Nikita Zadorov (Bill Wippert/Getty Images)
Arizona and Buffalo are in a battle for the NHL’s basement and the shot at a generational talent, but who will fare better in five years’ time? The Coyotes have the power up front, but the Sabres’ backend has the makings of a bright future.
The talk of the trade deadline wasn’t so much the trades as it was the basement teams doing all they could to remain in the Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel sweepstakes. Arizona and Buffalo, the two biggest culprits, were either jibed or lauded for their moves.
For the Coyotes, a squad in the midst of a nine game losing streak, the deadline week moves included ridding themselves of Antoine Vermette, Keith Yandle and Zybnek Michalek while failing to add any players that can improve their lineup tomorrow. In Buffalo, talk was of a fiercer demolition of the roster in hopes locking up 30th in the standings was in the offing. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth was sent packing, as were Chris Stewart, Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn. All this is to say if you could help Buffalo win games, you were gone.
But there’s strategy to the rebuild – or the tanking, if you so choose. By breaking up the roster and starting the youth movement a bit early, the two franchises are setting themselves up to rebuild as quickly as they can. As we’ve seen with Edmonton and Calgary, rebuilds can take many forms, but both Buffalo and Arizona seem content on using a similar strategy. That said, who stands to benefit most from icing awful entries this season? In five years, will we be talking about the brilliance of Coyotes GM Don Maloney or the shrewdness of Sabres GM Tim Murray?
When it comes to instant impact, what Buffalo has done will lead to a more swift impact on the team’s fortunes and one that will still be felt five years from now. With 43 points in 63 games, the worst total by three points, Buffalo got rid of their goaltending, they shed themselves of scoring and, in all likelihood, they’ve secured the first overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Getting either McDavid or Eichel will have a lasting impact on the offensive talent of the club. Add to it that Buffalo already has Zemgus Girgensons playing in the NHL as well as Sam Reinhart, Mikhail Grigorenko and Hudson Fasching waiting in the wings and they’ve got the makings of a top-six.
Those final three names are a big part of the Sabres’ future, to be sure. Reinhart, the second overall selection in the 2014 draft, is the top ranked prospect in THN’s 2015 Future Watch issue (on sale this week) and, obviously, the top prospect in Buffalo’s system. Grigorenko is the 38th ranked prospect in Future Watch and has had a good season in AHL Rochester, posting 10 goals and 31 points in 38 games. Fasching, ranked 75th in Future Watch, has 9 goals and 19 points in the NCAA.
Meanwhile, in the next half-decade, Arizona will benefit most from their trades of Yandle and Vermette. Though the first-round pick they got from Chicago for Vermette could amount to nothing, having another shot in the first round of what looks to be the deepest draft in some time will be huge for putting the Coyotes into Stanley Cup contention by the time 2020 rolls around. As for Yandle, trading away the blueliner netted the Arizona the Rangers’ top ranked prospect, Anthony Duclair, among other things.
Duclair already has some NHL experience under his belt, playing 18 games with the Rangers this season and scoring one goal and seven points. He was the 17th highest ranked prospect in Future Watch, too – that’s pretty high praise from scouts. But it won’t just be the Duclair show in Arizona. If the Coyotes continue to slide, McDavid or Eichel could be heading to the Desert Dogs.
Along with Duclair – and potentially one of the draft’s top two prizes – the Coyotes boast an offensive trio of prospects that’s better than most. Max Domi, who came it at fifth in Future Watch, remains the Coyotes top prospect and his chemistry with Duclair at the World Junior Championship is certainly what made the now-former Rangers prospect such an attractive get. Behind Domi, Brendan Perlini and Christian Dvorak have all the potential in the world to be outstanding top-six forwards for the Coyotes, too.
In five years, a roster consisting of Duclair, Domi, Perlini and Dvorak would look pretty good. Add to it Eichel or McDavid, and the Coyotes could be an offensive juggernaut. However, as we’ve seen in Edmonton, all the offensive talent in the world sometimes isn’t enough. As such, on the blueline is where Buffalo has the biggest edge.
While the Coyotes do boast one of the brightest defensive stars in the league, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, they don’t have much else in the pipeline when it comes to rearguards. Of their top 10 prospects, only one, the fourth-ranked Brandon Gormley, is a blueliner. Arizona got Klas Dahlbeck from Chicago in the Vermette deal, but he isn’t the type of blue-chip prospect that holds the defense corps together.
If they stay where they are, 28th in the league, maybe it’s defenseman Noah Hanifin who lands in Arizona instead of Eichel or McDavid. Hanifin has been talked about as the consensus third overall selection and getting a young, NHL-ready (or close to it) defenseman at the draft would help the Coyotes blueline tenfold. Not everything can be on Ekman-Larsson, and Hanifin would help ease the pressure. Add Gormley in to that trio and now the Coyotes are in business.
Though, the fact that Buffalo doesn’t need to add another prospect on the blueline is what will put Sabres fans in playoff heaven much sooner than the Coyotes.
Buffalo currently has four defensemen who are under the age of 24 in their system. Jake McCabe, their fourth ranked prospect, and Mark Pysyk, fifth, look as though they could be NHL ready in the next year or two, max. Pysyk has already stood out at the NHL level, but was sent down recently. McCabe got a brief look but is having a great rookie season in the AHL. Add to it that 20-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen and 19-year-old Nikita Zadorov have proven they can play in the league and that’s a fearsome defense that Tim Murray has constructed. Think of it this way: in four years, Zach Bogosian, who was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in the Tyler Myers deal, will be headed to free agency. The Sabres could let him walk for nothing and still have a top-four better than most teams. That’s scary.
Arizona doesn’t have that and while it’s something that can be built over the next five years, budding prospects won’t be in the place Buffalo’s defenders will by that time. That, more than anything, is what separates these two squads the most.
The Sabres have a goaltending prospect coming down the pike in Linus Ullmark, too. Though he’s had a rough year in the SHL, posting a 3.06 goals-against average and .904 save percentage in 33 games for Modo, at least he’s getting starts and working on his game. That’s more than can be said for Arizona goaltending prospect Mark Visentin, who unfortunately lost his entire season to an ankle injury.
Attempting to forecast a goaltenders future is remarkably difficult, but that the Sabres have a better defense might be enough to make even an average netminder shine in five seasons.
While both rebuilds have gone to extreme measures – getting rid of any or all pieces that could win games now in hopes that a high pick can help in the near future – it’s the Sabres work in years before 2014-15 that will make them the more successful team in five years. As is the fact that Buffalo is all but certain to land McDavid or Eichel while a deep enough dive by the Toronto Maple Leafs could move Arizona out of the top three picks in the upcoming draft. Regardless of where the Coyotes land in the draft, however, for both clubs the short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain.