Last week, the Sabres got one hell of a gift from the Carolina Hurricanes, pulling three-time 30-goal guy Jeff Skinner out of Carolina for next to nothing.
An okay prospect and a handful of non-first-round picks is an incredibly low price to pay for a player of Skinner’s apparent caliber, especially when one considers he hasn’t been receiving a huge amount of help in Carolina for most of his career. Only once in his career has he played an 82-game season and not scored at least 20 goals.
This is part of a fairly obvious Sabres rebuild-on-the-fly that has been ongoing since at least the Evander Kane trade to San Jose, and certainly seemed to ramp up when Rasmus Dahlin dropped into their laps thanks to that draft lottery win.
The question, then, is what the Sabres hope to achieve with this new group, and how quickly they hope to do it. Jason Botterill did something few teams do, allowing both the previous season’s goalies to walk, replacing the battery of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson (who were both awful last year) with Carter Hutton and Scott Wedgewood (though only Hutton was any good, and it’s probable that Wedgewood will compete with Linus Ullmark for the backup spot).
Hutton is an interesting study here in particular, because he would seem to be The Guy in Buffalo now, but that’s despite his being nearly 33 and never having been a full-time starter. In 138 career games over five-ish seasons, he’s a career .915 guy, which is a good number that’s a little above the league average over that stretch.
Only 48 goalies have worked as much as Hutton since he came into the league in the lockout-shortened season, and Hutton ranks 28th in all-situations save percentage over that stretch. But expected-goals data suggests his save percentage should have actually been slightly higher than it was over that time, so one wonders exactly how much he can be relied upon to, as they say, “steal games” for a team that seems to be ramping up to something.
Especially behind a defensive group that wasn’t as bad as the reputation suggests last year (the poor goaltending was the big driver of their third-worst-in-the-NHL 280 goals against) but also hasn’t improved in the offseason. Apart from adding Dahlin, who will be a rookie and won’t be 19 until mid-April 2019, and guy-who-is-technically-an-NHLer Matt Hunwick, this is the same setup, but you have to wonder whether Hutton mostly playing behind teams with good-to-very-good D groups (Nashville, St. Louis) will face an adjustment period or even just outright struggle.
The bigger or at least more numerous changes are up front, as the team traded only Ryan O’Reilly (a very good center who had a down year) from its 2017-18 roster to acquire Hunwick, Skinner, Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, Vlad Sobotka, and Tage Thompson. Most of those guys aren’t really huge impact guys, but they’re better than a lot of the stiffs the Sabres had on the roster last season just for lack of better options; the Sabres scored a league-worst 199 goals last season for a reason. And that reason is “Jason Pominville played significant minutes with Jack Eichel.”
Does adding Skinner, Sheary, Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson, Danny O’Regan (acquired in the Kane trade), and Casey Mittelstadt for the full improve the offense even with the losses of Kane and O’Reilly? Almost certainly. And if Eichel can produce at the same rate (or better, given the improved talent around him) as he did last season, while staying healthy, this is a team that theoretically could score a league-average amount of goals.
I’ve seen a couple people say something along the lines of, “Could this be a playoff team?” and that seems to be hopelessly optimistic. You can like or even love the guys this team added, but there’s a lot of what-if out there. Sheary seems like he might be an okay scorer alongside top talent, but there’s a difference in quality between Sid Crosby (with whom Sheary had his most productive season in 2016-17) and Eichel. Moreover, because Sheary and Skinner are both left wings, Phil Housley has to figure out which of those guys works better with Eichel, and which would probably maximize Mittelstadt’s abilities in what would likely be the No. 2 center role.
Honestly, the Sabres are probably fine down the middle and along the left side, but their right wing situation is a disaster: Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Pominville, and maybe Thompson(???) or Justin Bailey is the barest definition of an NHL-caliber RW group. That’s a big hindrance to any theoretical success they might have this season.
But probably the biggest hurdle is that apart from Ottawa and (probably) Detroit and Montreal, they’re still pretty low on the totem pole in a division teeming with good-to-elite teams. Tampa, Toronto, Boston, and Florida are all considerably better at just about every position. Being fifth-best in the division probably doesn’t mean much.
Which, in the end, is fine. This is a rebuilding team that has basically said it’s going to go through some lean years. Adding a bunch of NHL talent helps, for sure, but you wouldn’t want fans getting their hopes up. If anything, Sabres partisans should be rooting for guys to have good “process” seasons and a little bad luck in terms of shooting and save percentages. Everyone plays well, the team still underperforms, and gets another higher-end draft pick.
This is Year 2 of the Botterill regime and while strides are being made at relatively little cost, some additional suffering could help bolster the team in two, three, five years. Hopefully all involved in the decision-making process are onboard for a slower approach.
And hey, it’s not like Sabres fans aren’t used to their team being intentionally bad, so being accidentally a little better might be a pleasant change of pace.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.