There was a time when Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Johan Larsson were all viewed as key pieces in the Sabres organization.
In fact, fellow draftees like Nikita Zadarov, JT Compher, and Mikhail Grigorenko were also part of this group that was supposed to usher in a new era for the club. Instead, what the Sabres have left are smoldering remains of failed draft picks and players who have not helped their core pieces of Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, Sam Reinhart, and Jeff Skinner.
Rasmus Dahlin's behind-the-back around Erik Karlsson to set up the game-winning goal is just beautiful. Especially on repeat. pic.twitter.com/pG2Hi0Wu2X
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 28, 2018
The path forward for the Sabres is going to be a murky, slow, patient pace that will not have a fixed date for when it is complete. We’re at eight years and counting…
When Tim Murray was the Sabres GM, he tried to kickstart the rebuild by trading many picks and prospects for players like Ryan O’Reilly, Robin Lehner, Hudson Fasching, Josh Gorges, and Evander Kane. The problem with doing this is you need every one of those moves to work in unison while your pillars in Eichel and Reinhart come along.
These moves all failed to various degrees while the draft picks available could have been players such as Brock Boeser, Travis Konecny, Brayden Point, Sebastian Aho, or Samuel Girard. The Sabres’ system has hindered any chance of the rebuild speeding up due to its lack of depth.
During the good days, you could rely on a prospect like Drew Stafford or Dan Paille coming into the lineup and putting up numbers to help support the core.
— Sabres Goal a Day (@SabresGoalADay) July 12, 2017
Without the depth pieces around these guys, it puts impossible pressures on Eichel or Skinner.
Casey Mittelstadt was probably given too much to handle this season and it has shown down the stretch. I expect he will be a good player in the future, but his struggles should be a warning about the lack of depth available right now for young players to grow on. Ideally, Mittelstadt would have learned off a guy like Girgensons who would have developed into a solid #2 center; that type of model should be the goal for the future.
Jason Botterill has the right idea by restocking the entire system and creating a strong AHL team. The Rochester Americans did well in the regular season, but only the last two seasons has the pipeline finally started to see the emergence of young players again like Victor Olofsson, CJ Smith, Will Borgen, etc… The Sabres need at least another year or two before the Americans are consistently sending players up who can truly contribute.
Even after the Brandon Montour trade, the Sabres still have two first round picks to build with. Once they are finally winning, it becomes a little easier to give up a prospect or pick because you have the guys needed to compete, but for right now Botterill should be very hesitant to move these pieces.
With free agency, Buffalo will have close to $30 million in space not including cuts and Skinner’s extension. Players like Vladimir Sobotka and Johan Larsson are dead weight that can be cut at this point to add cap space. Botterill should be judicious though and not swing for the fences like Murray did with Okposo in the past.
Instead of Matt Duchene, who may be available for a high price, sign a guy or two like Gustav Nyquist, Ryan Dzingel or Kevin Hayes, all of whom are consistent 20-goal, 50-point players and should be far more affordable than the big name players.
Do not be afraid to trade Rasmus Ristolianen if some team is willing to give a strong forward for him. The Sabres have a wonderfully young and talented top four of Dahlin, Montour, Nelson, and Pilut; everyone else currently on defense should be deemed expendable.
Next season, maybe the Sabres get lucky with a new coach that has the team playing a sound system, a free agency addition or two at forward, and the emergence of two or three young players that vaults them to the top half of the Eastern Conference.
More likely, though, progress will be the defense growing into form, the system strengthening the pipeline of young players, and the Sabres playing smart hockey while being a point or two in or out of the playoffs at this point next year.
The hope has always been that the arrow would someday shoot up quickly for progress, but realistically, this rebuild is still going to require patience.