What’s up, Chillers? If you don’t remember who I am, I can’t say I blame you. It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything and I apologize for the lack of content. Morris Matthews is back on regular hours and that means a whole lot more Buffalo Sabres content will be coming your way.
My last piece was back in April before the unveiling of the 2018 NHL Draft Lottery. Unlike the previous years, the hockey gods smiled down upon the downtrodden fans of Buffalo this time and the Sabres were awarded the first overall selection for the first time since 1987. With it comes the opportunity to select a kid that is being hailed as a generational defensive talent, Rasmus Dahlin.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know that the term “generational talent” has been thrown around quite a bit in the NHL in recent years with the likes of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine all arriving. I know many fans are skeptical as to if Dahlin deserves the title because of this, especially seeing as Aaron Ekblad was hyped to the moon in 2014 and has largely been a bust to this point, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Dahlin.
The 6’2, 183 pound 18-year-old from Trollhattan, Sweden has garnered rave reviews for his strong skating and smart play on both sides of the puck and is being called the best defensive prospect since fellow Swede Erik Karlsson in 2008. Dahlin’s impact potential for a Buffalo team that needs defensive help in the worst way has fans waiting with baited breath. But while the Sabres count down to what I have no doubt they’ll moniker “Dahlin Day”, the team has another big source of intrigue.
The transformation of Ryan O’Reilly’s perception amongst Sabres fans over the past year has been remarkable to put it mildly. Entering this season, O’Reilly was a near universal fan favorite and viewed as one of the key figures in Buffalo’s seemingly never-ending journey to the promised land. One season later, oh man how things have changed, and I still don’t know where it started.
ROR’s most praised trait prior to last season was his leadership, unselfish attitude and willingness to be a team player. Though he struggled pretty bad at points of the first half of last season, the 27-year-old lit up the second half and finished with his highest goal and point total since he came to the team. Despite this, he suddenly starting being called egotistical, lazy and a whiny prima donna who disdains Eichel and his position as the face of the franchise. The fact that a majority of this comes from WGR’s Paul Hamilton, undeniably the team’s most reliable source, makes it even more troubling and confusing. I’ve never had a reason to believe that O’Reilly is any of those qualities, not to discredit the legendary PHam.
Buffalo sports fans have always needed a scapegoat, whether it be for the Bills or Sabres. For the latter, the dubious honor has gone to a plethora of different players. Tim Connolly, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller are just a few in recent memory that stand out. Has O’Reilly really turned into a locker room cancer overnight, or is it more likely that he’s just the new goat? I’ll let you decide, but my vote is on option B.
As one could gather from all this, there has been quite a bit of speculation that the team may be looking to unload O’Reilly. It makes some sense, the team has quite a bit of house-clearing to do this summer and adding one more to that list wouldn’t be difficult. There are reported suitors too, James O’Brien of NBCSN states that Montreal, Vancouver and Carolina have all been interested in dealing for the former All-Star. The Hurricanes are the most intriguing for there’s been rumblings that coveted young star Noah Hanifin could be the return. That makes sense, too. O’Reilly’s eye for the game is top notch and he is exactly the type of playmaker that could rejuvenate the likes of Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen, the ‘Canes could also easily center a rebuild around him.
For the return that Buffalo would get, however, Hanifin may not be the right guy. It’s tough to say that about 2015’s fifth overall pick because he is a bonafide stud in the making and might be in the league’s upper echelon by now if he wasn’t stuck where he is, but Buffalo doesn’t need a guy like that. If they get a defenseman from Carolina, it had better be Justin Faulk, and the reason is simple, Faulk is PROVEN. The Sabres have a plethora of talented young blueliners, including but not limited to Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson, and as good as all of them are and will continue to be, there’s a common denominator: inexperience.
None of those guys have had the luxury of studying under the tutelage of a proven NHL stalwart like Zdeno Chara, Erik Karlsson or Shea Weber. Instead, they’ve had to fly by the seat of their pants under the wings of Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian and their development have suffered as a result. This team needs a reliable, competent mentor, and Faulk is just that. His performances over the past few years make him easily one of the league’s most underrated players, and he could fill a massive leadership void that Buffalo’s defensive corps has possessed for a long time, something Hanifin simply can’t do.
I personally am against the trading of O’Reilly and don’t think there’s any substantial evidence that points to him being a cancer. But, if Buffalo does decide to get rid of him, it has to get something valuable return. Though Hanifin is younger and has higher potential, a guy like Faulk is whom they truly need right now. Let’s hope GM Jason Botterill remembers that.