Stanley Cup odds: 75-1
Key Additions: Jeff Skinner, LW; Carter Hutton, G; Conor Sheary, LW; Vladimir Sobotka, LW; Patrik Berglund, C; Tage Thompson, RW; Matt Hunwick, D
Key Departures: Ryan O’Reilly, C; Robin Lehner, G; Chad Johnson, G; Benoit Pouliot, LW; Victor Antipin, D; Jordan Nolan, LW; Seth Griffith, RW; Josh Gorges, D
Buoyed by an injection of youth and new players, the Sabres are hoping to fulfill their potential and take a step towards becoming a playoff contender. GM Jason Botterill changed the complexion of the team in the off-season, drafting Rasmus Dahlin first overall and trading Ryan O’Reilly and his $7.5-million cap hit to St. Louis for three players and two draft picks. The Sabres could have seven new players in their lineup, which is actually 10 considering the fact none of Casey Mittelstadt, Brendan Guhle and Linus Ullmark was a full-time player for them last season.
Botterill believes he has found a left winger to play with Jack Eichel after acquiring Jeff Skinner from Carolina. Conor Sheary, Sidney Crosby’s former running mate in Pittsburgh, is another option. Buffalo addressed its goaltending deficiencies by signing the reliable Carter Hutton as a free agent. For the first time in years, there’s good karma surrounding this team. After the disastrous GM reign of Tim Murray, it appears ownership has learned to get out of its own way. Botterill has the franchise on the right path, and it’s only a matter of time before the Sabres begin to make gains in the standings.
What If Botterill’s revamped lineup is actually a house of cards and the Sabres fail to make tangible gains over the past couple seasons when they’ve been a league doormat? As terrific as Hutton was last year in St. Louis, he has never played more than 40 games in a season nor ever been considered a No. 1 goalie in the three NHL organizations for which he has played. Remember, it wasn’t long ago the hockey world was convinced Scott Darling was a No. 1 in waiting based on his work as a backup in Chicago, and we all know how that turned out in Carolina last year.
What if Hutton can’t handle the pressure and workload of being a No. 1 goalie? What if Mittelstadt isn’t ready to take on the No. 2 center job in his rookie season? What if 18-year-old Dahlin is overwhelmed in his NHL debut? What if Sam Reinhart struggles as badly in the first half as he did last year?
The Sabres accomplished the rare feat of scoring the fewest goals and being one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season, and those aren’t the kind of warts that disappear overnight. If there’s no progress made in both of those areas, it promises to be another miserable year in Buffalo.
Is the Skinner-Eichel combination capable of top-tier offensive punch?
It’d be easy to pose a question about Rasmus Dahlin’s readiness, but all signs point to the 18-year-old phenom being prepared to log middle-pairing minutes and put up some respectable offensive numbers in his first foray into the NHL. So, instead, let’s talk about Skinner, who comes into Buffalo with an eye on skating alongside Eichel in a contract year.
Skinner, as we’ve come to learn across his eight seasons in the NHL, has plenty of goal scoring acumen. He’s a three-time 30-goal man with another three 20-goal campaigns to his name. But what kind of potential is there for Skinner if he plays next to Eichel? The Sabres’ star is an excellent puck distributor who ranked 29th in assists per game last season, and a full healthy season alongside a player such as Skinner could give Buffalo a formidable duo to guide their top unit. Heck, given Skinner is in a contract year, it wouldn’t be all that far-fetched to suggest he could flirt with the 40-goal plateau for the second time in his career. Pair that line’s potential with Reinhart with Mittelstadt on the second unit and the Sabres could have one of the most unexpectedly fun offensive units in the NHL.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 6th in the Atlantic Division. Buffalo is on its way to a brighter future, but the Sabres aren’t quite there yet. Look for great seasons out of Eichel and some real promise from Mittelstadt. And don’t count out the possibility that Buffalo battles for a wild-card berth.
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