Buffalo - July 10, 2014 - It’s not even August yet, but with the dog days of summer here, there’s nothing to do but think of what lay ahead.
The biggest question bouncing around in my head is “what will the Sabres lineup look like to start the 2014-15 season?” The sad (or good, depending on your point of view) part is that it could look pretty similar to the way it did to end the 2013-14 season.
The Sabres understand what they are: a rebuilding team with a deep (and growing) pool of prospects it hopes will take it back to relevance and contender status. They showed this strategy by going out and getting decent veterans in free agency who will bring leadership more than anything else.
Also, knowing they’re going to be bad this upcoming season, they’ll want to be as bad possible once again to make sure that they can land in the top three of the draft. When there are potential franchise-changers at the top of the draft and you’re a bad team, you make sure you’re bad enough to land one of them.
So next season will look a lot like this last one: sure, there are a couple more vets but a few rookies will get their chance to shine. Either way, it will be mostly the same talent-strapped group that made the Sabres the worst team in the NHL this past season.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the notable moves the Sabres have made in the offseason:
Re-signing: Marcus Foligno
Buyouts: Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff
Free Agent signings: Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, Andrej Meszaros
Trades: Josh Gorges
It should also be considered that Tyler Ennis will be brought back at some point, it’s just a matter of what he’s going to get. The Sabres have the space and will want to bring back one of their best offensive players.
Where things get tricky is evaluating where certain prospects are in their development. The Sabres will likely have Mikhail Grigorenko, Johan Larsson, Nikita Zadorov, Ristolainen, Pysyk, Dan Catenacci, Chad Ruhwedel, Sam Reinhart and Joel Armia either ready to make a run at sticking with the Sabres or to get significant time in Rochester. With as bad as the Sabres are likely to be next year, there is no inherent need to rush these guys along. Most of, if not all of, those players could remain in Rochester for the bulk of the year Reinhart and Zadorov sent back to Juniors.
With all the veterans permeating the lineup, the kids will have to earn their spots. That’s awesome news because if they aren’t ready, they won’t be thrust into the lineup. Rebuilding through the draft is great if you don’t screw up the kids as they come up. Letting them develop at their own pace and giving them big minutes/opportunities on stages other than the NHL helps that.
Let’s take a look at my early projections and I’ll explain a few inclusions/omissions.
Moulson – Ennis – Stafford
Hodgson – Girgensons – Gionta
Foligno – Mitchell – Stewart
Deslauriers – McCormick – Flynn
Meszaros – Myers
Gorges – Ristolainen
Weber – Ruhwedel/Pysyk
“Where is the Sam Reinhart?” you may be asking. Sure, there’s a good chance that he could be the Sabres’ best forward as soon as next year. But if the team is going to be horrible, why rush a top pick into the lineup unless he plays like he belongs? If I’m Tim Murray, I send down Reinhart unless he plays lights out in camp. No sense in making him take it on the chin with the rest of the team.
Defensively, it seems time for Ristolainen to make the permanent transition to the NHL. He’s already played as a boy among men in Finland and his defensive game looks NHL-ready. The same goes for Pysyk, who has shown growing offensive skills to go with his solid defensive game. Let the kids who look most ready get the first shot. If they can’t stick, Ruhwedel is ready to take a spot while Rochester gets the benefit of having these talented youngsters back in their ranks. Win-win.
Goaltender is pretty cut and dry, too: Enroth has stood on his head in the past and looks like the clear #1 at this point in time, though he doesn’t seem like an ideal #1. Letting him platoon with Neuvirth, who has shown flashes of being a very good goalie in his short time in Buffalo, lets both showcase themselves without the pressures of being “the guy”. This allows Hackett to take over the undisputed #1 spot in Rochester with Nathan Lieuwen as the backup. Suddenly, goaltender is deep with quality talent.
This projected lineup accomplishes two things for sure with a third possibility: first and foremost, it gives the Sabres the most competitive lineup they can possibly have at this point. Even if they’re likely to be offensively inept once again, they’ll be a quality defensive team from top to bottom and have just good enough goaltending to not get blown out on a nightly basis. Being competitive is all this group can hope for until the youthful reinforcements arrive.
Secondly, icing this lineup puts the Sabres in prime tank position. Sure, they added some offense in Moulson and Gionta, but it’s not going to turn these guys into the 1980s Oilers. It’s no secret that the 2015 draft is much deeper than its 2014 counterpart and there are more than a few game-changers to be had. The Sabres will definitely want a shot at Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel at the top of the draft and they have the lineup to put them in a position to garner a top selection. After all, this is all driving towards building for the future and one of the top picks in the 2015 draft certainly helps that.
Lastly, this lineup allows the youthful core of the Sabres to develop across the organization. The ones deemed most ready – Ristolainen, Pysyk– get their crack at being NHL regulars while the ones who may still need seasoning – McCabe, Grigorenko, Zadorov, Armia – get a chance to log big, important minutes in Rochester before potentially making the full-time jump to the Sabres for the 2015-16 season. Patience is the key in developing prospects and it must be shown even when we’d all really love to see the youth invasion take over Western New York right now.
For better or worse, 2014-15 is going to look pretty familiar to Sabres fans for a lot of reasons. Just try to keep reminding yourselves that the future is bright, the Sabres possess a myriad of talented prospects and that it can’t be this bad forever.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @TwoPadStackRW