Sabres are better, but still have a long way to go
There were seven teams that did not qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff field this past season. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at each of them to examine whether or not they are capable of bouncing back this upcoming season. We continue today with the Buffalo Sabres.
No team in the NHL needs a playoff berth during the 2020-21 season more than the Buffalo Sabres.
They have the league’s longest playoff drought, now sitting at nine consecutive seasons after falling short in a year where 24 teams made the cut.
They have completely wasted the first five years of Jack Eichel’s career and are already on the third different general manager and third different head coach during that time.
A lot gets made about how little the Edmonton Oilers have done during the Connor McDavid era, but even they have a pair of playoff appearances and a playoff series win with him. The closest the Sabres have come to the playoffs in Eichel’s career is falling three points short of making an expanded field.
This is not where the Sabres were supposed to be at this point when they started their rebuild more than six years ago.
Have they done enough this offseason to finally take a meaningful step toward relevance?
Getting Eichel some help
For as bad as the situation has been the Sabres do have two very important pieces in place -- a franchise player (Eichel), and a potential No. 1 defenseman (Rasmus Dahlin). Superstar players are an essential ingredient of any contender and the hardest ones to find. The Sabres already have one, and potentially another.
Now it becomes a matter of piecing something around them.
• They attempted to do that two years ago with the trade for Jeff Skinner. But after a 40-goal debut and a massive contract extension, his production plummeted during the 2019-20 season. He has to bounce back from that for the Sabres to be competitive.
• Sam Reinhart hasn’t become a star, but he still a very good player that is going to give them 25 goals and 50 points every year. Victor Olofsson has also been a pleasant development. But they needed more.
• They addressed that this offseason by making two major additions with the trade for veteran center Eric Staal and the free agent signing of 2018 league MVP Taylor Hall on a stunning one-year contract. They also added Tobias Rieder for the bottom of the lineup.
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At the moment these are very short-term additions as all three will be unrestricted free agents after this season. And while Hall has a great relationship with head coach Ralph Krueger, and has said all of the right things after signing, there is still no guarantee this will end up being a long-term commitment.
But even in the short-term these are significant additions. The Sabres have not finished higher than 21st in the league in goals scored during the Eichel era, and have badly needed additional scoring depth and talent around him. Staal is 36, but he has not really shown much sign of slowing down and there is no reason to believe he will not be able to give them 20-goals this season. A healthy Hall is one of the most impactful wingers in the league offensively and will be the best player that Eichel has ever had on his wing in the NHL.
The Penalty kill and goaltending are big issues
When you look at the Sabres’ lineup defensively there really isn’t much that stands out here on paper beyond the potential of Dahlin.
But here’s the thing that kind of gets overlooked -- this was not a terrible team defensively at 5-on-5 this past season.
They were a top-11 team in terms of limiting shot attempts (7th best), goals against (8th best), scoring chances (9th), high-danger scoring chances (11th), and expected goals (11th) per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. That is not bad.
It was the penalty kill (30th in the NHL) and goaltending that held them back.
Rieder should be a good addition to help the former, but the goalie question is still going to linger. Carter Hutton has not panned out as expected and was badly outplayed by Linus Ullmark. But even Ullmark is able to repeat that performance this season (a very respectable .915 save percentage) they will still need more from Hutton or whatever backup they have in his place.
Over the past two seasons the Sabres have a .529 points percentage when Ullmark plays. It is only .433 when he does not.
Thanks to the additions of Hall, Staal, and Rieder this team is definitely better than it was at the end of last season. Add in a potential bounce back year from Skinner and hopefully a significant leap forward from Dahlin, and there is some reason for optimism if you are a Sabres fan.
At least more than there has been in recent years.
But is any of it enough for both this year and beyond?
Even with the additions the Sabres are still light years behind Tampa Bay and Boston at the top of the Atlantic Division, and there is no reason to believe that Toronto will not continue to be better as well. So you are already starting in a position where the Wild Card is probably the most realistic goal. But even that has its challenges due to an improved Montreal team, Florida, and whatever teams don’t make the top-three in the Metro.
Beyond that, even if the Sabres DO improve dramatically due to their additions, they are still facing the possibility of Hall and Staal leaving after this season. They also have almost no long-term commitments on defense beyond having Dahlin under team control.
They are better right now. But they still have a lot of questions beyond this season and a long way to go.
Buffalo Sabres Offseason