The Buffalo Sabres will open training camp in roughly six weeks, yet there remains uncertainty about what their roster will look like in September.
The Sabres still have a surplus of right-shot defensemen, and they could be in the market for another top-six forward. They are also running out of salary cap space after signing forward Evan Rodrigues to a one-year contract last week. Is the roster, as presently constructed, strong enough to compete for a playoff spot?
We'll start there with my latest Sabres mailbag, which also touches on Rasmus Ristolainen's future and whether General Manager Jason Botterill is searching for a second-line center:
Lou Muscato: This is practically the same team, aside from adding Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey. What should fans expect?
Lance Lysowski: I disagree with your point. The Sabres also added two right-shot defensemen who should be expected to be on the NHL roster this season: Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Each should address the team's inability to exit the defensive zone and help the transition game. This should take pressure off the forwards and gives Botterill the option to trade either Rasmus Ristolainen or Zach Bogosian. These aren't insignificant moves.
Though Johansson and Vesey are depth additions, they should provide the Sabres with the secondary scoring they lacked last season. Plus, both know how to score goals around the net. That was a troubling weakness for Buffalo in the second half of 2018-19. It appeared only Sam Reinhart was willing to go to the net.
That said, I'm not convinced the Sabres have added enough to keep up with other teams in the Eastern Conference. Think about the big-name additions made by the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers, among others.
It's reasonable to wonder if the Sabres' goaltending will be enough, and will they receive enough scoring behind Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner? Buffalo is also one of the more mysterious teams in the NHL. No one knows what to expect from new coach Ralph Krueger. What will his defensive-zone structure look like? How does he plan to fix the power play?
Scott: The Sabres missed out on winger Nikita Gusev, who was traded from Vegas to New Jersey on Monday. How do you feel about him going elsewhere, and did Buffalo pursue him?
LL: I'm of the opinion that the Sabres should have pursued Gusev aggressively, though I have not been able to confirm if they were involved in trade talks. Sure, Gusev is 27 years old and hasn't played an NHL game. Any trade would have been a significant risk considering the price New Jersey paid, including the two-year, $9 million contract to sign Gusev.
But Gusev was outstanding in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, performed well at the IIHF World Championship this spring and could have filled a void in the Sabres' top six. A deal was unrealistic, though.
Buffalo has already traded second-, and third-round draft picks – the two choices New Jersey sent to Vegas to acquire Gusev – this offseason, plus it's currently in somewhat of a cap crunch with three unsigned restricted free agents. Perhaps the timing wasn't right for the Sabres. It's fair to wonder if Botterill wasn't involved in the Gusev sweepstakes because he's trying to sort out the surplus at right-shot defense, or maybe there's another top-six forward on his radar. Only time will tell.
Mike LeDuc: Do you think they'll address the need for a second-line center within the organization or trade for one before the deadline?
LL: Teams aren't eager to trade first- or second-line centers, so the acquisition cost is typically immense, and I wouldn't expect Botterill to be eager to part with high draft picks or top prospects. Take a look at every team that has won the Stanley Cup over the past decade. They all had exceptional talent down the middle. Botterill isn't unaware of that fact. Remember, he was assistant general manager in Pittsburgh when the Penguins had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
The Sabres should be well-positioned at center for years to come with Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens. However, the latter two have yet to make a significant contribution in the NHL, and Cozens is likely one year away from being a full-time player in Buffalo. If a second-line center is available, the Sabres should be motivated to add to the position, even if it creates a surplus a year from now.
My opinion, though, is the Sabres will rely on Reinhart to buoy Mittelstadt's performance on the second line. Plus, Johansson's ability to carry the puck into the offensive zone should take some of the pressure off Mittelstadt. It's a significant risk, especially when you compare this roster to others in the Atlantic Division, but I'm not convinced there is an affordable center available. Trading Ristolainen won't be enough to land someone like Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
James Conti: What are your thoughts on the Sabres potentially signing free agent defenseman Jake Gardiner? How realistic of a target is he?
LL: Gardiner is an underrated defenseman who will thrive with whichever team he signs with. He would help address some of the Sabres' weaknesses from last season, particularly during 5-on-5 play. Plus, Gardiner is still only 28 years old and is only one year removed from a 50-point season.
The problem is cost. Gardiner will want a raise from the $4.05 million he made with Toronto last season, and the Sabres are suddenly in a cap crunch. According to CapFriendly.com, Buffalo has a projected $3.1 million in cap space with three unsigned restricted free agents. Trading Ristolainen or buying out a contract – cough, Vladimir Sobotka, cough – could create some room, but the greater issue is beyond this season.
Though the team could have at least 10 unrestricted free agents next summer, Reinhart and Brandon Montour will need to be signed as restricted free agents. Oh, and a massive extension for Rasmus Dahlin will come at some point in the not-so-distant future.
Gardiner is simply a luxury the Sabres can't afford. I'm bullish about their blue line, though. On the left side, Lawrence Pilut seems ready for a full-time NHL role, and Jake McCabe is capable of contributing on the second or third defense pairing. The right side should be much stronger than years past.
Ranting Ron: How is Ristolainen's value perceived by other general managers around the NHL? In your opinion, will he definitely be traded?
LL: Based on my conversations with sources, the general consensus is Ristolainen is still viewed as a high-upside defenseman whom many teams would want on their roster. He's only 24, is under contract for three more seasons at a very reasonable average annual value of $5.4 million and has produced at least 41 points in each of the past four seasons – while averaging 25:42 of ice time per game.
However, those teams are unlikely willing to pay Botterill's high asking price. The Sabres likely want a return that reflects them parting with a top-pairing defenseman, but most teams don't see Ristolainen as worth that high of an acquisition cost. He's struggled killing penalties, consistently makes unforced errors with puck management and fails to play with intensity every game. Simply put, Ristolainen is better suited for a second or third pairing.
Botterill isn't parting with Ristolainen unless the return is right, and I don't disagree with that stance. This offseason has shown us the Sabres are hoping Krueger can coax more out of players who struggled last season, and Ristolainen is a player I'd be willing to bet on.
That said, I don't expect Ristolainen to be in camp with the team. The Sabres' decision to acquire Miller and Jokiharju, both right-shot defensemen, signals that Botterill is motivated to move Ristolainen. Also, the Sabres need to clear some cap space because they'll want at least some breathing room.