Core Values: Sabres rebuild off to good start
The Buffalo Sabres are in the middle of what could be a lengthy rebuild, but its multitude of high draft picks in recent years has the club off to a good start to a brighter future.
In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.
With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.
The Buffalo Sabres were a team that their own general manager said was “hard to watch” last year. That may have been an understatement at various points last season. The Sabres finished dead last in the league with a 21-41-10 record and jettisoned longtime franchise stars Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller over the course of the year, thus closing the book on the Sabres of old.
It was a dreadful year. But this is a team that knows where it’s at and it appears they have a general manager with a clear vision for where they’re going. Since Tim Murray joined the staff, he hasn’t seemed to have taken a wrong step yet.
The Sabres are essentially in the midst of a brick-by-brick rebuild of a franchise that was flooded with optimism not all that long ago when Terry Pegula purchased the team and promised Stanley Cups and good hockey. Mistakes followed in bad contracts and a lack of vision. But that seems to be a thing of the past with Murray, who remained aggressive in free agency and has been measured in other moves since he came on in the middle of last season.
To be fair, a lot of this rebuild begun with former GM Darcy Regier and despite all of his mistakes, he got the team off to a seemingly positive start on the road to improvement through trades that brought in multiple first-round picks and used those to find potential franchise staples like Zemgus Girgensons , Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov . The latest addition was Murray’s however, in nabbing forward Sam Reinhart second overall this year. That's just another step towards improvement.
Now the Sabres have a young core with a few veterans mixed in to start really moving forward in the rebuild. Offseason signings and trades brought in veterans who are on board with being part of a restructuring team and let go those that weren’t ( Christian Ehrhoff ). This team still seems a long ways away from competitiveness, but there appears to be a path to future success.
That makes this core a little bit on the unique side. The Sabres will rely more heavily on their young players that are among the most recent draftees, but they also have a few veteran players on long-term deals that may yet be part of the solution in Buffalo.
Core Values: Buffalo Sabres
Players (Age, term remaining on contract): D Tyler Myers (24, 5 years), LW Matt Moulson (30, 5 years), C Zemgus Girgensons (20, 2 years), C Sam Reinhart (18, 3 years), C Tyler Ennis (24, 5 years), D Rasums Ristolainen (19, 2 years), C/W Cody Hodgson (24, 5 years)
Total cap hit for 2014-15: $22,094,167 (32% of cap space consumed by seven players)
Average age: 22.7
Total stats for 2013-14: 71 goals, 93 assists, 164 points (40% of team’s total production)
About the Core
Matt Moulson: Though it will ultimately be the youth that proves most important to this core, the fact that the Sabres were able to bring in a highly-productive veteran player on a five-year contract shows that they believe Moulson will be able to help usher in this new era of Sabres hockey. Moulson first came to the Sabres in the trade that sent Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders . After 44 games, Moulson was flipped to the Minnesota Wild at the deadline, but came back to the team on July 1 as a UFA. A three-time 30-goal scorer, Moulson brings a veteran top-six forward who can score on a team that may yet have a lot of trouble doing so over the next few years. He also has some limited playoff experience as well, which could come in handy if this team improves rapidly enough. Moulson’s joining the team, knowing full well what he’s getting into, must also indicate he is prepared to help be a leader and guide the youth movement, which could bring plenty of value in itself. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014
Tyler Myers: Myers is a bit of a symbol of the old Sabres, but he’s also just 24 years old and remains a player that should be a vital part of this team through the rebuilding years. After winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 2010, Myers has fallen back to earth a bit. He had 11 goals and 37 assists for 48 points as a rookie and has yet to match those career totals. Injuries have slowed him down further over the last three seasons. What has made this more difficult is the long-term, expensive extension he’s been playing on for the last two years. He may not be meeting his contract just yet, but again, at 24, there’s still a lot of time for Myers to regain form and be the No. 1 the Sabres desperately need him to be over the next five seasons. With 138 career points in 318 NHL games, the 6-foot-8, 227 blueliner has definitely shown some flashes in his career of being a top-end player. If he hits his stride again in the next year or two, the Sabres will be a much better team faster than expected. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 12th overall
