After sending out a call for questions for a Sabres Mailbag, the queries came quickly. Not surprisingly, a trend emerged.
“Why does Gionta see so much ice time?”
“Why does Gionta get to play with Eichel?”
“What’s with Gio’s minutes?”
“Why are they still giving Gionta so much ice time? On the power play?!?!”
Clearly, Buffalo fans are curious as to what coach Dan Bylsma sees in Brian Gionta.
The captain, who turns 37 in January, is skating 19:06 per game. That ranks sixth on the Sabres and third among forwards, with only Ryan O’Reilly (21:49) and Evander Kane (20:59) ahead of Gionta up front.
The production hasn’t matched the ice time. Gionta has two goals and six assists in 23 games. According to War-On-Ice.com, Gionta’s “points per 60 minutes” of 0.71 ranked in a tie for 482nd in the NHL heading into Saturday’s schedule. The captain has the same stats as fourth-line center David Legwand, who plays just 9:36 per game.
It’s easy to see why people are wondering what’s up. The answer comes in two parts:
1. No one else deserves the minutes.
The Sabres’ four right wingers during Friday’s victory over Arizona were Sam Reinhart, Gionta, Johan Larsson and Marcus Foligno. Larsson doesn’t have a goal and was benched last week. Foligno didn’t have a point in 10 games before scoring against the Coyotes. If a player was pushing for a larger role, he could have taken it. With struggling Tyler Ennis out, Bylsma’s options on the right side are limited.
2. Little things still mean a lot.
A key to Bylsma’s offense is the forecheck. Watch when Gionta is on the ice, and the Sabres will typically send the puck into the right corner. Though the 5-foot-7 captain often takes a beating, he regularly gets to the dump-in at the same time as the defenseman. It hasn’t resulted in many goals, but Bylsma hopes it will.
While Gionta can’t match the speed of Jack Eichel (who can?), the captain can make up for Eichel’s defensive lapses as the center continues to learn the game.
Fans may not want to see Gionta on the ice so much, but they will for the foreseeable future.
Question: What do you think happens with the goalie situation when Lehner returns?
Answer: The play of Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark has made the Sabres’ net an interesting place. Both have had stellar runs, with Johnson shining lately. It will allow the Sabres to ease Robin Lehner back from his ankle sprain. Buffalo will probably keep three goalies until Lehner shows he’s ready, then send Ullmark to Rochester.
Q: In a worst-case scenario, can we buy Moulson out? What are the numbers?
A: Sorry to break it to you, but this is the worst-case scenario. The left winger looks slow, unwilling to engage, has lost his shot and his confidence. The 32-year-old is playing like he’s going to follow Cody Hodgson and Ville Leino out the door.
Moulson is in only the second season of a five-year, $25 million contract that is broken down into salary and signing bonuses. If the Sabres bought him out in June, it would cost $7.33 million based on the $11 million left of his salary. He’d still get an additional $5 million in signing bonuses and remain on the Sabres’ salary cap for six seasons.
According to HockeysCap.com, the cap hit would cost Buffalo $2.1 million for the next two seasons and $1.1 million in 2018-19. The Sabres would receive a credit of $888,889 each season from 2019-20 to 2021-22.
Q: Is Kane-O’Reilly-Reinhart the kind of top line that can last together multiple seasons?
A: The trio certainly has a lot going for it in terms of being a long-term line. They’re all under contract for at least two more seasons. With Kane’s speed, O’Reilly’s all-around play and Sam Reinhart’s smarts and willingness to improve, they complement each other well.
Q: Can you envision GMTM making a high-profile trade this year for a playoff run, or even setting things up for next year?
A: Yes indeed. Considering trades typically don’t take place until the second half of the season, there seems to be an inordinately high amount of chatter already. General Manager Tim Murray has shown he likes to be in the talks.
While the Sabres have right-wing prospects in Hudson Fasching, Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey, they could obviously still use a top-six NHL winger.
Q: I’m bewildered by the seeming lack of any strategy by the Sabres in overtime! With strong, fast skaters like Eichel, Kane and O’Reilly, they should be better at outskating and outpassing their opponents! Do you think Bylsma has any strategy for 3-on-3 overtime?
A: So far, the strategy has been don’t give up an odd-man rush. Bylsma has cautioned against all three players skating up ice because a wide shot or turnover gives the opponent a two-on-zero. The Sabres haven’t practiced three-on-three very much and have appeared in just five overtimes, so it’s still the old “work in progress.”
Q: What’s your take on No. 55’s season so far? Can he keep this up pointwise?
A: Rasmus Ristolainen has been a revelation, sitting in a tie for seventh among NHL defensemen with 18 points in 26 games. He’s usually on the ice with O’Reilly’s line, meaning he can skim assists when the forwards get hot. Ristolainen also plays on the power play and takes the majority of the shots, so he’ll pick up points off rebounds.
While he’s unlikely to keep up the point-per-game pace he’s shown for the last 13 outings, he shouldn’t drop off much.