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Adding depth scoring among Sabres' offseason priorities

In what may have been his final work day with the Buffalo Sabres, Jason Pominville declined to reveal if he plans to continue his playing career but acknowledged that he was unaware if the team was interested in him returning.

"There's a lot of things going on," Pominville, 36, a pending unrestricted free agent, said of General Manager Jason Botterill during locker cleanout last week. "I know at this stage, I'm probably not at the top of his list right now."

Though Pominville is not wrong in suggesting that Botterill's priority is finding a new coach, losing a player who finished fourth on the team with 16 goals would create another hole in an offense that struggled whenever Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner didn't score.

Pominville and others could be part of Botterill's offseason surgery on a roster that the general manager believes is in dire need of more skill up front.

"I think it’s imperative for us moving forward that we continue to develop skill, to add skill to our forward group," Botterill said during a news conference to address Phil Housley's firing. "It was great to see this year the success of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart having a career year. ... But we relied on them too much. We have to continue to develop our young players in our organization, both in Rochester and Buffalo here. We also have to continue to look to find depth scoring."

If a new coach is Botterill's top priority, re-signing Skinner is a close second. The 26-year-old winger is a pending unrestricted free agent after scoring a career-high 40 goals with the Sabres this season.

Acquiring Skinner from Carolina for draft picks and prospect Cliff Pu last August saved what turned out to be an average offseason for Botterill. If Skinner walks in free agency, the Sabres would lose their top contributor in 5-on-5 play and one of three players who accounted for 40.7 percent of their goals.

Eichel set a career high with 28 goals and Reinhart had 22 goals among a career-best 65 points. Yet, the Sabres scored the eighth-fewest goals in the NHL and had only four players with more than 15 goals, which led Botterill to say he failed to give Housley "enough tools to have success."

Conor Sheary, acquired from Pittsburgh in June to provide scoring depth and playoff experience, had only 14 goals in 78 games. He scored in three consecutive games during a 10-game win streak in November, only to have three goals over his next 43 games.

Botterill also failed to improve the Sabres' forward depth by trading Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis.

Patrik Berglund scored 40 goals over his previous two seasons, despite appearing in only 57 games in 2017-18. Vladimir Sobotka had never scored more than 11 goals in a season but could win important faceoffs and the hope was he could contribute more offensively. Tage Thompson was still only 20 years old and a former first-round pick with an electric right-handed shot.

The three combined to produce 29 points for the Sabres this season. Berglund had two goals in 23 games and later revealed that depression was responsible for his decision to not join the team on a December road trip, which led to his contract being terminated.

Sobotka, who is under contract through next season at a cap hit of $3.5 million, openly complained about his role, particularly his number of defensive-zone starts, and failed to score in 42 consecutive games. Thompson, meanwhile, had seven goals in 65 games before he was sent to Rochester. He failed to score in his final 23 games with the Sabres, though his playing time dipped significantly during that span.

Casey Mittelstadt had only 12 goals while spending much of the season as the Sabres' second-line center. O'Reilly had 28 goals among a career-high 77 points to lead the Blues to the playoffs.

"We also don't think that trade has been completed yet," Botterill said. "We also think there is development with young players. ... That trade gave us resources and cap space and draft resources to go out and get Jeff Skinner. You're always going to learn from different trades. We're going to continue to make changes to make sure that we get this right."

The Sabres are projected to have more than $23 million in cap space entering the offseason, with only three forwards as restricted free agents: Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Evan Rodrigues.

Girgensons' 18 points were his most since 2015-16, and Larsson improved his plus-minus by 22 points; however, neither seems likely to return since consistency eluded them.

Rodrigues took a promising step in his third full pro season but produced only nine goals in 71 games after he had seven in 48 games in 2017-18. He likely will return given he produced more scoring opportunities with an increased role, though he scored only once while averaging 16 minutes, 58 seconds over the season's final 27 games.

"Not much, maybe just a little more confidence," Rodrigues said when asked if he would change his approach earlier in the season. "I think when you’re worried about getting into the lineup, you don’t play the way you normally would or know you can. … I wish I would have gotten that chance earlier on and gotten more ice time earlier on. I think when I did, I made the most of it."

Botterill surely will explore upgrades through free agency or trade, though prices in the former may not fit his long-term plans. He has draft picks, prospects and potentially NHL players to acquire a top-six forward, which would improve the overall depth of the Sabres' forward lines.

They also need improvement from players who can't or won't be moved. Mittelstadt and Thompson need to become physically stronger. The latter was never given much of a chance to play with Eichel, while Mittelstadt struggled with the defensive responsibilities of his position.

Additionally, the Sabres need more out of Kyle Okposo. The 31-year-old had only 14 goals among 29 points while counting $6 million against the salary cap, and he is under contract for four more years. That contract will make it difficult to execute a trade or buyout, so the Sabres will hope Okposo can build off his final six games of the season, when he scored three goals and earned his job back on the second power play.

"This season was tough," Okposo said. "It was tough mentally for me. I was in a spot that I hadn’t really been in in my career. I felt like I wasn’t getting the opportunity that I was used to. In saying that, I needed to play better in order to get that opportunity back. I have to take a hard look in the mirror, like everybody does, and get back to the player that I want to be, especially offensively."

Botterill must also decide if he can rely on Victor Olofsson and Alex Nylander to fill full-time roles next season. Olofsson has 30 goals in 66 games with the Amerks, and scored twice in six games while skating alongside Eichel.

Regardless if the Sabres keep Pominville, they are in for another offseason of drastic change, and the objective is clear: ensure a win is possible when the big three has an off night.

"All of us as players have to look at your game and what you bring to the table and say, ‘Could I have done more?' " Okposo said. "And I think everybody would say 'Yes.' If you were to look at our whole team, you pick a player and say, ‘Oh yeah, he really got better throughout the year.’ I don’t know if you could pick one."

Redmond earns AHL honor

Rochester defenseman Zach Redmond was named recipient of the Eddie Shore Award, which is given annually to the American Hockey League's outstanding defenseman.

Redmond, 30, finished the Amerks' regular season with 21 goals among 50 points and a plus-13 rating in 58 games. He tied for the league lead in game-winning goals (nine) and ranked first among all defensemen with 10 power-play goals.

Redmond broke the franchise's 46-year-old record for goals by a defenseman and joined Steve Kraftcheck and Al Arbour as the only Amerks to receive the award.

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