The Sabres' problems start at the bottom

No call ups, no experimentation, no depth, and no results

Joe DiBiase
March 06, 2019 - 3:20 pm

Photo: Kevin Hoffman - USA TODAY Sports

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There's a good to solid chance I lose all of you with this first thought, but I'm going to say it anyway. The Buffalo Sabres should manage their roster the way I manage my fantasy football team.

Yeah, I'm serious. They need to tinker the hell out of this roster.

Especially compared to past Sabres teams, they've been relatively healthy all season. This has allowed the same group to be in the lineup night in and night out. It's not a huge difference, but in past seasons, the Sabres have had to use more players over the course of a year.

This season, the Sabres have used just 31 players in games. For comparison, the Anaheim Ducks, have made the most roster moves, using 48 players this season. In fact, Phil Housley has only inserted six call ups into the lineup, not including guys that were on conditioning stints. Those players are Lawrence Pilut, C.J. Smith, Scott Wilson, Brendan Guhle, Danny O'Regan, and Matt Tennyson.

The time is now to see some roster tinkering, time for some experimentation. Specifically, a group of three bottom-six forwards who have combined for 12 goals in 177 games. The trio of Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Vladamir Sobotka have done a great job as penalty killers this season, but have given the Sabres very little in five-on-five situations.

Larsson and Girgensons will both be restricted free agents after the season. If you want to make changes for the sake of change, do it with the bottom of the lineup. Don't trade Ristolainen. Move on from two players that everyone knows are just going to be fourth liners for the rest of their careers.

As for Sobotka, TSN's Travis Yost said Tuesday with Mike Schopp and the Bulldog, "Sobotka is sub-replacement level."

The Sabres do have potential options for bottom six/penalty kill roles down in Rochester. The name that sticks out the most to me for that is Sean Malone, a two-way centerman who has battled injuries in his young career. Malone probably wouldn't come into Buffalo and start putting up points. He only has 12 points in 29 games down in Rochester. Worst case scenario, you see what he's got for a few games, if it goes poorly, he's not playing a lot of minutes anyway and you send him back. Where's the harm in that?

Two other players in Rochester need to get a real look before the season is over. One is O'Regan. He was the player received in the Evander Kane trade, and will be a unrestricted free agent after the year. There's an opportunity to play him a solid chunk of games here down the stretch to figure out if it's worth re-signing him.

The other player is Smith. A very good offensive player in the AHL, Smith played mainly role player minutes in his 11 games with the Sabres. I'd advocate using the final 16 games to see what he's got on the power play and playing in a top-six role. Smith will be a restricted free agent at the end of the year.

There's no reason for NHL teams to not churn the bottom of their roster consistently. Analytics show that most guys on fourth lines are easily replaceable with guys in the AHL. The reason to keep cycling those players in and out is to find the guys with more upside.

It does happen. It even happened right here last season.

Evan Rodrigues was an undrafted free agent who spent time in Rochester and eventually was given a chance to play in the bottom of the Sabres lineup. The team and fans quickly found out that Rodrigues was capable of more significant minutes and power play time.

See if some of these guys in Rochester could be your next Evan Rodrigues.

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