The Buffalo Sabres reported to 2019 training camp today, which will come as music to the ears of fans of the team. Buffalonians endured a long and dry summer with not many things to talk about. The waiting is over and the road to the beginning of hockey season is at last underway.
2019-20 is going to be a crucial season for the Sabres, regardless of the outcome. With fans and critics alike growing consistently more impatient, the team needs to put results on the ice this year. There are no two ways about it.
Trying to preview the entire team in one article would be far too much, so I’ve decided to break it down facet by facet. Today we’ll start by grading GM Jason Botterill’s summer.
It would be difficult even for the team’s most ardent supporter to deny that the Sabres had a very uneventful summer. Despite a free agent class rife with big name talents that would have suited the needs of the team, Botterill and the front office did not pursue any marquee names. Instead they signed a group of unheralded midcarders that most fans probably had to google.
Botterill’s biggest move of the summer was without question resigning Jeff Skinner. Though there were fears that Skinner would walk away after Buffalo stank the joint out in his first season with the team, the the 27-year-old re-upped with an eight-year, $72 million deal in June. For the sake of both the Sabres and Botterill personally, the move needed to happen.
Upon his arrival in the summer of 2018, Skinner formed instant chemistry with Jack Eichel and the two turned into a lethal combo. The Markham, Ontario native posted a career-high 40 goals and tied his career high in points with 63 for the third time. He was named an NHL All-Star for the first time since his rookie year in Carolina and became the first Sabre in 10 seasons to score 40 goals (Thomas Vanek, 2008-09). Now that Skinner will have the chance to further develop his compatibility with Eichel and Sam Reinhart, Buffalo’s top line is locked up and there is no reason to believe it will be broken up.
Buffalo’s most high-profile acquisition of the summer was D Colin Miller of Vegas in exchange for two future draft picks. Miller, 26, is an offensive minded blue-liner who should give the Sabres some desperately-needed production from the position. A familiar face to Buffalo thanks to his two seasons with Boston, Miller could potentially see top pairing minutes this season and could find himself alongside young phenom Rasmus Dahlin.
Botterill brought back another familiar face to Sabres fans as well, only this one sparked controversy. Jimmy Vesey, the 2016 Hobey Baker winner who snubbed the Sabres when they attempted to sign him that summer, winds up in the blue and gold after all. The winger didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his three seasons with the Rangers, and he’s now playing for a city that very well may still hold a grudge against him. Vesey undoubtedly will start the season as persona non grata, and he’ll have to win over fans by playing well.
Another former Bruin, Marcus Johansson signed for two years after being defeated by Ryan O’Reilly and the Blues for the Stanley Cup in June. Buffalo hasn’t done much at all to mend their second line woes, but Johansson could offer mild relief as he does figure to be a second or third liner. Splitting last year between the Bruins and Devils, he posted a respectable 30 points in 58 games. A 2009 first round pick by Washington, “MoJo” as he’s known has scored 20 or more goals twice and the Sabres would love it if he could recapture that muse.
The most puzzling move was the trade of 2016 first round pick Alexander Nylander to Chicago. The move isn’t confusing on Buffalo’s end, but rather Chicago’s because the Sabres received Finnish D Henri Jokiharju, (29th overall, 2017) in return. Blackhawk fans were enraged that team let the kid go, and their anger is founded. The Blackhawks seemed to have big plans for the Finn, seeing as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews drafted him personally at Chicago’s United Center at the 2017 Draft. Thought of as an heir to the throne long held by the rapidly aging Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook it was a shocker that the Blackhawks sent Jokiharju packing. Buffalo stole the 20-year-old when you consider it gave up a quickly fading prospect that languished under managerial neglect in return.
To summarize, the Sabres made a couple of mildly notable moves over the summer, but it was still an underwhelming performance considering how many problems the team has. If I had to grade the offseason, I’d give it a C+ because a couple of the moves have big payoff potential, but the others look like duds.
What do you grade the Buffalo Sabres’ summer of 2019? Be sure to let me know on Twitter as always and check back for part 2, coming soon!