Solving the Sabres’ Depth Chart
At this moment, the Buffalo Sabres have multiple logjams on their current roster. Both the forward group and the defensive group still have some questions that need to be answered this offseason. At the end of the season, GM Jason Botterill mentioned the team will be looking for a top six winger and second line center.
The Sabres signed Marcus Johansson, who recently played mainly at wing but does have history at the center position. For the purpose of this exercise, he is penciled in as the second line center. This may not be ideal, and it is possible that other options could be chosen. Another assumption that is made is Vladimir Sobotka is not on the roster. He is either in the AHL or leaves for Europe. Another important decision to note is that newly acquired Henri Jokiharju is in the AHL for all of our options. This is done for multiple reasons. First, he is waivers exempt. He can be assigned to the AHL without risk, while others may be lost to other teams. Second, with the logjam that is on defense, it would not make sense to put him in a situation where he could possibly be scratched. Allowing him to see top minutes in the AHL is the best option for his development.
There is still a major domino that needs to fall to really see how the roster may look at the start of the season. The fate of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen will certainly have an impact on how the Sabres’ roster will look on opening night. Many believe he will be traded, but until he is, we also need to look at what could happen if he isn’t.
Seven options have been identified to help fix this logjam on the Sabres’ roster for opening night. Within these options, it is factored in that both Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut are not expected to be healthy at the start of the season. For the purpose of looking at the roster, we have assumed they will start the season on the injured list and not count against the number of 21 roster skaters. With the Sabres needing to get off to a fast start, we are looking to build the best roster for opening night. Although
Below is the current situation that the Sabres find themselves in.
The defensive side of the roster is interesting because of the logjam and the possible pairings that could be used. Currently, we know that Dahlin could basically make anyone better on the top pair. First, finding a good fit for Ristolainen is important. In only 17:24 TOI 5v5, Ristolainen and Montour produced a 56.57 CF%. While Montour was forced to play his off side, this pairing worked. It would be worth exploring this combination to see if they could replicate this strong play. With that as the second pair, finding the next
Marco Scandella is the odd man out here, as he would be scratched as the extra defenseman on the roster. The defenseman in green will find themselves on the AHL roster to start the season. Henri Jokiharju may be good enough to be in the NHL, but there is not a clear spot for him to play. That being said, it is important for him to see time in the AHL and not be a healthy scratch at the NHL level. Based off of this current depth chart, it is safe to say that more moves need to come in order to clear the logjam.
Below we will discuss what moves could be made to clear the logjams and, in our opinion, give the Sabres the best opportunity to contend for a playoff berth next season.
Option 1: Trade Ristolainen and Sheary for Forward; Sign Jake Gardiner
Option 1 includes multiple moves to improve the roster. With a weaker left side on defense, bringing in Jake Gardiner would allow for McCabe to slide down into a role that fits better. All of a sudden, the Sabres can be pretty confident with each pair.
Ristolainen certainly has value as a young, controllable defenseman, but adding Sheary to the deal could help acquire a bonifide top six forward and eliminate the logjam on the roster. If this forward is a center, Johansson can move to wing. If the forward is a winger he could slide onto Eichel’s wing and push Vesey back to a more reasonable fit on the third line. In this scenario, one of Girgensons, Wilson, or Smith could slide into the fourth line left wing role while the other two are kept as scratches on the NHL roster.
Defensively, the Sabres can run with a top pair of Dahlin and Montour, which is the most ideal combination for the two. In 120:21 TOI 5v5, the two posted a 57.38 CF%. They are both expected to be top defenseman on the team, and their success together last season showed that the team can rely on them as the top defensive option. Gardiner and Miller are two top four defensemen new to the team. To start the season, they are the natural tandem for the second pair. This allows McCabe and Nelson to play together. In reference to what was previously mentioned, this bottom pair has shown the ability to play well together. It is reasonable to believe they could replicate that.
Option 2: Ristolainen for prospect (likely forward); Sign Jake Gardiner
Option 2 allows the Sabres to add to their prospect pool, while still improving a part of their team. Jake Gardiner is signed for the defense, and the corresponding move is Ristolainen being traded for a good forward prospect that is either ready or close to ready for the NHL. Gardiner is an upgrade over Ristolainen. It also helps to move a right-handed defenseman in Ristolainen and then bring in a left-handed one in Gardiner to better balance the defensive corps. The forward group does not change from its current self, but the defensive group sees an upgrade. Like our first option, it allows the Sabres to have McCabe on the bottom pair and create three strong pairs. Scandella is the odd man out and would likely be scratched in this situation. After trading Alex Nylander and likely graduating Victor Olofsson, the Sabres’ prospect pool at wing is Tage Thompson (and possibly Dylan Cozens). They certainly could use another winger with a high ceiling.
