NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Buffalo Sabres
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
First up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the lottery winning Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres came into the season with heightened expectations. They had a new GM in Jason Botterill and new coach in Phil Housley who was hired to try to bring a more exciting style of play that would hopefully jump start the offense. The team’s generational talent, Jack Eichel, was supposed to have his breakout season and maybe if the stars aligned, the Sabres would be able to declare their rebuild over with their first playoff berth since the 2010-2011. The exact opposite happened and at the end of the season the team and fans were just left shaking their heads, left with more questions than answers.
Season Bright Spots
I could write this sentence and be done and there probably wouldn’t be many arguments, but I think there are a few things worth bringing attention to. There is one player on the Sabres’ roster that I have always shouted from the highest mountains, over a loudspeaker, to try to get the world (or maybe just Sabres observers) to see and hear is actually really good. That player is Sam Reinhart. Reinhart’s biggest problem has never been whether he is a good player or not, it is admittedly, his consistency. There were games when he was flat out awful, but those games were not just in the first half of the season. A lot of people observing the Sabres thought Reinhart was only good in the second half of the season. That would be true if you only want to look at goals and point production.
There a few reasons I like Sam Reinhart so much. First, he is a very, very smart player. If you watch him closely, he more often than not is in the spot the puck is going. Unfortunately, the not is usually in the defensive zone, which is where observers usually notice his mistakes. However, there are many times in the offensive zone where he beats the puck to a spot because he knows where it is going. He also is tremendous in giving a target for a breakout passes in the neutral zone. The problem is the Sabres lack players to make that pass. From a numbers perspective, Reinhart was one of the few Sabres to finish the season with positive possession numbers with a CF% of 51.43%, best among regular players. His relative Corsi For % was also the best on the team among regular players at 5.27%, meaning the Sabres improved their shot share by that amount when he was on the ice.
Beside Reinhart, there are a few notable players that are worth discussing. Jack Eichel showed flashes of dominance but another freaky ankle injury dampened the season results. If I were running the team, Eichel wouldn’t have seen the ice again after the injury even though he did finish the season on a high note after struggling mightily immediately after returning from the ankle injury. Brenden Guehle and Casey Mittelstadt also showed promise in their limited action at the end of the season. Guehle was a positive possession player (51.27 Corsi For %, 4.57% Relative Corsi) in 17 games, while Mittelstadt finished at close to a point a game, with five points in six games at all situations but also a staggering 3.51 points per 60 during 5v5 play. I also have liked Casey Nelson and Evan Rodrigues from the start of their Sabre careers but Buffalo is going need to them to take a bigger step forward next season if they are to be counted on as high-end, depth players going forward.
The brightest spot though has the be the lottery win and the ability to draft franchise defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin. This will be discussed later in the offseason plan.
How much room should I take up for this section? Where to start? These are just a few of the questions that are the metaphorical low-hanging fruit. In reality, things could not have gone much worse for Buffalo this year. The Sabres actually slightly improved their 5v5 Corsi For Percentage to 47.61% from 47.23% though their biggest problem was they struggled mightily to generate shots at 5v5 play seeing their total shots toward goal go down from 3486 to 3381 at 5v5 play. That is 1.28 less shots per game for a team that was supposed to play more up-tempo and take a step forward this season.
The question is can the Sabres sustain being this bad? The answer is unlikely. The starting point has to be the goaltending. The team finished with the fourth worst save percentage at 91.61%. Additionally, their two regular goalies, Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, both had an actual save percentage below what was expected of them. The question is were they “unlucky” or is their skill just not at the level it should be. The answer is the later, as their results the last three seasons show both goalies’ aggregate statistics result in a save percentage worse than what would be expected of an average goalie.
Until this season, I didn’t think goaltending was even worth discussing when it came to places to improve for the Sabres. Former GM Tim Murray had mistakenly traded a first-round draft pick for goaltender Robin Lehner, who was promptly injured and missed almost the entirety of his first season with the team. Up until this season, Lehner was fine. Nothing more, nothing less. There was zero reason for the team to look for an upgrade as any marginal upgrade never would have been worth the cost associated with it. However, now seems to be the time.
Chad Johnson also struggled for much of the season in the backup role so his status also will be up in the air heading into the offseason. The Sabres also had a league worst 6.14% shooting percentage during 5v5 play. Combine that with their 91.61% save percentage and the Sabres finished with a league worst PDO of .977, a stat that should regress toward 1 over time, and it is likely the team will improve next year regardless of any roster changes.
