When the Carolina Hurricanes clinched a playoff spot in 2019, it was a bitter moment in Buffalo. Carolina’s first trip to the playoffs since 2009 meant no team owned a longer active playoff drought than the Sabres. The powerhouse of the late 90s and early-mid 2000s (three ECF, one SCF appearances from 1999-2007) became league laughing stock of the 2010s. And to this day, a first-round exit to the Flyers in 2011 remains Buffalo’s last playoff trip.
Recent years have provided fleeting moments of success. The 2018-19 Sabres became the second team in NHL history to win 10 straight games… and miss the playoffs that same season. Last year’s club started with an impressive 9-2-2 mark, only to fall apart and barely miss the league’s vastly expanded 24-team playoff.
That ineptitude, combined with COVID’s financial constraints, led to owners Terry and Kim Pegula cleaning house for the fifth time in their nine-year reign. Jason Botterill was axed as GM, replaced by Buffalo’s senior VP of business administration, Kevyn Adams.
The good news for Buffalo is they secured an elite winger and a top-six center to support frustrated star, Jack Eichel. In fact, their high-end forward core may actually be one of the league’s best. Is it enough to overcome sketchy depth and defense in the daunting new East division? That remains to be seen.
|Taylor Hall||Jack Eichel||Sam Reinhart|
|Jeff Skinner||Eric Staal||Victor Olofsson|
|Casey Mittelstadt||Dylan Cozens (R)||Tage Thompson|
|Zemgus Girgensons||Cody Eakin||Kyle Okposo|
|Rasmus Dahlin||Rasmus Ristolainen|
|Jake McCabe||Colin Miller|
|Brandon Montour||Henri Jokiharju|
A Huge Hall
Other than Vegas signing elite defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, no team made a bigger free agent addition in 2020 than Buffalo. It’s been a while since the Sabres brought in a true superstar talent (not counting draft picks). But even though he’ll probably never be a legit Hart Trophy contender again, Taylor Hall is certainly one of the most skilled players in the league. The dynamic winger brings elite speed and puck skills to the mix; he’s an outstanding offensive weapon. All you need to know about Hall 2019-20 was considered a “bad” season for him, yet he put up 52 points in 65 games. Considering he spent 35 games in the offensive hell that is Arizona, not too shabby.
The pandemic and relatively down year diminished the market for the 2018 league MVP. Instead of cashing in like many expected a year ago, Hall settled for the most expensive “prove it” deal in NHL history — one year, $8 million. It’s low-risk, high-reward for team and player. Hall gets to play alongside one of the game’s best centers in Jack Eichel, bolstering Buffalo’s attack. If the team does well, he could be a valuable asset for a playoff push. If they struggle, Buffalo can trade him to a contender at the deadline for futures.
If there’s one area EA Sports ratings (and therefore myself) might overrate the Sabres, it’s their defense. Yes, Rasmus Dahlin is one of several outstanding young blue-liners of the future, if not the present. The 2018 1st overall pick has put up 84 points in 141 games and averaged about 20 minutes a night in his first two seasons. Dahlin’s one of the few Sabres who the team outshoots the opposition when he’s on the ice. There’s no overrating this kid; he’s as special as they come.
Everybody else? Not as impressive. While he plays difficult minutes, Rasmus Ristolainen has been a whipping boy by the analytics community and traditional stats for years. Though he has an intriguing skillset, he’s rarely been a net-positive player for the Sabres. A trade seems best for both sides at this point, but his value peaked a while ago. Because of that, he’ll probably get another shot to live up to the hype.
Buffalo has brought in several intriguing right-handed blue-liners in the last two years, but none have exactly delivered on their potential. Brandon Montour look to be developing into a nice puck-moving defenseman in Anaheim, but wasn’t anything to right home about during his first full season in Buffalo. The same goes for former Chicago blue-chip prospect Henri Jokiharju. Dealing struggling prospect Alex Nylander seemed like a potential fleece, but he showed some promise with the Hawks. Meanwhile, Jokiharju seemed to stall. His underlying numbers weren’t terrible, though, and at just 21, he still has plenty of potential.
But the fact that those two haven’t taken a step forward, combined with Colin Miller failing to find the 40-point form he had in Vegas, leaves Buffalo with more questions than answers. Zach Bogosian playing a strong role in Tampa’s Cup win after the Sabres terminated his deal mid-season is bad. Trading Marco Scandell to Montreal for a 4th only to see the Habs flip him to the Blues for a 2nd a month later is worse. Goaltenders Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton aren’t world beaters, so Buffalo’s defense needs to play better in front of them.
Not Kidding Around
While Hall and Staal are battle tested veterans, a lot of Buffalo’s key players for 2021 and beyond are 25 and younger. Dahlin will obviously be heavily depended on, and Jokiharju and Montour are contenders for top-four duties on defense. And Buffalo’s forward group will also have young new-comers that could provide a boost.
This season will be pivotal for Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson. The two have already combined for 221 NHL games, but have just 60 total points. Neither the 8th overall pick in 2017 nor the big chip in the disastrous Ryan O’Reilly trade have made much of an impact at the NHL level. The Staal and Hall acquisitions should drop both to more optimal third-line roles (though Mittelstadt could also see AHL time). Whether or not that’s the spark they need to reach their potential remains to be seen.
Hopefully, for the Sabres’ sake top prospect Dylan Cozens doesn’t hit the same walls. Taken seventh overall in 2019, Cozens dominated the WHL last year and looks to be NHL ready in 2021. He could form an intriguing kid-line with the aforementioned Thompson and Mittelstadt. That would be really nice since Buffalo isn’t exactly stacked with quality depth options (barring a bounce-back from free agent signee Cody Eakin). Cozens is a skilled power-forward that could be the long-term ying to Eichel’s yang down the middle once the 36-year old Staal moves on.
All of the losing has made it easy to forget the tremendous hockey market and fanbase the Sabres are blessed with. When there isn’t a pandemic and the Sabres are competitive, the Sabres can be the talk of the town. And the football team they share the city with has showed that it’s possible to emerge from a LONG rebuild successfully.
Can the Sabres do the same this year? It’s going to be tough. The team has more high-end pieces than ever, resulting in a deadly top-six on paper. That’s assuming 2019-20 was truly a Murphy’s law year for Jeff Skinner rather than a sign of things to come, even if he may never score 40 goals again. Hall might, and he and Eichel will be a deadly duo alongside Reinhart or Olofsson.
However, other than the incredible Dahlin and a slightly underrated Linus Ullmark (.915 SV%, 5.39 Goals Saved Above Average in 19-20), the Sabres seem lackluster. Improvements from a few key young players would definitely help, and while it’s way too pessimistic not to expect any growth from them, there aren’t many quality veterans alongside them to aid that development (assuming the Sabres stack their top-six, as projected).
With Eichel’s frustration of failure growing and Hall signing for just a single-year, this is a critical season for the Sabres. If second-year coach Ralph Krueger can improve this team enough so they finish the year on the bubble, it could be the first step towards stability.
But the Sabres will have their work cut out for them in the new deep East Division. Buffalo would’ve had a much better shot at nabbing a wild-card in the top heavy Atlantic and letting the Metro bubble teams knock themselves silly. Their new division contains six bubble teams; the old Atlantic only had five. While the Sabres have more pieces than ever in their nine-year playoff drought, it’s going to be an uphill battle to prevent that streak from reaching a decade.