Sabres GM Jason Botterill left the NHL Entry Draft in Dallas with franchise defenseman Rasmus Dahlin in tow, and the future looking much brighter. Dahlin is the most offensively skilled defenseman to go at the top of the draft in many years. The closest comparable to Dahlin is probably Drew Doughty, who was drafted second overall in 2008 to the Los Angeles Kings.
Going back a few more years you’ll find Dahlin’s new head coach Phil Housley was a similarly smooth skating defender taken sixth overall in 1982 by Buffalo. Dahlin’s impact as an 18 year-old probably won’t be as explosive as recent generational players McDavid, Crosby or Ovechkin, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for him to accumulate 50 points playing on the first powerplay unit alongside a player like Jack Eichel.
If you’re a Sabres fan or an observer from afar, it’s obvious this is a franchise that has been in turmoil for years. The tanking efforts of past years resulted in a decent core being constructed, but they missed out on the true prize in Connor McDavid. Now that the lottery balls have finally fallen their way, a reboot of the rebuild would be a good idea to correct some mistakes that were made in the past few years under Tim Murray. He attempted to jump start the rebuild by trading away picks they acquired in the tear down for Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Robin Lehner. Had he been patient and used those draft picks he may still be at the helm for Buffalo.
Current odds to win the 2019 Stanley Cup:
- Buffalo Sabres +6600 (open) –––––> +8000 (current as of writing)
It’s probably not by design, but Botterill’s to-do list seems to be to undo Murray’s three biggest trades as Sabres GM. The first step in this new phase for the Sabres involved moving out Evander Kane at the deadline – to the Sharks for a future first round pick. It’s likely to be a pick in the 20s, but could prove to be a valuable asset, especially if San Jose falters and the pick ends up in the lottery.
Since the season ended the Sabres have also moved on from oft-injured starting goalie Robin Lehner. While he was adequate when healthy, his injury history and the price required to retain his rights in restricted free agency – $4 million or more – proved to be too much to continue the relationship.
Most recently, the Sabres assisted the Pittsburgh Penguins in alleviating salary cap pressure and acquired Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick for a conditional fourth round pick. Considering Sheary will likely slot into their top six, taking on Hunwick’s salary for two years is well worth it. Another deal of this nature would go a long way to improving Buffalo’s depth.
The Pegula family, who owns the team, has never been shy about using their financial advantage to try and get ahead. They are famous, or you could say infamous, for front loading contracts. Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff were their worst free agent acquisitions, but they also front loaded Tyler Myers before trading him to Winnipeg.
More recently, they gave out bonus-laden contracts to Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Jack Eichel. The benefit of front loading from a team’s perspective is that even though a six or seven year contract is a long term bet, if you make a mistake or the player declines you’re still able to trade the player to a team trying to hit the cap floor without having to attach another asset.
To complete the tear down of the Sabres-that-Murray-built, there have been rumors of Ryan O’Reilly being dealt. Popular belief was that it would occur at the draft but that didn’t happen. The motivation behind a trade is twofold.
First, isn’t so much that O’Reilly can’t help the Sabres now – he can. It’s that his value will never be higher and, despite years of losing, the Sabres rebuild has stalled.
Second, even though the Sabres lack of overall depth, their depth at centre is actually quite good, even if they trade O’Reilly. Jack Eichel and Casey Middlestadt are the long-term solutions in the top six and former second overall pick Sam Reinhart is a natural centre who has split time on the wing. It’s possible the framework of a deal is in place, with a stumbling block being the $7.5 million bonus due to O’Reilly on July 1st. If the Sabres wait until after that date, the return they can expect will be better. Coincidentally, July 1st is also the day unrestricted free agents can officially sign. Once John Tavares makes his decision on where he will continue his career, O’Reilly will be the next best centre available.
Here’s the rundown of the Tim Murray trades Jason Botterill is undoing:
With Sam Reinhart being the only restricted free agent from their everyday lineup in need of a new contract, the Sabres should have plenty of room to maneuver and acquire a goaltender to compete with Linus Ullmark. Carter Hutton is a logical candidate, as he had respectable numbers in a backup roll to Jake Allen and would be ideal on a short term contract. However, signing him for more than two years would be a mistake for a goalie of his age and pedigree.
A battle for at least two forward positions will take place at training camp in October, with the front runners for those spots being Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey. Both are restricted free agents and shuttled back and forth between Buffalo and AHL Rochester last year. They both possess the necessary speed and skill to contribute every night in the NHL, and they have nobody to blame but themselves if they don’t claim a roster spot on this extremely shallow team.
Six veteran defenseman are already signed to contracts, and with Dahlin joining the group there isn’t any room for free agent additions. Any player moved in will likely require one going back out the door the other way. It’s an unimpressive group as a whole and the clear weakness of this team.
As it stands today, Buffalo is a risky futures bet at +8000 (even though their price has improved since opening at +6600). They play in the most top heavy division in the NHL and they’ll be breaking in new players at several positions. It’s probably a year too early to jump on the Sabres for a Stanley Cup bet. If you’re intrigued by Dahlin and the new look Sabres, it might be worth the wait for playoff odds to come out, or lay a few prop bets once player point lines come out!