By Budd Bailey
It was something of a sad weekend for the Buffalo Sabres. That’s nothing new, of course. They’ve had a lot of them during the past 10 years, as the team has wandered in the darkness in a search for the way out of the abyss.
The catch in this case is that the sadness arrived in July. Thanks to the pandemic, the offseason schedule has been condensed a bit. Instead of the usual June draft and July free agent season, we had to wait a few weeks.
The Sabres confirmed what we knew was coming over the weekend. Rasmus Ristolainen was dealt to Philadelphia for two draft choices and defenseman Robert Hagg. That was followed by the departure of Sam Reinhart to Florida for a first-round pick in 2022 and goaltending prospect Devon Levi. It sure seems that Jack Eichel will be the next one out the door, provided the Sabres can find someone to give up the equivalent of four first-round draft picks – said to be the going rate for the center in some sort of deal.
The period around the draft usually is a period of optimism for fans, since they are getting new players who will be part of their favorite team’s future. The Sabres had the added bonus of having the No. 1 draft pick, the reward for that poor season that featured such a long, long losing streak in the middle. Going first is always exciting, and this time the top choice was joined by another first-rounder that came in the Ristolainen deal.
But that was somewhat tempered by the two departures, at least for the moment. Ristolainen was picked eighth overall in 2013. Back in those innocent days, the Sabres had not taken a draft pick in the first 10 choices since 2003, when Thomas Vanek went at No. 5. The franchise had to go bankrupt in order to fall that low; the previous single-digit choice was Erik Rasmussen at No. 7 in 1996.
We didn’t know it back in 2013, but Buffalo would have a choice in the top 10 in every draft through 2021’s selection of Owen Power on Friday night. I don’t know if that’s a record, but it has to be close. The Sabres have gone eight for eight in having top 10 picks. The closest to that number within that time period is five, set by New Jersey, Edmonton and Vancouver. Six teams have not had a top-ten choice since at least 2014. Admittedly, trades and the lottery can change the order a bit, but it’s still quite an “achievement” to have such a good pick in eight straight drafts. Now Ristolainen and Reinhart join Alex Nylander as those early draft choices who are no longer with the team.
The hope was that Ristolainen would become a big, strong defenseman who would become a force at both ends of the ice. He didn’t quite fulfill that promise here, and became something of a symbol of the playoff drought. It’s tough to say what happened. Maybe he simply never developed far enough, or was oversold as a prospect. Perhaps he was asked to do too much by the Sabres, who often played him up to 30 minutes per game because there were no better options. Detractors pointed to the analytics that showed he was far from an elite player, but certainly the caravan of coaches who have passed through here used him a lot.
In the meantime, Ristolainen became something of a scapegoat around town. We’re familiar with that here. When the Sabres couldn’t win a playoff series in the 1980s and 1990s, some looked at the roster and noticed that Phil Housley and Dave Andreychuk had been common denominators on those mediocre teams. They were both traded. Since those two players ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, maybe it’s fair to say they weren’t a big part of the problem. Ristolainen arrived when the team started its crash to the bottom, and will always be a part of this era. It really will take a stay at another team to figure out if he simply wasn’t good enough, or if he was a symptom of the team’s ills. The Flyers paid a good-sized price to acquire him in the hope that he’s the latter.
As for Reinhart, give him credit for improving during his time here. He managed to tie his career-high in goals this past season with 25, even though he only played 54 of 56 games. Sam will never be fast in a game that increases its emphasis on speed with each passing season. Luckily for him, he developed enough all-around skill to contribute in other ways – most notably developing a talent to score around the crease.
Meanwhile, Reinhart certainly didn’t sound like someone who wanted to stay here – particularly through another rebuilding process. This past weekend, Sam said he never received the long-term contract that would have kept him here, and maybe part of the bitterness spilled over. His interviews with the media during the past season were almost painful to hear. Reinhart came across as something of a poster boy for Kevyn Adams’ strategy of trading players away who didn’t want to be here any longer. The Reinhart trade received less enthusiastic reviews than the Ristolainen deal. But if Levi becomes the goalie of the future and Reinhart leaves to test free agency in a year, this could look really good for Buffalo.
No immediate hope
The net result of the weekend certainly is one last big admission that something has been terribly wrong with the Sabres for some time. Ristolainen and Reinhart were billed as part of the solution when they arrived. You can add Eichel to that list when/if he goes elsewhere. If you take those three names off the roster, Buffalo will have a noticeably weaker roster than it did at the end of last season. And that was a team that traded away some veterans at the deadline (Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, etc.) and eventually finished last overall.
Admittedly, we’re not done with the offseason yet. Free agency is around the corner, and the Sabres want to have Linus Ullmark under contract before then. (Note: They’d better.) They’ll also add a few players who can fill in some obvious holes on the roster. Buffalo has some cap room to maneuver, and NHL jobs remain attractive in any circumstances.
Still, the weekend represented something of a message to the world by the Sabres: We know you have suffered during the past several years. We’re doing something about it, but you’ll have to be patient – again – to see if we get it right this time.
It may be the right course. But it will be tough to sell tickets with that message.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)