These two players could possibly make the Sabres playoff contenders
Are the Buffalo Sabres a couple players away from breaking a league-long, nine year playoff drought?
Possibly. Buffalo has made some surprising off season moves that have strengthened the team up-front with the general consensus being that this team, as constructed, will end up in the 20-24th place range. Fair? Yes. Despite some big steps forward there are hurdles beyond the roster that will make it even more difficult for them to become a playoff contender in 2020-21.
First off, with the way the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association are posturing, we're not even sure there will be a regular season to determine playoff-worthy teams. However, let's assume, even though the 2000's have shown otherwise, that the NHL and NHLPA will come to their senses and hammer out reasonable solutions to their main points of contention (player escrow and salary deferment) which would lead to an NHL season. When the season starts, where games are played and the length of the regular season are among things to be resolved, but let's plan on a regular season, even if it is a shortened one. In saying that, most of Buffalo's roster hasn't played a game since March, which is an eternity when it comes to professional competition.
Next? Enter Covid-19...again.
Having vaccines on the way is a great thing, period, and with it's distribution, the first steps will have been taken on the long road back to a sense of normalcy. That said, professional sports are a bit lower in the pecking order to receive the vaccine, settling in well behind front-line health care workers, first-responders, the elderly and those with underlying conditions, amongst possible other groups. Although it is totally up to individual states as to how they distribute the vaccines, it's safe to say that the aforementioned groups will universally be at the top of the list. It's also a widely held notion that the second quarter (beginning around April) will see the general public begin to get their doses (which could mean fans in the seats) so until then, the NHL is looking at scheduling constraints based upon U.S. governance of Covid-19 as well as international laws and guidelines with Canada using their own governance in relation to pandemic restrictions.
The NHL managed to pull off an admirable end to their shortened 2019-20 season with a bubbled play-in and playoffs, which was great for the sport and it's fans who watched exclusively on television. But that set-up also took a toll on the players and those who were in a bubble for weeks to months, dependent upon how long a particular team was in the playoffs. As of right now, we're pretty sure those involved don't, or won't, want to go through that again so there's a notion going around that the league will realign for the 2020-21 season.
We won't get into all the divisions but as it looks right now the Buffalo Sabres could be in an extremely difficult division featuring, the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. Only one of those teams, New Jersey, failed to make the expanded playoffs last season and since the post-lockout 2013-14 season, that group has combined for one Stanley Cup, two Stanley Cup Finals appearances, three conference finals and a combined 26 playoff appearances over that seven-season span. The Buffalo Sabres on the other hand have finished dead last three times while missing the playoffs every year including last season when the league expanded the playoffs to 24 teams. Also of note, Buffalo is on their third general manager and fourth head coach.
Such is the mountain to climb even before we get to the roster.
The promising news for Buffalo is that new Sabres GM Kevyn Adams and second-year head coach Ralph Krueger pulled off a one-two punch to upgrade Buffalo's top-six this off season. Adams traded forward Marcus Johansson to the Minnesota Wild for 37 yr. old veteran Eric Staal, a player the GM had played with on the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes team. Although Staal may be regarded as a little long in the tooth, the center topped all Wild forwards in even-strength average time on ice (14:10) while placing top-three on the team in goals (19) assists (28) and points (47) in 66 games played. He'll be dropped down a line in Buffalo behind Jack Eichel and should provide secondary scoring on par with what he was able to produce in a first-line role last season in Minnesota.
For his part, Krueger was the principal factor in the Sabres landing free agent winger Taylor Hall, who is only two years removed from a league MVP. Although Hall has been hampered by injuries the last two seasons, he still managed 27 goals and 89 points in 98 games while playing for the Devils and Arizona Coyotes. The thought of Eichel and Hall on the top line has Sabreland pretty excited.
As good as those two moves may have been to reset the top-nine and drop forwards into a more favorable role, there's still one general area and two positions of need that could be the difference between ending or continuing their playoff drought. The Sabres had solid offensive numbers at even strength and were a modest 20th in the league in powerplay efficiency, which were enough to get them close to an expanded playoffs (Hall and Staal should help boost those numbers) but what doomed them was the second worst penalty kill in the NHL.
