The Focus: Since the 2005 lockout the NHL has seen its game evolve from a physical battering style to one where speed, and the ability to quickly attack matters far more.
The NHL is known for being a copycat league and the Bruins/Kings cup wins in the early 2010’s probably slowed teams from evolving as quickly into an up-tempo style of hockey.
Today; however, with players like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau, teams are rolling with faster and more skilled lineups than ever before. In a sense, the 2006-07 Sabres were a precursor for the future of the league and that team would have had the opportunity to play in today’s game because they would have been a lot of fun to watch.
Speed Bump: Unfortunately, the Sabres are a pretty slow and old lineup compared to the rest of the league and their results speak to that. When the rebuild started in 2013-14 GM Tim Murray focused on trying to build a team like the Kings, who had just won the cup with a punishing, physical style of hockey.
One of the reasons Sam Reinhart was picked over Leon Draisaitl was due to his projection of being a player that had great vision on the ice, and could play a Jeff Carter scoring type roll despite not being the best skater.
On defense Zach Bogosian was expected to be that punishing presence on the back end while Rasmus Ristolainen was the puck-moving defenseman on the other side to balance that out.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, that was the wrong path to have chosen and many of the players/prospects Murray acquired early on like Matt Moulson, Hudson Fasching and Dmitry Kulikov were not fast nor skilled enough for the way the league has moved.
Murray tried to atone for his mistakes later on by selecting players like Brendan Guhle, Rasmus Asplund and Alexander Nylander, but it wasn’t enough. Outside of Eichel, Evander Kane, and Ristolainen, this lineup is pretty slow.
So what can the Sabres do to gain some speed and skill back into this lineup?
Accelerating To The Future: At forward, they have a nice crop of high-end, solid role-playing prospects that are all fast and skilled skaters to lean on. Uber prospect Casey Mittelstadt leads the way followed by Rasmus Asplund, Cliff Pu, Nick Baptiste, and late bloomer CJ Smith.
Nylander and Justin Bailey have not developed as expected, but both have time and fit the mold of being fast-skilled players. If 3-4 of these players can develop into solid NHL starters, the Sabres will be in a decent place up front.
In the offseason, it wouldn’t hurt for the Sabres to add a player like Michael Grabner or someone in his mold who can score 15-20 goals a year and add some speed to the lineup so everything doesn’t fall on the kids.
Defensively things are a little dicey. Brendan Guhle is the most NHL-ready prospect the Sabres have and in his one game up this year he was fantastic. But outside of Guhle, the Sabres currently have just Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella as true NHL-caliber defensemen up top and the prospect pool is pretty light.
Buffalo needs to hope one or all prospects, Casey Fitzgerald, William Borgen and Jacob Bryson turn into solid top 4 defensemen to fill the ranks in the future.
Also, Buffalo has missed the trade market the last two offseasons with chances to grab a player like Cam Fowler or Noah Hanifin, because they were unwilling to pull the trigger for the cost.
Phil Housley’s system requires fast puck-moving defenseme,n and even if he is no longer the coach, that is the future to go for. The Sabres may not have the ammunition anymore to pull that type of trade, but perhaps a guy like Mike Green in free agency could fill in the short term void.
Of course, there is also the potential top 2018 draft prospect, Rasmus Dahlin, a Swedish defensemen who would be franchise-defining on the back end. If the Sabres were to actually win the draft lottery, this would really accelerate things.
Overall, the Sabres do have a few high-end prospects who should help things and the future of the team is not as bleak as it seems. With that being said, Jason Botterill will have to hit his draft picks right and be a bit aggressive to infuse a few veteran players that fit Housley’s puck-moving system if the Sabres are finally going to take a step forward in 2018.