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Game #29 – Sabres vs. Hawks: Q&A With Die By The Blade’s Melissa Burgess

Melissa Burgess is a contributor to DieByTheBlade.com (still our favorite hockey blog name). You can follow her on Twitter @_MelissaBurgess.

Maybe it only seems like the Sabres are in year 87 of a rebuild, but with names like O’Reilly, Eichel, Okposo, Ristolainen, Kane why has this season been such a balls-up?

Honestly, I wish I knew. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating. Every season, we talk about the rebuild, and every season, the results are the same. This year realistically should be different. The Sabres have all this great offensive talent, like the names you mentioned, plus a new head coach in Phil Housley. But some nights, it seems like they’re just kind of skating around rather than actively playing the game, fighting for the puck, battling in the corners. The opposing team will score goals that leave me scratching my head, thinking “… how did [goalie] not save that?”
I don’t think anyone really expected the Sabres to be playoff contenders this year, but many expected them to at least battle, or be able to compete against other NHL teams. Instead, you’ve got all these seemingly-great players who are barely showing up. Eichel is hit-or-miss. It took O’Reilly seven games to get his first goal of the season, and Okposo 12 games. Overall, sometimes it seems like they lack heart. It doesn’t mean they want to lose, per se, but just that the passion and energy to win isn’t there.
Throw in more off-ice team-building exercises. Shake up line combinations in practice and in games and figure out what works. Make players want to be here, and make them want to fight for their spot. Do whatever it takes, because the team needs SOMETHING to get going here.
Speaking of Ristolainen, he’s in the top three in the league in minutes per game. But is he actually worthy of that kind of load?
The short answer, in my opinion, is… yes. As I write this, Ristolainen (27:00) is second in icetime leaguewide, behind only Ryan Suter. Suter’s averaged four seconds more ice time per game than Ristolainen, in eight more games played. He’s been a critical point of the Sabres’ defense and is really, observably, one of the anchors of Buffalo’s blue line. He’s also quite effective on the power play, with 10 shots and 2 takeaways with the man advantage this season.
Is it ideal to have one player skating in nearly half of every game? Probably not. Ristolainen actually played 30:42 in the win over Colorado on Tuesday night. Is there a concern about overworking him? Is it realistic that he could play those minutes every night? Probably not. But is he worth playing that much? Absolutely.
Before the draft of ’15, it felt as if Eichel was right there with McDavid. Run CMD has an MVP and 100-point season to his name. Eichel has had effective, quality seasons as well, but not quite the heights of McDavid. Is that a question of teammates? Just a different learning curve? Something else?
I understand where it’s easy for people to put Eichel and McDavid up next to each other, since they both came in the same draft year and all. But in reality, they’re two very different players. McDavid grew his offensive prowess playing in juniors alongside other young guns like Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. Eichel played in the USA Hockey system and only one year at Boston University.
Ultimately, I think what it comes down to is… well, a lot of things. First, you’ve got to consider the different conferences. Yes, you’re seeing a lot of the same opponents overall, but the styles of play and competition in the Eastern Conference as opposed to the Western Conference aren’t the same.  Look at the overall league standings from last season. Three of the top four teams in the league were from the Eastern Conference. Six of the league’s top ten scorers came from Western Conference teams. Do we ever take into consideration not just teammates, but who teams are playing against, and the level of competition there?
It’s also a matter of considering how they’re being used on their respective teams and alongside their teammates. Look at last season, for instance. McDavid had 100 points (30-70) in 82 games. He averaged 21:08 ice time per game. Eichel had 57 points in 61 games; if he had played a full season, that may have amounted to about 77 points in 82 games. His average ice time was 19:55, slightly less than McDavid. Of course, both have been playing on teams that are pretty much at the bottom of the league. McDavid is also significantly a passer, which is pretty evident by the fact that he had 70 assists last year. They’re just different players at the core, and they’re going to be utilized differently in different systems, and having unique learning curves.
With Evander Kane having the numbers he does and this being the last year of his deal, are the Sabres going to flog him for whatever they can get at the deadline?

I don’t think you can just let Kane go for anything. Botterill (Sabres GM) has to really carefully consider what he’s doing here. Yes, Kane is having a good year. Yes, this is the last year of his deal. But at what point do you decide “okay, this package is good enough to make this trade” over “we’re going to try and re-sign him?”

I wouldn’t be surprised to see him traded at the deadline, but the problem with that is, you may not get as much for him since he could end up just being a rental player somewhere else. Focusing on his on-ice skills, Kane’s one of the best players on the Sabres right now – you can’t just give him up for nothing.

If you were GM, what are you doing to move this thing along so the Sabres can once again be a playoff team in what is a pretty crap division?
Night in and night out, I seem to be saying the same thing as I watch games: something’s gotta give. Okay, maybe I’ve been saying that for years now. And the team has tried different things – new coaches, new players – but the bottom line is, they can’t keep being at the bottom of the league, and the division. It’s obviously easier for a team to let go of one coach versus swapping out 20+ players, but getting rid of the coach isn’t always the right answer. Players have to be committed to the team’s system, and have to want to succeed. Right now there’s a level of frustration building around this team, and although the circumstances aren’t great, maybe that frustration is exactly what they need, to give them that extra spark, that extra push.
If I’m GM, I think I’m trying to move Robin Lehner for the right price. He’s played most of the Sabres’ games this season but still fails to show consistency and lets in a lot of goals that shouldn’t have been. I’m also getting Josh Gorges out of the picture, as he really just seems to be slowing down the team’s defense. I think the other thing that can be done is to really make guys fight for their roster spots. Just the other night, Zemgus Girgensons was a healthy scratch. He has four points this season and, quite frankly, needs to be doing more. So you scratch him, have him sit a game or two, and hope that brings some spark when he returns.

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