So, what now?

As another Sabres season dwindles away, what's the path moving forward?

Jeremy White
January 10, 2020 - 11:09 am
Linus Ullmark

Photo: Jeff Curry - USA TODAY Sports


So, what now?

What in the world are the Buffalo Sabres going to do to be good? Ever.

I need something to hold on to. I need something to believe in. The Sabres have a few pieces that generate good feelings, right? Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, Victor Olofsson, and a few others. Two of those pieces are out of the lineup right now, making sledding even tougher these days.

But I need to believe that the future is bright, and I just struggle with that right now.

At least the tank brought with it visions of an elite player that you could watch every night. And drama, of course. It delivered.

From here, is the plan to just clear the cap? It’s a start, and they'll do a lot of that at the end of this year with more than $30 million coming off the books. The Sabres are carrying about 86 million dollars on the roster.

How much of that belongs to Jason Botterill? Most of it.

Here is a list of players that Botterill inherited, and had no contract decision on:

  • Kyle Okposo - $6 million
  • Rasmus Ristolainen - $5.5 million
  • Zach Bogosian - $5 million

Three players totaling $16.5 million dollars. And that's to say nothing about the idea of trading away either Ristolainen or Bogosian at any point in the last three years.  

Botterill's inaction is still mind-boggling. He's slow-played this roster into short-term salary cap trouble, and will likely use this offseason to unload a problem that he has partially created. Occasionally I’ll hear someone make a case that this was the plan all along; that the Sabres were going to follow the Buffalo Bills' plan of dumping off the bad stuff and loading up to go forward. Not only would that have been a tough sell when the general manager was hired, but there’s no reason that couldn’t have happened this year.  

If it was about cap clearance, you dump Ristolainen and Bogosian for whatever. Maybe this is one last kick at the can to drive up any trade value and get whatever blood you can from that stone.

Bogosian has to be gone next year. Ristolainen? Are we sure they’re going to let him walk? Another year with No. 55 would feel like another in this seemingly endless cycle of... bleh. If it’s about cap clearance, it could have been happening. If it’s about cap clearance, you’re just throwing Eichel’s prime years into a dust bin.  

There are good signs mixed in. The Sabres are better at 5-on-5 this year. They're just about average in having the puck, shooting it, and shooting it from good spots. Most of that belongs to Eichel, though.

The thing that’s killed them for nearly a decade is something they’re doing relatively well right now. No, not Thursday night against the St. Louis Blues. But goaltending and special teams is sinking them into a familiar spot in the standings where 85 points seems like a big mountain to climb.  

Trade... the middle parts?

A trade finally came last week with defenseman Marco Scandella going to the Montreal Canadiens for a fourth round draft pick. The Sabres then spun that pick to get forward Michael Frolik from the Calgary Flames. This trade seems like it should take all the effort of sending a mail-in rebate. Was Montreal reluctant to part with that fourth round pick that had belonged to the San Jose Sharks? Maybe the other general managers didn't want to move on it or an injury delayed it or who knows, but we know it’s not the “roster surgery” we’ve talked about so often. We’re all waiting for more.

There have been good moves mixed in. Think we’re generally happy with the Brandon Montour and Henri Jokiharju trades. The Skinner trade was magnificent, but that was for one year of service and now you're paying him top dollar to play on a line that takes a lot of the shine off that. The coach puts a nice tone on what they’re trying to do, but expecting anything different from this roster is pretty tough.

Will they aim to add a goaltender? The Sabres are not giving up a ton of chances; they’re playing a slow, safe defensive game. But when they give up the high-danger chances, they’re going in. They’re 29th in the NHL in high danger save percentage, so another goaltender to take Hutton’s minutes and give Ullmark a day or two off here or there? Problem is your salary cap, of course. This whole time while the clear need was swapping a defenseman for a forward, turns out they also developed a need for help in net.

Curtis Lazar and Lawrence Pilut could have been here as soon as they were available. They could have about the same team, but with $10 million more in cap space if they just decided that anyone wasn't good enough to play for them. Move along from Zemgus Girgensons, waive Evan Rodrigues, buy out Vladimir Sobotka, scuttle Bogosian or Ristolainen or Jake McCabe, and let young guys come up in those spots. You might find someone and also have space to make a supplemental move.

When will they be good? Is the best to hope to win another lottery, or wait for Dylan Cozens to arrive?

I need something to point to. Is this where I reach for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen?  

The cupboard isn’t as bare as it has been. I get that. The wait has been long, but many Sabres fans will be fearful of another promise of what's to come. It seems that the conversation always moves forward to a year sometime off in the distance. The organization will restock, the players will grow together, the depth gets solid, the goaltending is good, the coach pulls the right strings, and then the Sabres will be good.  

So when will "then" be now?

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