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Eight Optimistic & Realistic Predictions for the Buffalo Sabres:
To quote one of my favorite comedians, John Mulaney “…it seems like everyone everywhere is super mad about everything all the time”. This is the perfect way to describe the vibe around Sabres twitter as we approach the 50th season anniversary.
Is it all unwarranted?
Absolutely not…but, the eternal optimist in me is looking to focus on some of the bright spots that exist in Buffalo. Let’s try to get excited for the potential PDO jump that infected the Islanders last season.
I would love to hear back on social media how many of these you believe will come true for the Sabres in 2019-2020!
1) The goaltending is just above league average – Last year the Buffalo Sabres as a team produced a .901 S% which ranked 22nd in the NHL. Only 1 team who made the playoffs last season had a worse goaltending tandem, that being the last-place San Jose Sharks at .889%. The main reason for my optimism in the Sabres goaltending improving lies within Carter Hutton embarking on his 2nd full season as a number one goaltender.
As I wrote in my season end article about the Sabres, there was a staggering drop in Sv% in the 2nd half of the season. Hutton with one year of experience and hopefully an improved Ullmark in net can lead to the Sabres moving up a minimum of 7 spots in Sv% into the top half.
If you really want to get optimistic, at his current age Ullmark (Drafted 2012) is further along in his development than Jordan Binnington (Drafted 2011) was to begin last season. Before last season Binnington had 1 NHL start and comparable AHL numbers to Linus.
This is not to say the Ullmark is going to post a .927 Sv% and take the Sabres to the Cup. I’m just hopeful an improved blueline can contribute to the tandem getting into the top 15 teams in the league. Only four teams in the top 15 in Sv% missed the playoffs last year.
2) Three defenseman eclipse the 10-goal mark – Last season the Buffalo Sabres had 0 defenders light the lamp 10 times. Dahlin falling just short at 9 on the season and Montour at 8 were the highest in this department departments. Penciling them in for mild increases in heavy powerplay roles is very reasonable.
The question is, can Colin Miller or Rasmus Ristolainen make the jump to 10 goals? Last season Colin Miller had very bad luck posting an abysmal 2.3 S% which was below half of what he had been previously shooting. This dropped him from 10 goals to just 3 in 18 fewer games played.
The only chance he really has would be if Risto is dealt and his role increases from what I have it projected. Ristolainen, if he plays all 82 games in Buffalo has the shot volume to get the job done and has 8 and 9 goal seasons previously. His powerplay upside is there … I won’t enter into his 5v5 metrics or else this will lose its positivity quickly. Pilut has the ability, but I don’t see him getting the minutes to get it done.
3) Victor Olofsson nets 25+ – This one is a bit more on the highly possible side. If Olofsson is with Eichel for even the majority of the season, he has a golden opportunity to raise eyebrows around the league. Currently slotted in with Reinhart and Eichel, his laser of a shot seems like an easy candidate for at least 20 goals.
I won’t throw him in the Kakko/J. Hughes/Q. Hughes/Makar conversation just yet… but do I plan on throwing a little money on his prop line for the Calder? Could happen just solely based on his age/experience.
4) Casey Mittelstadt doubles his point production – I expect more in his sophomore season. Do his underlying numbers scream positive regression?Not especially. Does his current role make me believe the players around him will make him into a far better point producer? Hard to tell.
I am hopeful that Mittelstadt will be a career 13-15% shooter with far more playmaking upside than he showed in year one. Could see him around the Brayden Schenn stat line of 17 goals and 37 assists if he stays healthy. It isn’t out of the question that he finds himself with Skinner as the year goes on which will inherently give him a big boost in P/60.
5) Henri Jokiharju plays 70+ games – Last season, The Joker saw action in 38 Blackhawk games. He averaged 19 minutes of run where his offensive upside far outshined his defensive zone ability. He was a positive Corsi player, but with the reduced sample size I won’t go in-depth on the analytics.
I have a feeling Jokiharju will produce early to keep his spot in the lineup and with Bogosian and Montour set to miss time to begin the season he will be given the opportunity to force himself to stay in Buffalo. This prediction is a stone-cold lock if Ristolainen is traded early in the season.
As of now, it is hard to see the scenario playing out with the abundance of RHD Buffalo has accumulated without Jokiharju playing out of his mind to begin the season.
6) Dylan Cozens joins Sabres to close the season and dominates – This could be an overreaction to a hot start to the WHL season for the 1st round draft pick. I think there is a reason to believe he will be able to step into Buffalo when things wrap up in Lethbridge and move into a prominent role. For his development, it was the right call to send him back to play in the World Juniors and potentially the Memorial Cup Playoffs (I have no idea who is projected to be in the mix out of the WHL). I’m not looking for any sort of pt/g totals specifically, but at his current 3 points per game pace, he’s looking at 180+ pts. Of course, I don’t expect him to keep that up. The main question will be: Is Cozens coming to Buffalo to be used to push the Sabres to the playoffs?
7) Samson Reinhart will be resigned for 6 years/Eliminate bad contracts – We can add this to the highly likely category as it would seem there is mutual interest between the two parties. What I really wanted to highlight here is the cap relief the Sabres should see at the conclusion of this season.
The potential UFA’s for the Sabres are Zach Bogosian ($5.14 Million), Marco Scandella ($4.0 Million), Vlad Sobotka ($3.5 Million), Conor Sheary ($3.0 Million), Jimmy Vesey ($2.28 Million), Matt Hunwick (Dead Cap $2.25 Million), Zemgus Girgensons ($1.6 Million), Johan Larsson ($1.55 Million).
$23.32 Million is cap relief with only two/three players I would consider likely to be resigned. RFA’s are Reinhart, Montour, Mittelstadt, ERod, Pilut, Thompson, and Ullmark. There is plenty to get this group resigned, but it all starts with locking up #23. 6 years for $37.5 million is what I would ballpark it. Call it addition by subtraction as well as freeing up some cap space for hopefully landing a top 6 forward.
8) Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen becomes the #1 in Rochester – With Hammond set to take the majority of starts in Rochester and UPL not 100% back from injury, I would assume the arrival of the top goalie prospect in Buffalo is not this season.
That being said, he will get his first crack at the professional game in Blue Cross Arena once he is back at full health. My hope for UPL is that he can give the Amerks a strong backup to the veteran starter and eventually take over by the Calder Cup playoffs. Maybe… just maybe he can get the Amerks out of the first round. I’m sick of being the AHL version of the Maple Leafs!
Regardless of how you feel about the job Botterill has done this off-season, I think we can agree on one thing…Dahlin in that 50th-anniversary jersey is beautiful! Let’s go Sabres!