The search for Phil Housley's replacement continues nearly one month after his dismissal as Buffalo Sabres coach.
Other than false reports surrounding Todd McLellan's candidacy, little information has leaked about whom General Manager Jason Botterill is targeting. During a weekly appearance on MSG/WGR Radio's "The Instigators," TSN's Darren Dreger said Wednesday that Pittsburgh assistant Jacques Martin is a "leading candidate" in Buffalo.
Fans on social media described Martin as an uninspiring choice, despite his experience behind an NHL bench. Let's start there with this week's Sabres mailbag.
Jerry asks: Why would the Sabres be so interested in a retread coach. Is there no other person that can coach them?
Lance Lysowski: There is a learning curve for inexperienced NHL coaches, no matter their background. Botterill admitted as much during his season-ending news conference with reporters, and he likely can't afford to gamble on another coach who has never led a team to the playoffs.
The Sabres need a coach who can hold players accountable while implementing a defensive structure that can help win one-goal games during a playoff push. That is why you're seeing names such as Martin mentioned as candidates.
There is no exact science to finding a coach. Jim Montgomery has done an exceptional job with Dallas after five seasons at the University of Denver. That's why a "retread" such as Martin gives me pause. Perhaps system, philosophy and personality are more important than experience.
Jim Fisher asks: How much roster turnover can be expected among the forwards and any potential free agent targets?
LL: Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville likely won't be retained. Vladimir Sobotka should also be a buyout candidate after he scored only five goals in 69 games and openly complained about his role.
The rest of the forwards will likely remain, including Kyle Okposo, who will count $24 million against the cap over the next four seasons. They need to add two top-six forwards to bump down players such as Casey Mittelstadt, Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues.
I don't expect Botterill to spend much in free agency if he does manage to re-sign Jeff Skinner. Instead, he'll try to trade for a young player with multiple years of control, similar to Brandon Montour, or a veteran in need of a fresh start.
Bubba asks: What’s your opinion on how the Sabres' current roster is being built? Tiny forwards and defensemen seems to be the theme in Buffalo and most playoff teams aren't built that way.
LL: Size isn't my only concern. Shorter forwards and defensemen are thriving across the league. The Sabres were simply too easy to play against. Stature shouldn't prevent a player from knowing how to forecheck properly. Take Conor Sheary for instance. Despite his size, he was arguably the Sabres' best player in March because he was a pest to play against and competed with the sort of effort his teammates lacked.
Larsson and Girgensons are big enough for a fourth-line role but did not perform up to the standard. That said, the Sabres could use a power forward to go to the front of the net. Nashville's Wayne Simmonds would be atop my list in free agency.
Mike asks: How does Zach Bogosian's hip surgery affect the offseason roster construction plan for Botterill?
LL: A source told me there are no concerns that Bogosian's injury could linger into next season. However, the Sabres will monitor his progress throughout the offseason to gauge how much time he will miss since he is one of only four right-handed NHL defensemen under contract next season.
After all, trading Rasmus Ristolainen and not having Bogosian at the start of the season would likely require Casey Nelson to play on one of the top two defensive pairings. That's far from ideal considering Nelson hasn't made much of an impact on special teams.
This shouldn't change the Sabres' position on Ristolainen. He is their most valuable trade chip and their best option to acquire a top-six forward. Instead, I anticipate Will Borgen to start the season with the Sabres and perhaps Botterill chooses not to trade Matt Hunwick, who can fill in on the right side.
Chris asks: If you were general manager would you take on another bad contract like Patrick Marleau’s if it meant an NHL-ready prospect?
LL: Only if the other team retains salary. With that in mind, Botterill should make a call to Calgary about James Neal. Yes, the 31-year-old forward had only seven goals among 28 points in 63 games with the Flames this season and will count $5.75 million against the cap in each of the next four seasons.
However, Neal had nine consecutive 20-plus goal seasons prior to that and has appeared in 104 playoff games, including back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup. He's the sort of power forward and sniper the Sabres need. He needs top-six minutes, which Calgary won't want to provide and it will be desperate to get rid of him.
Rather than buying out Neal, I suspect the Flames will attempt to trade him and will need to retain salary. They will need to take a large chunk of that contract for this to make sense for Botterill. Or perhaps Buffalo waits to see if Neal does get bought out.
Neal also has a history with Botterill and Assistant General Manager Randy Sexton from their time together in Pittsburgh.
Tim asks: Is there any way you can see them shedding one of the bad contracts they have on the books, such as Okposo, Marco Scandella, Sobotka or Bogosian?
LL: Okposo is here to stay. The buyout would cost too much, and he wouldn't draw interest on the trade market. Bogosian will be a pending unrestricted free agent next season, and his $5.1 million salary isn't unreasonable for a right-handed defenseman with his skill set.
The Sabres must get rid of Scandella and Sobotka. They are also going to be pending unrestricted free agents but will count $7.5 million against the cap next season. No thanks. Scandella can be traded for a late-round pick and Sobotka should be bought out.
Thomas M. asks: If Botterill waits for the right coach, whomever that is, does it hurt the organization the longer it takes to hire someone?
LL: A coach will be in place by the NHL draft in June. That will provide plenty of time to get the rest of the coaching staff in place and for management to negotiate with free agents, beginning with Skinner.
Joel Quenneville is the only coach a general manager should be in a rush to hire. Otherwise, Botterill is better off exploring every available option.
Thomas D. asks: Is Chris Taylor the best choice to coach the Sabres?
LL: No. Taylor has done an exceptional job with player development and balanced that with winning. That's no small task for an AHL coach. He's managed to keep veterans happy while also holding everyone accountable.
However, the Amerks' first-round sweep is a difficult look for Taylor. The team was far too talented to perform the way it did during that series, specifically how they seemed to ill-equipped for playoff hockey.
Michael asks: Why not the forward-thinking Rikard Gronborg. He is different. Is different good?
LL: For those unaware of Gronborg, the 50-year-old coached Sweden at the Olympics, World Cup, World Championship, World Junior Championship and Under-18s over the past nine years. He declined a three-year contract extension in hopes of landing an NHL gig.
There is a natural connection between Gronborg and the Sabres given his relationship with Rasmus Dahlin, and other Swedes who could be on the team's roster next season. Gronborg is innovative and has worked with a number of professional players in the past while leading Sweden to two gold medals since 2011, so he's not unfamiliar with handling personalities, though international competition is far different than the NHL.
Gronborg should be the Sabres' choice if they opt for a coach without NHL experience. However, as stated above, I'm not convinced Botterill is in a position to take such a risk.