The next place to move is the team’s highest paid players. Here we find Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Jason Pominville, Zach Bogosian, and Matt Moulson. Ryan O’Reilly certainly raised eyebrows with his end of season comments about losing passion for the game, but he would have landed on this list regardless of what he said at season’s end. O’Reilly is a good player and has given what he always has in terms of production. The problem is that level of production is not at the level expected out of a player being paid $7.5 million per year. The other problem is O’Reilly is not the best skater in a league where teams are finally figuring out that the path to success is speed. As he ages, this is going to become more and more of an issue.
Speaking of lack of speed, we arrive at Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville. Yes, Matt Moulson is still a part of the Sabres organization though it would be easy to forget considered he was banished to the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings’ AHL team) because the team felt he didn’t bring anything to the table in Buffalo. I am not going to sit here and say Moulson is still a good player but he really wouldn’t have been any worse than what Jordan Nolan brought to the team. However, at the time Moulson was waived, the front office needed to do something to shake up the team and firing Housley was not an option.
Bringing back Jason Pominville was a fan favorite move that started off great when he was scoring in bunches playing with Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. However, as the season wore on and he spent time away from Eichel, it became apparent that Pominville was no longer the player he was last time in Buffalo. Pominville’s underlying numbers actually seem to indicate he still can be a useful player as he was the best possession player after Sam Reinhart. However, his footspeed has left him. Bringing Pominville back to Buffalo was likely a necessity as adding Marco Scandella as a top 4 defenseman was a huge need last offseason. The problem is for a team really needing to push the pace of play, Pominville is not going to be able to provide that anymore.
We now arrive at Kyle Okposo and Zach Bogosian. Both players are tough to gauge because I think injuries/health issues are the main reason both have landed in this section. I truly believe a large portion of Kyle Okposo’s struggles this season were due to the fact his summer training was severely hurt by the lingering health scare he faced at the end of last season. I could be wrong, but Okposo’s relatively strong play at the end of the season gives reason for hope.
I have never been the biggest Zach Bogosian fan as I often see him struggling with positioning and recognizing the play but I also think he is a player who could help this team as a bottom 4 defenseman if he can stay healthy. And that is the big if. Although Bogosian has been a negative possession player (Corsi For %) for all but one season of his career, the Sabres have acutally performed better, in terms of possession, when Zach Bogosian has been on the ice in two of his three seasons in Buffalo. Like many other players on the team, he has been put in a role that has asked too much of him during his time in the organization.
At a team level, there are a few issues that once again reared its head again this season. First, the team struggles mightily to breakout of their own zone. Defensemen struggle to make stretch passes and forwards struggle to give them a target, resulting in icings and extended defensive zone time. Part of this could also be the lack of speed across the team. An issue Botterill will have to address this season.
The next issue that has been apparent for the Sabres the past few years is depth scoring. Last season it took three games until a player not on Jack Eichel’s line to score a goal and things did not improve from there. The Sabres received very little production outside of their top two lines for the entirety of the season. Strong teams in today’s NHL can role three or even four lines that can score goals on any given shift.
In a league where teams are trending more and more toward speed and an up-tempo style of play, the Sabres played even slower than they did last season. One of the things Housley and Botterill focused on when they were introduced was their desire to play an up-tempo style of hockey and attack teams with speed. It quickly became apparent that the make-up of the team would not allow them to do so.
Finally, there has to be a level of disappointment with the return Botterill received in exchange for Evander Kane. I was fully in support of going into the season with Kane on the roster. I even would have liked to see him as a member of the team going forward, but it quickly became apparent that Kane would not be on the roster at season’s end. Did Botterill wait too long to make a deal or was the market just not there? We might never truly know but Sabres fans certainly have to be disappointed with the return especially seeing the impact Kane has made in his limited time with the Sharks. Botterill should have pushed to add more incentives in the deal dependent on Kane’s play. Even if the Sabres end up with the Sharks’ 2019 first-round pick, the return relative to what Kane contributed seems low, especially when comparing the Kane trade with the Stastny and Nash trades.
