The rollicking 10-game winning streak that saw the Buffalo Sabres surge to the top of the NHL standings last November turned out to be an aberration. The Sabres imploded in the second half, joining the 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers as the only other team to rattle off 10 consecutive victories and miss the playoffs. From Jan. 1 until the end of another miserable campaign, the hapless Sabres mustered a league-low 28 points. They lost 15 of 16 late-season contests, a wretched stretch that likely cost coach Phil Housley his job.
New coach Ralph Krueger has his work cut out trying to end an eight-year playoff drought that stands as the longest in the league. While GM Jason Botterill made several additions over the summer – most notably defenseman Colin Miller and wingers Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey – the Sabres play in the stacked Atlantic Division. They must climb over a slew of teams, including heavyweights Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto.
In their first season together, Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner quickly morphed into a lethal duo. Eichel put up a career-best 82 points. Skinner carried a 50-goal pace into February before finishing with a career-high 40. Their dynamic chemistry helped Buffalo surpass the 200-goal mark for the first time since 2011-12.
In Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres have two 40-point defensemen. Still, they often showcased a feeble offense, relying too much on Eichel, Skinner and winger Sam Reinhart. In March, the Sabres were shut out in three straight games, a pathetic stretch during arguably the worst month in franchise history.
The Sabres desperately need a center – remember, they traded Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis last year – to man the second line.
The Miller acquisition gives Buffalo nine NHL defensemen, including five right-handed shots. That doesn’t include top prospect Henri Jokiharju, another righty, obtained in the summer in a trade that sent underachieving Alex Nylander to Chicago.
While righties are coveted, Buffalo probably can’t keep that many, and Ristolainen could be on his way out. The Finn looks beaten down by the constant losing he has endured over his six-year career. Despite his production, Ristolainen struggles defensively, and a change of scenery might benefit both sides.
Dahlin, 19, is perhaps the NHL’s best young defenseman and a probable future superstar.
The tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark helped buoy the Sabres’ first-half success before joining the rest of the team in a tailspin. Neither netminder looks like a long-term option. Top goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the OHL MVP, will likely begin his pro career with AHL Rochester after recovering from hip surgery.
The power play is at its best with Eichel unleashing one-timers from the left circle and Reinhart tipping pucks in front. Eichel is dangerous from that area, looking like a Steven Stamkos clone, while Reinhart has quietly developed into an elite net-front player. Krueger’s 48 games behind the Edmonton bench in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season is his only NHL experience. You can bet he utilizes Eichel and Reinhart in the same way as his predecessors. Zemgus Girgensons has led the Sabres’ PK for years. The 2012 first-rounder hasn’t become a star, but he has carved out a solid career as a checker.
It has been four years since Eichel was drafted, and he has yet to make the playoffs or score 30 goals in a season. Sooner or later, Eichel, who’s entering into the second season of an eight-year, $80-million contract, must elevate his game and the Sabres.
In 2014, the Sabres drafted Swedish winger Victor Olofsson in the seventh round, and he’s now an emerging prospect. His 27 goals led the Swedish League in 2017-18, and he scored 30 times as an AHL rookie last season. Buffalo rewarded him with a six-game recall. Olofsson, who possesses a lethal shot, should make the team.
Dahlin enjoyed one of the most remarkable rookie seasons by a defenseman ever, and did so as an 18-year-old. He looks like a surefire superstar in the making and might find another gear as a sophomore.
The Sabres have burned through coaches and GMs and became a laughingstock under Terry Pegula, who purchased the team in 2011. Nothing the owner has tried – spending big money, tanking, changing coaches and regimes – has worked. Krueger is the Sabres’ fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired in 2013.
– Bill Hoppe
STANLEY CUP ODDS: 52/1
PREDICTION: 6th in the Atlantic
The Sabres have their goalie of the future in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, though his pro debut may be delayed while recovering from hip surgery. Dylan Cozens’ Sabres career started on a downer, as the seventh overall pick in 2019 needed surgery on his thumb after taking a hit at rookie camp. But there’s still a lot to love about the big center, from his speed and skill to his tireless work ethic. His selection also puts pressure on Casey Mittelstadt to perform in his sophomore NHL campaign.
1. Dylan Cozens, C
Age 18 Team Lethbridge (WHL)
Big, skilled and fast. He plays a physical game that will become man-size once he adds strength.
Acquired 7th overall, 2019 NHL ’20-21
2. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G
Age 20 Team Sudbury (OHL)
Named OHL MVP his first year in North America. Top goalie (21st overall) in Future Watch 2019.
Acquired 54th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
3. Mattias Samuelsson, D
Age 19 Team Western Michigan (NCHC)
Got big minutes against tough competition and excelled. Calm with the puck and a good skater.
Acquired 32nd overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22
4. Ryan Johnson, D
Age 18 Team Sioux Falls (USHL)
An elite skater who can break the puck out quickly. Minnesota commit has a top-four ‘D’ ceiling.
Acquired 31st overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
5. Rasmus Asplund, C
Age 21 Team Rochester (AHL)
Four pro years in Sweden have helped North American adjustment. More of a playmaker.
Acquired 33rd overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22
6. Marcus Davidsson, C
Age 20 Team Djurgarden (Swe.)
Plays a good two-way game and getting pro experience in Sweden. Speedy and skilled.
Acquired 37th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
7. William Borgen, D
Age 22 Team Rochester (AHL)
A smooth skater who looked comfortable his first pro year. Has become more disciplined.
Acquired 92nd overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
8. Victor Olofsson, LW
Age 24 Team Rochester (AHL)
Scored at a high level in his first North American year. Earmarked to step into middle-six role.
Acquired 181st overall, 2014 NHL ’19-20
9. Oskari Laaksonen, D
Age 20 Team Ilves (Fin.)
Fantastic skater and passer from his own zone has become a fast riser. Won gold at the WJC.
Acquired 89th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
10. Matej Pekar, C
Age 19 Team Barrie (OHL)
Topped a point per game his first OHL year. The extra dimension is he fancies himself a pest.
Acquired 94th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23