The joy was evident in each of Dominik Kahun's talks with reporters following the trade that sent him to the Buffalo Sabres last month.
A fresh start under coach Ralph Krueger came with a system that allowed Kahun the freedom to use the speed and possession skills that made him a highly sought international free agent in summer 2018.
"The system in Pittsburgh, for me, was a little bit – obviously, I had to do other stuff," Kahun said earlier this month. "Here, the hockey is more fun for me again. Obviously I want to win more games with Buffalo, but just to play my game, play with the puck and make plays. That’s for sure more fun for me right now."
The comment wasn't a knock against the Penguins or their two-time Stanley Cup winning coach Mike Sullivan. Kahun enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh and viewed his 50 games there as an important time in his career. However, Kahun was not allowed the same freedom in the Penguins' system, particularly when on the ice with superstar center Evgeni Malkin.
Krueger's system allows players to use their creativity with the puck, which proved a perfect fit for Kahun. The 24-year-old forward had two goals, not including a shootout winner, with two assists in six games after being acquired by the Sabres in exchange for Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues.
Kahun, a pending restricted free agent, provided the Sabres with some much-needed speed and formed a formidable second line with Victor Olofsson and Marcus Johansson. The trade addressed short- and long-term needs for an organization in need of more talent up front.
Krueger also revealed he views Kahun as a future NHL center, though the team did not have enough time to experiment with the move. Kahun's natural position is center and he played there during his four professional seasons in Germany.
The move wasn't talked about much on trade deadline day because the Sabres acquired veteran power forward Wayne Simmonds, but Kahun has the potential to be a top-six forward in Buffalo and could be the more impactful acquisition.
2. Common sense thought here: General Manager Jason Botterill needs to make a significant trade to add a second-line center or top-six right wing. The answer won't come in free agency. Botterill acknowledged it can be difficult to lure free agents to Buffalo. Also, the franchise hasn't had much luck handing out lucrative contracts on the open market.
3. Bolster the offense by balancing the blue line. The Sabres are not in a position to trade high draft picks or prospects at the moment. It's time to deal either Rasmus Ristolainen or Brandon Montour for a talented forward. Analytics show Ristolainen's play slipped significantly in the season's second half and the surplus of right-shot defensemen forced Montour to play his off side.
The latter wasn't as effective on the left side, particularly with the puck. The pending restricted free agent had only 18 points – his fewest in three full NHL seasons – after missing the first 14 games with a broken hand.
"Tougher playing the left side," Montour said late last month. "We joke I should have a left-handed stick, too. I haven’t had too many games playing my normal side. I’d like to offensively produce a little bit more, but any time you get a chance to help the team in any way. Obviously, defensively, I’m focused on that."
4. Stop using Marcus Johansson at center. Handing Johansson a two-year contract proved to be a responsible signing by Botterill. The 29-year-old was an important leader in the dressing room, particularly for the Swedish players. But the only way to maximize Johansson's value is to allow him to play on the wing. There's a significant difference in his performance when he's at his natural position, and it's not a stretch to think he'd score more than nine goals on the wing, ideally in a third-line role, if paired with the right linemates.
5. Pay Sam Reinhart. You could make an argument against giving a long-term extension to Reinhart. It's unclear if the pending restricted free agent would be able to drive play on his own line, and he had only one goal with one assist in the Sabres' last 11 games, a key stretch that knocked them out of the playoff picture. But you can't justify trading a talented forward off a team that's already struggling to score goals. Reinhart has scored 69 goals while missing zero games over the past three seasons.
6. Bring back Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons. Most fans weren't pleased last June when the Sabres extended qualifying offers to the bottom-six forwards. However, they proved to be two of Botterill's best moves last offseason. You could argue Larsson became the Sabres' second-best center and Girgensons' 12 goals this season were his most since he had 15 in 2014-15.
7. Fix the special teams, by any means necessary. The Sabres' power play and penalty kill, ranked 20th and 30th, respectively, had a significant role in this team falling out of the race. The personnel is there. Neither group was this ineffective in Phil Housley's final season – the power play and penalty kill ranked 16th and 20th, respectively in 2018-19 – and Buffalo should have improved on the man advantage, given the development of Jack Eichel and the addition of Victor Olofsson. This isn't only an assistant coaching issue. It also falls on Krueger.
