Kevyn Adams will walk to the stage at the NHL draft next month for the first time as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres.
The event will be held in person for the first time since 2019, as the Canadiens will pick first overall when they host the draft at Bell Center on July 7. The Sabres own picks 9, 16 and 28 in a first round that’s expected to be unpredictable.
Following the NHL draft, the Sabres will prepare for the opening of free agency July 13, which is also the same day the team will host a development camp for the first time in three years.
Let’s get right into readers’ questions:
Andrew Sember asks: Which forward is most likely to be traded to open a roster spot?
Lance: Victor Olofsson. The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent and won’t receive a long-term contract this summer because the Sabres are planning for his role to eventually go to a younger player. He totaled 20 goals despite playing through a wrist injury that impacted his shot, but he emerged as a dynamic playmaker and posted a career-high 29 assists.
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Remarkably, this was Olofsson’s first full NHL season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Interested teams will see that potential, the Sabres’ inevitable top-six logjam, and that Olofsson’s qualifying offer is projected at only $3.25 million, according to CapFriendly.com. He’ll receive more through arbitration or if the case is settled before a hearing, but he could still be a bargain for a contender in need of a goal scorer.
Those reasons are also why the Sabres should try everything to keep Olofsson on a bridge contract. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka had tremendous rookie seasons in Rochester, but are they ready to play 17 minutes per game for the Sabres? Why deplete your depth this soon in the rebuild? There’s no need to open a roster spot unless Adams intends to add an impact forward, which is unlikely.
Evan Delaney asks: Will the Sabres trade for any proven young players this offseason?
Lance: If the Sabres add a young player, the move will be made to fortify their defense depth. Adams told reporters at the end of the season that he intends to pursue a defenseman, right or left shot, to join a group that’s led by Rasmus Dahlin, Mattias Samuelsson, Owen Power and Henry Jokiharju.
There’s little to no defensive depth in the prospect pipeline with 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson expected to return to college in the fall. Carolina’s Ethan Bear is a player to watch here. Bear, 24, is a restricted free agent after an injury kept him out of the playoffs. He has a right-handed shot and a tough-as-nails skill set the Sabers need on the back end.
Jay Irving asks: Do you expect the Sabres to add an established goalie in free agency that is still in their prime? Are there legitimate trade options?
Lance: There aren’t established goals in their prime in free agency. There are rarely. Teams sign those guys because there aren’t many in the NHL. Ville Husso, Darcy Kuemper, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jack Campbell are among the top options available next month. The Sabres are going to pursue Husso and Campbell – they went after top goals last summer – but both have their blemishes and it’s unlikely either will pick Buffalo.
Campbell, according to Evolving-Hockey.com, is projected to receive a six-year contract with a $5.7 million annual cap hit. Husso isn’t much less at $4.96 million over four years. They’ll have other suitors, including playoff contenders. And is Adams willing to give a long-term contract to a backup such as Husso after he wouldn’t give a similar deal to Linus Ullmark a year ago? Also, signing a starting goalie to a long-term contract could be enough to discourage Devon Levi and/or Erik Portillo from signing.
In free agency, the Sabres are more likely to target bargain options such as Casey DeSmith, Mikko Koskinen, Eric Comrie and Kevin Lankinen. There are ample trade options. Will the Bruins make Ullmark available if they’re rebuilding? Jonathan Quick, John Gibson, Semyon Varlamov, James Reimer and Adin Hill are a few names to watch.
@KT_Rogue asks: Can you update us on how analytics will be or is being incorporated into the draft process?
Lance: Sam Ventura, the Sabres’ head of analytics, joined the organization because he can make an impact in the draft, unlike his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who routinely traded their picks. Data was used at the draft last summer – analytics out of certain leagues, such as the Kontinental Hockey League, are more reliable than others – and can supplement in-person and video evaluations. It’s another piece of information the team considers when building its rankings.
Joe Romano asks: Any chance the Sabres make a splash to add a top-six forward?
Lance: No, the Sabres won’t want to add anyone when Quinn, Peterka, Isak Rosen and others are moving closer to the NHL. The plan might be different if Jeff Skinner didn’t have a bounce-back season, but the forward group is mostly set if Olofsson returns with Quinn and Peterka making the team.
Greg asks: Will the Pegulas be willing to spend money on this team? Or will it be more bargain shopping this summer?
Lance: Spending wasn’t the Pegulas’ issue before the pandemic. They burned through money by firing employees and paying them not to work. There were irresponsible contracts given to free agents to try to make up for poor drafting and developing. The Pegulas gave Skinner a $72 million contract and paid Jack Eichel before most teams would.
The bargain shopping last summer occurred because this is Adams’ plan. They need to draft well, develop young players and ensure there’s cap space to pay them when they’re proven NHLers. When the team is ready to contend, then the Pegulas will write big checks.
@robsabres: Will the Sabres use all three of their first-round draft picks?
Lance: Yes, I don’t think there’s a trade out there that would merit moving a first-round pick. Not yet, at least. The only position worth acquiring for picks 16 or 28 is a goalie. The Sabres need to be aggressive there. I understand not wanting to overpay in free agency – and good luck recruiting a proven netminder to come here so soon into the rebuild – but it’s time to be aggressive on the trade market.
