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Sabres mailbag: Top-line right winger is a high priority

Aside from watching the playoffs and discussing Mike Babcock, there’s a lull in Sabreland. The NHL Combine isn’t until the end of the month, the draft is eight weeks away and the coaching search hasn’t begun.

So it’s not surprising the latest edition of our Sabres and NHL Mailbag finds folks looking ahead to next year. These are questions submitted by readers via email or Twitter.

Q: How do you see the Sabres forward lines shaping up next season?

A: Keeping in mind General Manager Tim Murray should be very active this summer, I see the lines as Evander Kane-Sam Reinhart-?, Matt Moulson-Zemgus Girgensons-Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno-Jack Eichel-Brian Gionta, and Nicholas Deslauriers-Cody McCormick-?.

The Sabres’ biggest need up front is a top-line right winger. Ennis is certainly making strides and shows flashes of brilliance, but sliding him down to the second line makes the team much stronger.

Eichel could work his way up the depth chart as the season goes on, but it makes sense to start him in the middle of Gionta (a veteran who can offer tips) and Foligno (who would discourage teams from taking liberties with the rookie).

Q: Assuming the Sabres draft Eichel, it would appear he has the talent to play in the NHL next year. However, what do you think about him staying at Boston University one more year, not for “hockey development” but more for “life development?” In other words, get as much teenager out of his system as possible.

A: Since he’s enjoyed many aspects of college life already, Eichel would be better off under the watchful eye of the Sabres. Ideally, they would have the prospect live with a veteran. Florida’s Aaron Ekblad lived with Willie Mitchell. Sidney Crosby lived with Mario Lemieux. Evgeni Malkin lived with Sergei Gonchar.

Buffalo should set up Eichel to succeed and grow immediately.

Q: We are aware of Eichel at No. 2, but the Sabres have plenty more picks in the first three rounds. Who else is out there that could help?

A: We will begin our annual “Road to the Draft” prospect profiles later this month, but we can look at the 20th- and 31st-ranked prospects since those are the Sabres’ two picks after Eichel. (The 20th pick is an estimate and will be finalized after the second round of the playoffs.)

NHL Central Scouting ranks winger Daniel Sprong of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as No. 20 among North Americans. He had 46 goals and 99 points in 78 games. Center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson of the United States Hockey League ranks 30th after 15 goals and 53 points in 50 games.

Q: Do you have a read on whether Murray subscribes to the “elite/big money” goalie school of thought or “the difference between the best goalie and the 20th best isn’t worth the money”? Do you think our goalie of the future is currently in the system?

A: Any time Murray talks about goalies, it’s been in terms of “get the biggest European you can find.” He doesn’t seem interested in making a netminder the focal point of the team.

The Sabres have two legitimate prospects in the organization, though neither is ready for an NHL crease. Cal Petersen, a 20-year-old drafted in 2013, was Notre Dame’s Rookie of the Year after registering a .919 save percentage. Linus Ullmark, a 21-year-old drafted in 2012, has excelled in the Swedish league but will miss the start of next season because of hip surgery.

Q: Is Mike Babcock going to be worth the money he is going to command on the open market?

A: He certainly deserves to be the highest-paid coach. It’s hard to say whether any bench boss is worth $5 million per season.

Babcock has made the playoffs in 11 of his 12 seasons, winning a Stanley Cup with Detroit and losing in the finals with the Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks. He has coached Canada to two straight gold medals, which is more difficult than it sounds despite The True North’s talent level. He handles stars well and helps young guys improve. Sounds like a winner.

Q: I’ve always believed Thomas Vanek is a third line guy. Not because he lacks the talent and ability, it just fits his style. Now he is back on third. What do you think?

A: You’re certainly on to something. Vanek has top-line skill but has little desire to be the face of a franchise. The first time he returned to Buffalo following the trade, he lamented the Sabres’ inability to “replace two good players” when Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left. Thing was, the Sabres wanted Vanek to replace one of them.

There’s no shame in being a secondary player who can score 30 goals. I’d take Vanek on my team and put him on the second or third line. That’s a winning combination, as Minnesota has found out.


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