8. Krueger's development is as important as anyone on the roster. It might sound crazy to say this about a 60-year-old coach, but let's not forget he had not been behind an NHL bench since a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Krueger did not have a traditional training camp or lengthy All-Star break in Edmonton. The Sabres lost five of seven games out of the break.
Krueger showed promise in a number of areas, but I want to see him improve with in-game management, including adjustments on special teams. There's no reason why Reinhart and Jeff Skinner should have such a limited impact on the power play.
9. Silver lining of the season: Eichel took another big step. The Sabres' 23-year-old captain set career highs in goals (36) and points per game (1.15) while proving to be a solid two-way player. He also made strides as a leader on and off the ice, and his $10 million annual average salary is looking like a bargain. Remember, it's likely Eichel won't reach his prime for a few more seasons. Enjoy the show, folks.
10. Remember when we were all talking about Rasmus Dahlin being benched in the third period of a game back in November? The 19-year-old's 36 assists in 59 games surpassed his total from his 82-game rookie season in 2018-19. He also showed he's closer to being able to shut down an opponent's top line. It would be wise to pay Dahlin now. There's no telling what the price tag will be when he's a restricted free agent in summer 2021. The kid is going to be a superstar.
11. The Sabres will face a difficult decision with Simmonds. The 31-year-old winger wants to re-sign with Buffalo after joining the team at the trade deadline Feb. 24. His price tag should also be lower than the one-year, $5 million contract he signed with New Jersey last summer. Simmonds might not be a fit for the Sabres, though. This team needs more speed. Simmonds also can struggle defensively. He has only eight goals with 11 assists in 68 games this season.
12. It would be wise to tread carefully with Dylan Cozens. The Sabres don't need to rush another teenage center to the National Hockey League. We all saw what that did to Casey Mittelstadt. Botterill needs to approach this offseason as if Cozens won't be ready to contribute in 2020-21. That said, fans should be excited about Cozens' progress since he was drafted seventh overall last June. The 19-year-old won a gold medal with Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championship and scored 38 goals with 47 assists for 85 points in 51 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
13. The season being suspended might have affected Mittelstadt more than any other Sabres prospect. The 21-year-old center was unable to complete the Rochester Americans' playoff push and might miss out on invaluable postseason experience. It's important for a young player to see the increase in intensity during the Calder Cup Playoffs, and Mittelstadt needed as many games as possible in the American Hockey League. We'll see if his 36 games with Rochester – which included nine goals and 16 assists – were enough to make him ready to be a consistent NHL player.
14. The goaltending needs to be addressed this offseason. The Sabres can't go into next season with the status quo, and prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen isn't close to being ready for the NHL. Linus Ullmark was one of the bright spots on this team this season, but we've seen how important it is to have two starter-caliber goalies. Carter Hutton can be that guy. I'm just not sure he can on this team. Hutton is an above-average goalie on teams that play a very structured game, such as St. Louis or maybe Dallas. But the Sabres are currently too inconsistent.
The Sabres could find a suitor for Hutton if salary is retained – hey, that's better than a buyout – and they'll need to add a goalie via free agency or trade. You don't need to grab Braden Holtby. Get a quality No. 2 with upside on a short-term contract who can push Ullmark. Warning, though: The Sabres would miss Hutton's leadership. The guy is beloved in that room.
15. Botterill is staying, in my opinion. The uncertainty surrounding the NHL's ability to resume play would make it difficult for any owner to make a change at general manager, and you will likely see fewer dismissals because owners aren't going to be eager to pay people not to work.
Some of the criticism directed at Botterill is merited. It's fair to wonder why he didn't trade a defenseman prior to this season -- remember, Henri Jokiharju wasn't expected to make the impact he did and it was unclear when Zach Bogosian would return -- and I'll never understand trading for Michael Frolik when Jason Pominville was available.
Additionally, there remains holes at center and right wing. However, there's no question this roster is much better now than it was 12 months ago. Barring their ability to re-sign key free agents, the Sabres could be only two players away, which is something we haven't been able to say for a while.
Botterill will be given the opportunity to finish what he started. This is a critical offseason for him. A spending spree isn't needed. But he'll have to make smart, difficult decisions to round out a roster that has the top-end talent to break through.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres