By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Normally, we’d be about three weeks into the hockey season by now. The Buffalo Sabres would have given us some evidence about how their season might go, and fans would have jumped on the bandwagon or stayed home at this point.
But this isn’t a normal year. We don’t have a schedule. We don’t know when training camp might start. We don’t know if fans will be let in the doors if the teams do resume playing. Heck, we don’t even know if the Sabres would be allowed to cross the border to play games against familiar opponents like the Maple Leafs, Senators and Canadiens.
We do know, however, that the Sabres’ building program continues. It essentially began in earnest in February 2014 when the team traded Ryan Miller to St. Louis – the equivalent of tearing things down as a preparation for starting over. So after more than six years, where are we? I would argue that the answer is, almost within reach of better days.
Constructing a roster these days isn’t easy. The salary cap puts on restrictions so that a particular team – usually from a big market – can’t buy up all of the talent. So an NHL front office has to be wise on what dollars go where.
A contending team has to have a mix of talent. The Sabres start off with some excellent top-end players, which – oddly enough – is the tough part. Without elite performers, you aren’t going anywhere. Buffalo has a star in Jack Eichel, who finished eighth in the voting for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. That’s in the neighborhood of where he ranks among the league’s best players. Buffalo also has a young star in Rasmus Dahlin, who is only 20 and looks like he’ll have a chance to be on some Norris Trophy ballots in the near future.
Then there’s Taylor Hall, a free agent for signed for one year at $8 million. His arrival was a bit of a surprise, since Hart Trophy winners usually don’t land in the laps of teams who haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years. The signing also didn’t appear to mesh with the well-publicized effort by the front office to cut down on expenses. But it’s only for a year, so we’ll need to see if this turns into a long-term relationship. If it doesn’t work out, well, Hall ought to bring some offers at the trading deadline.
In the meantime, maybe he and Eric Staal can change the offensive chemistry enough to add some points in the standings this year. Goalie Linus Ullmark thinks everyone is better because of Hall’s arrival – including him. ” It’s going to help me to play against these guys every single day,” he said in a Zoom call on Thursday. “We have lot of skilled players, and now we’ve added Hall. He was MVP of the league for a reason. It will help us take the next step as a team. We won’t have those stretches where we had difficulty scoring.”
Speaking of high-end talent, Jeff Skinner certainly is paid like he belongs in that category. He’ll be getting $9 million per season through 2026-27. Skinner earned that deal by scoring 40 goals for the Sabres in 2018-19 after coming over from Carolina in a trade. He followed that up in 2019-20 under the new contract with 14 goals in 59 games. The hope is that it was just a fluke season, and that he’ll bounce back. The fear is that the big season was a case of Eichel carrying him to new scoring heights and Skinner became lost once he moved off that line. Skinner’s contract seemed on the high side at the time (they needed to keep ticket-buyers happy) and looks worse now, leaving the Sabres left to hope he can offer a reasonable amount of production over the long haul to justify overpaying him in 2019-20.
It’s also necessary, in the salary cap sense, to have some good young talent. You don’t want to be paying for what a particular player did in the past – especially for another team. (Kyle Okposo might be the best example of that on the current roster.) That’s the essential flaw in signing free agents to long-term contracts. Young players can be relative bargains because there are more restrictions on their income. If you aren’t paying someone under 23 much money, the funds can be spread throughout the rest of the roster. This principle most obviously applies to football teams with a great young quarterback. Seattle’s Russell Wilson was an incredible bargain early in his career, and the Seahawks could afford to surround him with talent.
In the Sabres’ case, it applies to someone like Dahlin – who soon will be in line for a good-sized raise soon. Victor Olafsson might qualify for that list, and so does Henri Jokiharju. We’ll have to wait to see how players such as Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson and Dylan Cozens develop this year. The clock on the first two has been ticking for a while. It’s too early to give up on them, but it’s not too early to wonder what their peak is going to be.
As for the rest of the roster, it’s something of a question mark. There are givens in players like Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen – good but not great NHL players – but there are some others who don’t feel like they’ll necessarily be around if the Sabres get good. That’s particularly true in goal, where Ullmark and Carter Hutton need to prove they are more than caretakers. As Darcy Regier said about Dominik Hasek in a cheaper era, if a GM is going to pay top dollar for a player, it’s great that the guy is on the ice and making a difference for all 60 minutes.
Add this up, and new general manager Kevyn Adams has a relatively uncomplicated task in front of him. He must figure out a way to make the supporting cast to the stars a bit better in a number of places. The improvement can come from within, such as the development of young players, and/or from outside, through trades. He’s already completed one such move, as the acquisition of Staal for Marcus Johansson fit all the requirement of adding a better fit to the roster while even saving a little cap space at the same time.
From a distance, this looks as if it can be done. But if Sabres fans are skeptical as to whether it will be done, I can’t say I blame them.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)