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Mixed Media Roundtable: NHL watchers size up the Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres hit the reset button in the offseason, hiring General Manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley, then making some roster adjustments.

Sure, the Sabres’ six-season playoff drought is like a rounding error for suffering Bills fans, but the suffering is real. To get a handle on how the new-look Sabres are viewed by outside members of the hockey media, The News tracked some down, resulting in our inaugural Sabres media roundtable.

The panelists:

Scott Burnside, senior digital correspondent, Dallas Stars;

Ken Campbell, senior writer, The Hockey News;

Eric Duhatschek, NHL writer, The Athletic in Calgary;

David Shoalts, hockey columnist, Toronto Globe and Mail;

John Wawrow, sportswriter, Associated Press.

Each of the panelists was sent four identical questions about the Sabres. The Q's and the A's:

There is always a feeling of hopefulness around a franchise when it brings in new management, which is what the Sabres did in the offseason with the hiring of Jason Botterill and Phil Housley. What do the new GM and coach bring to the table to justify the hopes of Sabres fans?

Burnside: Well, I suspect if you went back to the hiring of Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray you’d have found the same hopefulness. Didn’t pan out, did it? But I was talking recently to someone who knows Botterill well and having spent a lot of time around the Penguins organization for the last dozen years or so, all of the encouraging talk about Botterill seems well-earned. He’s smart. He’s learned from and worked alongside great hockey minds and he’s been part of a winner. Phil Housley has also learned the craft of coaching from the ground up starting with coaching high school kids and on through junior, etc. I think Housley’s got the right touch with the players and in Nashville the coaching staff do a lot of media so I don’t think the transition to being the daily voice of the team will be that difficult. Plus the Sabres should have a rocking power play with Housley at the helm.

Campbell: Probably the biggest assets they bring are credibility and a proven track record of success. Botterill apprenticed in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, which is the gold standard for success. Housley was an assistant with the Nashville Predators and handled the best defense corps in the NHL. He also coached USA to a gold medal in the World Junior Championship.

Duhatschek: I know Jason’s dad, Cal, and his sister, Jen, really well, but didn’t cross paths with Jason a lot over the years. But I do think that working in Pittsburgh for a winning organization instilled in him some important lessons, not the least of which is, sometimes you’ve got to put your kids into the lineup and see what they can do. Most GMs tend to be risk averse. Everything turned around in Pittsburgh around Christmas of 2015, around the time they promoted, en masse, five guys from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre, who added skill and energy to the mix. Botterill was obviously, front and center, in developing those players and in recommending they were ready for prime-time NHL duty. So that’s an important quality, and not every GM has it.

Housley, I know better. He played in Calgary on two separate occasions. I see a guy who has grown enormously since his playing days, when – and this was maybe a function of the era as much as anything – he was a brilliant offensive player, who made a great first pass, but could be a defensive liability and sometimes would get physically overpowered in his own zone. Housley will implement a more aggressive, fun-to-play and fun-to-watch system, but there will be a learning curve as players adjust. Hockey, at this level, is all about repetition – and doing tasks over and over until they become rote. I see both changes as positive, but I add this caveat: You cannot flip a switch and expect a culture to change overnight. There needs to be patience – from ownership and from the fan base. And I get that, after six consecutive years out of the playoffs, patience might be wearing a little thin right now.

Shoalts: This is a difficult question because both men are in their jobs for the first time. Sometimes new GMs turn out to be best suited as great assistant GMs or scouts (cough, Jim Benning, cough). But what I like about Jason Botterill, aside from his reputation as a patient, smart guy, is that he spent 10 years apprenticing in a successful organization like the Penguins. He is not a star player tossed into the big job but someone who put in the time to learn how to do it. Housley, to me, is a wild card. Not many who watched him closely as a player would have bet he'd become a coach. He didn't seem the studious type. But he, like Botterill, has put in a long apprenticeship and, even better, has a good record as both a head coach (World Junior gold medal) and an NHL assistant who is credited with improving the Nashville defense. So I'm leaning on the successful side.

Wawrow: Credit Botterill for immediately identifying what was lacking during Tim Murray's tenure in placing a focus and resources on the Sabres AHL affiliate in Rochester. Unlike Murray, who also served as the Americans GM, Botterill has hired an experienced hockey person in Randy Sexton to oversee the team. This is part of the Penguins model, which Botterill learned in working up the management ranks in Pittsburgh. The Penguins AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton developed NHL-ready players who stepped in to help the Penguins in winning consecutive Stanley Cup championships the past two years.

It's also a model that worked for the Sabres last decade. Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville helped establish a winning culture in Rochester, which helped Buffalo reach back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and '07.

