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Shooting from the Hyp: The Case for Byslma and other Post-Deadline Sabres Observations by @TyHyp
With about a month left in NHL action, the Buffalo Sabres remain on the outside looking in among the tight wildcard race in the Eastern Conference. As close as they are at just 5 points out at press time, they’d have to skip over 4+ teams to get that last playoff spot. Still, fans have to be pleased on the whole with what they saw this year from the young team.
To even be still be in the discussion at this point is an improvement from the last few years of being bottom feeders. And while the Sabres still have much to improve on, mainly consistent play on defense and ability to maintain leads, they are no longer penciled in as an easy win for opposing teams as they have been the last few seasons. With all that said, a few thoughts on the current team and where it may be headed in the future…
Lay off Dan Bylsma, would you?
The Sabres head coach inherited a mess when he took over as bench boss before the 2015-2016 season, and I don’t think (less than) 2 seasons is a fair shake. He led the Penguins to the to playoffs in each of his 6 seasons, including 2 Division championships and oh yeah, a Stanley Cup. Sure, having guys Like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin certainly help, but you don’t go 252-117-32 with a team by accident. Plus, he’s still young by coaching standards at just 46. He’s only in his 2nd professional coaching job and will likely be around in this league for a long time. What I hear a lot is he is stubborn, stuck in his ways, and often fails to make proper adjustments in game.
While I agree to an extent, I’ve seen enough line juggling and position movement to show he at least is trying to put his players in best opportunity to succeed. There was the whole Eichel not playing his off point on the power play, but the Sabres now have a top PP in the league so that saga has long been put to rest. Blowing multi goal leads like his teams have done is never a good look for a coach either, however. I still say give Dan 3 full years to judge if he is capable of continuing to carry the load.
The Sabres coach has taken lots of heat for Sabres downfalls. Photo: Kevin Hoffman – USA Today Sports Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports.
Drowsy Deadline: Not A Big Deal
As long as I’m defending Bylsma, let me go to bat for Tim Murray while I’m at it. A lot of people were upset that the Sabres were inactive at the trade deadline. But I don’t necessarily think that was the worst thing. There wasn’t going to be any player for player trades it seemed, and at best, players like Franson, Kulikov, and Gionta were going to fetch a mid round pick. The Sabres have a ton of youngsters both in the system and in the lineup each night, so getting yet another prospect is not as important as having guys with experience around as long as possible to help groom them. As I said before, making the playoffs is a long shot for Buffalo, but not out of the question.
With the exception of those recent duds in Denver and the desert, and now the collapse in Pittsburgh, the Sabres have been playing pretty good hockey lately and seem to have found a groove. Why mess with a good team chemistry just for the chance to maybe have an NHL ready player in 3-4 years? Now I’m not saying Murray shouldn’t have listened to offers and been shopping some players. He said he was only going to make a move if he was offered what his players were worth. And assuming he doesn’t vastly overvalue his core players like Regier notoriously did, I can respect that. It had to boost the confidence of team to see nobody go, if nothing else.
The Curious Case of Evander Kane

#9 for the Sabres has been one of the hottest players in the league of late. He’s been explosive night in and night out, constantly around the net, battling in the corners, and getting under the other team’s skin. There’s no denying his recent production has has made him a difference maker, scoring clutch goals, especially at even strength. For years, this team struggled to score, and Kane is one guy who does that better than most. With another full year still on his current deal, it would be nice to see him ride that out at least until next year’s trade deadline and see where the team is at then. And while his value is at an all time high and could probably garner some solid assets in a trade, his absence would immediately be felt in the goal department.

Having 1 red hot bird in hand is better than trying to get those 2 birds in the bush in this case. Of course you can’t mention Kane without his off-ice issues, and it’s very frustrating to fans and management alike to watch such talent find as much trouble as he does. I still say ride it out, take it day by day. He’s going to light the lamp somewhere in this league, it’s just a matter of whether Buffalo decides he’s worth the headaches to do so. To this point, his locker room issues from Winnipeg seem to have dissolved and (seemingly) gets along with his teammates in Buffalo. Like Bylsma, give him one more year to gauge future value.