The Sabres hope to become next year’s Colorado Avalanche, going from worst to the playoffs. Nothing is impossible, but if the team goes into next season with a similar roster to this season, it seems unlikely. Many of Botterill’s moves in his first offseason in charge seemed to be geared at reversing the mess he inherited, a bare cupboard of prospects, one of worst (if not the worst) bluelines in the NHL, and lack of team speed. Considering the level of disappointment, it is time for Botterill to put his own stamp on this team. However, it is hard to fathom the Sabres being this bad again next season. Their possession numbers slightly improved at 5v5 and they had the league worst PDO, driven by a league worst shooting percentage. By sheer regression to the mean (having the PDO move toward 1), the Sabres have to improve next year. Some savvy offseason moves, could see the Sabres at least in contention much later into the season.
It might be truly amazing how one ping-pong ball may change the whole complexion of the Sabres’ offseason plans. To be clear, Rasmus Dahlin will be a Buffalo Sabre come June 22nd. Dahlin is the Connor McDavid of defensemen and any argument against taking a bona fide top-pair defenseman first overall is plain silly.
Before getting into each position group specifically, let’s take a quick look at the potential future salary cap issues the Sabres may face if they don’t start thinking about it now. Jack Eichel’s $10M cap hit takes effect next season. Sam Reinhart is also up for an extension. Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo each have six years left, Rasmus Ristolanien five, and in three years the Sabres will likely have to shell out fairly substantial contracts for Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin. At some point tough decisions have to be made and now might be the time considering the need for change in Buffalo. It also is better to make moves before you are backed into a corner and have to sell your assets under face value. I’m looking at you Chicago Blackhawks.
Before the first item on Botterill’s list had to be finding a top-flight defenseman. Once the Sabres draft Dahlin, the defensemen that will be competing for regular playing time next season will be Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolanien, Marco Scandella, Brenden Guehle, Casey Nelson, Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, Lawrence Pilut (rumored signing), and Nathan Beaulieu. The Sabres are suddenly rich on their backend but still could afford to add another top end defenseman as most of these players project to be at best second pair defenders.
Brenden Guehle has shown tremendous promise in his limited action in Buffalo and could project as a top pair defenseman. Guehle playing with Dahlin would be lots of fun to watch but I don’t see Housley starting those two players off together. Casey Nelson is a young player who the Sabres prevented from hitting the open market, re-signing him at the beginning of May to a very team friendly contract. Though he will never project to be a top pair defenseman, he could factor in as a solid depth option for the coming years.
Somewhere there is an odd man out on the blueline. Botterill would probably love to be able to get out from Zach Bogosian’s contract but finding a taker looks like it will be tough. Nathan Beaulieu was worth a third-round pick gamble but right now sits outside of the top six on the Sabres’ depth chart. He could be a player moved this offseason but the return would be nothing Sabres fans would get excited about.
This brings us to three players who have played substantial minutes on the Sabres’ top-pair the past two seasons, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Marco Scandella. If I were to wager, my money would be on one of Jake McCabe or Rasmus Ristolainen being traded this offseason. It seems unlikely Botterill would move Scandella after acquiring him last offseason and seeing steady play from him for much of the season.
Rasmus Ristolainen has been over used and maybe even misused in his entire time with the Sabres. Ristolanien has always been one of the players at the center of the analytic vs. eye-test debate. Let’s be clear, he has the talent of a top four defenseman. The question is in what capacity should he be used. To me (and many others), he would continue to play with a competent partner, but have less overall ice time, especially on the penalty kill.
I think Ristolainen still has a fairly high trade value and could fetch a pretty nice return for Buffalo. However, if I were deciding to keep one of Ristolainen or McCabe, I keep Ristolainen because he still has a higher ceiling. Many teams would likely value McCabe as an addition to a trade package as he is still young, under team control, and plays a steady game, limiting quality shots on his side of the ice, as Scott Cullen of TSN pointed out in his Sabres’ offseason overview. However, he hasn’t ever put up positive possession numbers at 5v5 and this season was the first where the Sabres’ possession numbers improved while he was on the ice. Basically, McCabe is a decent player, on a decent contract, but someone has to be the odd man out (especially on the left-side) and he might be the guy. He has no traits that would be impossible to replace and also would likely be an attractive option to other teams that could actually fetch a decent return.
Transitioning to goaltending, the plan all season was for Linus Ullmark to take over as the starter next year in Buffalo. His playoff struggles (likely a result of lingering effects of a concussion) should not change that. With Ullmark likely being the full-time goalie, retaining Lehner at a salary above $4 million does not seem practical. The question here is whether the Sabres are ready to have Ullmark take on a NHL starting goalie workload or if they look to have him split time with a veteran. If the answer is the latter, who is that veteran? Out of a relatively uninspiring goalie free agent class, the only names that I would be comfortable rolling with as a backup are Jonathan Bernier, Anton Khidobin, Carter Hutton, and maybe Chad Johnson.
