When hockey fans awoke on the morning of November 24, they saw something very unfamiliar for the past few seasons.
They saw the Buffalo Sabres in 1st place overall.
— Dan Baran (@dbaran2) November 25, 2018
It was a sight that all Sabres fans had been clamoring for, and at this point, discussions of the seven-year playoff drought were a thing of the past, and now fans could start discussing how deep of a Cup run their team could go on.
Fast forward to today’s writing and the Sabres have been in a complete free-fall since that 10-game winning streak ended. They’ve won only 11 of the 33 games they’ve played since that great run, and are very much in all of the NHL draft lottery discussions again.
Enter General Manager Jason Botterill, and the magical question around Buffalo now; How much pressure is he really under for this season?
The Trade Deadline, which usually has two very defined sides (buyers and sellers) has a formulaic approach to it. The sellers are trying to mostly peddle players on expiring contracts (UFAs) to contenders (buyers) for future assets, such as prospects and draft picks.
There are those who believe Botterill should be a seller at this deadline. Normally sellers are those who are out of the playoff race now and perhaps even for the foreseeable future, so future assets are most welcomed to help accelerate a rebuilding process.
In the Sabres’ case, it wouldn’t seem prudent to be a traditional seller. They have four first-round picks in the next two drafts to help aid the current prospect pool with high-end players, so true futures really don’t seem to help as much as they may have a few seasons ago. Also, in terms of who they would have that they could sell, really wouldn’t move the needle, aside from Jeff Skinner, whom most believe will remain in Buffalo.
Edge work at its finest.
— NHL (@NHL) January 9, 2019
Then there’s the camp that says the Sabres should be buyers. There is some logic to that thought process, as at the moment, the team only sits six points out of their first playoff berth in seven years, so a little bolstering to the current lineup could be just what Botterill needs in order to secure said berth. The problem with that line of thinking is that in most cases, teams are making their UFA’s the primary trade bait. It feels completely irresponsible to use quality assets on expiring contracts for players that may or may not help lift them to the postseason. Then, even in a best-case scenario, they would most assuredly be eliminated quickly. This team is not a Stanley Cup contender as it’s built today, so quick fixes are not the answer.
There has been much speculation that Botterill is looking to add at this deadline, but not for an expiring contract, but for some quality youth that might need a change of scenery. A player like Jesse Puljujarvi, for example, could be on the move and had from Edmonton.
I like this train of thought because if you give up any appreciable assets to obtain a player such as this, the plan is that he’ll be helping your organization on a more longer-term, and you don’t have to wait to see a return for several seasons as you would with a traditional draft pick.
Many fans want Jason Botterill to feel immediate pressure to improve the team, but seeing how he’s handled the team since he was hired, it doesn’t seem that he is. There are many vocal fans who have advocated for an “all-in” approach, but this feels very short-sighted.
For years, the Sabres have been starved for blue-chip prospects and top-end talent. They got those pieces in the forms of Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin. They have pieces to build around, but it’s clear from their recent record, that they’re just not to be considered true contenders yet.
At the beginning of the season, if you would have told Sabres fans that their team would be fighting for a playoff spot toward the end of February, most fans would have been thrilled. The 10-game winning streak skewed expectations, and perhaps unfairly. This is a team that’s still a work in progress.
Maybe the draft is where Botterill will feel more pressure. Normally at the annual gathering, you’ll see actual hockey trades transpire. It sounds familiar to Sabres fans when considering the team may march into the 2019 NHL draft with three first-round picks. The last time that happened (2015) Eichel was selected, but the other two picks were part of trade packages with Colorado and Ottawa. I think that’s more of a time where you might see a trade that will hopefully fill the cupboards of depth scoring and solid, top-4 defensemen to the Sabres’ roster.
The only place the pressure could be building for the GM is his decision with head coach Phil Housley. The more this season progresses, the more it seems his system just does not work with this group of players. To this point, Botterill has shown incredible patience with his roster and coaching staff, but you have to figure if the team continues its on-ice decline, that might be the one area he has to consider making a change to sooner rather than later.
All-in-all, it seems the Sabres are fairly close to making a splash into the NHL’s contender’s ranks. There are some definite areas of need (right-hand defensemen, No. 2 center, right-wing depth) and Botterill does have some ammunition via the draft, and some young talent to make some of those changes.
However seeing the approach of former GM Tim Murray, it’s easy to see how a more measured approach should be the order of the day. If an opportunity opens up, a la the Jeff Skinner trade last August, he’ll have to make it.
Even though Sabres fans won’t like to hear this, it’s taking advantages of opportunities that win Stanley Cups, and sometimes, you have to be more patient than you’d want to be.
It’s been difficult to watch a team like Toronto make the turn-around so quickly into contenders, but you have to remember the context behind that movement. Murray gutted the Sabres youth and prospects with ill-advised “quick fix” trades that just didn’t pan out. Toronto was very measured, got some luck, (Matthews) and signed some marquee free-agents and a coach.
The Sabres are faced with a different set of problems, but dumping your quality assets to just qualify for the postseason is not the way to go.