As of now pretty difficult and it really doesn't have a lot to do with what they've done internally.
The Buffalo Sabres have some pretty good top-end talent. That we know. Center Jack Eichel has established himself as a dominant pivot whose 82 points (28+54,) the most points in Buffalo since 2006-07, wasn't even considered a breakout season. Winger Jeff Skinner scored 40 goals, the first time a Sabres player had done so since '06/'07, and forward Sam Reinhart once again increased his output chiming in with 22 goals and 43 assists.
On defense, Rasmus Dahlin looks to be every bit the franchise defenseman he was touted to be when Buffalo selected him first-overall in 2018. Dahlin's 44 points were third-most by a Sabres rookie defenseman in franchise history and although he struggled at times with some of the nuances of the NHL game, the 18 yr. old often times used his elite skill-package to mitigate those deficiencies.
That core, along with a support group that clicked and goaltending that came up big when it needed to, rode a franchise-tying 10-game winning streak to the top of the league in November. Eventually teams figured out just how to throttle their offense and take advantage of weaknesses both on defense and in goal and in the end the Sabres fell apart and finished a very disappointing 26th-overall.
Despite that strong nucleus, the Sabres still had some holes (like the lack of secondary scoring) that were exploited by the opposition. Beginning with the 2019 NHL trade deadline Buffalo was able to start filling them with a trade for top-four defenseman Brandon Montour. In addition to adding Montour on the blueline, Buffalo general manger Jason Botterill also traded for rear guards Colin Miller from the Vegas Golden Knights and Henri Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks. Miller is a 26 yr. old young-vet who will be a staple in the starting lineup while Jokiharju, at the tender age of 20 yrs. old and with only 38 NHL games under his belt, may spend time in the AHL.
Botterill added scoring up front with the signing of free agent Marcus Johansson, a 28 yr. old forward who will be looked at to lead a group of secondary scorers. Botterill also was able to land 6'3" 200 lb. forward Jimmy Vesey in a trade with the NY Rangers. Vesey has produced seasons of 16, 17, and 17 goals, respectively, since coming into the league in 2016-17.
Eichel, Skinner, Reinhart, Johansson and Vesey give the Sabres a great start on filling out the top-nine but they still have a big hole that needs to be filled. The No. 2 center position was a problem last season as rookie Casey Mittelstadt was thrown in a situation that he wasn't quite ready for. Without bringing in a second-line center the Sabres are looking at another season with him in that spot. Botterill said on The Instigators program last week he expects that having capable wingers flank Mittelstadt will help with the transition. The versatile Evan Rodrigues looks to be Buffalo's No. 3 center while spots in the mid-nine on the right and left side are up for grabs at this point.
On defense, Dahlin is a fixture, Montour will be in the top-four mix while Miller will be a part of that defense-corps moving forward. Unless he's traded, Rasmus Ristolainen looks as if he'll be in the top-four while Jake McCabe, who recently signed a two-year contract extension will take his place on the opening roster. Veteran Zach Bogosian is coming off of surgery and Marco Scandella is coming off of one of his worst seasons as a pro and how they fit into the grand scheme of things remains to be seen.
Buffalo's goaltending fell apart last season along with the team and if the Sabres want progress to the point where their battling for a playoff spot, Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark will need to be much better regardless of how the team in front of them is playing. And they should be playing better under the guidance of new head coach Ralph Krueger.
Botterill has markedly improved his hockey club, at least on paper. However, when we look at the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference in general, the powerhouses look to be joined by a number of teams who've vastly improved their lineups this off season.
Tampa Bay remains the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference and should run away with the Atlantic again. Of the two remaining spots in the division, there's no reason to believe that the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs won't battle for spots two and three once again. And based upon their off season, the Florida Panthers look to be on the verge of joining Toronto and Boston in that mix.
Florida had a stellar off season beginning with the hire of three-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach Joel Quenneville. They followed that up with a trade for 70-point winger Mike Hoffman and also added two-time Vezina-winner Sergei Bobrovsky (CLB) to man the pipes. The Cats continued to fill their roster by adding veteran Anton Stralman (TBL) to solidify the defense plus role players Noel Accari (BOS) and Brett Connolly (WSH) up-front.
The Panthers already had a core that featured center Alexsander Barkov, whose 96 points last season placed him 10th in the league, and winger Jonathan Huberdeau who tied for 13th-overall with 92 points. Anchoring the defense is former 2014 first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle who had 62 points last season, good for fifth in the league amongst defensemen.
One of Toronto, Boston or Florida will miss out in the Atlantic and, along with the Montreal Canadiens who missed out on the playoffs by one point last season, have a good shot at one of two wild card spots in an Eastern Conference that got immensely stronger this off season.
Over in the Metropolitan Division, the Washington Capitals still have their core group intact from the 2018 Stanley Cup team and should still be considered the favorite in that division. The NY Islanders finished second in the division and they're a team that looks to be on the rise. After those two there looks to be a heated battle for that third spot. Although one can never discount the Pittsburgh Penguins, they'll face a stiff challenge from the Carolina Hurricanes, who finished one point behind them last season, an upstart New Jersey Devils club and from a NY Rangers team that added a lot of firepower to their lineup.
Two years ago the Devils won the NHL Draft Lottery and selected center Nico Hischier first-overall. A week later they traded for winger 2010 first-overall pick Taylor Hall who ended up winning the 2018 Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. After missing the playoffs last season New Jersey was back in the lottery and won it again. They selected center Jack Hughes first-overall. In addition to the lottery luck and the savvy Hall trade, the Devils continued to add talent to their lineup this off-season the trades for defenseman PK Subban (NSH) and forward Nikita Gusev (VGK) as well as the signing of free agent forward Wayne Simmons.
The Devils weren't the only team to get better in the Metro as the NY Rangers added 2019 second-overall pick, sniper Kaapo Kakko, landed a premier free agent in winger Artemi Panarin and traded for defenseman Jacob Trouba. Both of those teams should be battling for the third spot in the Metro along with Carolina and the improved Philadelphia Flyers.
Add it all up and the Sabres have themselves a huge mountain to climb in the Eastern Conference not so much because of any failures on their part this off season, moreso because other teams in the mix have gotten decidedly better.