Believe it or not, the last-place team in the NHL last season clinched a playoff birth a couple of nights ago. The Colorado Avalanche defeated the St. Louis Blues, claiming the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Epic celebration from the Colorado Avalanche after scoring an empty-net goal and punching their ticket to the playoffs pic.twitter.com/3YyuEpNbHb
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) April 8, 2018
The only thing the Buffalo Sabres clinched this season was 31st place – last place in the entire league and the best odds (18.5%) at selecting the first-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery. The snow on the ground in Buffalo during the early days of April was quite fitting for a Sabres team that had been buried since the beginning of the season.
So it begs the question: do the Sabres have what it takes for a rapid ascension in the standings next season?
Most fans and ‘experts’ will justifiably exclaim “no”. As evidenced by this past season, newfound hope and expectations can and usually will turn into the exact opposite with this Sabres club.
The team in Colorado, however, provides an interesting case study. Fans, pundits, players, and management should take heed of the example set by the Avs this past season. At the very least it can provide a glimmer of hope for a dejected fan base.
Prior to the 2016-17 season, not many people projected the Avs to be terrible – at least not last-place terrible. They finished with 82 points, good enough for 9th place a season prior.
They had notable pieces on both sides of the puck as well: Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie, and Erik Johnson. Much like with the Sabres, big names didn’t necessarily translate to big success.
They finished the 2016-17 season with a dismal record of 22-56-4, compiling only 48 points. They mustered 166 goals while surrendering 278. That’s a -112 goal differential. By comparison, the 2013-14 Sabres finished 21-51-10 with 52 points. Their goal differential was slightly better, yet a still horrendous -91. They scored a paltry 157 goals that season.
So, what changed in Colorado?
Well, for starters they ditched one of their top players in Matt Duchene, a classic ‘addition by subtraction’ deal. Buffalo’s departure with Evander Kane may prove to be just as catalyzing, however, the results of this transaction will have to wait to be revealed next season.
Secondly, a wealth of prospects arrived to contribute in both primary and secondary scoring: Mikko Rantanen, Alexander Kerfoot, and J.T. Compher (remember him?) just to name a few.
Mikko Rantanen and @Mackinnon9 have some kind of chemistry. pic.twitter.com/T1aKOOygV7
— Seth (@MonkeyAvsFan) March 22, 2018
Lastly, Johnathan Bernier proved to be a savvy offseason-acquisition to backup Semyon Varlamov in goal. Both goalies posted solid numbers.
This handful of changes may seem subtle and insignificant without the context of what just transpired this season for them, but the Avs proved that with small changes, rather than a total revamping, a team can change its fortune drastically.
The Sabres have pieces, top pieces at that. Other teams are undoubtedly jealous of the Sabres core players like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan’ O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, and Rasmus Ristolainen. What lies beneath these players, though, are disparate holes in the roster.
It’s fully expected that Jason Botterill’s hand will be forced to swing some big deals and/or sign some top free-agents, but these are uncertainties. There’s no guarantee that a free-agent will want to come to Buffalo, or that Botterill can find a suitor for a blockbuster deal.
Not only that, the Sabres are unfortunately strapped to some bad contracts and will be for the foreseeable future.
Buffalo will be forced to follow the Colorado model, which means an influx of youth and some minor trades/signings to shore up depth roles. Whether this will work or not is the million-dollar question.
Botterill tried out swapping depth players last season but to no avail. Players like Jordan Nolan, Jacob Josefson, Benoit Pouliot, and Nathan Beaulieu turned out to be more dead weight added to a bloated roster that already included underachievers like Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Josh Gorges.
Imitating the Avalanche
Part of the solution will start with a pair of eighth-overall picks: Casey Mittelstadt and Alex Nylander. Either top or bottom-six roles will be open for the taking as training camp arrives for both these players.
The back end saw promise from within the organization as well as the season wound down. Brendan Guhle possesses all the tools the Sabres need in a defenseman. Some polishing and a sheltered role next season will benefit both him and the team. Casey Nelson, a pending UFA, made tremendous progress and will be a top priority for management to re-sign.
#Sabres Casey Nelson smiles prior to pregame and the @TBLightning pic.twitter.com/s5zWjmFKSy
— Harry Scull Jr (@hsjrphoto) February 13, 2018
The goalie position may be the most intriguing of all. Linus Ullmark is all but guaranteed a role next season, but in what capacity remains uncertain. Both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson will likely be shown the door.
Though cliché, the thing most likely to help the boys in blue and gold will be a fresh start. That proved to be the case in Colorado since only nominal changes and roster moves were made.
And if there’s anything Sabres fans can take solace in, it’s the fact that they will be awarded a very high draft pick. A Rasmus Dahlin, first-overall pick, would be ideal, but if history tells us anything that won’t be the case.
If the Avalanche’s path foretells anything, we can expect the fourth-overall pick, at worst. Hopefully a playoff birth next season will follow suit.