The OT: Skills competition additions, fresh trade chatter

January 11, 2018

Another week, another round of Elliotte Friedman’s must-read 31 Thoughts. The Sabres make a couple of appearances while Freidman floats some interesting league news as well.

Despite my best efforts, there’s still a fair share of trade chatter in this week’s edition of The OT, but that’s simply where we are in the course of the year and especially with this edition of the Sabres. 

  1. The NHL tested its new skills-competition ideas Monday in Tampa, but is not yet ready to reveal them. Some details have slipped out. For example, the accuracy competition will add a fifth target (five-hole) and instead of players choosing one to shoot at, a light on the target will force the shooter to go for that one. They are looking at individual skills more than a team event, and are privately excited with some of things they’ve come up with. But it might take a few days before we receive full details.

It’s funny how the All Star game evolves. As a kid and even into my early twenties it was something I always wanted to watch. Now I have only a passing interest in the game. The skills competition, however, is still appointment viewing for me. Some of the events have struck me as overthought in recent years – the breakaway dunk competition comes to mind – so I’m very interested to see how the league approaches this.

My hope? More opportunities to show off the pure skill these guys have with the puck on their stick. More stickhandling and opportunities to show offensive creativity without getting too out of the box (like with the breakaway dunk contest). I say bring on the new events, I can’t wait.

  1. A name starting to creep out there: Brock Nelson. With Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan out, the Islanders need help on the blue line. There will be interest. He’s a good player, slotted behind John Tavares and Mathew Barzal. I’m not even sure he’d be available if the Islanders weren’t in a “missing the playoffs is not an option” stage, although he is one year from unrestricted free agency. I’m told Nelson is very hard on himself, which can affect anyone, but I’ll always take that over someone who doesn’t care enough.

Nelson is an intriguing name if you’re a Sabres fan. He’s had three straight 20-goal seasons and has the ability to strengthen the center position or even slide in with Eichel as they previously did at the Worlds. However, with a year until unrestricted free agency and a general lack of quality defenders on the Sabres roster, that might be a tough deal to swing.

  1. I wonder if the Islanders take a look at Robin Lehner.

This deal, on the other hand, is one that I’d run to make. Lehner has had another nice season and it looks like he’ll post pretty solid numbers for the third year in a row for the Sabres. I’ve mentioned this in a few other places but he reminds me of Tyrod Taylor in many ways. He has some solid numbers and does things within the field of play that shows he belongs in a starting role in the league. But there are plenty of other statistics that don’t reinforce his starting role, coupled with the way some fans view the player with their own eye test and you have plenty of people lobbying to replace Lehner.

I personally don’t think he’s shown enough to solidify his role as the team’s long-term starter. He’s been strong but his inconsistencies leave him short of steady, in my opinion. For a guy who is already making $4M against the cap, and with Linus Ullmark ready to make the jump, I think the time to part ways is now.

Maybe Lehner would interest Garth Snow enough that he’d listen on Nelson, as was mentioned in the thought above. If I were Jason Botterill I’d be telling Snow I’d be willing to take Thomas Greiss off his hands. Greiss has taken a step back after a couple of strong seasons in Brooklyn earned him a $3.33M cap hit for two more seasons. Giving the Isles that roster and cap relief while offering them an upgrade might just help boost the package coming back to Buffalo. Meanwhile, Greiss would make for a terrific tandem partner for Ullmark, who would be clear to make the jump to the NHL for next season.

  1. Toronto is giving talented Travis Dermott a shot on defence. He played his weak side at OHL Erie and the Maple Leafs will try that, too, although Mike Babcock generally isn’t a fan of the idea. But I think they are looking at right-handed options, or veterans who have more experience with playing on the opposite side.

My trips to Erie to check out Connor McDavid in 2014 and 2015 opened my eyes to couple of other talents on the Otters roster. Dermott was one of those guys. He went 34th in the 2015 draft, meaning the Sabres would’ve needed to keep 31st overall to get a shot at him and Brendan Guhle looks just fine to me, but Dermott was high on my wish list entering draft weekend in 2015.

  1. Vancouver skated at Toronto’s practice facility on Friday, and there were a bunch of kids waiting to play afterwards. As Ben Hutton chatted and shook hands for a few seconds, one Canuck said, “He’s handling this better than most of us would.” Not sure it’s easy on Erik Gudbranson, either, because you’re wondering if the next call or text is the end to this saga.

The drama surrounding Gudbranson is super peculiar. Numbers guys would tell you the Canucks could’ve seen this coming before they acquired him. Even with the advertised shortcomings, I would’ve never expected him to play as poorly as he has.

The Canucks are in a tricky spot where they have young prospects playing incredibly well, hello Brock Boeser, but are close to losing key veterans, hello Sedins. Ben Hutton hasn’t been mentioned as a trade chip by Friedman but he’s been in the rumor mill a bit this season. He’s a player I’ve admired for some time and the Sabres would do quite well for themselves to find a way to poach him from the Canucks. He’s absolutely a name to keep an eye on.

  1. Heading into Saturday’s game, Brock Boeser’s 21 goals were on his stick for a combined 22 seconds. That’s incredible, a terrific illustration of his release and accuracy. Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman is very similar, and there aren’t many in the NHL who can do what they do.

Speaking of Boeser, he’s another guy from that loaded 2015 draft who I thought a lot of. I’m loathe to play the hindsight game when it comes to trades, but picking him at 21 would’ve been a mighty fine addition. I think if you redrafted today Boeser would go top 10.

  1. This thing with Alexander Edler “refusing” to pass to Boeser on the power play was brought to Canucks coach Travis Green, who laughed it off. One coach saw it on his pre-scout and has a theory: that if anything goes wrong, because of the way he has to turn, Edler is more comfortable defending a rush from Henrik Sedin’s side than Boeser’s.

I wasn’t going to include this at first but I chewed on it a bit and felt there was a connection to Buffalo’s struggling power play. I’ve seen a few fans ask if Ristolainen is the right guy to be triggering the top of the umbrella with Eichel to his left. My thought has always been that it makes more sense for a righty to dish to Eichel as opposed to a lefty because it’s a more natural forehand pass to make. This helps reinforce that in a way as you see the potential for a player who has more comfort dishing to one side as it keeps them in front of the play and removes the risk of a poor pass or more difficult recovery in the event of a turnover. Long story short, I think Risto dishing to Eichel on the power play is just fine; it’s Buffalo’s entry and motion off the puck that needs work.

Chris Ostrander
About Chris Ostrander

Chris Ostrander is a contributor to The Buffalo Star and also runs the Sabres and Buffalo-focused blog Two in the Box and The Instigator Podcast. Fascinated by design, gear and fan engagement, Chris is a goaltending fanatic with a passion for Buffalo development.

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