The way forward - Part 1

Bulldog explores what has to change on the blue line and in net heading into the offseason

March 08, 2018 - 11:41 am

Photo: Brad Mills - USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres season is, mercifully, almost over. A third season since the tank year leaves us, yet again, hoping on lottery balls and pondering where it all went wrong. Years of poor drafting and some regrettable trades have left the Sabres with a mostly shoddy group of defensemen and, with the exception of Jack Eichel, slow-footed forwards.

In other words, exactly where you don’t want to be in today’s NHL.

The game has never been faster, and the days of the plodding, mean, cross-check you in the face defenseman are gone. You need puck movers and skaters. The hardest teams to play against are the ones that take away your time and space to make plays with speed, and of course use that speed to make plays themselves.

So what are the Sabres supposed to do about it? Great question. If in fact you think a factor in making a question great is it having no easy answer. The bottom line is that general manager Jason Botterill has his work cut out for him trying to catch up to where the league is at now and where it’s heading.

The easier pieces of the puzzle to find may be on defense. Maybe.

Brendan Guhle is perfect for what the Sabres need, and he should be ready to make an impact in Buffalo next season. Guhle‘s best asset is his skating, followed closely by his puck moving. Perfect. Watch closely as long as he and Casey Nelson are paired together. While not the skater Guhle is, Nelson is a very good passer and seems adept at getting pucks through to the net in the offensive zone or finding open teammates. Nelson needs to be signed as he, despite being only 25-years old, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He needs to be resigned. If I knew how to, I’d put the word ‘needs’ in day-glo orange here. He cannot get away, and my feeling is that Botterill should be busy figuring out how to make that happen. Of course, the player has to agree to forego the open market and that usually costs extra. Guess what? The Sabres had better pay it. If retained, Nelson, along with Guhle, would represent the most significant steps in years to upgrade the Sabres defense.

Victor Antipin is another part of this. While his progress has been slowed by an adjustment to a new country, language and league as well as injury, he still shows enough promise to, perhaps, be considered a part of the solution. Not as important a piece as either Guhle or Nelson, Antipin is a good skater with solid offensive instincts that I’d like to see more of moving forward.

That’s half your defense corp. Win the lottery* and throw Rasmus Dahlin into the mix and something that’s been a weakness for the Sabres becomes their strength.

* - The writer apologizes for pinning any hopes of his favorite hockey team turning around on winning a lottery. He knows you’re probably muttering to yourself that Edmonton will win the lottery again or maybe it seems like Arizona’s turn. Or maybe the Blackhawks will win it after one terrible season and we’ll all quit watching the league.

***Deep breath...***

Anyways, that’s the way I see things on the blue line. Rasmus Ristolainen, Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe are my other three. Nathan Beaulieu and Zach Bogosian, assuming he isn’t bought out, are depth. Maybe Bogosian plays and Antipin is depth. Maybe Beaulieu never plays because he’s pretty bad. Either way, at the very least, Guhle and Nelson change the look of the blue line for the better.

In goal, Robin Lehner could get a bit tricky. As a restricted free agent, the Sabres do have his rights for one more year should they qualify him with a 10-percent raise from this season’s $4 million salary. The thing is, this year was supposed to be the "prove it" year for Lehner, and I wouldn’t be ready to give him a long-term deal and say he’s the guy moving forward. Do you try another prove it deal? Qualify him and try to trade him? Let him walk? I might just let him go if he’s not in my long-term plans and I don’t think he should be.

My sense is that the Sabres are ready to take Linus Ullmark out for a spin at the NHL level and I’m up for that. Lehner could be part of your tandem with Ullmark. You could extend Chad Johnson and have him partner with Ullmark. You could find another inexpensive veteran goalie. There’s lots of options. The one thing I know I’m not doing is signing Robin Lehner to a long-term contract, and maybe in the end that means it’s time for him to go.

Part 2 is coming soon...the forwards.

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