Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 NHL season preview
The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we preview the Buffalo Sabres.
Buffalo Sabres 2019-20 Rewind
Record: 30-31-8 (68 points); sixth in the Atlantic Division; 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Leading scorer: Jack Eichel (36 goals, 78 points).
The story of the Buffalo Sabres’ 2019-20 season is all too familiar to Sabres fans. Uncomfortably, it’s becoming gratingly familiar for Jack Eichel, too.
With an 8-1-1 start, Sabres teased fans with the potential to break their agonizing playoff drought. If you rank among those who can’t even remember that hot opening to the Buffalo Sabres’ 2019-20 season, then ... well, you know how that story ends.
Then again, while the chapters seemed to repeat themselves -- we’ve been through rumblings of Eichel unrest before, right? -- the epilogue contained some dizzying twists.
First, the Sabres said they would keep Jason Botterill as GM. In true Sabres fashion, they riled up their fans by claiming they had some mystical extra knowledge. Apparently that intel changed, because weeks later, Botterill (and far too many other staffers) were gone. With a threadbare front office, Kevyn Adams received the tough assignment of reshaping this roster.
In other set of twists, Adams made some great moves. (Not every choice was ideal, but the bigger picture looks strong.)
There really wasn’t any foreshadowing for the Sabres winning the Taylor Hall sweepstakes. They did, though, and even managed their risks by limiting Hall to a one-year, $8 million pact. Beyond Hall, Adams upgraded the Sabres by trading Marcus Johansson for Eric Staal.
Still, the Sabres enter 2020-21 with muted expectations because of the parts of the song that remain the same. Will this team still struggle to accept Rasmus Ristolainen’s limitations? Can they really expect strong goaltending, or even good-enough netminding? In the end, will Jack Eichel feel like it’s him against the world once again?
Taylor Hall (free agency), Eric Staal (trade), Cody Eakin (free agency).
Dominik Kahun (free agency), Johan Larsson (free agency), Marcus Johansson (trade), Michael Frolik (free agency), Wayne Simmonds (free agency).
3 Most Interesting Buffalo Sabres
• Taylor Hall
Don’t lie; you didn’t expect Taylor Hall to sign with the Buffalo Sabres. Taylor Hall probably didn’t expect that to happen.
Upon first impact, it’s baffling. But peel off a few layers and it could be a smart move for both the player and his new team.
To start, the less-fun part: the market was probably pretty barren. Defensemen (plus Jacob Markstrom and Matt Murray) received long-term, big-money deals; forwards fended for themselves.
Perhaps the other part of the equation is where Taylor Hall was clever like a fox. Depending upon the situation, Hall may have had to take a one-year deal with a contender, but wasn’t guaranteed to line up with a top center. In Buffalo, he can pencil himself into a line with Jack Eichel. While line combinations can be fluid, the logic is sound.
(And, hey, there’s something to be said for playing with house money. If the Sabres stink, Hall will only absorb so much blame. If they prospel, Hall gets a bunch of credit.)
Yet, for all of those positives, the stakes remain high. Hall turned 29 in November, so he only has so many more chances at landing a behemoth of a long-term contract. By his standards, he struggled last season, and has been on a bit of a downward trend for a while. Another bumpy season could knock him down another tier in free agency.
Being that the salary cap could be flat for quite a while, spenders are going to be picky. Hall needs to prove that he’s worth the premium price he’s hoping to fetch.
• The promising Rasmus, and the baffling one
One of the Buffalo Sabres’ most frustrating problems comes down to how they seemingly perceive players named Rasmus. After a promising rookie season, Rasmus Dahlin saw a downgrade in opportunities, and generally struggled. Year after year, the Sabres trot out Rasmus Ristolainen as if he’s worthy of a workhorse role.
Now, it’s true that Rasmus Dahlin has room for improvement. And maybe Ristolainen would put up less troubling numbers if he wasn’t asked to do too much. To be fair, the Sabres don’t have the greatest options on defense.
(Although, again, they’d probably be better off transferring minutes from the larger Rasmus to the smaller, younger one. Even if it would mean asking a lot of Dahlin early in his career.)
Beyond differing outside perceptions of Ristolainen, the towering defenseman’s also exhibited the sort of existential crises one might expect from a long-suffering Sabre. Ristolainen said all the right things after his earlier outbursts, but that angst could creep back in quickly.
• Jack Eichel
You can only ignore Eichel for so long when it comes to the most interesting Buffalo Sabres.
Anecdotally speaking, Eichel has a decent amount of sway with front office decisions. When Kevyn Adams makes a move, he likely has to at least consider how his top player would react. (And he’d be wise to not even consider trading that star.)
There could be all sorts of domino effects from Eichel’s mood and production. Might he sour on Ralph Krueger? If Hall doesn’t mesh with Eichel, would that just about seal his fate? Could rising frustration prompt Adams to make hasty moves?
Beyond all that, Eichel is a sensational star. Maybe this is the year people realize just how elite Eichel really is?
High-end players can change things. During Taylor Hall’s Hart Trophy season, he dragged a deeply flawed Devils team to an unlikely playoff spot. Hall will have plenty of motivation to be at his best this season, and that could be enough to help Buffalo survive a difficult East Division. On paper, the Sabres’ goaltending looks weak, but Carter Hutton enjoyed some strong years in St. Louis, and claims he put vision issues behind him. Maybe it all comes together and the Sabres make the playoffs, with even some upset potential during early rounds?
For all that changed with the Sabres, they still might have fatal flaws. Even if they transfer minutes from the lesser Rasmus to the more promising Rasmus, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. And, as unpredictable as goaltending can be, the forecast is cloudy for Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Eichel, Hall, and other top scorers might not be able to cancel out those problems. Also, if the pandemic knocks out the possibility for in-season trades, Hall and others might also be stuck on the Sabres while they hit 10 straight seasons without a playoff berth.
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