The Sabres killed off only 74.6% of their penalties, a figure that was a mere 0.3 percentage points above the last place Detroit Red Wings who had a historically bad season. Whether it was the structure of the PK, or the direction from assistant coach Steve Smith or the execution of the players on the ice, it's safe to say that Buffalo's penalty kill was the reason they didn't make the playoffs.
It's been said the best penalty killer for any team is their goaltenders and if that's the case (which it isn't 100% true as everyone needs to be held accountable,) Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton were, statistically speaking, a train wreck. Ullmark went from a .926 save percentage even-strength, which was ninth in the league for goalies who played in 20 or more games, to .838 sv%, or 50th. For his part, Hutton was equally as bad going from .912 even strength to .836 short handed.
The PK needed key saves and Buffalo's goaltending tandem didn't provide nearly enough of them.
A name that's been floating around here in the Sabres threads is Arizona's Darcy Kuemper. With Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the financial structure of the NHL and it's individual teams, word on the street is that the Coyotes, who've almost always been in dire financial straights, are looking to slash salary and Kuemper, who has $9 million on his remaining two contract years (at a $4.5M cap-hit,) might be in the mix as they also have goalie Antti Raanta at $4.25 million AAV.
Kuemper's numbers over the last few years in Arizona have been exemplary. With goalies that have played in 75 or more games the last three seasons, Kuemper is fourth in goals-against average (2.35,) tied for first with Raanta in overall save percentage (.924,) is tied for third in even-strength percentage (.929) and is sixth with a .891 save percentage on the penalty kill.
That's the type of play in net that Buffalo needs and they should be willing to part with something of reasonable significance (or a combination adding up to that) to bring that type of goaltending in if they want to make a run at the playoffs in a highly competitive division.
It should also be noted that Raanta was at or above Kuemper in all of those categories except save percentage.
Tandem goalie stats like that might very well be the result of the 'Yotes employing a strong defensive scheme coupled with a strong d-corps, which was led by a highly respected Oliver Ekman-Larsson. From a penalty kill perspective, a comparison has the Sabres goaltending tandem facing 98 high-danger shots while being short-handed 185 times (fourth lowest number of short handed situations in the league) while the 'Yotes duo faced 70 while being short-handed 197 times (10th-best,) leading one to believe that Arizona knew how to play defense and the goalies played their part while on their way to the fifth-best PK in the league (82.7% kill rate.)
If the Sabres could add a quality defender, preferably a lefty as they have too many right-handed defensemen, to a goalie like Kuemper, their penalty kill could make a real leap and their fortunes change for the better. A name on that list might be unrestricted free agent, Andy Greene.
The 38 yr. old Greene certainly ain't no spring chicken, but he still averaged over 20 minutes per game for New Jersey in the regular season and 17:40 per game on a well stocked NY Islanders team in the 2020 playoffs. From 2011-12, the first full season under Terry Pegula (which also marks the first year of their playoff drought) until 2019-20, Greene's New Jersey Devils ranked 3rd on the penalty kill with the 5'11" 190 lb d-man averaging 3:21 of short-handed ice time. Even post-Martin Brodeur (using 2013-14 as a marker) the Devils were fourth on the PK with Greene logging 3:35 ATOI short handed.
It's safe to say that Greene knows a thing or two about playing defense, especially on the penalty kill.
There are other moves that would be great for the Sabres but Covid-19 complicates things. And what the Coyotes would want in exchange for Kuemper (or even Raanta,) along with what salary moves the Sabres would need to make (which includes trading a right handed defensemen and trading or waiving Hutton,) as well as how much Greene would want on a free agent contract remain to be seen. But it's good to speculate this long off season and if Buffalo were able to pull of both of those moves, their blueline and goaltending situation could look like this:
Rasmus Dahlin - Colin Miller
Andy Greene - Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe - Henri Jokiharju
It sure looks a whole lot better than before.