The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Buffalo Sabres.
Stanley Cup odds: 65-1
Key additions: Marco Scandella, D; Jason Pominville, RW; Nathan Beaulieu, D; Benoit Pouliot, LW; Victor Antipin, D; Chad Johnson, G
Key departures: Tyler Ennis, RW; Marcus Foligno, LW; Dmitry Kulikov, D; Anders Nilsson, G; William Carrier, C
Is Rasmus Ristolainen a capable No. 1 defenseman?
Surely Sabres fans are tired of having this topic beaten into the ground, but it’s worth asking whether Ristolainen is capable of handling the minutes he’s been given over the past two seasons. Since the start of 2015-16, Ristolainen has averaged 25:51 per game, which is the sixth-most ice time of any blueliner over that period. And the results have been incredibly mixed.
Offensively, Ristolainen’s production is near unassailable. In 161 games, he’s notched 15 goals and 86 points. That’s the 21st-most among blueliners over the past two campaigns, in league with the likes of Tyson Barrie, Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Brodie and P.K. Subban. But concerns persist about his defensive game. Ristolainen has been caved in when it comes to the possession game — he has a career Corsi For percentage of 42.4. Blame that on his heavy slant of defensive zone starts if you will, but it’s still not good enough for a No. 1 blueliner.
But maybe the off-season additions will be the best thing for Ristolainen. The addition of Marco Scandella could bring Buffalo a new competitor for the top job on the Sabres’ blueline. It takes some of the pressure off of Ristolainen and maybe in a lessened and potentially more sheltered role, the 22-year-old can really take off.
The Sabres’ playoff chances took a fatal hit early last season when Jack Eichel was sidelined, but his effectiveness upon returning is reason for hope in Buffalo. Eichel was dynamite in the 61 games he played in 2016-17, scoring at a 0.93 points-per-game rate, the 11th-best mark in the league, and his impact on the Sabres translated from the scoresheet to the standings. Without Eichel, Buffalo’s points percentage was .452, compared to .484 when the young star was in the lineup. While a sub-.500 points percentage won’t be enough to push Buffalo into the playoffs, the Sabres have more going for them than a healthy Eichel.
Buffalo addressed its off-season needs and could have a defense to match its offense. The acquisition of Scandella is the headline, but bringing in Nathan Beaulieu and Russian standout Victor Antipin gives the Sabres much-needed strength on the blueline. The rest is up to Robin Lehner, and a repeat of last season’s performance from the netminder (.920 save percentage) could be enough to see Buffalo play meaningful games in April for the first time since 2011.
Staying out of the Eastern Conference basement is dependent on health. That’s worrisome given staying healthy has been an issue. Beyond Eichel’s injury, which cost him 21 games, the Sabres didn’t have core forwards Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly for extended periods last season. Brian Gionta, who won’t be back, was the only Sabre to play in all 82 games.
The lack of depth up front is what makes injuries so damaging to the Sabres’ playoff hopes. Trading for Jason Pominville helps, but, outside the top six, there’s no one who stands out as a ready-made replacement should the Sabres lose a key contributor. And if they struggle to score, can this group even contend for a wild-card spot? Maybe with a top-five defense, but the Sabres don’t possess that. The blueline was bolstered over the summer but still has question marks. Ristolainen logged huge minutes last season, but some fear he can’t do so again lest he be exposed. Zach Bogosian has struggled to fit since arriving in 2015, and Josh Gorges can be a liability at times. If an injury strikes at the wrong time, it spells disaster.
THN’s PREDICTION: 7th in Atlantic. Few doubt Eichel’s ability to be a top scorer as early as next season, but he’ll have to wait to guide the Sabres back to the post-season. The blueline needs more stability yet and the bottom six needs to be solidified before the Sabres can really take a full step forward.