some solid years playing alongside one of the league’s best players in Sidney Crosby. In the 2016-17 season that saw him spend extended time on Pittsburgh’s top line, Sheary posted 23-30-53 totals, but those numbers dipped to 18 goals, 12 assists and 30 points last year while he floated between the top-three units.
The belief in Buffalo is that Sheary has the pace to skate with Jack Eichel, so he could be first-line LW this coming season.
Free agency is another way for Botterill to strengthen this team. The Sabres have roughly $18 million in cap space.
Now time to have some fun and share my projected lines for the upcoming season.
The left wing is a major void on the Sabres’ roster. Botterill tried to fill that void by acquiring Sheary, but there is still a decent hole in the left wing that they need to figure out.
In the System
If the hole can be filled from within the organization, they will do it. There are two names that stand a chance for me in this position: C.J. Smith and Victor Olofsson.
Smith had a great rookie season down in the AHL, registering 17-27-44 marks with the Rochester Americans. In fact, his campaign was so good, he would’ve been a favorite for the American League’s Rookie of the Year if he hadn’t gotten hurt and missed a couple months.
Meanwhile, Olofsson led the SHL in goals this past season as a 22-year-old. He has one of the best shots in the system, and the Sabres hope it can translate into the NHL.
Honorable mention: If Alexander Nylander has a good camp and preseason, he stands a chance for the spot. His style seems to fit the NHL more than AHL as proven in his couple games last season in the blue and gold.
Now to show my cards before I get into free agents: I hate overpaying guys on July 1 and weigh risk and reward more than anything.
Anthony Duclair is one of my ideal targets. He has to prove himself with his next contract/organization or he will be AHL-bound. Last season, he put up 11 goals and 12 assists between Chicago and Arizona.
Tobias Rieder is a fast-paced winger who could add speed to a very slow Buffalo Sabres team. He didn’t have very good numbers last year, with 12 goals and 13 assists again between two organizations (Arizona and LA).
Matthew Peca, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, never got a chance to be a regular with the Bolts as they are a loaded organization at wing. He posted 2 goals and 3 assist in 10 games played.
All of these guys won’t require big contracts, but if they work out, Botterill would look like a genius for finding a gem.
The second-line center only becomes available if Ryan O’Reilly gets traded. There is a lot of speculation around him being moved, but the Sabres could move him and bump Casey Mittelstadt to the second-line if they feel he is ready. Other than him, Buffalo doesn’t have anyone ready for their second-line center position.
The three names I like for this position are Tyler Bozak, Paul Stastny and Derek Ryan.
I have said many times that if the Sabres trade O’Reilly, Bozak could be a good replacement. Bozak and Ryan are players you use as the second-line center for half the season until Mittlestadt is ready to take over that role.
Stastny is a little different: if the Sabres overpay Stastny, which they would to land him, then he becomes theirr second-line center for a couple years.
Stat line comparison:
Stastny 16 G 37 A 53 P
Ryan 15 G 23 A 38 P
Bozak 11 G 31 A 42 P
Within the organization, this position is the total opposite of second-line center. The Sabres have this player in the system and don’t need to waste money on a free agent.
This position is either Justin Bailey‘s or Nicholas Baptiste‘s. Both guys have been trying to become NHL regulars and this is the season to do it. I favor Bailey over Baptiste, but I think either player complements Evan Rodrigues and Mittelstadt well and the pace of this line will be fun to watch night in and out.
It was no surprise to see Robin Lehner not get qualified after another poor year in the crease. Botterill says Ullmark will start off the season as the number two goalie. So, who’s the number one?
I feel goaltending this offseason is horrible as a whole; every team needed to land one of three goalies: Carter Hutton, Jonathan Bernier or Petr Mrazek. All three have had a lot of interest and I feel Hutton and Bernier will get overpaid. I also find it hard to believe two players from good teams last year would want to sign with the last-place team in the league.
So that leaves me with Mrazek, and I feel it’s not a bad thing. Mrazek posted a 14-13-6 record between Detroit and Philadelphia with a 0.902 save percentage and 3.03 goals against average. Ullmark will take the number one spot from him halfway through the year and, if all goes well, he won’t lose it from there.
Ideally, this is how I hope the Sabres’ lineup opening night against the Bruins.