Buffalo Sabres Season Previewby Dale Money October 7, 2021 0 comments
In adding Taylor Hall to a team that already had Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, the 2020 campaign looked promising. But, as we all know, the season unraveled rather quickly, and they ended up dead last in the Eastern Division, with 15 wins. The Buffalo Sabres extended their playoff drought to 10 seasons, the longest active streak in the NHL.
Compared to the club we saw in 2020/21, this one will be very different. In addition to the upcoming departure of Eichel, the face of the franchise, several key players were traded away. As part of that effort to get younger and strengthen the prospect pool, Rasmus Ristolainen was among those traded.
Despite landing Owen Power with the first pick in the draft, Sabres fans may have to wait as he will likely remain at Michigan for another season. Right now, it will be better for everyone, not just Power, if they allowed him to continue to develop his game in college. Being on a Sabres team that is currently figuring things out probably isn’t the best environment for a player so young.
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Reinhart, the club’s leading scorer from last league year, was among the key players lost in the offseason. Considering the imminent loss of Eichel, it appears this offense has already suffered some major setbacks before the season even begins.
The roster is certainly not without talent, though, as Victor Olofsson showed last season. In addition to playing in all 56 games, he was the second-best scoring option on the team. He should continue to excel on the man advantage, having scored 18 power play goals in the last two years.
Dylan Cozens, the seventh overall pick in the 2019 draft, enters his second year looking to break out in an expanded role. He will have plenty of opportunities, now that three key offensive weapons are gone from last season.
Toward the end of last season, Casey Mittelstadt put together an impressive scoring surge. During those first 34 games, Mittlestadt only managed 5 points, but in the following 22 games he put up 17 points, which included nine goals. The sudden change in offense can likely be attributed to the switch from Ralph Krueger to Don Granato.
Combined with newly drafted defenseman Power, the Sabres have two very young defensemen in Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju, whom they can build around. However, it remains to be seen whether this defense can improve enough to have any chance of advancing out of the basement. In addition to conceding the most goals, they allowed the most opportunities.
Even with all of the problems in keeping Eichel, the Sabres were able to nail down Dahlin for the next three seasons, ensuring his presence for the foreseeable future. Last year, he ranked third in club scoring and second in average ice time. Despite being a solid offensive defenseman, he had a minus-36 this season (a club worst), so he’ll need to do a much better job on keeping shots on goal down.
The team was also able to extend Jokiharju’s contract by three years in early September. Last season, he contributed eight points in 46 games. Additonally, he ate up an average of 18.22 minutes per game, which may actually increase this season. Jokiharju will likely be slotted opposite Dahlin in the top pairing to start the campaign.
Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have been replaced by a new tandem in Aaron Dell and Craig Anderson. As a member of the New Jersey Devils, Dell played only seven games last year, finishing with a 1-5 record. During his principal years with the San Jose Sharks, he picked up 48 wins over four seasons.
In last year’s postseason with the Washington Capitals, Anderson saved 21 out of 22 shots against the Boston Bruins in the Game 1 victory. Unfortunately, the Capitals lost the next four contests. Despite playing in his 19th NHL season, Anderson remains in the mix to become starting goaltender. A recent preseason match against the Pittsburgh Penguins saw him surrender two goals on 20 shots in a 2-1 loss.
Cozens has only played 41 games with the Sabres so far. With the loss of Eichel forthcoming, he will be looked upon as the next potential cornerstone whether he’s ready to take over that role or not. Though he had a slow start to the preseason, the 20-year-old Whitehorse native has since picked up the pace. With a fourth preseason game already under his belt, Cozens is tied for second in assists among players.
Following Dahlin’s impressive sophomore campaign in which he put up 40 points in just 59 games, the expectations were understandably high for the offensive-minded defender. Ralph Krueger’s dump and chase strategy prevented Dahlin from spreading his wings, and consequently, his numbers dropped significantly. Following Krueger’s firing in mid-March (and Granato’s subsequent arrival), Dahlin steadily improved his offensive game. Of his 23 points last season, 11 came in April. In his first full season under Granato’s offensive-focused scheme, Dahlin should see a big increase in his overall scoring output.
Biggest Question Facing The Sabres
As the season fast approaches, the trade status of Eichel continues to loom large. In recent months several teams have shown interest in Eichel, most notably the New York Rangers. The fact remains that he is still with the Sabres, days before the start of the regular season. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported last week that Buffalo has now offered Eichel’s medical information to other teams as they attempt to complete a trade.
In the wake of Reinhart’s trade during the offseason, as well as Eichel’s likely absence, it’s going to be up to other players to step in and help run this offense. Mittelstadt, Cozens, Olofsson, and Dahlin should all be able to contribute points. Due to holes in the back end, the team will still have a limited ceiling despite their efforts. In addition to losing Ristolinen, the Sabres have arguably one of the weakest goaltending tandems in the league. Fans are encouraged by what they are building on defense, despite the lack of expectations for the team this season. Darcy Kuemper and Martin Jones will likely be available as free agents next summer; either player would improve that netminder position.
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