Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres.
2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres were one of the most interesting teams to watch last season for all of the wrong reasons. Fueled by new additions Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton, the Sabres started the season off with a moderate 7-6-2 record through their first 15 games. It was an alright start considering where the team had been a year prior. They seemed to have a spark in their offence, something that hasn’t been apparent in Buffalo for years. This feeling was only bolstered with their next 10 games.
The Sabres recorded the first dramatic win-streak of the 2018-19 season. Starting on November 8, they won 10 straight games. The win-streak was amazing from afar. A Buffalo team that was consistently awful was now headlining the league. Looking closer at the streak, though, it became a bit more apparent that it was backed by a hefty amount of luck. Only three of the 10 games won were finished in regulation time. Of the seven games that went to extra time, three had to be decided by a shootout.
The Aftermath of the Win Streak
In short, there were clear cracks in the Sabres success. Statistically, their 10 game streak was riddled with holes. Once the luck fell to the wayside, the Sabres sunk like a rock. In the 25 games following their winning streak, Buffalo had a lacklustre record of 8-13-4. They were outscored by a total of 15 goals in that stretch. Their record at the end of the year set in at 33-39-10, ranking them sixth in the Atlantic Division.
The team’s roster crumbled following the winning streak. When all was said and done only three forwards recorded over 35 points. Those three were, in fact, the team’s top line of Skinner (63 points), Sam Reinhart (65 points), and Jack Eichel (82 points). This was a terrible showing from an offence that had supposedly improved during the 2017 summer. Their defence wasn’t much better, as head coach Phil Housley ignored the positives brought by players like Lawrence Pilut and Casey Nelson. Instead, he played Marco Scandella and Zach Bogosian. This created many weaknesses on the backend that brought the entire team down.
To his credit, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill did a good job of improving this summer. He started with extending the contract of Skinner, who provided a dominant boost to the lineup last season. While some argue that Skinner’s eight-year, $9 million AAV deal was a little excessive, it seemed the Sabres didn’t have much of a choice. To simply bring back Skinner is positive and needed to be done.
After a successful draft that, above all else, saw the team acquire Dylan Cozens, Botterill prepared for a dramatic summer. Less than a week after the draft, he traded a 2021 second-round pick and 2022 fifth-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights, in exchange for Colin Miller. Three days later he dealt a 2021 third-round pick to the New York Rangers, bringing in Jimmy Vesey in return. Botterill also accomplished a tremendous deal, dealing Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Henri Jokiharju. With the immense potential Jokiharju holds, this deal was truly impressive.
The Sabres then had to deal with a hefty amount of contract negotiations. Four of the team’s restricted free agents filed for arbitration. Johan Larsson didn’t reach his hearing date. Instead, he agreed to a one-year, $1.55 million deal. Jake McCabe also dodged his arbitration hearing, re-signing with Buffalo on August 3. Evan Rodrigues and Linus Ullmark, on the other hand, did face hearings and were granted new deals accordingly. In the midst of all these re-signings was one important free-agent signing. The highly-touted Marcus Johansson inked a deal with the Sabres on July 6. The contract entails Johansson to a $4.5 million cap hit over the course of two seasons. This was a tremendous acquisition by Botterill, with Johansson clearly poised to bolster the team’s second line.
Jeff Skinner – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Jimmy Vesey – Marcus Johansson – Victor Olofsson
Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – Evan Rodrigues
The only thing guaranteed with the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres lineup is the top line. Some have argued that Reinhart may see decreased ice time to help stabilize the second line, with Olofsson jumping to the top trio. However, this simply doesn’t seem sound. The combination of Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart was terrific last year. On a Sabres roster where they received no help, the line held strong and make it a successful year, at least by personal standards.
There are a number of combinations for the remaining lines. Okposo joining Olofsson and Johansson on the second-line could be great for the dwindling winger. Okposo looked tremendously defeated last season but could rebound nicely when surrounded by such strong playmaking. The same can be said for Vesey, though, who has yet to reach his true potential.
Either way, the bottom-six of the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres can expect to be a bit healthier this year. The demotion of Mittelstadt will help stabilize the latter two lines, while also taking plenty of pressure off of Mittelstadt’s shoulders. He struggled to perform when given top-six minutes last year. He was clearly flustered by the sudden thrust into the spotlight. With decreased minutes, Mittelstadt should be much calmer and more productive player.
Larsson and Rodrigues are the final two question marks. The two have swapped time centring either the third or fourth line but with the addition of Johansson, one of them will have to be booted to a wing. With Rodrigues possessing one of the few right-handed shots on the team, he’s clearly the best option. The trio of Girgensons, Rodrigues, and Larsson melded well together last year when given chances. They recorded admirable statistics for a fourth line and all signs point to them improving even more next year.