This brings us to the forwards where the Sabres have the biggest decisions to be made. Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan, and Jacob Josefson should be gone and replaced by players from their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, which should provide the team younger, faster talent at a low cost. Jack Eichel will be the top center and Casey Mittelstadt will likely join him down the middle. Kyle Okposo will definitely be back on the wing. Jason Pominville will likely be playing his final season. After that, the questions begin.
Let’s get Scott Wilson and Matt Moulson out of the way first. Wilson is a fine role player that played decent for Buffalo toward season’s end and the Sabres could bring him back or they could easily find another player just like him. If I was making the decision, I look for a player more skilled but wouldn’t be averse to keeping him around for another season. Many are speculating that Moulson could be bought out this offseason but to me that is just extending the pain. The team should just retain him for one more season, see if they can get anything out of him when the season opens and if not bury him in the minors to finish out his contract.
If you’ve read everything I’ve written until now, what I am about to discuss will probably not come as a surprise. I would re-sign Sam Reinhart to an eight-year contract because mathematically, it makes the most sense. According to Matt Cane’s (@Cane_Matt) prediction model, he has Sam Reinhart likely signing a two-year bridge deal, carrying an average annual value (AAV) of approximately $3.4M. The model predicts that an eight-year deal would have an AAV of approximately $5.14M.
Let’s assume that the Sabres will want to have Reinhart for eight additional years. If they don’t, they can always buy him out before he turns 25 for a cost of approximately $1.7M per year, if the contract aligns with Cane’s prediction model. Working off the Sabres’ desire to have Reinhart for a total of eight-years, some very simple present value (using a discount rate of 4.7%) brings us to the conclusion that the eight-year deal is a no-brainer. If the Sabres do go the bridge option (let’s assume two years plus six), Reinhart’s second contract would have to less than $5.8M for the cap hit in today’s dollars to be less than the present value of the contract with an AAV of $5.14M over eight years. Basically, the Sabres would have to think Reinhart is going to get worse over the next two years for the bridge option to make sense. If that is the case, the team shouldn’t even be looking to keep him.
Not only does it mathematically make sense, the team also has to be concerned over their future cap hits and unnecessarily allowing Reinhart’s cap hit to balloon would be very unwise. The only question is would the increase in cap hit be potentially worth it to have Reinhart for 10 years versus eight. Considering Reinhart will be 30 in eight years, having him under contract for an additional year or two might be regretted at that point as well. At some point, I will do a more elaborate analysis on this concept so please follow @afpanalytics on Twitter to see it when I do.
This leaves us with three forwards who have been regulars in the Sabres’ lineups the last few seasons, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Ryan O’Reilly. I could see all three of them traded this offseason. The first two likely wouldn’t fetch much in terms of return but would open roster spots that could be filled with speedier players.
The Sabres’ biggest question this offseason will be what to do with Ryan O’Reilly. His end of season comments had no impact on what I would do if I were running the team. To me, the Sabres have to decide between O’Reilly and Reinhart. I clearly favor Reinhart. It is also likely that O’Reilly’s future role on the team is as a third-line center who plays special teams. You just can’t play $7.5M for a player to play that role. I also imagine O’Reilly packaged with McCabe would allow the Sabres to make a trade that would immediately improve their roster. I don’t think that package gets the team a top pair defenseman but it certainly could get them a high-end winger, which the team is severely lacking. I’m just spit-balling here: I wonder if a trade if a trade revolving around Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko could make any sense. I think a trade where the Sabres include O’Reilly, McCabe, and a prospect not named Mittlelstadt or Guehle for Tarasenko could make some sense for both teams.
I don’t know if dipping heavily into the free agent pool would be a wise move for the Sabres. If I were to target any players for the team to add, I would look at Michael Grabner and David Perron who would provide the speed and depth scoring the team desires. James Neal and James van Riemsdyk are the type of high end scoring wingers this team needs but if they hit the open market, they will likely come at a long-term and high price tag, something the Sabres must avoid if they hope to have any sort of sustained success.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look (maybe not quite as deep) at the Ottawa Senators. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.
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