Welcome to the latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. Each day, we will take a look at a new team and examine three of their potential breakout or bounce-back players. What are these? These are players that have the chance to make a serious difference with their teams. Whether that’s as someone who finally finds their place in the NHL, or as someone who had previously been good but has struggled as of recently. Each day we will be looking at a different team! However, today we will take a look at the potential 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres key players.
2020-21 Buffalo Sabres Candidates
The past two seasons have not gone as planned for Taylor Hall after winning the Hart Trophy in 2017-18. His 2018-19 campaign with the New Jersey Devils was tracking successfully, but he was limited to only 33 games due to injury. But while he was healthy in 2019-20, his production was disappointing evidenced by a midseason trade to the Arizona Coyotes. This past year was his only season out of the past three where he had under a point-per-game pace.
The main reasons to expect more out of Hall next season are twofold. The first is just plain bad luck. According to hockey analytics site MoneyPuck, Hall scored six goals under his expected total with his shooting talent taken into account. Accounting for regression towards the mean gets him closer to a point-per-game pace. However, the bigger reason is the talent he’ll be playing with in Buffalo. He’s expected to finally slot in as the elite winger for Jack Eichel, who finished eighth in MVP voting last season. Compared to his centremen in New Jersey and Arizona (Nico Hischier and Christian Dvorak), Hall will be given many more quality opportunities to score. Considering the rumoured 72-game schedule for the NHL season, expect Hall to rebound. He could possibly crack the 80-point mark playing with Eichel.
After overperforming in a contract year, Jeff Skinner made the Sabres look bad immediately this season with only 23 points in 59 games. That’s not exactly the kind of production you want for $9 million against the cap. But here is a bit of hope for optimism. Skinner’s 2019-20 goal and point totals were his lowest in seven years. Don’t expect Skinner to rebound to his 40-goal year in 2018-19, however.
His reasons for a rebound are similar to Hall’s. He’ll have a much-improved centreman to play with in Eric Staal, who alone probably boosts Skinner’s production by about 10 percent (yes, Marcus Johansson was that bad last year). Take into account that Skinner also scored under expected (though not by as much as Hall), and it’s feasible that Skinner gets back into the 25-goal, 55-point range over a full season. Skinner should rebound into a decent secondary scoring option. However, don’t expect him to live up to that monstrous salary cap hit.
Henri Jokiharju finds himself on this list as a breakout candidate rather than a bounce-back one. A member of a young defence core for the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres, Jokiharju was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks before he’d established himself as a full-time NHLer. Jokiharju took that step last year, as the 21-year-old Finn posted 15 points in 69 games. He earned that full-time role through defensive play, which is a great sign for a prospect at his age.
What Jokiharju hasn’t exhibited yet in the NHL is offensive success. He dominated the WHL in his final year of junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks. Jokiharju scored 71 points in 63 games in 2017-18. As he’s had plenty of time off since March to train and develop, it’s reasonable to assume that Jokiharju’s offensive game takes a leap forward next season. Jokiharju is a real candidate to steal a top-four role and score over 30 points next year. He might potentially find his way onto the occasional power-play as well. His stellar knowledge and command of the game is likely to take him places in the NHL. That will start to exhibit itself more next season.
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