Sabres 'GM for a Day': It's time to make hard choices - The Buffalo News
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Sabres 'GM for a Day': It's time to make hard choices

As Jason Botterill soaked in another Stanley Cup victory, he noted that building a winner isn’t easy.

Rebuilding a winner is even harder. Sabres fans can attest to that.

The potholes that Darcy Regier forecast in 2013 still jolt Buffalo. Organizational depth is a major problem. The defense is subpar. The most potent scorer is also the most likely to be traded.

It’s a lot to fix in one day, but the assignment is to give it a try.

It has been 10 years since The Buffalo News first issued its “GM for a Day” column. In 2007, the Sabres were on the downswing. Technically, they are again. Buffalo finished farther away from a playoff spot this season than it did last year.

There’s excitement, however. Botterill brings three Cup rings and a master’s degree to the general manager job. The fans wanted Phil Housley as coach, and the most prolific defenseman in team history is behind the bench. Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly are a potent one-two punch at center.

But as the Pittsburgh Penguins showed, teams need to keep moving or get left behind. The Sabres stayed stagnant for too long. They need significant upgrades if they want to halt their playoff skid at six years.

Botterill has all summer to improve every aspect of the team. Given our limited time, we’ll focus on a few major issues:

* What to do with Evander Kane.

* Improving the defense.

* Building four lines.

* Adding for the future.

* Choosing a captain.

None of those are easy, but here we go.

SO LONG, EVANDER

For 60 minutes on game days, no one in Buffalo gives more than Kane. He hits. He scores. He snarls. Blessed with size and speed, Kane is the prototypical power forward teams covet.

Let those who covet make an offer. He’s being traded.

The 25-year-old is entering the final season of his contract. Nearly every player looks forward to free agency. That has to go quadruple for someone who was stranded in Winnipeg four years longer than he wanted to be. Kane is months away from picking where he wants to go.

The thought of losing a valuable asset for nothing is reason enough to make the move. Toss in the other issues – off-ice transgressions, poor practice habits, attitude – and it’s time to deal.

Evander Kane's conflicting sides pose conundrum for Sabres

Teams with the most interest are those who can win the Cup next June. Los Angeles is legit. San Jose could use him to make one last push with Joe Thornton and Co. It’s been reported Anaheim isn’t in the mix, but a deal with the Ducks makes sense.

Kane and center Zemgus Girgensons are headed to one of the California teams for a defenseman and a young, legitimate winger. Would the Kings take those two for defenseman Jake Muzzin (or Alec Martinez) and forward Jonny Brodzinski, who had 27 goals in 59 games in the American Hockey League? Let’s tweak the offer until it happens.

Adding Girgensons guarantees the other team a player past next season. He’s expendable since Johan Larsson has passed him on the depth chart and Evan Rodrigues is on a path to go by him, too.

BUFFALO’S LINEUP

Subtracting Kane shows how much the Sabres need their young wingers to blossom. With the L.A. deal made, here’s our depth chart heading into the expansion draft:

Center

Eichel, O’Reilly, Larsson, Rodrigues, Sean Malone.

That’s fine.

Left wing

Brodzinski, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, William Carrier, Justin Bailey, Alex Nylander, C.J. Smith, Nicolas Deslauriers.

That’s not fine.

Ennis failed in his late-season run on a scoring line. Foligno is best as a third-line shutdown guy. Carrier has speed but hasn’t shown a scoring touch. Bailey has been inconsistent. Nylander and Smith aren’t ready. Deslauriers is an energy guy.

Bailey, Carrier, Nylander or Smith will need to grab a top-six role. If not, the Sabres have to go out and find someone who can. The free agent list leaves a lot to be desired with old friend Thomas Vanek near the top.

Right wing

Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Nick Baptiste, Matt Moulson, Hudson Fasching.

That’s OK, though the position again relies on youth to flourish.

Left defense

Muzzin or Martinez, Jake McCabe, Victor Antipin, Josh Gorges, Brendan Guhle, Justin Falk, Brady Austin.

No problem here. The additions of a Kings defenseman and Antipin have really made an improvement.

Right defense

Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson.

