As I sit here one night before the Sabres are set to open their season against the Washington Capitals, I ready myself to watch regular-season NHL hockey for the first time in nearly a year. The league has been broken up into new divisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic that even includes an All-Canadian team division. In each division, only the top-4 teams will make the playoffs at the end of the 56-game season and Buffalo’s own division seems to be the toughest of them all. Included along with Buffalo, are both the New York Rangers and Islanders, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Washington, and Pittsburgh.
Early predictions have the Sabres finishing near the bottom. Even with the additions of star winger Taylor Hall, veteran and former Stanley Cup winner Eric Staal, and Cody Eakin, not much faith is being shown around the league that the Sabres have what it takes to finish in the top-4. In a recent conversation with NHL Insider with NHL Network Sr. Reporter EJ Hradek, he believes the biggest unknown is in the net. “A team is like a garden, and the goaltending submarines it, and helps that garden grow. The St. Louis Blues is an excellent example. St. Louis had a good team for several years, but Jake Allen was inconsistent and couldn’t find his way in big moments. In comes Jordan Binnington and all of sudden that garden of good players grew together, confidence grew, and they’re winning a Stanley Cup”.
EJ Hradek isn’t wrong. If there is one word that would describe the goaltending in Buffalo it would be inconsistent. Linus Ullmark did show strides last season compared to the previous year and did earn his shot to be a starting goaltender for this team, but in a condensed schedule, it’s still unknown if he can handle the workload that’ll be asked of him. In even-strength situations he was unbelievable, holding a .926 save percentage. The shorthanded situation is a different story, is cliche as the saying “Your goalie has to be your best penalty killer” is, in Buffalo’s case it’s true. With the additions of Cody Eakin and Penalty killing specialist Tobias Rieder, and even with the season-ending injury to Zemgus Girgensons, the expectation from Ralph Kreuger is a much-improved penalty kill. That has to start with Ullmark. He held a lackluster .848 save percentage when the Sabres were on the penalty kill.
Back-up goaltender Carter Hutton is another wildcard. Often very streaky, Hutton can go on absolute heaters which he’s done over the past two seasons, then go as cold as ice for over a dozen games. This past season, for example, Hutton recorded an abysmal 3.18 GAA, and an embarrassing .898 save percentage in 31 games played. After having corrective eye surgery in the offseason, one would hope he can actually see some pucks and, oh I don’t know, stop a few more here and there this season.
Another question mark is winger Jeff Skinner. Since scoring a career-high 40 goals just two seasons ago, Skinner has failed to find his place in Ralph Krueger’s top-six forward group. After finishing last season with 14 goals and 23 points, Skinner failed to score at least 15 goals since the 2012-2013 season. A big part of that was being taken off the top line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. With rookie sensation Victor Olofsson performing at an elite goal-scoring level, Kreuger slid Skinner down his lineup where he spent most of his season going back and forth between the second and third line. This team lacked depth and difficult decisions needed to be made to spread outscoring, but things never seemed to click for Skinner away from the top line. Playing with a center like Marcus Johansson, who was playing out of position, Skinner never had the playmaking center both he and this team needed to get the former 40-goal scorer going to contribute at the high level he had in the past years for both Buffalo and Carolina.
Now, just less than 24-hours before the season-opening tilt against the Washington Capitals, Skinner is slated to begin the year on the fourth line with center Curtis Lazar and rookie winger Rasmus Asplund. It’s difficult to imagine why Skinner hasn’t been able to find his place in Krueger’s system as he has in previous years with other coaches. He isn’t a defensive-minded player, which is clearly a big role in playing and succeeding in Krueger’s gameplan. Skinner isn’t that player though. He’s a goal scorer. Plain and simple. That’s what he does, and it may be negligent to expect him to not be the same player he’s been for years. After signing him to an 8-year, 72 million dollar contract two years ago, burying him on a fourth line to possibly not produce at a high level for the second season in a row will for sure make the Sabres fan faithful irate, and put more pressure on another Sabres Head Coach in fear for their job.
Not everything is negative though. We all know the signing of star winger Taylor Hall led headlines this offseason and the acquisition of center Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild has added the depth in the top-six forward group this team has lacked for over two seasons now. Tage Thompson, who has taken longer than expected to develop but impressed the coaching staff with his play last season in Rochester and this past two weeks in training camp will begin the season on Eichel’s right side, with Hall on the left. With winger Sam Reinhart being dropped down to the second line with Staal and Victor Olofsson on the left side, Buffalo is expected to have one of the best top 6 forward groups in the East Division. Cody Eakin centering the third line with rookie and World Juniors standout Dylan Cozens on his right side and another newcomer Tobias Reider on his left.
On defense, you don’t see any new faces. If training camp lines prove to be true, the top pairing will be everyone’s favorite player to hate in Buffalo Rasmus Ristolainen and Assistant Captain Jake McCabe. The now 16 pounds heavier Rasmus Dahlin, who came to camp looking like Ivan Drago, anchors the second pairing with Brendan Montour. This leaves Henri Jokijaru and Colin Miller on the third pairing. Most would assume Dahlin would command more minutes this season, seeing how great of shape he is in, and hopefully, early success will lead to more minutes to the defensive prodigy.
One of the names left out of the mix is fourth-year forward Casey Mittelstadt. Often criticized for being too soft physically and on the puck, Mittelstadt came to camp three pounds lighter and again underwhelmed the coaching staff. The former 8th overall pick has been a big disappointment. Making the 23 man roster, was the first-round pick in this past year’s draft Jack Quinn. Quinn, who scored 52 goals for the Ottawa 67’s before the season was canceled due to COVID-19, played a quiet game for Team Canada at the World Juniors, not being asked to do too much by Head Coach Andre Tourigny, who also coaches Quinn back in Ottawa. Most likely this is due to the uncertainty with the OHL and whether they will have a season. Chances are he will not see much playing time, and will mainly be there to workout, watch video, and practice with the team and learn the ways of the NHL without being pressured to perform in games as a young 19-year old.
As most write off the Buffalo Sabres, and honestly I’m not the least bit surprised or offended that they do, I do believe this team could be a dark horse in this East Division. You can’t deny the newly added firepower and depth, and if Captain Jack Eichel picks up where he left off, this could be a very dangerous team offensively. One would just hope the defense and goaltending can hold their own and improve on last year, which honestly won’t take much.
Thanks for listening guys….I’ll hang up and listen