(photo via nhl.com)
After a horrific season in 2018, the Sabres made several moves to shake up the core of the team. The Sabres moved on from the fringe AHL players that were cluttered throughout their roster and now for the first time in years, the Sabres have depth in all positions of their roster. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade here but you shouldn’t be expecting playoffs from the Sabres this season.
Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick, Carter Hutton, Remi Elie, and Jack Dougherty
Ryan O’Reilly, Victor Antipin, Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan, Jacob Josefson, Seth Griffith, Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, Robin Lehner, Chad Johnson, and Nick Baptiste
On paper, it’s very obvious that the Sabres improved this offseason. With the improved roster, many believe that this team might have a chance to squeak into a playoff spot. Right now it’s way too early to tell. They are indeed a better team than what they’ve iced for the past five or so seasons but I’m not so sure that they’re a playoff caliber team.
A Look At The Newcomers
The acquisitions from the St. Louis Blues in the O’Reilly trade will all exceed expectations in my opinion. At the time of the trade, Sabres fans weren’t really all too excited about Berglund and Sobotka because they were considered as “cap dumps.” Well, I guess you can call them cap dumps in the sense that the Blues needed to move salary off their roster to make room for O’Reilly. We need to remember that one of the biggest weaknesses for this team for the longest time has been depth and strength at the forward position in the bottom six. There’s no doubt that Berglund and Sobotka strengthen the bottom six by miles over what they’ve had on the ice as of late. Both of them are versatile in the sense that they can play both center and wing. You can probably expect Sobotka to chip in ten or so goals and when Berglund is healthy he’s usually good for about 15-20 goals. People really aren’t giving these two players nearly enough credit. They’re going to be big surprises for this team.
Sabres fans may have wanted Robert Thomas or Jordan Kyrou as a prospect in the O’Reilly trade but Tage Thompson is no slouch. He has shown in the prospects challenge as well as preseason that he’s already an NHL player. He was one of the best players in the prospects challenge, not only for the Sabres but out of all of the teams participating. Thompson was a beast and really was able to showcase his speed, creativity, and his deadly shot. In the couple preseason games that I was able to watch he was also really good. In one of the Toronto games, he had a beautiful goal and was one of the Sabres best players. Thompson will make the Sabres roster and I believe that he can play up and down the lineup for sure. Whether it’s on a line one with Eichel or even on the third or fourth line, I think he’ll contribute. If there’s one thing that I think he can improve upon I’d say that he should use his frame a little more and be more physical but if he’s gonna score 15-20 goals who really cares? Don’t be surprised if Thompson can have a breakout season like Alex Tuch had in Vegas last season. Both were kind of forgotten prospects in the organization that they were drafted by and were sliding on the depth chart and were moved along to another team. Tuch was a big contributor to Vegas’ success last year and I wouldn’t be surprised if Thompson can do the same in Buffalo.
Buffalo made another big move later in the summer in acquiring former Calder Trophy winner, Jeff Skinner. Skinner has been a consistent 20 goal scorer throughout his NHL career and the fact that they only got him for a second round pick, Cliff Pu, and a couple later picks is crazy. The one problem with the Skinner trade is that he’s going into the final year on his contract. Considering the fact that Buffalo was one of the only teams that Skinner was willing to waive his no trade clause for, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll be willing to sign in Buffalo. Skinner and the Sabres are going to wait it out for a bit before starting contract talks. I’d expect that if the Sabres have a somewhat decent year, Skinner will sign. Now if they’re a basement dweller once again, maybe Skinner wants to go and chase a Stanley Cup. Anything is possible but it’s really a win-win scenario for Buffalo. You get a consistent 25 goal scorer locked up long term or you flip him for probably more than what you gave up to get him and maybe even walk into the 2019 draft with FOUR first round picks. The Sabres can’t lose here unless they let him walk on July 1st but that won’t happen. It’s more likely than not that Skinner will be playing on a line with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart on opening night and that could potentially be the best line the Sabres have iced in a long time. Skinner and Reinhart have already shown that they have a little chemistry in preseason and Skinner has never played with a true number one center like Jack Eichel. That line is going to be fun, I’ll tell you that for free.