As for Housley, he's credited for overseeing and developing an up-tempo, puck-controlling group of defensemen in Nashville. The NHL is trending in that direction, and something the Sabres sorely lacked the past two seasons under Dan Bylsma. Let's see how quickly and effectively he can instill this identity in Buffalo.

The Sabres have been working with Jack Eichel on a big contract extension, as he’s entering the final year of his entry-level deal. Evander Kane and Robin Lehner are among others starting contract years. Does having players with those personal incentives give them a sense of urgency that can drive the Sabres’ push to end their playoff drought?

Burnside: Not sure you can put Eichel in the same boat as Kane and Lehner. Eichel’s the real deal. He’ll get paid and he’ll get as much term as he decides he wants. I think Eichel burns to be the best. Never mind Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, Eichel feels he deserves to be in that conversation and if the Sabres are lucky he’ll show why. Huge year for Lehner. Got to stay healthy. Got to be really good. Jury’s still out on him as a franchise goalie, in my opinion. And Kane has to prove he’s a big boy NHLer. He should be doing that anyway but if he wants to get paid whether it’s in Buffalo or somewhere else he’s got to stay out of trouble, has to produce and has to prove he can be a mentor, not a distraction. I think he can do all those things.

Campbell: Negligible. Eichel is a star in the making and will have a great season, with or without an extension. Kane and Lehner’s situations may spur them to greater heights, but I don’t think they’ll be going out every game and saying, “I have to be great tonight so I can sign a big extension.”

Duhatschek: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because over the years, I’ve seen it go both ways. Historically, some players have played lights out great in their platform years and then exhaled a little the next season, after they’ve earned the big pay day, and gone backwards. Some players get nervous and fidgety in their contract years, try to do too much, and the net effect is they have a mediocre season. But mostly, I think it’s a negligible factor. From what I’ve seen of Jack Eichel from afar, he is fiercely motivated to succeed – individually and as a team – and I don’t think the fact that his entry-level contract expires at the end of this season will change that one iota. If you get to this level and your single driving motivation is the lure of a bigger pay day, then you’re in trouble.

Shoalts: Speaking generally, players in the last year of their contracts do perform better thanks to the motivation. But the Sabres would need a whole team of them to be sure of making the playoffs. That said, having your goaltender and one of your most talented forwards looking for new deals is a good thing, although I would never want to make a prediction about Evander Kane.

Wawrow: Forget contracts. We'll find out the character of this team this season because the players should be motivated to produce after Buffalo underachieved last year. When players openly blame themselves for lacking accountability, then they did a disservice to themselves, the team and the game.

Eichel is most definitely motivated and has the potential of carrying this team based on the flashes he showed the previous two years. When Eichel is on top of his game, the Sabres play as a more effective team. Eichel himself acknowledged he's not accomplished anything after two "mediocre" seasons.

Perhaps the 20-year-old is being a little too hard on himself given he led the team in goals as a rookie and in points last season. That said, Eichel's right: He needs to continue showing signs of maturing both on the ice and off it if he wants to be counted among the NHL's highly skilled collection of young stars, led by Connor McDavid. The Sabres are rooting for Eichel to succeed, too.

As for Kane, he's playing for his next contract, which will not likely be in Buffalo next season. The Sabres’ salary structure is already out of whack and it'll be difficult to fit in Kane given the money they're going to have to commit to Eichel. Kane's off-ice missteps have overshadowed the Sabres-leading 28 goals he scored last year. One of the reasons he hasn't been dealt already is that his off-ice reputation precedes him. Former GM Tim Murray wasn't going to give him up without getting what he considered fair value based on what he gave up to land Kane in the trade with the Winnipeg Jets. Kane needs to continue producing on the ice, and not getting into trouble off it – and that includes showing up for practice.

Despite what some Sabres fans might suggest, Lehner established himself as a bona fide starter in playing a career-high 59 games last season. He had a respectable 2.68 goals-against average despite playing behind a team that couldn't get out of its own zone most nights. Goalies are always in demand, and he can solidify himself with another good – and injury-free – year.

With Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson in net, do the Sabres have strong enough goaltending to make the playoffs?

Burnside: Chad Johnson saved the Calgary Flames’ season last season and he may have to do the same this season. Biggest question is where would you rank the Sabres goaltending in the Atlantic? I’d say middle of the pack and not sure middle of the pack gets you to the postseason. Nobody plays 75 games anymore so it’s incumbent on both to provide consistent, quality starts. This is not a great defense but it should be better than a year ago and with Housley they should do a better job structurally, which should help both Lehner and Johnson.