Help wanted. Bogosian has talent but is coming off a forgettable season. Nelson was erratic in Rochester, though he finished strong. Maybe a lefty can perform consistently on his off side. The free agent crop is underwhelming, so bringing back Taylor Fedun is a possibility if another trade can’t be worked out.

Goalie

Robin Lehner, Linus Ullmark, Jonas Johansson, Jason Kasdorf.

Buffalo needs more guys who hate to lose, not fewer. I’m keeping Lehner, who is developing into the Sabres’ competitive conscience.

Net results from Lehner, Ullmark have Sabres solid in goal

The 25-year-old played well enough to earn a multiyear deal, though not a long-term extension. A two-year contract in the $11 million range seems fair for both sides. Arizona’s Mike Smith ranks 15th on the goalie pay scale at $5.67 million per season.

Ullmark is ready to be Buffalo’s backup, but the Amerks need a starter. If it’s not Cal Petersen, a veteran in free agency will be required.

EIGHT IS ENOUGH

Buffalo holds the No. 8 overall pick in the NHL Draft. It would be a valuable trade asset for immediate help – if the Sabres were closer to being a Cup contender. This season showed they’re not there.

Make the pick.

It’s possible the Sabres can get the second-best defenseman in the draft class. Zach Werenski, Dougie Hamilton, Darnell Nurse and Ristolainen are guys who recently went second or third in their class. That’s a solid list, and maybe Buffalo can add the next impressive blue-liner.

Winger Owen Tippett scored 44 goals for Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League. Eichel could use a sniper to finish his passes.

Maybe this year’s No. 8 pick won’t provide immediate help, but he’ll provide a boost in a year or two when Eichel is nearing his prime and the Sabres are more than Cup long shots. If things go well, the Sabres won’t have another prime draft spot for years. Make the most of it while they can and add for future.

NICE TO ‘C’ YOU

Brian Gionta adds class, respect, experience and hard work to the dressing room. His postgame accountability is appreciated more than he knows. He’s said he wants to stay, and he showed it by attending Botterill’s introductory news conference.

The only way he gets another contract in this instance is if Moulson departs, either to Vegas or elsewhere. There’s no room otherwise.

Inside the Sabres: Doubling down on expansion draft ideas

Okposo and Reinhart are atop the right wing chart. Speed and scoring are needed, so Baptiste is getting regular minutes. As mentioned above, that leaves Moulson and Fasching. Gionta is preferred but there has to be a fit.

Either way, a new era is coming. There’s a new GM and coach, so there should be a new captain, too. It comes down to Eichel and O’Reilly.

O’Reilly leads by example, is respected in the room and is trying to improve his oratory skills. Eichel is the brash 20-year-old who has the most talent but had bouts of immaturity.

Neither is going anywhere. O’Reilly has six seasons left on his contract. Eichel could sign a long-term deal next month. So if the pick is O’Reilly, Eichel might not be captain until 2023.

An easy choice would be co-captaincy. O’Reilly serves as the Chris Drury-like statesman. Eichel takes the role of fiery Daniel Briere. It worked for those two, so it could work for these two. Plus, it’d be fun to make assistant equipment manager George Babcock sew the “C” on and off jerseys every game.

But we’re going with Eichel. O’Reilly will be the same guy no matter the letter. One thing the captaincy has lacked since Briere is swagger. Jason Pominville, Craig Rivet and Gionta were fine choices, but it’s time for someone to announce his presence with authority. The goal-celebrating, confident-talking Eichel is that guy.

Sure, there might be missteps in the early going because of his age, but Eichel learned a lot during and after this season. He’s our captain.

The rest we’ll leave to Botterill.

* * *

A LOOK BACK AT "GM FOR A DAY"

2007

GM FOR A DAY Bucky Gleason takes on the role of Buffalo Sabres general manager. His mission: to sign Briere and Drury while keeping payroll to $44 million

2008

Eye on the goal Reprising his role as Sabres GM for a day, News hockey columnist Bucky Gleason starts with signing Ryan Miller to an extension and works his way out from there

2009

All in a day's work Since's the Sabres' front office isn't talking these days, we'll take over. GM for a Day Bucky Gleason says to fix the hockey department, then bring on Bouwmeester and the kids for a run at the Cup in 2-3 years

2013

Bucky Gleason cleans house as Sabres’ GM for a day

2014

Basement is no bargain for Sabres

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