30 IN 30 Expansion Preview - Buffalo Sabres

30 IN 30 BUFFALO SABRES (26th place)

Oh Jack Eichel, how quickly you've learned the power of the mass media. The Sabres have since cleaned house after over-involved owner Terry Pegula pandered to his star player's much-publicized request. Although Byslma's replacement remains a 'fill in the blank', Tim Murray's spot has since been filled by Jason Botterill. As much as I struggle with the idea of former NHLer's being anywhere even remotely close to qualified to fill an upper management role - due to their lack of education, understanding of business & law, and little to no work experience beyond the locker room or weight room - Jason avoids my crticism in it's entirety. He returned to the University of Michigan after his playing career to obtain an MBA and has engaged himself with a variety of league office and team roles. I'm sure he'll be a passable replacement. Now onto the work he has to do. 

The Sabres are a team pinned down by underachievers. Young stars ready to blossom but their support cast seem more intent on holding them back then helping them along. Eichel appears to be the force we all expected; Sam Reinhart is a capable number 2 pivot already; and Alex Nylander could be the sort of power play X-factor this team needs next season. But the promise and allure goes away pretty quickly once you consider the struggles of Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Rasmus Ristolainen. Add that to the inconsistent glimpses of Evander Kane's true ability and you have an overall frustrating group to watch. 


Protection list structure


7 Forwards

  1. O'Reilly
  2. Okposo (NMC)
  3. Kane
  4. Ennis
  5. Foligno
  6. Moulson?
  7. Girgensons/Larsson?

3 Defencemen

  1. Ristolainen
  2. Bogosian
  3. McCabe


  1. Lehner 

Note:    ideally players should be above both the 50 GF% and 50 AdjCF% mark

Note: ideally players should be above both the 50 GF% and 50 AdjCF% mark

The protection list structure will be a fairly easy decision for the Sabres. To ensure the best team moving forward after June 20th, they will have to use the 7-3-1 model. The team is for all intensive purposes pretty locked into this list as well, with only one wild card protection up front. Both Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons appear to be battling for this slot. However, their abilities to move up and down the lineup between 2nd and 3rd lines could be a more appealing draw over middling 2nd-liners Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson. The Sabres could venture down this addition by subtraction route, as the two make $4.6M and $5M respectively. With Eichel set for a monster contract in 2018-19 and much needed cap space to throw at a defenceman, getting rid of one (or both) of these guys in the near future could indeed make Botterill's life a little easier. 


Time for Ennis or Moulson to go?

Real consideration has to be given to moving on from these forwards.

Matt Moulson is no longer the 30 goal scorer of yesteryear. Without the luxury of riding shotgun to John Tavares or youth on his side, he's clearly past his peak and not worth the compensation he's currently paid. Tyler Ennis on the other hand is stuck at a crossroads. Injuries have plagued him, his numbers have dropped, and he no longer carries the label of an offensive threat. Turning 28 later this year a change of scenery could be good for him at this point in his career, although putting him on another bad team with low possession numbers won't do much to help him. Complimentary scorers such as these two have a place on NHL rosters but require the right circumstance to get you bang for your buck. The need for both of them on one team is superfluous. 

On the numbers, Moulson is less of a defensive liability than Ennis, showcasing a much higher goal differential (GF%) as well as a higher average Corsi%. This becomes even more apparent when the Sabres are trailing in games - and expectedly on the attack. Players should readily see their stats jump during this portion of play, as comebacks are often reliant on such shot based events increasing. As you can see Moulson distinguishes himself at this key point in games. 

Both players have generated relatively standard team shot production totals while on the ice, but have little to show for it with woefully low shooting percentages for 'scoring line wingers'. As for their impact on teammates, Ennis' primary line-mates appear to see a 2-4% increase in their CF% once apart from him, while Moulson's tend to see this number fall. With almost identical cap hits and term left on their contracts, Moulson's stats distance him from Ennis as the more impactful winger to keep. Furthermore, with priority often placed on youth in this scenario, Buffalo will be able to obtain more on the open market with the 27 y/o Ennis, as he carries higher asset value than the 33 y/o Moulson - making the decision that much easier if a trading partner can be found.


