Our Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 Preview is part of a one-a-day series covering the entire NHL. Click here for the rest of the teams in the leadup to another action-packed NHL season!
The Buffalo Sabres struggled through yet another season in 2019-20, extending their league leading playoff drought to 9 seasons. Despite a hot start through the first 12 games that gave them a 9-2-1 record, one quick fall back to Earth later gave them a season ending record of 30-31-8. One of these years, the Sabres will finally turn the corner out of mediocrity, right?
Cue the 2020 offseason.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Ralph Krueger since his half season in Edmonton and I truly believe he can and will be a great coach in the NHL. One major piece of evidence to support me is his presence attracting the top free agent forward to Buffalo.
Taylor Hall coming to Buffalo gives them another forward who can dominate play, score, and be an excellent hype man for Ralph Krueger in the Sabres locker room.
The Sabres have also bolstered their forward group with Eric Staal and Cody Eakin. Staal is an experienced veteran with playoff experience who is going through a late-career resurgence and will be relied on for some depth scoring and mostly leadership on and off the ice for a younger team still trying to find its identity. Eakin has the potential to put up 30-40 points but will primarily be looked at for his two-way play and penalty killing. Buffalo will appreciate any expertise on the penalty killing part to follow up their 30th place PK% (74.59) in 2019-20.
On paper, the Sabres have a strong roster that they have been slowly filling out over the last couple of seasons. Team captain, coach, GM, owner, and player agent Jack Eichel has been getting frustrated with the lack of team success lately, but he has to be seeing the roster developing and be hopeful for the upcoming seasons.
With another year of experience under the belts of the Sabres defenders, they will only get better. Rasmus Dahlin has been severely overlooked for his abilities due to being in Buffalo and the emergence of the more flashy Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, and Miro Heiskanen taking centre stage. Would you be surprised to learn Rasmus had 40 points in 59 games in 2019-20? I fully expect a bit of a breakout season from Dahlin in his third year in the NHL, and by breakout year I mean him getting noticed for his play.
Where the Sabres may struggle is in two-way play from their forwards. Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner, and Taylor Hall are all expected top-6 forwards and none of them are regarded as proficient or sometimes even passable on the defensive side of the game. There will be a huge project in the hands of the coaching staff to prepare these players and lines to have an overall positive impact on the game.
The Sabres are poised to make an upwards push in the division this season, but won’t be near their full potential quite yet as they still have a few high profile prospects developing. Dylan Cozens should be entering the lineup this season, and what a great time to have a player like Eric Staal around to show Dylan how to excel as a centre in the NHL. Jack Quinn and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen are a year or two out, but Luukkonen especially will be eagerly awaited in the hopes he can provide a solid, reliable presence in net.
Buffalo Sabres Roster Overview
Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, Sam Reinhart, Eric Staal, Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner, Dylan Cozens. Those are the likely names that will populate the Sabres’ top-6 forwards and do they look dangerous. Eichel and Hall, a likely duo for the first line, could prove to be one of the most potent offensive pairings in the league. The second line is Staal’s, and it appears that Dylan Cozens, should he make the NHL roster, will be paired closely with Eric Staal. That leaves one wing position on each line for Reinhart, Olofsson, and Skinner.
The biggest story among those forwards for this season is which Jeff Skinner will show up? With more competition among the top-6, if Skinner starts slow or cannot produce in the role he is given, him and his $9 million cap hit may find themselves shoved down the lineup. After one good season in Buffalo where he scored 40 goals and 63 points, Skinner was rewarded with an 8-year, $72 million deal. Let’s be clear, this was a bad signing from the moment it came into fruition. But in the first year of this deal, he scored 14 goals and 23 points in 59 games. This contract could very quickly become the worst in the league if he has another year like that.
With the addition of depth pieces like Cody Eakin and Tobias Rieder, the Sabres are even beginning to flesh out their bottom-6 forward lines as well. It will be a huge improvement to find a couple consistent players to bring some stability and reliability to those lines. Rieder and Eakin are both solid penalty killers. Although they are inconsistent offensively, they won’t have to contribute as much with the offensive talent in the top-6 being set to carry that weight. Also, with at least one of the offensive weapons likely to be moved down to the third line, they may be able to use whoever that is as a catalyst and contribute a bit here and there as well.
The Sabres have a solid looking defense on paper. Led by the Rasmi, Dahlin and Ristolainen, who take on most of the higher lineup matchups, Brandon Montour, Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, and Jake McCabe join to help. The addition of Matt Irwin gives a reliable depth option for competition.
The spotlight continues to be on Rasmus Ristolainen, who has been the centre of trade rumours for a few seasons now. He has been a divisive part of the Sabres fanbase, as some feel he gets unfairly and excessively criticized, while others are convinced he provides little to the lineup and is beyond overrated. Regardless, he continues to lead the time in average time on ice (22:48/game), puts up around 40 points per season, and is a right-shot defender. Until Dahlin and company (looking at other right-shot defenders like Montour and Jokiharju) make huge strides forward to make him obsolete on the roster, Rasmus Ristolainen will be a mainstay on the Sabres’ defense.
Linus Ullmark will be given the starter’s reins this season as the Sabres need him to be better and especially more consistent. The most likely scenario is that Ullmark and Carter Hutton take on a 60/40 split on games, as Ullmark has never played more than 37 games in a season but they need him to play as many games as possible since Hutton has not been good in his time with the Sabres.
The hope is for Linus Ullmark, who was top-10 in even strength save percentage last season, can develop further, find consistency within game situations and game to game, and at the very least tide the team over until Luukkonen is developed into an NHL goalie or they find a legitimate starter.
Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 Prediction
7th – 8th East Division
Bad Luck Buffalo got stuck in the Thunderdome. Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Islanders, the Rangers and the Devils are in their division for 2020-21. What looked to be a promising chance for the Sabres to be a middle of the pack team and compete for a wild card spot has turned into what is likely to be a bottom of the division finish.
That concludes our Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 Preview. Check to see if your team has been covered yet in our 2020-21 Season Preview Series.
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