Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres.
2020-21 Buffalo Sabres
Looking back at the 2019-20 season is… not very exciting. They struggled immensely, with the same demons holding them back from success. For the sixth season in a row, Rasmus Ristolainen recorded the most ice time on the team, even more than star Jack Eichel. And in that time, he again managed to disappoint, only netting 33 points and once again flaunting his talents as a complete black-hole defensively.
It was a very bad look for new coach Ralph Krueger, who returned to an NHL bench after a six-year hiatus. And replacing Phil Housley, Krueger did little to fix up the issues Housley had. The team again finished sixth in their division, with a nearly-identical point-percentage to the 2018-19 season (0.493 and 0.463 respectively). This was despite terrific scoring from rookie Victor Olofsson and a modest performance from new second-line backbone Marcus Johansson. Even with two new additions that filled notable holes, Krueger couldn’t claw Buffalo out of their den among the bottom of the Atlantic Division.
Of course, much of this falls on the shoulders of Carter Hutton… again. Hutton has continued to struggle in Buffalo but he at least had an excuse this time around. At the end of the year, it was announced that Hutton was struggling from a vision-issue that made it hard for him — a goalie in the NHL — to track the puck. This explained a lot, as Hutton went 0-8-4, with a 4.04 goals-against-average and a .872 save percentage between late October and the end of January.
While the team’s struggles can’t all be placed on Hutton, his debilitating issues definitely did not help. It led to him serving second-string for the latter-half of the year, finally giving Linus Ullmark a chance to shine. And digging through the surface grime, Ullmark did just that. Between the start of January and March 9th, the Sabres last game, Ullmark set a record of 6-3-0 with a .930 save percentage. This was despite facing over 30 shots a night on average. It was one of the very few bright spots in the Sabres year, with Ullmark serving as a pillar in the crumbling lineup.
The Sabres continued their horrific collapse with the start of the off-season. On June 16th, they announced the firing of general manager Jason Botterill, the entire AHL coaching staff including Chris Taylor, and 12 of their 21 scouts, including assistant scouting director Jeff Crisp. It was a complete purge that gutted the team’s hockey ops staff, ultimately being chalked up to simple cost-saving. Worse was the fact that these purges seemingly affected workers who were given confidence that their job was safe. It was believed that AHL head coach Chris Taylor and head of player development Krys Bach had verbally agreed to contract extensions.
Botterill was reportedly having a conversation with a Buffalo free agent mere minutes before the firing was publicly announced, just to make things worse. And somehow topping that was a report from a few days later, stating that in the heat of the purge, Buffalo’s owners actually mistakenly fired head of hockey department IT Kyle Kiebzak and had to rehire him thereafter.
It was an absolutely embarrassing start to the off-season. Simple as that. And that’s without even mentioning the fact that an HVAC issue at KeyBank Center completely warped the boards, requiring them all to be replaced. Fans were notably nervous, especially as the Pegula family noted the firings were in-part due to a “difference of opinion” and that they felt like they “weren’t being heard”. Yikes. This sentiment seemed to hold true when they hired the inexperienced Kevyn Adams to fill the GM vacancy.
And yet, Adams has somehow managed to right the Sabres ship. At least, as much as he could. In his first move ever, Adams swapped Johansson for Eric Staal, making a massive improvement at the second-line centre position. He then went on to sign top-free agent and former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to a one-year deal, giving Eichel some friendly company. He also acquired Cody Eakin and Tobias Reider to help serve as bottom-six support.
The Sabres still have some woes, most notably on defence, but Adams has done a seriously incredible job. He’s replaced the anxious feeling Sabres fans had with one of careful-hope. With Hall in the mix, the Sabres might actually have something going for them this year, all thanks to the new GM.
Taylor Hall – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Victor Olofsson – Eric Staal – Jeff Skinner
Zemgus Girgensons – Arttu Ruotsalainen – Dylan Cozens
Tobias Reider – Curtis Lazar – Kyle Okposo
Extras: Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson
The Sabres top-line seems pretty set in stone, even as much as people don’t want it to be. Many have contested the idea that Sam Reinhart is top-line material, with some even saying he should be on the team’s third line. But that’s simply ridiculous. He’s now the third-best forward on the Sabres lineup and it is not close. His abilities as a playmaker, and in transition, are going to be magnificent next to the newly-acquired Hall.
