This week's Eastern Edge looks ahead to next year for both the Sabres and Canadiens.
After covering the offseason outlook for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets last week, we begin our climb up the Eastern Conference standings. This week will see the spotlight put on the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, two teams with different sets of expectations heading into the year that finished close to the bottom in the East. The focus will be put primarily on the short-term rather than the long-term future, although the developments of the next few months will certainly have a great impact on keeper leagues as well.
Last year, the Buffalo Sabres finished last in the NHL, and were guaranteed either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel at the draft. While they did land their future franchise forward in Eichel, the existing roster was extremely poor. As a result, even with major acquisitions such as the second-overall pick, and Ryan O’Reilly via trade, the Sabres were once again destined to fall well short of the playoffs. The future looks bright for this team but there are still some major holes to fill.
Up front, the Sabres are fairly set in the top-six with Eichel, O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Tyler Ennis established in their roles. Beyond them it thins out quickly and the lack of depth becomes a major problem when injuries hit key players, although Reinhart’s emergence was aided by the void created by Ennis missing most of the year to injury. This stroke of bad luck hurts Ennis moving forward as there is one more body in the mix competing for key minutes, especially on the power play. His upside remains the same but he is at risk to fall into a less favorable role for long stretches.
Barring an acquisition in free agency or via trade, look for the final spot in the top-six to remain a revolving door. Looking at salaries you would think captain Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson will get a lot of looks although Zemgus Girgensons, a former Sabres’ first-round pick, is also in the mix. Moulson is a true dark horse as he has had success in the past playing with a talented centerman, namely John Tavares. However, the fact Moulson fell flat on his face this year when a role on a scoring line was his for the taking is troubling.
On the blueline, the Sabres have some nice pieces in place but need some help. Obviously, Rasmus Ristolainen has been excellent as the team’s top defenseman as he topped both 40 points and 25 minutes in average ice time this year. Behind him, the two primary veteran presences are Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges who both have durability questions. Meanwhile, Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk are both young and inexperienced, and are depth defensemen at this point. Finally, Cody Franson has been a bust in Buffalo after being a quality fantasy defenseman when he was with the Leafs.
Signing a defenseman in free agency to provide some stability and leadership seems logical for the Sabres. Otherwise, there would be a lot of pressure on McCabe and Pysyk to take big steps forward next year. Of course, there is room for Franson to re-discover his old form if he is up to the task. Keep him on your radar as a late-round pick if your league is large enough for such gambles.
In goal, the Sabres received excellent play from a trio of goaltenders this year. Chad Johnson led the way with 22 wins and a .920 save percentage in 45 games, but is an unrestricted free agent and will probably test the open market for a better opportunity. The Sabres paid heavily for Robin Lehner so Johnson would be well-served to try to latch on in a platoon situation where there is no established main guy.
Lehner is the golden boy and will get top priority when healthy. Unfortunately, he is often injured which is a problem when a starting goalie’s job is to be available to play the majority of his team’s games. He did well when he suited up with a .924 save percentage in 21 games. Given his history, look for Linus Ullmark, who appeared in 20 games this year, to see a lot of action in Buffalo next year. All in all, the Sabres have talent in goal but health questions make them high-risk moving forward. Should things fall apart in the crease, the Sabres are a candidate for an in-season trade or signing.
With the Buffalo roster incomplete and populated with several injury-prone players, there will be opportunities for prospects to arrive on the scene next year. Evan Rodrigues had a good showing at the end of the year and tallied two points, including his first NHL goal, in the season finale. With that said, his production is surely unsustainable given he scored just nine goals and 30 points in 72 contests in the AHL this year. Consider him a long-shot to have any impact next year.
Big winger Hudson Fasching looks like a good prospect but fantasy owners should keep expectations in check for next year. After all, he is just 20 years old and a couple months ago was playing college hockey. Instead, look for Fasching to spend most of the year down in the AHL with a few cups of coffee with the main roster. Likewise, Justin Bailey could be in for some more seasoning with some more extended call-ups to Buffalo mixed in. He may have the inside track on Fasching at this point due to his strong rookie campaign in the AHL this year.
A more likely candidate to make the jump is Daniel Catenacci, particularly in a bottom-six role. His offensive upside is limited although he is a feisty player who throws his body around so he may have some potential in deep multi-category leagues.
