Ralph Krueger felt a breakthrough coming. The Buffalo Sabres' coach told the media Monday morning that his players had pieced together consistent performances over the previous six games dating back to a 3-2 loss in Boston on Nov. 21.
The next step was finishing. That came Monday night when six different Sabres scored during a 7-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in KeyBank Center. The Sabres (13-10-5) have earned points in five of their last six games and entered Wednesday third in the Atlantic Division.
They head to Western Canada for a three-game road trip, which begins Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Some of the Sabres' bottom-six forwards have turned the corner, so does that mean a trade isn't necessary after all?
Let's start there with the latest Sabres Mailbag, featuring questions submitted by readers on Twitter.
Matt Weiner: What are the chances the Sabres acquire New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall and how much would it cost to get a deal done?
Lysowski: Zero. General Manager Jason Botterill isn't in the market for rentals, especially one as expensive as Hall. The Devils are thought to be asking for a higher return than the Sabres received for Evander Kane in February 2018: a conditional 2019 first-round draft pick, a conditional fourth-round pick in 2020 and Danny O'Regan.
Hall is making only $6 million this season, but he'll likely command anywhere between $9 million to $11 million as an unrestricted free agent in July. He may not be interested in signing with Buffalo, and the Sabres would be wise to not invest so much money in three players. Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner already account for $19 million each season. Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour are pending restricted free agents.
Hall is likely to land with a Stanley Cup contender such as the Colorado Avalanche or Boston Bruins. Botterill is searching for a top-six forward, but Hall doesn't seem to be a fit.
Mark Koschok: Why is there a reluctance to send Casey Mittelstadt to Rochester?
Lysowski: That time has passed. You could argue Mittelstadt should have been in the American Hockey League last season since he wasn't physically prepared for the grind of an 82-game NHL schedule and needed to improve his play without the puck.
Mittelstadt was rushed into a prominent role after the trade of Ryan O'Reilly and departure of Patrik Berglund. Sure, the Sabres want to see more offense from Mittelstadt. A breakthrough would be a boon for a club in need of secondary scoring. But let's not act like the 21-year-old doesn't belong. He had an impressive start to the season, but he's been slow to learn how to play center at this level.
Mittelstadt will be fine. He has too much skill and upside to send him to Rochester. Would you rather have Mittelstadt or Jean-Sebastien Dea in the lineup? There isn't a viable replacement. My opinion is they've committed to Mittelstadt being on this roster and now Krueger's staff needs to find a way to coax more out of him. Moving Mittelstadt to the wing was an excellent decision. You're already seeing more consistent play with the puck.
Guy Fleegman: Are the Sabres good enough to make the playoffs?
Lysowski: Not yet. The Sabres are much better defensively under Krueger. They've forged the sort of defensive identity that's needed to win at this level and have the talent on the back end to support their goaltending. You'd be hard-pressed to find many teams with as much talent on defense, plus Lawrence Pilut and John Gilmour are viable options in Rochester.
The Sabres also have top-end talent, led by Eichel, who is playing the best hockey of his career. In addition to holding a 10-game point streak, Eichel has transformed into a reliable two-way forward. He back checks as well as anyone on the Sabres, an invaluable asset that allows Krueger to use Eichel in a variety of situations.
However, the Sabres need another top-six forward. Johan Larsson deserves credit for how he's played as Skinner's center over the past week. Krueger's system has the Sabres creating scoring chances, but they need more finishers. Botterill has the prospect depth, draft picks and defensemen to swing a significant trade. The only question right now is whether he has the cap space and if there are any potential trade partners.
The_Real_Radman: With Linus Ullmark playing like a No. 1 goalie, would the Sabres consider trading Carter Hutton and replacing him with Andrew Hammond from Rochester?
Lysowski: No chance. Hutton is 0-5-3 with a .883 save percentage over his past eight starts, but he had a hand in the Sabres' October success. Remember, the 33-year-old had a .943 save percentage while winning each of his first six starts, including back-to-back shutouts. He's a capable NHL goalie who has been the victim of some bad luck over the past month.
Every team needs two goalies in the NHL, especially with how chaotic the schedule is. Hammond has played only seven NHL games over the past three seasons and Jonas Johansson needs more seasoning in Rochester. Plus, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is not close to joining the Sabres.
