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Sabres Mailbag: Which players will Jason Botterill trade before deadline?

Jack Eichel delivered when the Buffalo Sabres desperately needed a win Saturday in KeyBank Center. The 23-year-old captain snapped a three-game skid with his 31st goal of the season for a 2-1 overtime win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Sabres' reward: finishing the day exactly where they started, 10 points out of the second wild-card spot. They are on track to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season, the longest drought in the National Hockey League.

Is an unprecedented run possible with the current roster? I'll start there in my latest mailbag, which features questions submitted by readers.

John Howell: Do you see any signs that the Sabres could replicate the run the St. Louis Blues went on last season?

LL: Absolutely not. Compare the two rosters. The Blues were deep down the middle – Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Tyler Bozak and Oskar Sundqvist – with outstanding talent on the wing, led by Vladimir Tarasenko, and reliable defensemen. St. Louis also received a Vezina-level performance from goalie Jordan Binnington.

The Sabres are forcing a winger to serve as their No. 2 center and their lineup is dotted with players who have underachieved since arriving in Buffalo. Botterill did not plan on receiving very little offense from Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey and Conor Sheary, among others. The Sabres are also without goalie Linus Ullmark for the next three to four weeks.

Buffalo isn't one player away from contending, either. Victor Olofsson's return should provide an immediate boost to the top line and power play, but he won't cure all that's ailed this team in 2019-20. St. Louis had an identity. Ralph Krueger is still working to establish one in Buffalo.

Greg A: Do you think a total reset is possible after the season?

LL: The total reset already happened. Trading O'Reilly was supposed to recoup some of the depth, both in the NHL and prospect pipeline, the Sabres lost through years of poor drafting and trades. Dealing your No. 2 center is a seismic change. While it's important to note the assets/cap space it allowed Buffalo to acquire Jeff Skinner, the trade has been a disaster. No matter how you feel about Tage Thompson's potential – I'm of the opinion he has a shot at being a top-six player – it's difficult to receiving that return for an outstanding two-way center.

In what way can Botterill realistically reset this roster? You're not getting rid of core players such as Skinner, Olofsson, Jack Eichel or Rasmus Dahlin. Would they reset by trading Rasmus Ristolainen and/or Sam Reinhart? Dealing the latter could be catastrophic for a team that's already struggling to score goals.

There's no easy solution. The Sabres need help from prospects as soon as possible, and they better start crafting a sales pitch for free agents this offseason. If Buffalo is to make the playoffs any time in the near future, it will likely have to do so with a number of players on its current roster.

Tim Cook Apple: Realistically, who could the Sabres trade before the deadline?

LL: In addition to Evan Rodrigues, the Sabres could trade their six pending unrestricted free agents: Vesey, Sheary, Michael Frolik, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Zach Bogosian. Those are the sort of moves that will only fetch conditional mid-to-late round draft choices.

It's time for the Sabres to consider a more significant trade, though. Listen to offers on Ristolainen and Brandon Montour. Buffalo can't rely on Casey Mittelstadt or Dylan Cozens to save the day next season. Acquiring an established scorer must be at the top of Botterill's to-do list.

Laura Opiela: Is this season the breaking point for ownership to hire a director of hockey operations?

LL: Everything should be on the table for the Sabres. Their current plan isn't working. A number of factors have played a role in their on-ice struggles.

Yes, it's difficult to forecast lackluster on-ice performance by established NHL players, but the roster missteps have been well-documented. Ask yourself this: Can you envision a scenario in which this team is good enough to compete for a playoff spot next season? The Sabres will need to lure free agents to Buffalo and have to acquire another top-six forward.

That said, if we've learned anything over the past decade, it's that firing everyone doesn't solve the problem. I believe the Pegulas will consider adding someone else in the management structure, as opposed to cleaning house again.

Tony Chimera: If you had control, what three moves would you pursue at the trade deadline?

LL: My first move would be to finally trade Ristolainen or Montour for a top-six forward with term. Get rid of a prospect or two if necessary. The Sabres can't count on signing an impact player in free agency, and I don't buy the theory that trades are easier in the offseason. Make a move that shows Eichel and company that you mean business.

Secondly, I'd try to part ways with Vesey, Sheary, Girgensons, Bogosian and Rodrigues. They aren't part of the team's future, and I'd use the draft capital as trade bait in the offseason. The Sabres will need all the assets they can get to add to this roster in the summer.

Finally, I'd rebuff trade offers for Larsson. He's a reliable bottom-six center who can thrive under Krueger. Surprisingly, Larsson has been a more effective linemate for Skinner this season. Sign Angry Larry to an extension.

Jodi Jones: How much are the Pegulas involved and what do you think they need to do to turn this organization around?

LL: Like any business, the Pegulas entrusted qualified people to excel in their respective jobs, and there doesn't seem to be any micromanaging within the organization. They're as involved as any owners in the NHL.

The Pegulas care. Business owners never want to fail. That said, there needs to be more attention to detail on and off the ice. While fans have every right to be upset about misspelled jerseys, they would be more forgiving if the Sabres were occupying a playoff spot. Fans are tired of waiting. Change is needed.

While I advocate for keeping Botterill – firing more people isn't the answer – it's time to hire a president of hockey operations. Bring in someone with a wealth of experience and a fresh approach who can work with Botterill on building around what's become an outstanding core.

Garrett Smith: Is General Manager Jason Botterill on the hot seat?

LL: I have not heard anything that indicates Botterill's job is in jeopardy. He's not displaying the sort of urgency we often see from a general manager on the hot seat. Botterill continues to talk about patience with the NHL roster and the importance of prospect development.

Coach: How can a team that's been drafting high for the last decade not have a good pipeline of talent?

LL: The Sabres have done fairly well with high draft choices over the past eight years. Later rounds have been an issue, though. Aside from Olofsson, the Sabres have struggled to find impact players in rounds three through seven.

Most Stanley Cup contenders are able to find effective depth players through the draft. Former General Manager Tim Murray also traded prospects in an attempt to expedite the rebuild. Those mistakes came after the organization botched early-round picks, including Mark Pysyk, Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko and Girgensons.

It's too soon to judge Botterill for his drafting, but there are signs the organization has done a better job identifying talent in the later rounds. Those players take longer to develop, though. The Sabres also need Mittelstadt to make an impact in the NHL.

Misfiring on another top-10 pick would be devastating to the Sabres.

Justin Chisholm: Where do you see Dylan Cozens playing next season, and what is the Sabres' goaltending plan?

LL: Cozens will likely be counted on to center the Sabres' second line. I envision a scenario in which Cozens plays with Skinner and runs the second power-play unit. Unlike Mittelstadt, Cozens' size should allow him to handle the physical grind of the NHL. Yes, it's a lot of pressure to place upon a teenager, but Cozens' skill set should make for a more seamless transition.

The Sabres' goaltending situation is intriguing. Will they take a long look at Jonas Johansson in the season's second half? The 24-year-old is a pending restricted free agent, and the Sabres will likely want to avoid having Johansson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen in Rochester at the same time.

Luukkonen needs to receive the bulk of playing time wherever he's at. If Johansson proves he's ready for the NHL, the Sabres could attempt to move on from Carter Hutton, whose contract runs through next season. They also need to sign Ullmark, a pending restricted free agent.

John Jarzynski; Any truth to the idea that Botterill's plan is to dump salaries this offseason and start over?

LL: Absolutely. It's difficult to understand what the plan is once those salaries are gone, though. While the Sabres are projected to have more than $33 million in cap space, they need to replace everyone that will leave in free agency.

There aren't many internal options. Thompson's injury could make it difficult for him to be NHL-ready at the start of the next season. Buffalo needs Mittelstadt and Rasmus Asplund to prove they belong on the Sabres' roster.

Attracting free agents will be difficult, unless Buffalo overpays. The cap space will also be used toward signing restricted free agents. Reinhart, Montour and Ullmark are in line for raises. Reinhart will likely ask for a lucrative long-term extension.

Since it's never wise to rely on free agents, Botterill will likely try to trade for complementary players. His success will determine whether this roster is strong enough for playoff contention in 2020-21.

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