Count the Buffalo Sabres among the many teams hoping to make a big splash in 2019-2020. With a new head coach in Ralph Krueger and some serious off-season acquisitions, Buffalo could be in line to end the longest active playoff drought in the league. They haven’t made the post-season since 2011.
Krueger’s name might not immediately inspire confidence because most people are still associating him with the 2012-2013 edition of the Edmonton Oilers, but the new coach has experience (and success) on the international level. He took over from Phil Housley in May.
“The thing that we kept on coming back was those high-pressure situations that he’s been involved with, and he’s excelled in those environments,” general manager Jason Botterill said. “The fact that he can bring a group together, he can motivate in-game a team in high-pressure situations, was very intriguing for us.”
The Sabres finished last season on an awful 16-33-8 run after a 10-game winning streak highlighted November, so momentum is a big deal. Buffalo seemed in position to make the playoffs and they even topped the Eastern Conference at one point, but things fell apart.
Offensive depth may be a factor for the Sabres, but they’ll lead with centre Jack Eichel. He put up better than a point-per-game, setting career high totals in goals, assists, shots on goal, and power play points last season. Skating with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart was best for him, but Eichel can thrive in other situations. If Krueger decides to tinker with the lineup, there’s every reason to believe the 22-year-old will still roll.
Skinner scored a career-high 40 goals last season and signed a big contract to solidify his presence with the Sabres, so he’s all-in. He did finish a touch on the soft side, with just six points in his last 19 games, but he should rebound.
Reinhart is the third piece of that top line. The unit accounted for 90 of Buffalo’s 221 goals last season, with Reinhart chipping in for 22. He was second on the team in points with 65 and he’ll continue to see plenty of time on the power play. It’s possible that Krueger sticks Reinhart with new hire Marcus Johansson, which would split up the offensive firepower.
Johansson, along with Jimmy Vesey, represent a chunk of Buffalo’s off-season acquisitions. They’ll help reinforce secondary scoring. Vesey has scored 17 goals in each of his past two seasons. We should also see more of Casey Mittelstadt, who had 25 points last season and is ready for an encore.
The Sabres needed depth on defence and they met that need with the off-season acquisitions of Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Buffalo will table at least five right-shot D-men. Zach Bogosian is likely to miss the start of the season on account of hip surgery, but Rasmus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour are very much in the picture.
Ristolainen has plenty of upside, but he’s also been a minus-143 in his career. The good news is that he has a boatload of power play points – even though Rasmus Dahlin had more last season.
Dahlin is the linchpin of the Sabres’ defence. The 18-year-old had 44 points last season and should thrive under Krueger. He likes to use the body, coming in with 97 hits last season, and there’s a lot to like about his overall game. He’ll see more power play time in 2019-2020, especially with Eichel, Skinner and Reinhart.
There isn’t a lot of talk about the goaltending in Buffalo and that’s probably for good reason. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are the tandem and they’ll go into 2019-2020 with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Hutton put up just 18 wins in 48 starts last season, with a .908 save percentage and a 3.00 goals against average.
Ullmark, meanwhile, had 15 wins in 34 starts and managed a .905 save percentage with a 3.11 goals against average. Neither goaltender played particularly well, but it’s possible they turn things around this season with a little more defensive accountability.
It takes a lot of optimism to consider the Sabres a playoff team, but anything’s possible. Buffalo has made some improvements and they’re bound to be one of the most thrilling teams out there in 2019-2020. Whether that leads to a post-season berth is up in the air and problems definitely remain, so expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
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