Back on the blue line, look for newly-signed Casey Nelson to make a push for a spot next year. His four points in seven games at the end of this year despite limited ice time are a sign that he has the potential to be a decent secondary scorer if called upon.
After a few successful campaigns in a row, expectations were high for the Canadiens heading into this year. They started the year red-hot for the Habs, winning their first nine games and continuing their strong play the first time Carey Price went down to injury. But when things took a turn for the worse in December, the team never recovered. As the season came to a close there were a lot of injured bodies, especially on defense, leading to a number of new faces making their NHL debuts.
Up front is where the Canadiens have the most question marks, particularly in their top-six. Alex Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec are well-established on the scoring lines. The other two spots were a revolving door with names like David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Sven Andrighetto, Dale Weise and Alex Semin among others seeing time. With Galchenyuk now seemingly a full-time center, the team has a greater need for some scoring help on the wing and the players currently available have not produced enough to date. Depending on the help they acquire this offseason, Eller and Desharnais could become trade bait.
Ideally, the team will find a way to bring in two capable scorers to play in the top-six. This would drop Eller and Andrighetto into bottom-six roles to help with secondary scoring. Otherwise, there will be a lot of pressure put on players lacking a track record to produce.
As mentioned, this year, the Habs’ defense was hit hard by injuries as their top six defensemen from the start of the year combined for 110 man-games lost. Tom Gilbert is not expected back, and there have been rumblings at times that Alexei Emelin could be shipped out. Otherwise, look for mostly status quo heading into next year as Greg Pateryn steps into Gilbert’s former role.
If the defense can hold up health-wise, look for Petry and Beaulieu to help finally take some of the load off of Andrei Markov. The Russian defender’s average slipped under 24 minutes for the first time since 2011-12 when he was having knee problems, but was seeing an absurd amount of minutes towards the end when the injuries piled up.
With that said, the team would be well-served to continue adding experienced depth defensemen to their organization that can be called up and not overwhelmed under NHL pressure. Fantasy-wise this is not very significant, although farm-hands like Mark Barberio and Joel Hanley had strong stretches of games with the Canadiens.
It is worth noting each of the Canadiens’ current bottom-four defensemen (Jeff Petry, Nathan Beaulieu, Emelin, Pateryn) have some multi-category appeal. As lesser names, they could make good late-round selections. The latter two are very physical while the former two are more well-rounded defenders able to contribute a bit across the board. Beaulieu has also been a surprise on the PIM front with a combined 90 in 128 games the last two years.
In goal, Price’s ailing knee is going to be a concern for some time. Starting goalies of his caliber have to be available for well over 60 games per year so there will be questions about durability even after he returns to the ice. Regardless of how close he can get to his Hart-trophy form of 2014-15, Price’s return will be big for the Canadiens and will put them back in playoff contention.
In Price’s absence, Mike Condon struggled at times as he posted 21 wins and a .903 save percentage in 55 games. He did about as well as expected given he was a rookie forced into the starter’s role. He should be a fine backup next year but seeing less action will eliminate any fantasy value he previously had.
Ben Scrivens played most of the year as Condon’s backup but was not very effective. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and is likely going to sign an AHL contract as a depth goaltender. Should the Canadiens need to call up a goalie next year, look for them to turn to recently-signed Charlie Lindgren.
Additionally, the Canadiens have a number of prospects pushing for NHL action. The biggest name is former first-round pick Michael McCarron who had some good moments with the Canadiens this year. With size, toughness, and enough versatility to play center or wing, he could play a third-line role with occasional trips to the top-six. His value for next year would be limited strictly to multi-category leagues.
Daniel Carr also played well in Montreal with nine points in 23 contests despite an average ice time of just 12 minutes. He would have played more but lost two months to injury. Carr should be on the team this year as a depth scorer.
Charles Hudon is more of a long-shot to make it on opening night, but with back-to-back 50-point campaigns in the AHL to start his pro career, he cannot be ignored. With McCarron’s size and Carr’s track record in the NHL, look for Hudon to be limited to cups of coffee in the NHL next year.
This week the Canadiens added Artturi Lehkonen to the mix of candidates to make the squad out of training camp by signing the 20-year-old to an entry-level contract. Lehkonen had a great year in Sweden and led the league with 11 playoff goals as he helped Frolunda HC win the league championship. The big knock against him is his lack of size.
Follow me on Twitter @DH_EricDaoust.
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