Evander Kane has found chemistry with Eichel, Reinhart, among other Sabres
Getting Left Behind:

3 players who once were thought to be keystones to this organization’s turnaround and big pieces of the future have seemed to lost their way. I’m talking about Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons, and Zach Bogosian. Ennis still has 2 years left in his deal, but seems to have fallen behind after some injuries, now playing mainly 3rd and 4th line minutes. Ennis is a talented player who has had some real good years in Buffalo, but could be best for parties to have a fresh start this Summer. Girgensons, once one of the most exciting prospects the team hasn’t mustered the magic of his first few years in blue and gold. Hiis offensive output remains just OK these last 2 seasons, putting up just 18 points in 71 games last year and 14 through 58 games so far this year. While other factors certainly come into play, those numbers do not justify his signing as a priority when he becomes a RFA after this season.

If Johan Larsson comes back fully healthy he may reclaim that 3rd line center role and make Zemgus expendable. Lastly, Zach Bogosian came over from the Jets in the trade with Kane and was expected to step in and add stability to the D corps. Unfortunately injuries have hampered his time in Buffalo (and career for that matter), so we likely have not been seeing the best Bogosian possible. But with another 3 years left on his contract each having 5 million+ cap hits, it will be interesting to see how the Sabres and the big Blue Liner move forward.

Recipe for 2017-2018 success:

Much like the Bills’ 2016 season, playoffs are realistically finally in reach for the Sabres in 2017-18. Stating the obvious, the continued development of Jack Eichel is crucial to this happening. Jack has been good and routinely shows flashes of greatness, but can still take his game up a bit. The injury was a big set back, but in his 3rd year he has the potential to really break out and finally have that All Star season. Next, Robin Lehner must keep up his solid play. After starting the year a bit rocky, he’s turned it on these last few months and has really kept the Sabres in many games. He must improve in shootouts however, now being scored on in all 8 of SO attempts faced this season. Having stability back there is very important to the immediate success of such a young team that’s bound to have some lapses. As far as free agency, it’s no secret the team needs some help on defense. The big fish this year is Kevin Shattenkirk, who would be a huge pickup for the Sabres, but would come with a high cost. Assuming Murray can’t land him, it may not be crazy to re-sign Kulikov or Franson.

While he had a down year in his first with Buffalo, Kulikov is a proven defender who can do it all and if the price/deal is right, his resume warrants him another look. Franson started the year slow but now has 18 points on the year and remains a viable option for a bottom D pairing while prospects move up the ranks. Journeyman Kris Russell would be a good pickup if he wants to leave his native Alberta and the positive things happening in Edmonton. Beyond that, the offensive defenseman market is pretty thin, so Buffalo will likely be counting on players like Ristolainen to McCabe to continue their solid play along with fast development from prospects like Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson. Draft wise, things could shake out where Buffalo has a top 7 or even 5 pick. If so, I’d look for Murray and co. to snag a top defensemen like Scandinavian wonders Juuso Valimaki of Finland or Timothy Lijlgren of Sweden. Another all purpose defender to help take the load off Rasmus.

Kyle Okposo has proved to be a solid signing and key offensive weapon

Summarizing the Swords:

Take the good with the bad, Sabres fans. Leads have been squandered, costly turnovers have happened, and their post-regulation record has been a measly at 6-6 in OT and 1-5 in Shootouts. But they’ve also beaten contenders like the Canadians(3x), Rangers(3x), Sharks (1x), and finally seem to be forming somewhat of an identity with all these kids. A team that can beat you with speed and solid play around the net. Could stand to improve their road record (11-15-6), clean up their own end, and put away games when ahead. The 4-3 Pittsburgh loss was a back breaker, and a bit of a microcosm of their season.

There is still some smoking wreckage left over from the rebuild that came after the Darcy era, however it’s unfair to say there has not been progress. Granted, when you’re at the bottom as the Sabres were for 3-4 years, you can’t get any worse. I remain cautiously optimistic, and am curious to see if something can rise from this incredibly strong base of youth that Buffalo has acquired through seasons of suffering. 2017-2018 season will be the true test, and Bylsma, Murray, as well as every player should be held accountable if the goal of playoffs is not met.
-Tyler Hypnarowski