The 2020-21 season is upon us. A look at the Buffalo Sabres
When previewing the Buffalo Sabres as the team heads into an abbreviated 2020-21 season with tonight's first of two back-to-back games against divisional opponent, the Washington Capitals, the very first thing that we need to look at is the "divisional opponent" aspect of that sentence. The Capitals and the Sabres are in the same division this year as the National Hockey Leagued did a Covid-19 pandemic realignment keeping things as regional as possible.
Buffalo's old division, The Atlantic, was split apart with the Canadian components, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, staying above the border in the new, all Canada, Scotia North Division while the last place Detroit Red Wings and it's two southern teams, the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers head to the Discover Central Division. Buffalo and the Boston Bruins were moved to the MassMutual East Division, which is essentially the Metropolitan Division with those two teams replacing the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes.
If not, the only thing you need to know is that the Sabres are in what's widely considered the toughest division in hockey. Yes, the NHL put the team with the longest playoff drought (nine years) in the toughest division to face off eight times each against the Caps, Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, NY Islanders and NY Rangers, all playoff teams from last year, and the New Jersey Devils.
Thanks, NHL. But it's hockey and forward we must move.
There's little doubt the Sabres were dealt a tough hand but they countered that with a couple of real good moves in the off season by bringing in 2018 NHL MVP Taylor Hall on a one-year free agent deal and veteran center Eric Staal in a trade with the Minnesota Wild (Marcus Johansson.) The duo solidify a top-six that could be very strong dependent upon how the third wheel on the line synchs with head coach Ralph Krueger's top forward pairings and we begin this little preview looking at the probable forward lines.
Taylor Hall - Jack Eichel - Tage Thompson
Hall on the left side of center Jack Eichel is a real exciting proposition. Even though both love having the puck, they're talented enough and more than likely selfless enough, to allow the ice to unfold as it may. And by God there will be plenty of ice with that duo out there as each has enough individual talent to back off the opposition while invoking terror within the uninitiated, inexperienced and those lacking extreme conviction. The beneficiary of that open space, at least to start the season, will be 6'7" winger Tage Thompson whose wing-span is huge and shot is deadly. The 23 yr. old Thompson has his quirks, and his shot has at times scared members of the press corps high atop KeyBank Center, but generally speaking, if he gets the time and some space, his shot is lethal. Thompson hasn't played a game since November, 2019 but at Buffalo's abbreviated training camp this year he stood out, looking as if he'd been playing all along.
Victor Olofsson - Eric Staal - Sam Reinhart
Staal just keeps on going and at 36 yrs. old it still looks like he's got plenty to give. The highly probable Hall of Famer is a great get for Buffalo as he's extremely valuable both on and off the ice for his undisputed leadership capabilities. However, lest we forget, the 2003 second-overall pick (CAR) also produced extremely well for the Wild the last two seasons with 19 goals and 28 assists in 66 games last year (.712 points/game) and 22+30 in 81 games the prior season (.642 pts./gm.) Krueger has really liked Staal paired with Sam Reinhart, who's entering his sixth full season with the Sabres and has shown steady progress in both on-ice stature and production. Reinhart had been a fixture on Eichel's right wing for the last two seasons but has looked at home on Staal's wing during camp giving the Sabres a nice one-two punch in the top six. Victor Olofsson rounds out the trio. The 25 yr. old enters his sophomore NHL season coming off of an extremely productive rookie campaign (22+24) while riding shotgun on Eichel's line and dominating the powerplay early last season.
Tobias Reider - Cody Eakin - Kyle Okposo
Krueger had a ton of success with a defensive line last year featuring Johan Larsson centering Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo. Larsson moved on and was replaced by Cody Eakin, who signed a two-year deal, free agent deal with the club. Eakin and Okposo have found some synergy and were primed to not miss a beat with Girgensons on the left wing until he was lost for the season with a hamstring tear. Reider jumped in and looked good on the wing during Buffalo's second Blue and Gold scrimmage but the line might take another hit for tonight's opener as Okposo could be out and is listed as day-to-day.
Jeff Skinner - Curtis Lazar - Dylan Cozens
While the Okposo injury might change things for this line as rookie Dylan Cozens may take his place, Krueger is intent upon using 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner with center Curtis Lazar, a 2013 first round pick (17th, OTT) who has scored 20 goals in 284 NHL games. Despite what might be said while looking to smooth over the situation, it would seem as if two rams are bashing horns. Skinner was bumped off of Eichel's line last year after he scored 40 goals and signed an 8yr./$72 million contract extension in 2019. It was Krueger's first season as Buffalo's head coach and the initial move down seemed to be centered around the spread of scoring down the lineup. However that justification seems to have taken on lesser meaning as the coach recently stated that he wants Skinner to play more within the team's principles with better play away from the puck. Skinner struggled last season with lesser linemates and it showed in his 14 goals and 7.7% shooting percentage. Lazar was sent to Rochester last season but according to Krueger he did the work they wanted him to do with the coach projecting an increase in offensive production, while still maintaining strong defensive play and positive faceoff percentages, because of that work. Cozens, who's coming off of an all-tourney IIHF World Junior Championship, is game-ready and showed it at camp. The teenager plays a strong 200' game and has definitive set-up skills which may provide a nice ying to the yang of an offensive-minded goal scorer like Skinner.