Campbell: I believe Lehner established himself last year as a goaltender capable of carrying a team to the playoffs, but I don’t believe that’s the issue. Unless the Sabres are much, much better and more committed defensively than they were last season, it won’t matter how good Lehner is.

Duhatschek: The summer the Sabres acquired Lehner from Ottawa, there was a broader market for goalies in that category – ones that were considered up-and-comers, but needed a venue change to lay claim to a starter’s job. In a four-day span at the end of June 2015, Lehner, Martin Jones (from Boston to San Jose) and Cam Talbot (from Edmonton to New York) all changed teams. I don’t recall there being much to choose from, from among the three, and the acquisition costs were roughly equal.

Two years have passed since then. Jones has won 72 games for San Jose and got them to the Stanley Cup final in 2016. Talbot has won 63 games, 42 of them last year, which led the league. Lehner has 28 wins. I get that he’s been injured. But what the other two have provided that Lehner hasn’t yet is the night-to-night consistency that NHL coaches demand. Now, having said that, I think Lehner can live up to the promise of his vast pedigree (I actually have him on my fantasy hockey team this year; and because the team is as good as it’s been since he arrived, I think he’s ready for a breakthrough). Johnson played in Calgary, where I’m based last year, and he was an excellent pro. If Lehner falters at all, or if he gets hurt again, I know Johnson is itching for a chance to go on a run.

Shoalts: Nope. Even though Robin Lehner is coming off his best NHL season he still has not shown the consistency of an elite goaltender. The injuries haven't helped but his play has been erratic, too. And he's seven seasons into his pro career. He has the ability to take a big step forward but based on his track record you can't say he definitely will. Chad Johnson can be helpful at times but is not a sure thing in the long run. In other words, a good backup.

Wawrow: Yes. Goaltending was the least of the Sabres problems last year, though Lehner could have done better based on how he struggled during shootouts. Lehner and Johnson established a solid bond and great chemistry when they were together in Buffalo two seasons ago. Lehner showed last year he's capable of carrying the load as a starter. Though Johnson had an up-and-down season in Calgary, he's proven himself to be a more than capable backup.

Can you give me the name of a player who is either new to Buffalo or still an up-and-comer, but who could really turn some heads this season?

Burnside: Not really new but I’m watching closely to see how Kyle Okposo fares this season after signing with the Sabres a year ago as a free agent and then suffering through some scary health issues late in the season. So much to like about Okposo on and off the ice, I admit I’m rooting for him to have a huge bounce-back season. He’s the ultimate pro and if he gets back to form will be a cornerstone piece to what could be a surprise playoff team.

Campell: Not to be cheeky, but Victor Antipin and Marco Scandella for good reasons and possibly Nathan Beaulieu and Benoit Pouliot for not-so-good reasons. If I had to pick one, definitely Antipin.

Duhatschek: I don’t know if any of the newcomers will turn heads exactly. The head turning should come from Eichel, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O’Reilly, who I consider one of the most underrated players in the league. Obviously, the Sabres needed to massively upgrade their blue line year over year. Scandella was a good, but not great player, for Minnesota last year and I see his minutes bumping up from the 18:20 he played. I am actually most interested in seeing what Jason Pominville has left in the tank. His minutes played dropped from 18 to 16 to 14 over the last two years, but even at only 14:17 last season, he scored 47 points. I know he turns 35 in November, but he might have one last hurrah in him, especially if he gets some regular-season minutes with Eichel.

Shoalts: The problem for Sabres fans is the lack of an exciting newcomer, which is a reflection on the previous regime. So here's a newcomer worth rooting for, although he is not a sure thing. He may even have been cut by the time you read this: Seth Griffith is the classic case of a big-time scorer in the AHL, not so much in the NHL. The Sabres are his fourth team in the last two years and at 24 he will go from prospect to suspect if he can't stick this season. Size (5-foot-9, 191 pounds) probably has something to do with his troubles as coaches still lean toward the bigger player in roster decisions. But the Sabres are giving Griffith a long look on the wings and he's been scoring in preseason games. It's always nice to see the little guys get ahead.

Wawrow: If Justin Bailey stays focused and starts using his combination of speed and size, he has the chance to play a larger role in a Housley system that promotes speed and skill. Bailey opened eyes during the Sabres Prospects Tournament a few weeks ago. In the final game against Pittsburgh, Bailey showed his speed and skill by scoring on a two-on-one in which he never broke stride in getting around a defenseman. A few minutes later, he delivered a big hit in the Sabres defensive zone. The key for Bailey is to play this way consistently.

Don't underestimate Jason Pominville's presence. He's a leader by example, which is important for the team's young group of players. Just as important, he's naturally upbeat. His ever-present smile alone brightens up a locker room that struck me as having a dark cloud over it on most days.

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