Don’t force Don Granato to use fringe NHLers until Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is ready. Go get a starter.
Ed Helinski asks: Who will the Sabres target, entice and overpay to come to Buffalo? Will there be an emphasis on bringing in the right types of players?
Lance: To answer your question about overpaying, no one. It’s not going to happen with this regime. Adams is going to be patient. They don’t need a top-four defenseman badly enough to offer a long-term contract and the forward group is mostly set.
Temper your expectations for their involvement in free agency. They won’t overpay, despite the cap space and needing to reach the floor. Dahlin, Tage Thompson and others will eventually need contract extensions.
The emphasis will be like last summer, when the Sabres used Granato’s connections and analytics to find the right veterans, such as Vinnie Hinostroza and Mark Pysyk. It only takes one player to spoil a team’s culture. Adams will be very careful about who he adds.
Dean Maleenko asks: Give a solid synopsis of the draft for realistic Sabres fans.
Lance: The Sabres will go with forwards at picks 9 and 16, in my opinion. They can grab a goal-scoring winger such as Joakim Kemell or Jonathan Lekkerimaki, followed by a power forward in Rutger McGroarty of the USA Hockey National Team Development Programme. If McGroarty is gone, I’d take a defenseman such as Lian Bichsel, a 6-foot-6 physical specimen who has a different skill set than others in the organization. At 28, the Sabres will either trade the pick or go high-upside. Maybe one of the Russians makes sense here. They are one of few teams who can take a risk on Russian forward Ivan Miroshnichenko, who recently completed treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
@SpilFiasco asks: Do you find it odd that the Sabres seem to be the only team that waits to sign its pending free agents, rather than getting a deal done ahead of time?
Lance: It’s too soon to know how Adams will approach these situations. Jason Botterill preferred waiting. Will Adams do the same with Thompson, who is a restricted free agent next summer? Is it time to give Dylan Cozens a bridge contract? The Sabres were smart to give Dahlin a three-year pact, but that one was an obvious move.
@ButchRollin asks: Shouldn’t they trade Erik Portillo’s rights this summer to acquire a veteran goalie?
Lance: No need to do that right now. These situations can change quickly. Does Portillo change his mind if Michigan makes a coaching change? Mel Pearson isn’t under contract to lead the Wolverines next season. The Sabres will bring Portillo to town for development camp next month to further introduce him to the organization. It’s a great recruitment opportunity.
The Sabres are going to get calls about Portillo – he’s not a free agent until next summer – and I’m sure they’ll listen. I wouldn’t rush to make a deal unless it’s for the right veteran goalie.
@jspoon21 asks: How does attendance look next season?
Lance: It will improve. The Sabres likely did enough to win back some of their season-ticket holders. More progress will be needed to reach pre-pandemic numbers. But the team needs to fix its process for single-game ticket sales. There’s no reason why tickets should have been so expensive for games this season. Know the market and read the room.
Scott Gorman asks: Is there any chance Lawrence Pilut returns to the Sabers next season or do they trade his NHL rights?
Lance: No, I don’t see Pilut returning. For those who missed the latest on Pilut, a Swedish outlet recently reported that he wants to return to the Sabres if there’s an NHL opportunity. Otherwise, he wants his rights traded. So, his stance is the same as it was two years ago when he signed in Russia.
The Sabres aren’t going to give Pilut a one-way contract. A two-way? Sure. They like Pilut and he’d benefit from developing more in Rochester. But they aren’t going to meet the request after his play dropped off this season. Buffalo has enough NHL depth on defense to walk away.
@SabresSocialist asks: Who is the Sabres’ second-line center at the start of the season?
Lance: Cozens. He only had two goals after the All-Star break, but he finished the season ranked third on the team in individual shot quality at 5-on-5, according to Evolving-Hockey.com. The 21-year-old took all the steps you wanted to see during his first 82-game NHL season.
@CurtisNHLDraft asks: Percentage chance that Adams uses all 10 draft picks this year? Over/under two trades on draft day?
Lance: 40%. The Sabres have some uncertainty with their 2021 class because of Prokhor Poltapov and Nikita Novikov being under contract in Russia, but you don’t need to draft 21 players in two years. Adams will use the extra picks this year to add an NHL player and/or move up to take a prospect the Sabres want. I’ll set the over/under at three trades across the two days.
Riley Carr asks: Do you think Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen should be the Sabers’ backup to start the season, or should they pursue someone else for that role, like signing Craig Anderson?
Lance: Luukkonen needs to play in Buffalo or Rochester. He can’t be a backup. The Sabres’ goalie moves this summer will reveal to us if they think Luukkonen is ready for the NHL. You can pencil him in as the Americas’ starter if Anderson returns. Luukkonen isn’t ready to shoulder the workload with Anderson likely to play only 25-30 games. If Anderson walks away, Luukkonen has a shot in Buffalo as long as the Sabers don’t land an obvious starter.
Thank you for all of the questions. As a reminder, they can be submitted via Twitter to @LLysowski, or via email, email@example.com.