I really like the trade for Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick. Although I don’t expect Hunwick to play at any point this season and he might even be bought out in the offseason, but trading a fourth round pick for Conor Sheary is a steal. The pick could end up turning into a third rounder but still, I’d take that all day long. The condition on the trade is that if Sheary scores 20 goals or has 40 points the fourth round pick turns into a third round pick. It’s a 3rd/4th for a pretty good top nine winger, I really like the trade. When he comes back from his injury, I expect that he’ll be playing on a line with Casey Mittelstadt.
Buffalo moved on from their goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson who were disappointing, to say the least, last season but were far from the biggest problem that they had. The signed Carter Hutton to a three year deal and he’s expected to bridge the gap for when Linus Ullmark takes over the starting job. Hutton had a breakout season in St. Louis last year with a .931 save percentage in 32 games. Honestly, he’s probably not going to replicate his season that he had last year but if he does, that will really help Buffalo push for the playoffs. Hutton will more likely than not be the starting goalie for the home opener against the Bruins. Hutton was the best goalie available in the offseason and I can’t think of a better partner for Linus Ullmark to learn from than Hutton. By all accounts, Hutton is a great locker room guy and will help their “culture” problem. I’m curious to see how Housley will split the games between Hutton and Ullmark this season.
Rasmus Dahlin was without a doubt the biggest addition for the Sabres in the offseason. The Sabres finally won the draft lottery and now have what they’ve been searching decades for in a franchise defenseman. Dahlin has the upside to become one of if not the best defenseman in the NHL. He’s been compared to Erik Karlsson, Nick Lidstrom, and Victor Hedman, what do those three all have in common? They’ve all won a Norris Trophy in their career. Dahlin is destined for greatness in the NHL and I know it’s been months since they won the lottery but I still can’t believe that the Sabres have Dahlin.
Projected Lines + Expectations
Like I said before, this is going to be a very fun line. I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of these players break out this season. Skinner playing with a legitimate number one center should score 30 goals. After an explosive second half of last season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Reinhart can finally put together a consistent season. For Reinhart, I’m looking for him to rack up a lot of assists and be that amazing playmaker that Buffalo drafted in 2014. I’d like to see 20 goals and 40-45 assists out of Reinhart this season. For Eichel, I’m hoping to see a breakout year like what Nate MacKinnon did last year in Colorado. Eichel needs to silence the nonbelievers and have a point per game season if he can stay healthy for the whole season, I think he can easily do that.
Mittelstadt had an underwhelming training camp but nonetheless, I think he will still have a good rookie season in Buffalo. Like most rookies, he will have his ups and downs but at the end of the day, the Sabres have a stud on their hands in Mittelstadt. 15-20 goals would be an ideal season for Casey, let’s hope he is in the discussion for the Calder Trophy throughout the course of the season. Having a couple of veterans on his wings could suit well for Casey’s development. Kyle Okposo needs to have a bounce back year. If he can get back to being a 25 goal scorer that will do a lot for Buffalo in their attempt to get back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
This is more or less an energy line for the Sabres. I know this is going to be an unpopular opinion but it’s not 2009 anymore, Jason Pominville is past his prime and is not going to contribute much anymore. He was only good when he was with Eichel or when he was on the power play last season and I don’t really think he will get much time with Eichel this year. Maybe ten goals is a possibility, but Jason Pominville isn’t a top six player in this league anymore, sorry to break it to you. Rodrigues has impressed me in his time in the organization. He brings speed to the bottom six which is essential in today’s NHL. The Sabres claimed Elie off waivers from the Stars and I love the move. He’s an improvement on the fringe NHL/AHL guys like Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste that have been up and down throughout the last couple of years. He spent most of the year in Dallas last season but has now been pushed down the depth chart due to some younger players joining their team. He’s an upgrade over Girgensons and Larsson, no doubt about it.
Get this guy out of here already, enough is enough. It’s been time to part ways for years now.
Injured: Wilson and Larsson
Wilson isn’t going to chip in many goals, I’d be happy with five goals and maybe ten assists for Wilson. He was a nice pickup last year but he brings some grit and speed to the bottom six which is a breath of fresh air after watching bums who don’t bring anything to the lineup like Jordan Nolan and Nic Deslauriers for the last few seasons. Wilson will miss 8-10 weeks due to having surgery on his ankle.