The Blueline and in Goal
The Sabres made no real changes on the blueline or in net and Krueger kept these d-pairings generally intact throughout camp to get them as much experience playing alongside each other as possible. As we head into tonight's matchup the head coach expects the three pairings to share 5v5 time equally, which isn't really a bad idea moving forward.
Rasmus Dahlin - Brandon Montour
Twenty year old Rasmus Dahlin is entering his third NHL season. He was let loose in his first season as Phil Housley unequivocally allowed the 2018 first-overall pick express his offensive gifts. Dahlin finished with nine goals and 35 assists placing second only to Housley for most points by an 18 yr. old defenseman. Last year Krueger veered Dahlin slightly more towards the defensive aspects of the game and he still finished with 40 points (4+36) in 56 games while saying he played with much more confidence (on display later in the season.) During this long, 10-month off season Dahlin hit the weight room to add 14 lbs. of muscle to his 6'3" frame and even at 207 lbs. he still skates like a breeze. Buffalo's success is directly related to Dahlin taking his game to the next level, which includes continuing offensive production, a stronger defensive game and the ability to log bigger minutes. Brandon Montour will start out next to Dahlin. The 26 yr. old signed a one-year contract extension and is coming off of a 2019-20 campaign where he averaged 17:41 of ice-time per game at even strength (2nd amongst Buffalo d-men,) was tops amongst the team with a plus-13 rating and contributed five goals and 13 assists.
Jake McCabe - Rasmus Ristolainen
This pairing will be assigned the toughest matchups on a nightly basis whenever possible (save for the first games where the coach said it's important the d-corps "get their feet under them.") Krueger finally did something with Rasmus Ristolainen no other coach had been able to do, get his ice-time down to a more manageable level. In the prior four seasons under two different head coaches, Ristolainen never averaged under 24:38 per game and Krueger cut that by over two minutes. The big Finn responded with the best plus/minus of his career, a minus-2. The analytics community still hates him as a defenseman but Krueger believes in him and this is a crucial year as this pairing will need to do a lot of heavy lifting. According to both of Buffalo's goalies, Jake McCabe had a great season last year and the team is looking for him to continue to add sandpaper and anchor the first penalty kill unit. McCabe, who enters his sixth full season with the club, was named and assistant captain.
Colin Miller - Henri Jokiharju
Colin Miller had a rough go of it early on last season, his first in Buffalo after being acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights, but he slowly got it together in Krueger's new system and finished strong. Miller was more of a third-pairing guy in Vegas while playing a role in the Golden Knights powerplay and it looks as if he may get a chance to revive that with the Sabres on the second powerplay unit. The righty will be playing his off side next to Henri Jokiharju, who turned heads his first season in Buffalo and seems to be getting better and better the more he plays. The Sabres acquired Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks for Alexander Nylander and he played in 69 games for Buffalo. They look to the 21 yr. old as a future top-four mainstay for the club.
Buffalo heads into the season with huge question marks in net. Many thought that they'd upgrade the crease but they seem to be sticking with Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, a duo that will be entering their third season together.
The starting job is Ullmark's to lose although Hutton might get the nod early on. Ullmark had quarantine issues on his travel from Sweden that kept him out of camp for about a week and is just a little behind. This could be a scary proposition for a team looking for a strong start as Hutton is coming off a rough 2019-20 campaign. However he has shown the tendency to get hot in the early months of the season and Buffalo hopes that's the Hutton they'll see as they want to get off on the right foot.
The Sabres will probably need around 68 points in 56 games to make it to the dance. That equates to a 30-18-8 record, or some combination thereof. In division like the one they're in, that seems like a steep mountain to climb. Most pundits think that Buffalo can finish above the New Jersey Devils and there's the possibility that they could overtake the Rangers. But that still leaves them with two of Boston, Washington, NY Islanders, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to jump.
As was mentioned, the NHL did them no favors putting them in this division.
Logic dictates a 6th-place finish in the MassMutual East Division with a 25-25-6 (56 points) record however we are in illogical times and if things fall into place--solid to very strong goaltending, secondary scoring from all four lines, better special teams including a big jump by the penalty kill as well as the emergence of Dahlin bringing offense from the back end while playing big minutes--the Buffalo Sabres could find themselves in a dog fight for fourth place. Would fate smile kindly upon them?
We shall see.