Option 3: Ristolainen traded for LHD (left handed defenseman)
The third option here involves a defenseman for defenseman trade. The Sabres do not have a balanced defense. In theory, you can enter the season with McCabe on the second pair, but that is not ideal. With too many right handed defenseman, moving Ristolainen for a left handed defenseman would create balance within the lineup. Top four defenseman for top four defenseman would work if the Sabres can identify a team with too many left handed defenseman and not enough right handed defenseman. This may be tough to pull off, but it would ultimately be a decent option for the team.
The forward group does not improve from its current self. On defense, the same situation plays out here as it did for our options that added Jake Gardiner. The acquired defenseman would slot in with Colin Miller on the second pair. Once again, Scandella would most likely be the odd man out due to McCabe sliding down to the bottom pair with Casey Nelson.
Option 4: Ristolainen for forward; Larsson not retained
As of now, it is not a guarantee that the Sabres bring back Johan Larsson. There have been some rumors floating around that he could end up in Europe for the next season. That rumor could become a reality if the Sabres trade Ristolainen for a forward.
With this option, Ristolainen is traded for a forward. If it is a center, Johansson then moves to the left wing slots and one of Vesey or Olofsson moves to the right side. If it is for a winger, then the winger would slot in on Eichel’s right wing. With the Sabres needing Rodrigues to play the fourth line center role, that leaves the third line left wing spot for Jimmy Vesey (or possibly Johansson). This option would allow for Wilson, Girgensons, and Smith to rotate as the fourth-line wingers.
For the defense, Dahlin and Montour are the top fair. Then the Sabres would need to deploy McCabe and Miller on the second pair. It would not be reasonable to have Scandella play top-four minutes. The third pair would then consist of Casey Nelson and most likely Marco Scandella. In 132:28 of 5v5 play, Scandella and Nelson posted a 45.15 CF%. That is not good, but using this combination is more realistic than Scandella playing top-four minutes. If it goes south fast, the Sabres could turn to Hunwick or another defenseman in the AHL (or hope
Option 5: Ristolainen and Sheary for forward
This option is based off the idea that if you add Sheary to Ristolainen, the returning player will need to be a bit better than if you were to only deal Ristolainen. The downside to this scenario is that you are losing a defenseman and are not bringing a left shot defenseman in. It recreates the problem that we saw in option four. The positive here is that the Sabres use their defensive logjam to improve their forward group.
The acquired forward would slot in on Eichel’s wing. That would allow for Vesey to replace Sheary as the right winger on the third line. The defensive logjam, specifically on the right side, is now in a much better spot. Montour, Miller, and Nelson down the right side is good. The left is still not ideal, with Dahlin, McCabe, and Scandella. This option helps improve the team a bit, but more moves could be made on top of this one in order to improve the defense.
Option 6: Ristolainen for prospect (likely forward)
Option six involves trading a defenseman for a prospect and not adding to the NHL roster. The forward group, in this case, would stay the same. The defense is then good on the right side, with Montour, Miller, and Nelson. The left side still needs work, as McCabe on the second pair is not ideal. Scandella will see bottom pair time. In a perfect world, the Sabres add someone else to play on this left side with Colin Miller, allowing McCabe to slide down. This option fixes the immediate problem of too many defenseman, but it doesn’t add a piece to your NHL roster to help the team now.
Option 7: Ristolainen stays; McCabe goes
Option seven is different than the other six options. It seems as if Rasmus Ristolainen is the odd man out and will be traded. However, until it happens, that is not guaranteed. This seventh option shifts away from trading Ristolainen and looks at trading restricted free agent (RFA) Jake McCabe. This option is less than ideal, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if it happened.
Nothing changes with the forward group. Wilson and Smith are still fighting with Girgensons for that left wing spot on the fourth line. The defensive depth chart is where this gets interesting. With McCabe, the Sabres are thin on the left side. After trading him, it is much worse. It forces the Sabres to look at their right-handed defenseman and decide who is able to play the left side. Montour has some experience on the left side or at least more than the other options. With that, the team must break up their top pair of Dahlin and Montour. The team would need to run Dahlin and Miller as the top pair, Montour and Ristolainen as the second pair (which we know worked in a small sample), and Scandella and Nelson as the bottom pair. Moving Montour out of his comfort zone is not really improving your team. It is just the best and quick fix for this situation, but not ideal. McCabe is not likely to bring back a significant roster piece, so the value he provides on the Sabres roster at the beginning of the season most likely outweighs anything that you would acquire in return. This option of keeping Ristolainen and trading McCabe seems to be one of the less appealing moves that the Sabres could do. It does not really improve the team, and it takes a top defenseman in Montour and asks him to play in a situation that isn’t going to maximize his abilities.
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James Finch is an analyst at AFP Analytics. James graduated from St. John Fisher College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Sport Management with a minor in Economics. His background with sports and economics have brought about an interest in gaining experience and finding his niche within the sport analytics field.
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