For God sake, get Larsson out of Buffalo already…
Although you can’t say that there were many bright spots for Buffalo last season, the pairing of Scandella and Ristolainen was far from disappointing. Ideally, Scandella is on your third pair but at this point in time, Scandella and Ristolainen is a good pairing and it looks like that pairing will start the 18-19 season together. Ristolainen was kind of disappointing last season in my opinion. I wanted him to take a step but I think he regressed in his play. He needs to step his game up and I think it’s possible with the improved roster that Buffalo will be icing this season. Can he get to 50 points? That would be great but Risto is usually good for 40 points a year.
Jake McCabe is looking to have a bounce back season after missing a large portion of last year with injuries. When McCabe played last year, you could tell he was playing hurt since he decided to shut it down and get surgery, he is 100% going into the regular season. Playing alongside Rasmus Dahlin will only help McCabe. Dahlin should be able to step into the NHL and not look out of place. He’s already a top four defenseman but there will be growing pains for him. There will be nights where he looks like the best player on the ice and there will be some nights where the moronic side of the Sabres fan base will call him a bust and say that they should’ve taken Brady Tkachuk. It’ll happen, it’s inevitable, but Dahlin should be in contention for the Calder Trophy throughout the season. If he can hit 40 points, I’d call that a successful season for Rasmus Dahlin.
Beaulieu needs to show that he can bounce back or else it’s probably time to start thinking about moving on from him whether that’s waivers or a trade. He had a decent preseason but keep in mind, he was very good in last year’s preseason as well and he was dreadful for the balance of last year. I really like Casey Nelson and I’m excited that he’ll be sticking around this year. Just guessing here but Nelson will most likely be the seventh defenseman when Bogosian comes back. I’m a little worried that if they waive Nelson this season, a desperate team for a right shot defenseman would put in a claim for him. Nelson is pretty reliable so pairing him with Beaulieu cold work well to start.
Scratched: Matt Tennyson
I’m just as surprised as you at the fact that Matt Tennyson made the 23 man roster. Should he be on the team? Absolutely not but he probably won’t see the ice and is just a placeholder for when Bogosian comes back from his injury.
Injured: Zach Bogosian and Matt Hunwick
Bogosian needs to stay healthy this season, obviously, he already failed at that goal but let’s hope he can play 70+ games this season.
I honestly don’t expect Hunwick to play in Buffalo at any point this year.
This might sound surprising but Ullmark is already 25 years old and we’re nearing the time where a goalie should be near being able to become a starting goaltender. I think Ullmark has the tools to become a starting goalie from his time in the AHL and in Sweden but he really needs to show us that he can be a capable NHL goaltender this year. If he ends the season with a .908 save percentage, I’d be pretty worried. Again, I think he’ll do well but just keep that in the back of your mind. He has to prove himself within the next couple of years.
Potential Call Ups
C Rasmus Asplund
I’d be surprised if Asplund didn’t play at any point in Buffalo this season. He had a great prospects challenge and also impressed in training camp. If he plays well in Rochester, I think he can be a regular in Buffalo’s lineup next season.
C Andrew Oglevie
The Sabres signed Oglevie as an undrafted free agent at the end of last season and he has been a pleasant surprise. I think that he’s played very well from development camp all the way to training camp. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a couple games this year if there’s a rash of injuries.
C Kyle Criscuolo
I think Criscuolo would get called up after Oglevie and Asplund but he did get some time in Buffalo last year so you just never know. It’s unlikely that he gets called up in my opinion.
LW C.J. Smith
Smith has impressed me in both training camps since he signed with the Sabres. I thought that he deserved to make the team out of camp but with Sheary being healthy now, his odds of making the team went down and was sent to Rochester. Smith will be among the first call ups when someone gets hurt. If he can stay healthy this year, he’ll have a big season in Rochester.
LW Victor Olofsson
I think that there’s a better chance that Asplund sees some time with the Sabres over Olofsson this season. I’d like to see Olofsson get a full year in Rochester and hopefully score a ton of goals. Maybe he can crack the Sabres lineup for 2019-2020.
RW Alex Nylander
Alex Nylander shocked many that for some reason thought it was a good idea to write off a 20-year-old former top ten pick for having a couple of disappointing seasons in the AHL. Well, Nylander looked good in preseason and in the prospects challenge and in my opinion, he should’ve earned a spot on this roster. Not many had Nylander making the Sabres roster, including myself, but it’s a pleasant surprise that Nylander has worked in the offseason and made sure that nobody will be forgetting about him even though he will be in Rochester to start. Now he needs to continue this success in Rochester and he will hopefully earn a call up sooner rather than later.
