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Auditing the Sabres

Looking at how the organization can improve the team

Hi Terry,

This is your hockey auditor here to take a look at the Sabres and where things stand. We’re going to look at the forwards, defense, goaltenders, farm system, and overall organizational efficiency.

Forwards

The Sabres have the centerpiece you want to build a team with in Jack Eichel. Forwards Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and Victor Olofsson all are strong top six forwards. Dylan Cozens looks like a potential gem in another year or two. Prospects Matej Pekar and Arttu Ruotsalainen could become contributors of some form, but it’s early to know.

After those players, things are pretty bare and dire. Forwards like Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons are okay in their roles but are limited in what they can do scoring-wise despite Girgensons having 12 so far this season.



The rest of the NHL lineup feels underwhelming with Marcus Johansson, Kyle Okposo, and Jimmy Vesey viewed as disappointments in various ways. The AHL/prospect pool guys like Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt have not yet lived up to expectations, to say the least.

There are not many other noteworthy forwards (prospects wise( other than Marcus Davidson. If Casey and Tage don’t become real contributors the Sabres are in even worse shape as the Ryan O’Reilly trade produced virtually nothing to help the prospect cupboard.

Suggestions:  Be aggressive in trading some defensive assets and draft picks you have in order to get two top nine forwards while also adding as best you can more forward prospects. The next few drafts need to address restocking the forward crop. The NHL is regularly rolling three scoring lines deep and Buffalo currently roles one great scoring line and one line that is okay at scoring when everyone is healthy. More needs to be done to truly add talent and depth to the forward crop.

Defenders

Your defense has a potential all-time great in the making with Rasmus Dahlin. He immediately takes the pressure off the rest of the defense. Brandon Montour and Ramus Ristolainen are decent players and youngsters Lawrence Pilut, Henri Jokiharju, and recent 1st round draft pick Ryan Johnson are a trio of talented defenders who could contribute in a big way the next few years.

AHL prospect Will Borgen may be more of bottom six defender assuming he finishes developing into a steady NHL defender, but he does not hurt to have for the future. You have too many defensemen currently which has created a bad log jam. Getting rid of Zach Bogosian was a big help, but a player like Jake McCabe could have been traded.

Suggestion: Trim some fat from your defense and trade one of your more talented defenders or prospects to bring in help to the forward crop. This is an area that has too much and can be used to help shore up a badly hurting forward group. Dahlin allows you to cover more on the back end where you don’t necessarily need to devote as many resources to the defense. Use these resources to fill out your other areas.

Goaltenders

There is good and bad here. Linus Ullmark has developed into being a decent starter who may not steal a game regularly but is dependable enough you can rely on him. That is a good thing. Uber prospect Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen is nearing making his emergence to the NHL in a year or two and he could be a franchise goalie for the next decade plus. That is also a good thing.

The problems start with no suitable backup behind Ullmark so if he is out injured, you have no suitable starter. Realistically, Robin Lehner probably should’ve been kept to help hold the fort until Luukkonen was ready to come up. You don’t want to rush UPL, so a serviceable starter needs to be added in the short term. Advanced stats have shown that the Sabres goaltending has not just been below average these past two seasons, but downright awful where it has legitimately cost them wins and games they otherwise would’ve been in.

Suggestion: Find a free agent goalie in the summer, like Braden Holtby, who for 2-3 years can be the guy until Luukkonen is fully the starter. Poor goaltending has derailed the Sabres from being more competitive for two year. Don’t allow that to happen for a third year.

Farm System

This is another good news, bad news area. The good news is the Rochester Americans have returned to being a competitive hockey team that is winning and making the playoffs. While that does not guarantee every prospect develops into their max potential, having a farm system in place that encourages competitiveness and no one getting a free lunch means prospects will earn every minute they deserve and it will strengthen their growth.

The bad news with the farm system is two fold. The Sabres have graduated many of their AHL players to the NHL already with Victor Oloffson, Lawrence Pilut, and Ramsus Asplund now with the Sabres regularly. So currently many of the Sabres prospects are either in the NHL or Junior leagues. Unfortunately, the Sabres do not have a very large crop of blue-chip prospects currently which limits what players are available. Additionally, players who were expected to be big contributors like Casey Mittelstadt, Jake McCabe, or previous top draft pick Alex Nylander have not developed into the players they were expected to be. Buffalo is in a tough position because the Sabres desperately need more young impact players, but for many of them, the best thing for their development would be to stay in the AHL or their junior league and grow.



Suggestion: You’re going to have to carefully add more prospects to your pool and let many of these players take their time to grow, while occasionally bringing up the prospect who truly is ready and earned their way to the Sabres. This will require patience and not forcing the opportunity as the Sabres did with Casey Mittelstadt. It will also require just time for more young players to join the system.

Organization 

This has been a long decade of ownership. No one would argue the tank for Eichel or McDavid was a sound plan to rebuild assets, but the assets were wasted during 2014-2016 and now your core is hurting. The organization badly needs a voice with hockey experience to lead from above. Head coach Ralph Kruger does some of this and is a good piece to work with the players. But your general manager may need to be replaced as many of the moves he has made have only further hurt the team and the prospects are not there to help.

Fan engagement seems to be at a low due to the team’s poor performance. That has put a larger focus on the fan experience which has areas that can be improved. The color switch back to royal blue will be a welcomed change and the future arena renovations certainly should help fans enjoyment at games.

Suggestion: Start working to build fan trust and faith so when the team finally ascends everything feels in unison. The Sabres on the ice feel far away but realistically there are some big pieces which with some shoring up talent-wise can help to ascend the team quickly back to the playoffs. But you need to use what resources you have to improve the Sabres on the ice, you can’t sit and wait to hope for the best. As you switch jersey colors this summer find ways to enhance this experience with alumni being there, different events, and maybe hold a fan town hall so their voice feels heard even if the changes that can be made are limited.



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