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Mike Harrington: Plenty of Sabres questions, not so many easy answers

This corner did lots of pondering Tuesday that didn't have much to do with the Sabres and Anaheim Ducks. It was game 53 of a season going nowhere, the merciful start of the final 30 games of a campaign where the playoffs were a pipe dream before Thanksgiving. It ended with another bizarre overtime loss to drop Buffalo to a ghastly 14-39 in real math.

The bottom line question: What is the plan here?

It seems pretty clear. It's draft and develop.

Start with Brendan Guhle and Linus Ullmark. Probably C.J. Smith (No idea on Alex Nylander). Maybe add Casey Mittelstadt next season. And who knows what top-5 stud is coming in the wake of the draft lottery?

See if the Rochester Amerks can make a deep playoff run. Should be interesting to follow this spring. If the Sabres win the lottery and get Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, you can charge up the hope tank (again). After that, it's anybody's guess. Lots of promise for spots 2-3-4. Of course, as Sam Reinhart shows, a No. 2 overall pick is no guarantee of stardom. You might get a nice player and nothing more.

That's a pretty obvious question and answer to start. Now for some inquiries that aren't so easy to figure out.

Are they tanking (again)?

Absolutely not. General Manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley have been horrified for weeks at how bad off this team is in the standings. Botterill made several moves in the offseason that didn't work (see: Beaulieu, Nathan for starters). They'll take the high draft pick obviously. But this was not the plan.

What's up with Evander Kane?

Most big deals seem to happen very close to the trade deadline, when you can get the highest return from teams desperate for a push toward the postseason. But the Kane sweepstakes is now muddled by the very public revelation that the New York Rangers have asked Rick Nash for his list of 12 teams he would agree to be traded to.

Teams like Nashville, Los Angeles and St. Louis that were thought to be in the Kane hunt might be redoubling their energy to Nash, a 400-goal scorer with 77 games of playoff experience that includes a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup final. Meanwhile, Kane's value plummets, with no points in nine games, just one goal in the last 18 and not a single playoff game on his career resume. He seems to have taken the foot off the gas waiting for the phone call. The brilliance of the first two months is gone. Make the deal now.

What do you do with Robin Lehner?

Keep impressing upon New York Islanders GM Garth Show how his team is going nowhere with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss in goal. The word is the Isles aren't all that interested but you wonder if Lehner could help sneak them in the playoffs through the ever-tough Metropolitan Division race. Who's in town Thursday? John Tavares & Co. Maybe Lehner could put on a little show for them.

(As for Adam Henrique's OT winner Tuesday, we'd all like a save there. But the fact is that sometimes NHL players make great shots. Blame-the-goalie is much too reflexive a reaction around here.)

What are they doing with Victor Antipin?

The KHL signee was a healthy scratch on defense Tuesday for the first time in five games. But it continued a seasonlong pattern of coming in and out of the lineup.

"I really liked the games he played up in Edmonton and Vancouver where he was 'take-charge,' Housley said. "He was very noticeable. I think he got away from that. For him to stay in the lineup, that's what we're looking for. I thought he was really taking charge of the puck in our own end, very comfortable with it, making that first pass, creating his own space. Even in the offensive zone, he got involved with the play."

Why not ride Antipin and see what they've got?

Housley said he's liked Justin Falk's physicality in recent games and Falk's first-minute rubout of Anaheim star Corey Perry along the boards backed up the point. Anaheim is a heavy team too, perhaps out of Antipin's league at this point. But the Sabres need to decide what to do with him going forward. I'm with the #FreeAntipin hashtag on social media. Enough already. Play the guy.

Are they ever going to get more scoring?

The Sabres simply don't score on 5-on-5 at all, with a downright pathetic 71 goals in 53 games. None of three goals Tuesday were at 5-on-5 either.  It's a big reason they're 6-18 in one-goal games. They had some terrific pushback Tuesday that Jack Eichel liked a lot, and with good reason. But it didn't result in two points.

They can't make a pass, especially from the back end. Rasmus Ristolainen butchered a routine delivery to Eichel in overtime and the Sabres never got the puck back. It was an unacceptable play from a $32 million defenseman who's supposed to be your No. 1 guy.

"I just think it's just focus, bearing down at critical times," Housley said. "I think Rasmus didn't have a very good game tonight overall, not just because of that pass. He wasn't making the ususal tape to tape passes for him."

Botterill needs to get more scoring in the bottom six next year, particularly depth veterans who can put the puck in the net. That's the tough job. Like we learned with Tim Murray, a hamster can make the first-round draft choice most years for a terrible team. It's what you do -- or don't do -- around it that makes the difference.

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