RW Justin Bailey
I’ve seen enough of Justin Bailey at this point, sorry to say this but he’s not an NHL player, but he is a very good AHLer and will help the Amerks. I’m sure he’ll be one of the first call ups but don’t expect him to be a world beater in Buffalo if he does indeed get called up. It’s been more of the same with him, he’ll come up with fire and put together a couple impressive games but then he’ll be invisible shortly after. He has speed and can score goals but I just don’t think he will ever be able to adjust into a bottom six role where he’d be if he ever makes the NHL.
D Lawrence Pilut
Pilut had a very strong training camp and I firmly believe that he should’ve made the opening night lineup. It’s probably best for his development that he starts in Rochester and plays his way up to Buffalo but he outplayed most of the Buffalo defensemen. I think he should be one of the first call ups on defense. Pilut was among the best defensemen in Sweden last year and for Buffalo to sign him, is a huge get for the organization. He will get some time in Buffalo if he can play well in Rochester, no doubt about it.
D Brendan Guhle
Like Pilut, Guhle will be one of the first to be called up this season. He had a pretty rough training camp and he needs to get off to a good start in Rochester to get his confidence back. I’m confident that Guhle will be a good NHL player but he needs to show us all this year that he can play consistently good at the NHL level.
D Will Borgen
Borgen probably won’t get called up but again, anything is possible. He’s more likely to play the whole season in the minors. I’m really high on Borgen and I think there’s a future in the NHL for him.
D Brandon Hickey
I doubt that Hickey will see any time in Buffalo this season. Like Borgen, he’s a first year pro and the plan is probably to have him spend the whole season in the AHL.
D Taylor Fedun
Same with Fedun here, doubt that he gets called up considering the depth that they have on defense. But that says a lot about their depth considering that a couple years ago, Fedun was among the first call ups and people would get furious when he would ever get sent down to Rochester.
D Jack Dougherty
Not gonna lie, I don’t know much about Dougherty. He was acquired in the Nick Baptiste trade and will start in Rochester. He adds depth on the right side at the very least.
G Scott Wedgewood
Wedgewood is a solid starting AHL goalie, in my opinion, if either Hutton or Ullmark get hurt, he’ll be the first guy up but I imagine he won’t get many starts.
What To Expect
As I’ve said before, there’s no question the Sabres are a better team than in the previous years of this rebuild. You can argue that this is probably the best Sabres team since they last made the playoffs. They will be better but the real question is how much better will they be? You have to keep in mind that the team that they had last year was really, and I mean really bad. It was almost impossible at some points to sit down and watch them play from start to finish. They were brutal. So with all of these additions, I think that they should be average to below average at the very least. I don’t see them finishing in the bottom five this year.
I’m not one to go out and predict that this is a playoff team. I’m keeping my expectations fairly low for this season. You have to keep in mind that this is going to be a young team and it’s still far from being a finished product. If you’re going into this season expecting playoffs, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, and many fans did that last year.
I’m going to guess that Buffalo will end up with 80 points. They’re likely to finish higher than Ottawa, Detroit, and Montreal in the standings. It might be close between them and Florida but I still give the slight edge to the Panthers. And I don’t think they’ll be close to Tampa, Toronto, and Boston. So I believe that they will finish fifth in the Atlantic Division.
Who’s The Captain???
Eichel will eventually be the captain of this team, but it’s just a matter of when it will happen. I don’t think that they will have a captain this year and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Having a guy wear a C will have absolutely no effect on the team’s season. Have patience, Jack will be the captain soon.
Overall, the Sabres should have a much better season this year. They’re not going to be world beaters by any means but they’ll be better in all areas. Remember, last season they lost a lot of one goal games. There were some close games last season and with this improved roster, it’s not unrealistic to think that they can win a lot more games this year. They will need about a 30 point improvement off of last season to get into the playoffs which will be a stretch. But if Jack Eichel can have a breakout season, if Carter Hutton can get close to how he played last year, if they can get some competent defense, and if they can even get some depth scoring, they could have a good shot of making the playoffs. But is it possible for them to do all of that? maybe but remember, Colorado and New Jersey made the playoffs coming off of bad seasons. This happens more and more in the NHL in recent years so again, anything is possible but all I’m saying is don’t set yourself up for disappointment and go in thinking that this is a playoff team.
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