Buffalo's goalie coach, Mike Bales, is regarded as one of the best in the NHL. He'll work with Hutton to solve any deficiencies with technique or how to better handle certain situations on the ice. The bigger story here is Ullmark's ascent. Hutton will be fine.
Jodi Jones: What is your opinion of Ralph Krueger as a coach?
Lysowski: I agree with Taylor Hall and others around the league that Krueger is the right person to coach the Sabres. Krueger's personality and approach are perfect for a group of core players whom have never experienced team success at this level. He also has a way of getting the most out of players, as illustrated by Eichel's impressive start to the season.
Krueger had the Edmonton Oilers heading in the right direction before he was dismissed after only one lockout-shortened season. He also orchestrated unprecedented success with Switzerland's national team and VEU Feldkirch in Austria, winning the European championship with the latter. That makes Krueger qualified to complete what some would perceive as a similar turnover. Buffalo's eight-season playoff drought is the longest in the NHL and a number of former Sabres have spoken negatively about their time with the organization. This club needs someone who can create a positive environment for the players and has an ability to help them through the psychological challenges of an 82-game season.
There was always going to be an adjustment with his transition back to the NHL, though. Maybe that's why the Sabres have been slow to adjust on the power play. Penalty kills weren't as aggressive with puck pressure when Krueger was in Edmonton in 2012-13. Subtle changes will come. We've already seen that with the Sabres' 5-on-5 game.
Fletcher Doyle: Where does Lawrence Pilut rank among Sabres defensemen, and should the Sabres trade for a forward when/if they trim their surplus on the blue line?
Lysowski: Pilut is roughly ninth or 10th on the organizational depth chart at the moment. That's not a knock on Pilut. The Sabres are fond of him and are pleased with his development in Rochester this season. There's a surplus of experienced options on Buffalo's roster and a trade will be needed to open a spot for Pilut. This is the best course of action for his development, in my opinion.
The Sabres were forced to rush Pilut to the NHL last season. He was ready in some respects, but he was not equipped to handle the physical demands at that level. An inability to handle pressure on breakouts led to turnovers and he committed unforced errors. Pilut's progress seemed to stall and shoulder surgery didn't help matters. It appears he's finally found his stride with the Amerks and a prominent role there is perfect for his development. He's very much a part of the Sabres' future.
Joe H: Do you think Jason Botterill retains his job after this season if the Sabres don't right the ship?
Lysowski: Absolutely. Botterill has done an excellent job revitalizing a roster that lacked depth. He stole Henri Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks and the Jimmy Vesey trade is proving to be a smart decision. Colin Miller also has started to play well since returning to the lineup. Most of Botterill's draft picks are still developing.
Ownership needs to give Botterill a chance to have Lukkonnen, Dylan Cozens and Mattias Samuelsson, among others, get closer to the NHL. Plus, this will be a big summer for the Sabres. They'll have cap space to lock up some valuable players and could pursue free agents. A quick hook never solved the Sabres' problems in the past. That approach actually stalled progress.
This franchise is much better off now than it was when Botterill arrived. Give him a chance to see this through. A Tage Thompson breakthrough could drastically change the perception of the O'Reilly trade. Let's see how the next 17 months go. I think it's important to remind readers that it's not fair to compare the Bills and Sabres.
An NFL general manager can remake a roster in one offseason since draft picks can contribute immediately and the salary cap is much easier to navigate. Rebuilds in the NHL can take several years, which is why former Sabres General Manager Tim Murray tried to expedite the process by trading for Kane and O'Reilly.
Botterill is approaching this the right way.
Forwards Evan Rodrigues and Kyle Okposo joined the Sabres on their three-game road trip to Western Canada, which begins Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Rodrigues has been cleared to play, according to Krueger, and Okposo is a possibility to draw into the lineup during the trip.
Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin will remain in Buffalo as he works his way back from a concussion. Dea was assigned to Rochester following practice Wednesday.
Luukkonen was named the ECHL goaltender of the month Tuesday after compiling a 6-2-1 record and .925 save percentage in nine games for the Cincinnati Cyclones. Additionally, Erik Portillo, a goalie drafted in the third round by the Sabres this past June, was named to Sweden's selection camp roster for the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Portillo, 19, has a .910 save percentage in 13 games for the United States Hockey League's Dubuque Fighting Saints this season.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres