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Sabres mailbag: How will coronavirus impact offseason plans?

The arenas are closed as athletes across professional sports have been told to self-quarantine for up to two weeks while awaiting word on whether games will resume anytime soon.

Owners were hem hawing over whether to play in empty venues until the Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert tested positive for the noval coronavirus Wednesday night. Gobert's teammate, Donovan Mitchell, is also infected.

The NBA worked swiftly to suspend its season and does not expect to resume for at least 30 days. The NHL followed suit Thursday with the hope of eventually finishing the season and awarding the Stanley Cup.

The NHL and its players' association laid out a plan to reopen team facilities for small-group workouts as early as next week, but that will depend on how quickly the pandemic spreads in North America. The reality is the Buffalo Sabres may have played their final game of the season.

Neither hockey nor professional sports are all that important right now. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Be kind to one another. But talking hockey can be therapeutic. So, I answered reader-submitted questions about the Sabres and NHL:

Rick: How does the team go ahead and make contract offers to the pending free agents when there’s not a full season to evaluate them?

LL: The Sabres should know by now who they are interested in bringing back next season. The only exception could be Wayne Simmonds, who has one assist in seven games since arriving in a trade on deadline day. This coronavirus outbreak could create a significant challenge with player development, though.

Thirteen games may not sound like much, but that experience is pivotal for a player like Rasmus Dahlin. He and other young players on the roster, including Jack Eichel, were in line to face seven teams that would be in the playoffs or contending for a spot: Boston, Carolina, Florida, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Philadelphia.

Cancellation of remaining games would prevent the Sabres from applying lessons learned and systems used by Ralph Krueger when the intensity of regular-season play is never higher.

Additionally, this has forced the cancellation of seasons in Europe, hitting the pause button on the development of prospects such as Arttu Ruotsalainen, Oskari Laaksonen and Lukas Rousek, among others.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Hockey League has suspended its season, jeopardizing a potential long playoff run for Dylan Cozens and Matej Pekar. Teams also aren't able to to properly scout players overseas because of travel restrictions and season cancellations, which will have a significant impact on the draft and scouting combine.

Dan: Who do the Sabres have as their backup goalie behind Linus Ullmark in 2020-21?

LL: As of now, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which Carter Hutton is not on this roster next season. Jonas Johansson isn't ready for a full-time backup job and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen may not be ready until 2021-22. Hutton is also entering the final year of a contract that will count $2.75 million against the cap.

The Sabres need a replacement lined up if they're going to trade Hutton, and we all know how General Manager Jason Botterill feels about buyouts. The latter spreads the cap hit over two seasons, which is not ideal considering we've learned how it's impossible to predict what the salary cap ceiling will be in the future.

Hutton has proven to be a capable NHL goalie, but consistency has been an issue. His season at a quick glance:

Oct. 3 through Oct. 22: 6-0-0, .943 save percentage.

Oct. 24 through Nov. 17: 0-4-2, .876 save percentage.

Nov. 25 through Jan. 28: 0-3-2, .858 save percentage.

Jan. 30 through Feb. 16: 5-2-0, .909 save percentage.

Feb. 18 through March 7: 1-5-0, .901 save percentage.

If the Sabres find a willing trade partner for Hutton, they will need to explore external options. Pending unrestricted free agents include Braden Holtby, Robin Lehner, Corey Crawford, Craig Anderson, Jacob Markstrom and Thomas Greiss. No matter who is constructing the Sabres' roster for 2020-21, they won't want to hand a lucrative long-term contract to a free agent goaltender.

Those rarely go well -- Sergei Bobrovsky is the latest disaster, though it was nice to read about his $100,000 pledge to part-time arena workers in Sunrise, Fla. -- and the Sabres appear to be committed to Ullmark, a pending restricted free agent in line for a raise. The team is more likely to sign a cheap backup option it decides to part with Hutton.

Scott: What are the best and worst case scenarios for the Sabres' vacancy at second-line center?

LL: Here are two best case scenarios for you: Cozens earns the job in camp over a promising offseason acquisition before winning the Calder Trophy or the team trades for an experienced center who scores 30-plus goals in his first season with Buffalo.

Worst case scenario: Marcus Johansson is forced to play that position again in 2020-21. Give Johansson credit. He hasn't complained once about having to play out of position and showed improvement there while skating alongside Victor Olofsson and Dominik Kahun. However, Johansson is much more effective on the wing. The Sabres need to maximize that $4.5 million investment by allowing him to play where he's most comfortable.

The Sabres are unlikely to sign a center in free agency. Botterill acknowledged it can be difficult to attract free agents, which is why he acquired Simmonds and Jeff Skinner before they reached the open market. Arriving in a contract year allows the player to become comfortable with the organization and city.

Expect the Sabres to use their assets -- perhaps Brandon Montour -- to acquire someone who will compete with Cozens, Johansson, Kahun, Ruotsalainen, Casey Mittelstadt and others for the second-line assignment. The Sabres need more consistent offense -- a player with 30-goal potential would be ideal -- and gambling on another teenage center could backfire.

RL Shaw: Do you think playoffs would be feasible if teams don't play for the next month?

LL: Absolutely. I don't see the NHL resuming with the regular season. Sure, it's only 13-14 games, but that could take up to three weeks after a mandatory training camp period. Teams contending for a playoff spot should be given some sort of play-in game to determine who qualifies for the postseason, and we're likely going to see a shortened playoff schedule if the league resumes play in time.

The NHL is plotting out different schedules based on when games can be played. This is unlikely to be a brief pause, so holding the playoffs and awarding the Stanley Cup will require some creativity and sacrifice.

Steve: Will the league suspending play impact the Sabres' decision of whether to keep Botterill as general manager?

LL: I don't think so. Contrary to what has been bandied about on social media, ownership has yet to make a decision on any potential personnel changes for next season. The focus is on the global pandemic and efforts to handle the situation in KeyBank Center and LECOM Harborcenter.

If a decision was made, Botterill would have been gone after the 0-4 road trip. The season has not been canceled yet. As you can imagine, if play resumes an impressive winning streak would have to be taken into consideration. Terry and Kim Pegula will take a long look at how far the organization has come in three years since Botterill took over.

And yes, you need to consider the impact of making a change at that position. Firing Botterill would mean you're likely losing a very good scouting staff following the draft. Rochester coach Chris Taylor could leave. The same goes for Botterill's management staff, including Steve Greeley, who will likely be an NHL GM in the near future. It would also raise questions about Krueger's future after he did well in several different areas during his first season in Buffalo.

The hiring process would also need to be sped up because of a shortened offseason, and it's important to note there's no question the roster has improved over the past 12 months.

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