Lawrence Pilut – Rasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus Dahlin – Colin Miller
Jake McCabe – Brandon Montour
Extras: Henri Jokiharju, Casey Nelson, Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella
The likelihood of this setup being deployed is very slim. Yet many advanced-stat-obsessed fans will agree that it’s one of the best arrangements possible. With the Sabres dedication to keeping Ristolainen on their top defensive pairing, Pilut is the only compliment. As covered in recent articles, Pilut is the only partner that can make Ristolainen viable in all three ends of the ice.
Pilut pairing alongside Ristolainen also gives fans a chance to watch the dazzling, soon-to-be sophomore, Dahlin pair up with Miller. Together, this could easily become one of the best defensive pairings in the Atlantic Division. Dahlin has a clear promoting effect on anyone who plays alongside him. Montour looked incredible with the rookie last year. This could mean sparking a career year in Miller, who netted 41 points in 82 games during the 2017-18 season. Both players seem to compliment each other very well and should undoubtedly see even-strength minutes together. With that said, the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres will clearly give Dahlin every chance to shine after a truly phenomenal rookie year.
Third Pairing and Extras
The third pairing will likely feature McCabe and Montour in this optimistic scenario. Both players finished the year strong and were candidates for a promotion in the lineup. With such strong defence ahead of them, though, this promotion seems to be wishful thinking. The same can be said for Nelson and Jokiharju, two players that will surely provide a tremendous spark to the lineup and should be rotated in regularly. For the first time in a while, the Sabres boast a truly strong defensive core with an immense amount of potential.
Yet, there’s a chance they don’t use it. While Ralph Krueger is taking the head coaching reigns from Housley next season, he’ll surely still think to play both Bogosian and Scandella regularly. While some fans support this, it’s a tremendous blunder. Both players were detrimental to the team’s success last season. Playing them over players like Pilut, McCabe, and Montour would force a promising Sabres defence back to the land of mediocrity.
There’s not much to be said here. Unfortunately, the Sabres are set to enter the season with one of the lesser goalie tandems in the league. Hutton and Ullmark were both statistically mediocre last year and it showed. Buffalo ranked 23 in goals-against, allowing a fairly high 271. Some of this can be pinned on a poor defence, but ignoring the weak seasons from both Hutton and Ullmark is naive. There is redemption ahead, though. The Sabres have a tremendously strong offensive-defence but a solidified, cohesive blue-line could be the secret to strong play from the two goaltenders.
Players to Watch
Olofsson is the team’s top prospect right now. He will finally be given his shot at the NHL after recording a terrific 63 points in 66 AHL games last year. This NHL-readiness was solidified at the end of last season when Olofsson was called up to finish out the year. He netted four points in six NHL games, looking tremendously comfortable. Skeptics remain but the fact-of-the-matter is, Olofsson is poised for NHL stardom. He will receive every chance to prove this to fans next year. Whether the 24-year-old can dazzle fans during his rookie season is yet to be seen but a spot among the team’s top-six and power-play is almost a guarantee. With tremendous scoring and playmaking abilities backing him up, Olofsson is set to be the most exciting member of the Sabres roster next year.
The Sabres roster is filled with players to watch. Pilut is poised for a breakout season after fighting his way to the NHL via the minors. As well, Vesey may finally embrace the potential expected of him years ago, and Johansson will look to bounce back from an injury-riddled career. Yet, Miller could be the most exciting of them all.
Miller was one of many players to explode in production after being selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft. After two lacklustre seasons with the Boston Bruins, Miller excelled during the Knights inaugural season. He led the team’s defence in goals, assists, and points. It seemed he was finally breaking out of his shell. Last year he came back down to Earth a bit, though, recording only 29 points in 65 games.
29 points is still tremendous production and there’s no telling how the new-and-improved Sabres roster will help Miller. As aforementioned, he is likely to suit up along Dahlin. This would create a great duo of playmaking defencemen. One that could very well shock the league. Fans should be on the edge of their seats, hoping that Miller can improve on an already strong career next season.
Prediction for the 2019-20 Season
It seems like a broken record, replaying every summer, but this season could be the year the Sabres finally emerge as a playoff-contender. While they face an Eastern Conference that has become much more competitive, they also have a much more sound roster. With a strong top-six and productive defence leading the way, the sky is the limit for the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres.
Fans can genuinely expect the team to battle for a wild card this season, although their likelihood of breaking into the playoffs are slim when considering the true strengths of the teams around them. Nevertheless, this Sabres roster will surely look much more competitive than in years prior.