After an early-season 10-game winning streak, the Buffalo Sabres find themselves quickly approaching the Trade Deadline two points back of a Wild Card spot, and nine back of third place in the Atlantic Division.
The on-ice performance that has become the norm for Sabres fans during this painful playoff drought, threatening to extend to its eighth season, is once again the norm. The Sabres are anything but finished this year, yet their struggles beg a familiar question: how far is this team from being true Stanley Cup contenders?
Since signing on with the Sabres back in 2017, General Manager Jason Botterill has done as good a job as one could ask of him in drafting, trading, and signing players, working to strip the organization of the last remnants of the Tim Murray era.
Moving prospects like Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey for pieces more fitting in the new system, trading established players like Nicolas Deslauriers and Evander Kane for the best possible return, and making solid draft picks like Rasmus Dahlin has shaped the Sabres into a much better roster just one year after Botterill’s taking over. The truth of the matter, though, is that the Sabres still aren’t “there”– at least not yet.
In trying to figure out just what kind of team can truly be considered a contender, Botterill and the Sabres need to take notes from the upper echelon of organizations in the NHL, these clubs being of the pedigree of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the San Jose Sharks, the Winnipeg Jets…you get the picture. Each of those clubs have spent years building internally to establish themselves into perennial contenders through exceptional drafting, as well as with masterfully executed hockey trades. For the Sabres, trying to make up the ground lost during the tank years is going to be a hard task. The good news is, they’re already on the right track.
The Rochester Americans are one of the best teams in the AHL, which bodes well for the big club down the road, maybe even sooner rather than later. The Sabres prospect pool has been ranked the best among all 31 NHL teams by many since the start of this season, and it’s not hard to see why. The Amerks boast a roster of young, promising talent projected to blossom into effective NHL players in the years to come.
Players like C.J. Smith, who has notched a couple of goals in call-ups to the Sabres this year, Alex Nylander, who continues to develop and find his stride in Rochester, and Victor Olofsson, who has blown past expectations this year, are all poised to become mainstays with the Sabres in only a matter of time.
— NHL Prospects 🏒 (@NHLPC) February 9, 2019
Even some of the younger players already on the Sabres roster, namely Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson, have room to develop into more complete and well-rounded players on the roster. The only catch here is that this is going to take some time. That considered, there are some immediate steps the Sabres can take to improve upon the foundations of Botterill’s vision for this team.
First, Head Coach Phil Housley needs to find some level of chemistry with the roster. Eichel and Skinner have combined to produce 100+ points this season. Keep them together. Instead, address the other organizational needs. Generalizing their current needs, let’s say the Sabres need a true second line center, a true second line winger, a solid third line center, and a pair of movable middle-six forwards who can play all situations, including special teams. Some of these holes can be fixed with prospects, but some will need to be sought externally.
Moving players who haven’t had much success adjusting to their new roles (Jason Pominville, Kyle Okposo, Vladimir Sobotka, Nathan Beaulieu), can assist in alleviating some of the ailments currently surrounding this roster. Some of these players could yield leverage with the Trade Deadline coming up, and convince a contending club to cough up some younger players and some picks. Sentiment aside, these players, even Pominville, should be considered viable assets in the coming weeks. Until a move is made, however, any rumor remains speculation as to what hand the Sabres will want to play.
The Sabres need to make some moves, and the front office knows that. But, as it stands today, where are they in terms of being true Stanley Cup contenders? Not just making the playoffs, but actually being a team capable of making it three or four rounds.
My answer: 4-5 years.
I know, not what anyone wants to hear. But hear me out.
In 4-5 years, the team will have likely shedded any troublesome veteran contracts; this will have made way for younger prospects coming into their own to establish spots on the roster full-time. Both Eichel and (presumably) Skinner will be within their respective primes, each midway through their contracts.
Linus Ullmark will have likely emerged as one of the League’s better starting goalies, and the entire roster may have a handful of playoff games under their belt at that point. All this culminating, of course, into what should be a serious threat to the Tampas, the Pittsburghs, the San Joses, and the Winnipegs of the League.
In 4-5 years, this improved and more seasoned Sabres roster will be a genuine force to reckon with. For now, Sabres brass and fans alike need to have patience, confidence and hope that all goes right moving forward, and the process follows through as planned. Only time will tell.