What's left for scraps

Notwithstanding the debate between Moulson and Ennis, it is entirely plausible Buffalo keeps them both and waits till after the expansion draft to find a trading partner. With teams less inclined to trade before the draft unless they have protection slots available, waiting till after the dust has settled would give them more teams to talk with and hopefully even better value - even if it is something as simple as a 2nd round pick (*this is our preferred choice on the matter). In that case, the scraps left for the Golden Knights would be Josh Gorges, a forward like Johan Larsson or Zemgus Girgensons, and a young goaltender in Linus Ullmark. The odds of Vegas picking Josh Gorges out of this group, especially at his $3.9M going rate, are slim to none. Attention will be placed solely on the forwards and Ullmark here.

Middle roster forward or raw keeper

Set to be RFA's, both Girgensons and Larsson are cheap, controllable assets for Vegas to select. The downside will be not knowing which one Buffalo may leave available. Statistically Larsson appears to have greater potential to move up in the lineup as a winger, whereas Girgensons will be buried below both O'Reilly and Eichel/Reinhart (*whomever the coach chooses to play centre), so keeping him will come down to his role as a 3rd line centre and that alone. On our assessment, Larsson deserves the higher rank based upon situational adjusted Corsi%, Pts/GP, and overall offensive contributions. With the added versatility to play centre & wing, Johan should fill the last protection list spot. Girgensons, on the other hand, appears replaceable from the Sabres perspective. For a 3rd line centre, his career Corsi averages, both regular and zone adjusted, have remained well below the desirable 50% or higher mark, while his 47% face-off percentage has seen Buffalo coaches give more responsibility to Ryan O'Reilly instead. 

Taking a look at Ullmark we see a big goalie with minimal track record. At only 23 years of age and likely to sign another cheap deal after earning only 775K, he can be projected as a backup or development goaltender for the Golden Knights. However, what he have seen from him has been far from impressive. His save percentage sits below the .920 threshold we come to expect from NHL calibre tenders, while his goal against average is only still improving at the AHL level. Selecting him through the expansion process would be purely for organizational depth. 

The Expansion pick will be...

3rd line talent will be a dime a dozen in the expansion process so it will fall on Vegas management to determine if Girgensons or Larsson are worth not only a roster selection, but one of their 10 non-contracted forwards selections - as they are required to pick a minimum of 20 players under contract for 2017-18. Currently both RFA's, along with Ullmark, the decision to pick these players will carry with it this additional burden, unless new deals can be signed with Buffalo before the June 20th deadline. 

The decision with Ennis or Moulson would be a trickier one if left available. Both carry hefty cap hits for two more years so the Golden Knights would have to be sure the winger available is capable of 2nd-line scoring duty before pulling the trigger on such a selection. Because Ennis is the younger player, reasonably holding more years to turn his game around, he will likely be protected by the Sabres even though he ranks below Moulson statistically - asset value wins out. Odds then favour Moulson as the player with higher likelihood of availability, however under our analysis he still provides more statistically to this team than Girgensons, and remains quite useful to this Buffalo lineup if the Ennis trade were to occur. For our purposes, he will either be unavailable or passed over, in favour of one of the mentioned alternatives.

Therefore, our pick for the Golden Knights will be Zemgus Girgensons. With Larsson more likely than not to be protected, and Moulson still contributing at a higher rate in both points and possession, Zemgus could be the last man standing from this group without the Sabres making a trade. Ullmark, on the other hand, does not appear ready for backup duty just yet and more appealing depth goalie alternatives should be available. 


Final thoughts

Ryan O'Reilly has playoff beast written all over him. He's a pain to play against, can shut opponents down while still providing offence, and dominates the face-off circle (58%). My only concern is his standalone ability to help a team win in the regular season. The guy has been on one and only one playoff team in his 8 year career. Top tier players find a way to change a franchise's fortune, especially when they have a few other elite talents beside them. So one has to think, is he just a product of his environment or a contributing factor? Unsure. But all signs point to him having to step up as a leader and help Eichel carry this team. 

The salary cap will also be an issue for this Sabres soon. Best to tread lightly on the 'top-end' free agent front and look for value where you can find it. Spending top dollar on one premium player will hurt a team that has a lot of depth positions to fill, along with the new deals for its youngsters. 



Next up: Detroit Red Wings