Our Buffalo Sabres 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season!
The Buffalo Sabres are in a lengthy rebuild. Having missed the playoffs every season since 2010-2011, they will be looking for some progression towards a long-awaited playoff berth. The team has done well at stockpiling excellent prospects lately, a pool that is being led by Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Middelstadt, and Ukko-Pekka Luukonen. These players are and will be star players for the team, so now is the time where the focus must be on acquiring and developing depth and the proper players to surround the strong core.
To their detriment, however, the Sabres drafting over the past decade, outside of some of the top picks, has not produced high quality results. This has significantly prolonged the rebuild, but has led to the team acquiring centrepieces such as Eichel and Dahlin. Recent years are looking more promising. A handful of prospects, including Lawrence Pilut, Victor Olofsson, and Ukko-Pekka Luukonen, are lighting it up in their respective development seasons and will be expected to make a full-time jump to the NHL in the next couple seasons.
Although Alexander Nylander had a fair amount of hype surrounding him, he was never able to find his scoring touch with the Sabres organization and was flipped for Henri Jokiharju, who will be much more able to slot into the line-up for the Sabres in the 2019-20 season.
We are seeing the start of the addition of depth and complimentary players as some acquisitions from the past couple seasons are filling major holes in the roster. They have addressed scoring with Jeff Skinner and Marcus Johansson. And, the need for more NHL ready defenders is being filled with the addition of Brandon Montour, Henri Jokiharju, and Colin Miller.
But, until the team’s current prospects do make it to the NHL, the Sabres will still have depth problems that cannot be properly filled by trades and free agent signings.
Last season, we may have been shown a glimpse at what could be once this roster comes together. After a 10 game win streak in November, the Sabres were at the top of the NHL standings. That did not last and the team struggled mightily in the remaining months of the season.
Perhaps the biggest addition is new coach Ralph Krueger. I think he will be an excellent fit for the Sabres. His modern, contemporary view on leadership and motivation will be better suited for a young, dynamic team. In the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season, Krueger’s only other NHL season as a head coach, he led a rebuilding Oilers squad to their best season between 2009-2010 to 2015-2016.
The knock against Krueger, however, will be his lack of experience as a head coach and that he has spent his recent years out of the game of hockey. After being fired by the Oilers, he moved over to a director position with Southampton FC of the English Premier League. I now find myself wondering if Krueger will be able to quickly readjust to hockey, especially since the game has changed quite significantly since he left. Personally, I think Coach Krueger will quickly get back in the flow of coaching hockey and his work on leadership and motivational skills are easily transferrable across different mediums.
Luckily, the Sabres are still young and developing so this can be a group that will learn and grow together as they begin to rise up the standings over the next few seasons.
At centre, the Sabres have excellent potential, but are a bit lacking for right now. They are led by captain Jack Eichel, a dynamic and potent offensive threat. Following him is the sophomore Casey Middelstadt. It is yet to be known if Casey will be able to win the second line centre role, however, as he may be given a smaller role in sheltered minutes to avoid being caught in defensive situations against other team’s best players. The depth falls off significantly after this and really creates a jam of similarly skilled players fighting for just a couple spots. Vladimir Sobotka, Evan Rodrigues, J.S. Dea, and Johan Larsson are all reliable options, but none are high-end bottom 6 players.
The Sabres were 27th in team faceoff win percentage last season, winning 47.9% of draws. Although the importance of this can be heartily debated, winning faceoffs is an easy way to gain possession of the puck and that does have importance in relation to team success. As the team’s centres develop, this number should go up, but the Sabres may also be looking to acquire a face-off specialist for the bottom six and as a teaching presence for the young centres on the roster.
A wildcard option at centre will be prospect Rasmus Asplund, who had a promising rookie season in the AHL. Look for him to make a strong push in training camp this coming season.
On the wings, the Sabres are a mash up of a variety of options and they suffer from the same issue that the centres did. Too many middle to bottom 6 options. Led by recent signing Marcus Johansson and Jeff Skinner, the winger group for the Sabres is by no means top tier, but they will have a deep competition for spots on the NHL roster.
Johansson will bring a unique offensive touch and a boost to the powerplay. Skinner will hopefully be able to replicate his success in the previous year, but now has a massive contract placing high expectations on his performance. If he is not scoring, he needs to find a way to be productive because right now, he is a one-dimensional player and barely contributes in other ways.
Conor Sheary, Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons, and Victor Olofsson will be battling for the remaining middle and bottom line spots on the left side. It will be an important season for Vesey, as he did not live up to expectations in New York and will be given a fresh slate to turn into the scoring winger he was projected to be before entering the NHL. Girgensons has become a mainstay on the Sabres’ roster, so he will likely be a favourite for a bottom six role on the regular season roster. Olofsson, unless he dominates the preseason play, will likely get another developmental season in the AHL, as it will be tough to earn a spot over the rest of the experienced left-wingers.
Keeping that in mind as we move to the right wing, where the Sabres are weak and not very deep. Sam Reinhart is a given on the first or second line, Kyle Okposo will likely occupy the fourth line spot, and Tage Thompson will have a few options open depending on performance. This leaves room for some of the competition at left-wing to move into middle-six right wing spots as well, if needed.
The Sabres roster is well-stocked with NHL capable defensemen. Although we now know that Rasmus Ristolainen has been in trade talks for at least an entire season, and appears to have requested a trade out of Buffalo. He is an expendable option to help add a well-rounded, experienced winger to the roster. It remains to be seen if he will still be a Sabre on opening night.
That would leave Rasmus Dahlin as the face of the Sabres’ blue line. He put up impressive numbers in his rookie season and is on his way to becoming one of the elite offensive defensemen in the NHL. Someone defensive minded on his pairing would help Dahlin settle in and utilize his offensive toolbox to the fullest extent (think Marc Methot with Erik Karlsson).
Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian, Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Jake McCabe, Lawrence Pilut, and Marco Scandella will then battle it out for the remaining spots, maybe even for a spot on the top pairing if Ristolainen doesn’t improve or gets traded. Jokiharju was impressive with Chicago last season and could be a very reliable, versatile option. Colin Miller will be trying to have a bounceback year after a disappointing season with Vegas that saw him plummet down the team’s depth chart and eventually traded. He could be an offensive weapon from the Sabres’ second pairing, if he rebounds. Scandella is in a similar situation and needs to have a strong showing in training camp to gain the trust of Ralph Krueger. Brandon Montour shows promise, but as many young defensemen do, makes mistakes. Krueger could be a great coach for his development, and if there were any time for a breakout year for him, this would be the one.
Again, the Sabres have plenty of competition for spots lower in the lineup, but need more high-end players to take the team to the next level.
With World Junior superstar Ukko-Pekka Luukonen in the prospect pipeline and still a couple seasons away from the NHL, the Sabres will be relying on Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark to backstop the team. Hutton put up okay numbers this past season, generally reflective of his team’s performance. If he can return to the form seen with the 17-18 Blues, his performance could lead the turnaround of the Buffalo Sabres. Linus Ullmark posted similar numbers to Hutton last season and will more than likely get a chance to make his mark this coming year. If Hutton struggles, Ullmark will get a shot.
5th to 7th Atlantic Division
We will likely see a very similar performance to last season with the core of the lineup being fairly similar, albeit with more competition. Because of the strength of the Atlantic Division and state of the rebuilds in Detroit and Florida, we shouldn’t expect a significant jump in the standings for Buffalo this upcoming season.