BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — ‘Twas the weekend before Christmas and all through rink, Buffalo Sabres fans are ecstatic because their team doesn’t stink.
For the first time in a long time, the Sabres are heading into the Christmas break with a team nestled snuggly in a playoff spot.
How neat is that?
Despite the Sabres semi-slide in the month of December, they are off to their best start in years. General Manager Jason Botterill has slowly converted the worst team in hockey into one that appears to be heading in the right direction.
But what can Botterill ask for from Santa to ensure his team doesn’t revert in a flash?
To be fair, practically every NHL GM is looking for more secondary scoring. That’s like the equivalent of a college student asking for AirPods. Full disclosure, I totally searched the internet for the most popular Christmas presents this season.
But back to the hockey.
Like so many borderline playoff teams in the NHL, the Sabres have relied way too much on their top-line. Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and Sam Reinhart have combined for 117 points this season, putting them firmly in the conversation to be considered one of the best lines in hockey.
But when the aforementioned trio doesn’t produce, their teammates rarely have bailed them out. Kyle Okposo hasn’t scored since Nov. 13 while his linemate Conor Sheary hasn’t found the back of the net since Nov. 8. Don’t get me wrong, both Okposo and Sheary are valuable pieces to the Sabres lineup. But both need to start scoring at a more productive rate.
The same can be said for Kevin McAllister.... I mean, Casey Mittelstadt.
In 35 games this season, Mittelstadt has just five goals and five assists. There is no denying the 20-year-old center has oodles of talent and potential. But teams need more than 10 points in 35 games from a second line center.
Perhaps with the money cleared up from the Patrik Berglund situation, the Sabres can use some of their draft capital and cap space to add a second line center, sliding Mittelstadt into a role he’s better suited for as of right now. There is no doubt in my mind that Mittelstadt is going to turn into a very good NHL player. Perhaps that even happens before the end of the year. But right now, he could use some sheltering and less responsibility.
Years of friendship
If Jason Botterill doesn’t get anything for Christmas it will be because he was put on the naughty list for stealing Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes. Seriously, the Skinner deal couldn’t have worked out any better for the Sabres.
In 35 games, Skinner has already scored more goals this season  than he did last year with the Hurricanes . Sure, it helps to play alongside one of the top-tier players in the NHL in Jack Eichel. But he has been everything Botterill was hoping for and then some.
Skinner will surely get a big contract and it sounds like negotiations could begin as soon as next month. In an interview with Joe Yerdon from The Athletic, Skinner said the two sides haven’t begun negotiating but specifically mentioned the long break at the end of January [19-29] as a potential time to begin talks.
But how much will it take to keep Skinner in Buffalo? Like you, I don’t know how much he’ll be asking for.
He certainly deserves a pay raise based off his incredible start to this season. In my opinion, anything less than $8 million would be a win for the Sabres. Anything more would make me a bit skeptical. But one thing is certain — getting a deal done before Skinner becomes an unrestricted free agent is imperative.
More of the same
This season is off to a better start than really anybody anticipated. Even if the Sabres end up making the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, I don’t think many fans would be upset, as long as they get in. With young players like Eichel, Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Rasmus Dahlin steering the ship, the Sabres are in a great place moving forward. Add their four first-round picks over the next two seasons into the mix and it looks like the Sabres are on the verge of something special.
So perhaps a competitive hockey team was on your Christmas list. If it was, don’t thank Santa, thank Jason Botterill [you can still thank Santa].
Happy holidays everyone!