Sam Reinhart: He hasn’t played a second of NHL hockey and was only just drafted by the Sabres, but it is quite clear that if the Sabres rebuild is going to work, Reinhart has to be a huge part of it. Selected second overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Reinhart is likely to make the Sabres roster immediately. He had 105 points with the Kootenay Ice in the WHL last season and has starred for Canada at both the World Junior and World Under-18 Championships. The playmaking center simply has to hit for the Sabres to keep them on the right track of this rebuild. He appears to have the most potential for impact among the most recently drafted forwards in the Sabres system and after ripping up the Junior ranks to the tune of 254 points in 203 games in the WHL, he should be an impact player for the Sabres in due time. How he was acquired: 2014 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall
Zemgus Girgensons: After making his NHL debut last season, Girgensons showed signs of the promise that led him to being selected 14th overall in 2012. He posted 22 points in 70 games for the Sabres as a rookie. With a year under his belt, he should expect more responsibility and will have to rise to the occasion. Having had familiarity with Sabres head coach Ted Nolan for years as Nolan was Latvia’s national coach through this last season, Girgensons has a bit of a leg up on his fellow Sabres. With tremendous physical strength, good speed and a high-energy game that matches with a solid skill level, Girgensons could be an impact player for a long time for the Sabres if he continues down this path on his rather rapid development. He could be a leader among the wave of young players with how he plays and the level of respect he has been gaining in a short period of time. How he was acquired: 2012 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 14th overall
Tyler Ennis: Based on the five-year extension he earned this summer, Sabres management clearly believes Ennis is a valuable asset in the rebuilding process. He was the team’s second leading scorer last season and now has two 20-plus goal seasons under his belt. He’s a difference maker on a team that doesn’t have a whole lot of those with a career average of 0.62 points per game. The undersized forward has 166 career points in 267 career games, all played with the Sabres. Quite frankly, they need him to produce and at an even higher clip if they’re to remain somewhat competitive over the next few years, but at just 24, he could be entering some key years of his career right in the heart of his new deal with the Sabres. That could bring some solid value to the team. Additionally, keeping Ennis around will let others in the system mature and give the Sabres a chance to exercise some patience before possibly shuffling the deck again with the lineup. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 26th overall
Rasmus Ristolainen: After getting his first taste of NHL action last season in 34 games with the Sabres, Ristolainen may be ready to make the jump full time by next season. He’s on this list as a sort of representative of the next wave of Sabres defensemen that include Nikita Zadorov, Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk , all of whom will be addressed a bit later. Ristolainen has a chance to be a strong top-four rearguard in the near future for the Sabres. After he was sent down to the AHL, Ristolainen performed extremely well with 20 points in 34 games for the Rochester Americans. Additionally, he was a standout performer on Finland’s gold-medal team at the World Junior Championship last winter. Brimming with confidence, he could be ready to seize a role on the Sabres and looks like their defenseman of the future. He and Nikita Zadorov, both selected in the 2013 draft, have the chance to be a special duo for a lot of years with this team. How he was acquired: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, first round, eighth overall
Cody Hodgson: One of the three highest-paid forwards on the team and with five years remaining on his contract, Hodgson will likely be more of a stopgap in the rebuilding process. That said, he’s an important player for this team right now. After leading the squad with 44 points, Hodgson has grown into a top-line threat for the Sabres. Since coming to the team in a trade in 2011-12, he has 86 points in 140 games, an average of 0.61 points per game. Hodgson is a year removed from his best season as a pro when he put up 34 points including 15 goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Something similar to that performance over the next few years may help the Sabres stay somewhat competitive as they continue their rebuilding process. It will be interesting to see where Hodgson ends up as the Sabres continue on the rebuilding track. His contract is tradeable and could bring back a decent return if he maintains some productivity over the next few years, but for now, Hodgson is a solid top-six contributor for Buffalo. If he takes another step forward as a player, he very well could become a more vital part of this team's future, just like Ennis. How he was acquired: Traded from the Vancouver Canucks for Zack Kassian on February 27, 2012
Who’s next in line
Though not directly tied to the Sabres core at this point, those that are next in line will remain important pieces of the future of the organization.
Mikhail Grigorenko still has the chance to be a special player for the Sabres, even though his development, contract and just about everything since he was drafted has been botched to date by the previous administration of the Sabres. The gifted Russian has twice started the season with the Sabres only to end the year back in junior. He has just eight points in 43 NHL games, so he wasn’t ready for the league at that time, but at just 20 years old, there’s still time to get his development back on track.
The Sabres didn’t make the same mistake with Nikita Zadorov last year. He got a brief taste of the NHL, but the 6-foot-5 Russian defenseman was sent back to junior without burning a year off his valuable entry-level contract. Between his performance with the London Knights and Russia’s World Junior team last year, there’s a lot to get excited about for Sabres fans with Zadorov. He looks like he could be an NHLer in the near future and a really good one at that.
The Sabres also have strong defensive prospects in Mark Pysyk and Jake McCabe, who each got a taste of the NHL last season. Pysyk is 22 and McCabe is 20, so they could be long-term staples if they reach their full potential.
There are some older players that will still likely have some sort of role in this organization over multiple years including Marcus Foligno , Chad Ruhwedel and recent acquisiting Nicolas DesLauriers.
The team also has a litany of solid draft picks that could one day become full-time contributors to the NHL roster led by Joel Armia , J.T. Compher, Daniel Catenacci, Brendan Lemieux, and Hudson Fasching, a former Los Angeles Kings pick that was acquired via trade last season. If a few of those guys pan out, the organization is looking pretty good in the depth department as well.
The coming drafts will prove especially important. As it stands now, the Sabres have three first-round picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, which is expected to be especially deep. Plus, if Buffalo’s season doesn’t go very well next year and even with the offseason additions, it probably won’t, they could be rewarded with one of the top two picks and have a shot at the highly-touted Connor McDavid or American phenom Jack Eichel. Either of those players have potential to be franchise altering picks.
Sabres fans are going to have to be patient. That’s asking a lot considering the team hasn’t been great over the last few seasons and probably won’t be for a few more. That said, the building blocks getting put in place and the seemingly steady hand of Tim Murray could put the organization on a path to future success.
Murray has scoffed at the idea that this rebuild is going to take a long time, but even with offseason moves it probably won't be immediate. It seems like Buffalo's GM is on an aggressive timeline, but the Sabres really are already about two years deep into their rebuilding process. It’s not completely outlandish to believe this franchise has potential to crawl out of the basement and into competitiveness over the next few years. Building a Stanley Cup contender is something else all together.
In addition to adding Moulson, the Sabres signed local boy Brian Gionta , who could be a solid leader to help bring along the young players and perhaps be a captain as the organization builds over the next few years. They also added Josh Gorges , Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros , who may not be ideal candidates for a rebuilding team, but if they can allow the younger defensemen to marinate more in the AHL, they’re worth having.
The club may not be terribly steady in goal unless one of Jhonas Enroth or Michal Neuvirth can establish themselves as a No. 1, which is asking a lot. That said, both are only under contract for one year, so that is a position that is going to need a more long-term solution it would seem.
Up front, there’s going to have to be a reliance on youth. The hope is that Sam Reinhart can jump in and assimilate to the NHL rather quickly. Another year of growth from Zemgus Girgensons, Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson could go a long way. Moulson and Gionta can kind of be the guiding lights for them over the next few years, while the Sabres can look to established veterans like Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart to have better seasons as each are in contract years.
The Sabres could be tough to watch again next year, but it seems unlikely they'll be anything like last year's team. The veteran additions have been saying all the right things about playing for a rebuilding team. You have to believe this is a club that is going to put up a fight at least and not simply tank. It just wasn’t built that way.
If things do go south, however, a top-two pick again could go a long way to altering the course of the franchise with one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel ready to jump into the league.
Whether they tank or not, the Sabres do have a base to build off of with plenty of young players showing promise for brighter days ahead. Patience will remain a key word for this franchise, however. It seems that they have a general manager who is more than willing to exercise that, while also continually looking for ways to make this team better. It’s not ideal, but it’s the situation the team is in and it’s the only path to a brighter future.
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