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Mike Harrington: With critical rebuild ahead, five areas for Sabres to address

It's a great time to be a Sabres fan. Really. (OK, that's provided you avert your eyes from staring at the standings that wrapped up in April.) But that's not only because you're about to watch Rasmus Dahlin on the roster for probably, oh, the next 10 to 15 years.

Dahlin will join the organization on Friday night at the first round of the NHL Draft in Dallas. We should see him on the ice in real Sabres gear during development camp next week in HarborCenter. It will be real.

But the work is just starting.

Let's not forget this is a last-place team. A 62-point team. Prospects can become suspects, as Ted Nolan liked to say, but the Sabres still have plenty of hope in their system. And fans have plenty of hope in Jason Botterill to get this right.

The second-year general manager essentially has another blank canvas to work from in rebuilding this team. It's going to be a fascinating process to watch.

Obviously, he has nowhere to go but up, but it's interesting how much implicit faith people both inside and outside the organization have in Botterill to get this job done. He has a few more Stanley Cup rings than, say, Darcy Regier or Tim Murray had.

No one knows if the Sabres will ever win a Cup or even compete for one. It took the Washington Capitals until last month to even get past the second round of the playoffs, and they drafted Alex Ovechkin in 2004. Are you prepared to wait until 2032 – when Dahlin is 32 and Jack Eichel would be 35 – to go that deep into the spring?

Certainly not. But that's not in the plans here, either.

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"People ask when you're going to be competing for a Stanley Cup and when you're going to make your run and to me, a successful organization doesn't just pinpoint one year," Botterill said the other day when I asked him to reflect on the Caps' first title. "You want your organization to be competing year in and year out. People predicted Washington in previous years and it didn't materialize.

"I learned that with some of the teams in Pittsburgh. I look at '12 or '13 and they were probably better than the teams that won it in '16 and '17. You just can't predict when you're going to play your best hockey or stay healthy."

The hope is that the Sabres are building for the long haul but also to get things moving here in short order. No playoffs since 2011, no postseason series victories since 2007. If Carolina, which is likely taking Andrei Svechnikov at No. 2, finds a way to sneak into the playoffs first, the Sabres will have the longest drought in the NHL.

Didn't we just end that whole drought thing?

"Year in and year out, you try to compete for Stanley Cup as opposed to saying we're looking for a window to try to compete two years from now or three years from now,"  Botteril said. "We're building an organization here. You have to build it where you're better for numerous years."

What's it going to take?

Speed, speed and more speed: Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt and Dahlin are the immediate trendsetters. Brendan Guhle can bring that as well. But you can see others who will fit in for the organization soon. Eyes are on prospects Rasmus Asplund and Marcus Davidsson. Victor Olofsson was a seventh-round pick in 2014 who suddenly developed as a scorer in Sweden as a Dahlin teammate. Score one for Murray if Olofsson turns into a late-round diamond. Let's see what C.J. Smith can do in training camp come September after a big season in Rochester. The NHL roster is wide open for him to step into.

Botterill needs a much better bottom-six. His motto should be simple: If you can't skate, you can't play. He can't really expect to run Girgensons and Johan Larsson again for major minutes and think that's OK.

Filling of the wings: The trade of Evander Kane has really left the Sabres thin on the wings. They need to draft for that position for the future, for the Amerks and sign and trade for it for Buffalo right now. You would think James van Riemsdyk is going to be too costly and James Neal will most likely stay in Vegas. Does that mean a move toward David Perron? Would Botterill have any interest in a reunion with Pittsburgh's Phil Kessel? Any chance the GM can get involved with Artemi Panarin? Will Nick Baptiste or Justin Bailey ever become productive full-time NHLers?

Foresight: Stop drafting and signing players who don't fit the trends of the league. That would mean no more players such as Zemgus Girgensons, Zach Bogosian (when he can even stay on the ice) or Kyle Okposo. A lot of the Ryan O'Reilly rumors are rooted in his lack of speed as well. Murray was trying to build a burly team a la the '12 and '14 Cup champion Los Angeles Kings – just as the Blackhawks and Penguins were winning Cups again by blowing past people. Flawed strategy. Botterill knows better.

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Getting better on the blueline: This remains the worst defense corps in the league other than Dahlin. The Sabres need a veteran mentor for their 18-year-old stud. They're not just going to throw him out there with Rasmus Ristolainen or Bogosian, are they? You keep thinking to the way Florida had Cup champion Willie Mitchell to play with Aaron Ekblad four years ago. Who can the Sabres find to play that role?

The player the Sabres need to see fast development of is Will Borgen. A defensive stalwart last year at St. Cloud State, you would imagine he starts in Rochester. How fast can he make the NHL? And what about Lawrence Pilut? Isn't the thought that he's NHL-ready right now? Is he going to be a real contributor or just Victor Antipin 2.0?

Goaltending: Nothing is going to matter if the Sabres have no one to stop the puck. The Islanders had a clear playoff team derailed by a lack of quality play in the net last season. The Sabres really shouldn't have been close to a 62-point team either when you consider their eight wins over Boston, Toronto, Tampa and Washington, their road romp over Nashville and pair of overtime/shootout losses to Vegas. They just didn't get nearly enough saves, especially late in games.

The view from here continues to be that the No. 1 goalie come September is not currently in the organization. With the Sabres walking away from Robin Lehner's deal as a restricted free agent next week, they're going to need a veteran to play the 50-55 games in front of Linus Ullmark. There are plenty of possibilities: Washington backup Philipp Grubauer is atop everyone's list, certainly the Islanders', but would work here. Can the Sabres get involved with free agents such as St. Louis' Carter Hutton or Colorado's Jonathan Bernier?

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Organizationally, the Sabres are so thin in net, with just Jonas Johansson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (if he comes over from Finland), that you would imagine they have to draft another one this weekend.

Botterill might not get these NHL-level moves done this week, but the groundwork for them will be put down in Dallas. Free-agent interview periods run next week and many trades start at the draft and are consummated over the summer.

He has so much work ahead to even get a sniff of the playoffs. It should be interesting to watch. He can't do any worse than Murray did.

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