Buffalo Sabres right wing Justin Bailey (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
The first-year general manager recognized what many Sabres’ fans suspected: The locker room in Buffalo had become toxic. Introducing developing players to that environment could prove detrimental to their growth as professionals.
Though there are only a handful of players on the Amerks’ roster who project as NHL contributors, the 2017-18 season will be critical in helping Botterill and assistant general manager, Randy Sexton determine which players are prepared to make the jump next year.
Blue-chip prospects Brendan Guhle and Alex Nylander are virtually guaranteed to contend for roster spots in 2018-19, though the real intrigue lies deeper on the organizational depth chart.
Very few Sabres lineup prognosticators pegged C.J. Smith as a serious contender to secure a long-term spot on the Sabres roster, however with 23 points in 22 games with Rochester this year, the 23-year-old has put himself in the conversation to contribute as early as next season. While Bailey and Baptiste have struggled to show signs of improvement, Smith has emerged as the Amerks’ leading scorer.
Despite being sidelined with an injury for the first 14 games of the season, Evan Rodriguez has been extremely productive since his return to the Amerks’ lineup, registering 10 points in eight games. His recent performance earned him a call-up to the big club, though unless he sets the league on fire, he’ll likely be sent back to Rochester to help ensure the Amerks sustained success.
Another player whom fans have specifically clamored for this season is goaltender prospect, Linus Ullmark.
Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Amerks goaltender, Linus Ullmark (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)
Through 16 games, the Swedish netminder has posted an impressive .919 save percentage. Given Robin Lehner’s inconsistent play in Buffalo, many have speculated that the organization will elect to trade him before his contract expires on July 1. There is a chance that Ullmark will get an opportunity to start for the Sabres in 2018-19.
The last thing fans in Buffalo want to hear is that they have to remain patient, but the front office is using this season as an opportunity to analyze organizational depth. Though teams have executed incredible mid-season turnarounds in the past, the Sabres haven’t really shown signs of improvement. Botterill won’t waste precious development time in an attempt to salvage what appears to be another lost year in Buffalo.
There is little doubt that the Sabres roster will once again experience significant personnel changes next season, but this time the replacements could come from within the organization.
Sabres’ Roster Purge Has Begun
On Monday the Sabres announced that veteran winger, Matt Moulson had been waived. Unsurprisingly, no other team elected to claim Moulson and his $5 million cap hit. Upon clearing waivers, the Sabres put Moulson on loan to the Los Angeles Kings farm team, the Ontario Reign.
When asked why he elected to loan Moulson to another organization, Botterill stated that there was simply no room for the 34-year-old in Rochester.
While Moulson was lauded by his teammates as a consummate professional, the front office is making it clear that underperforming players will be shipped out.
Soon after the move was announced, Botterill executed a trade with the Detroit Red Wings to acquire former Penguin, Scott Wilson. During his time in Pittsburgh, Wilson was a member of two Stanley Cup championship teams (though he is only credited with one championship due to the number of games played). On a team that has lacked leadership, Wilson will try to make an impact in the Sabres’ locker room.
Newest Buffalo Sabres acquisition, Scott Wilson (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
While on paper these transactions seem relatively insignificant, they mark the beginning of what could be another roster upheaval in Buffalo. It sends a message that lackadaisical play will no longer be tolerated. Very few players are safe.
This past week, Sportsnet analyst, Elliotte Friedman speculated that the Sabres could soon become more active in the trade market.
“There’s a sense from other teams that the Sabres are sending signals that they are open for business, and you can ask about anybody whose name is not Jack Eichel,” said Friedman.
He went on to mention that teams looking to strike a deal for players like Rasmus Ristolainen, Marco Scandella and Sam Reinhart “better be coming with a serious offer.”
While it remains unclear whether or not the Sabres are planning for another full-blown fire sale, slowly but surely, Botterill is putting his stamp on the organization.