The second-line is a bit more interesting. Staal and Skinner will certainly be present but it’s very likely that seventh-overall pick Dylan Cozens could rival a top-six spot if he performs well in training camp. The odds of these are fairly uncertain but if he does manage to break into the top-six, there’s no doubting that the Sabres will be doing all they can to fuel a Calder-contending rookie season.
Bottom-Six and Extras
The bottom-six is much cloudier. Arttu Ruotsalainen is sure to be a feature, as he flew to Buffalo recently from Europe. This is an exciting development for Buffalo for sure. Ruotsalainen has performed very well in Europe and is finally fighting for an NHL spot — one he’s sure to perform well in. But where he’s featured, and the wingers around him, are very up-in-the-air. The sextet could end up identical to the predicted one above, or unrecognizably different. This is especially thanks to Tage Thompson’s booming value. The winger performed very well in the AHL last year and is primed to regain his NHL-status. The Sabres certainly want to make that happen.
The defence is much more confusing. Against all recommendation, it’s very likely that the Sabres stick with the pairing of Jake McCabe and Ristolainen to start the year. Buffalo was religious to this tandem last season, as they surpassed every other D-pairing seen at even-strength by over 200 minutes. Krueger, Housley, Bylsma: they’ve all proven very fickle when it comes to swapping up the defence.
In that same rationale, Rasmus Dahlin and Colin Miller will definitely be stuck together again. As will Henri Jokiharju and Brandon Montour. The duo of right-handed defencemen were paired together when the Sabres lost Marco Scandella, as they simply didn’t have left-handed defencemen to suit up.
So, all things considered, not much can be expected from the defence this year. They didn’t make any notable improvements, aside from the small fact that Dahlin put on serious weight and size. He could very easily surprise this year. But for his five contemporaries, fans can expect much of the same.
No surprise here. Linus Ullmark is, quite literally, the only viable starter that the Sabres have. And Hutton, despite his vision-issues, is somehow still a better choice than the players that Buffalo has in the AHL. Star goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is still not ready for consistent NHL time. He proved this last season with a very timid season split between the AHL and ECHL. So the Sabres are simply stuck with the usual. Of course, the hope is that Ullmark can continue the strong streak he ended last season with. If he can, the goaltending might not be too much of a worry.
Players to Watch
Dahlin has always missed an added layer to his game. He’s been a lot better than some give him credit for but there’s still something absent. Well if reports are to be believed, the defenceman now tops over 200 pounds. In fact, he spent much of quarantine in the gyms in Sweden, bulking up. That’s a seriously great sign for Dahlin-hopefuls. It looks like he’ll transform from a young, inexperienced defenceman to a strong, mature star. If he can keep his speed and agility, while also adding an extra layer of physicality and confidence, boy-oh-boy the Sabres could be in for a treat. Dahlin is a bubble waiting to burst. He’s a star young player who just turned 20. This coming season could be the year that he proves why he was a first-overall pick.
It’s a bit obvious but important to touch on nonetheless. Cozens is gonna be good. He dominated juniors and is a star fixture of Team Canada’s U20 World Junior Championships team, right there beside Kirby Dach. He’s on pace to dominate the tournament and likely training camp as well. The Sabres have nothing to lose. If they can lean into the serious boost that Cozens will bring, they could finally build a formidable top-nine. His hard work on both ends of the ice, and speed in transition, is going to be invaluable. He’s a genuine Calder-contender at first glance. The maturity and talent he already has makes him so beyond NHL-ready. Buffalo could finally be onto a winner here.
Prediction for the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres
There are glaring positives in the Sabres lineup. And they were only one win away from a place in the Qualifying Round last season. Could this be the Sabres team that finally gets the Pegula’s into the playoffs? Well, maybe. The Sabres have a notorious history of starting the year red-hot and then burning out by mid-season. But in a shortened season, they might be able to keep the embers red for just long enough.
Well, that’s being optimistic. The additions of Hall, Ruotsalainen, and Cozens will certainly bring a welcome boost to the offence. But their defence hasn’t changed a wink. And with Krueger’s continued misuse of struggling players, the Sabres could again suffer from the curse that’s plagued them for the last nine years. It’ll be a dramatic fight between a surprisingly-admirable offence and goaltending and a defence that’s desperate for talent. Depending on the winner, the Sabres could be stuck to the bottom of their new division or fighting for a Wild Card role. Either way, they’ll be a much more exciting team to watch than in years past.