With the NHL Prospects Challenge in the rear-view mirror and training camp just around the corner, there is plenty of renewed optimism in western New York. General manager Jason Botterill vowed changes to the roster, and he hopes, to the culture of the team and the attitude in the locker room.
The Sabres once proud tradition of winning that had turned into a residency in the league basement for a number of years is now on the return horizon. New additions from the draft and from trades, improved youngsters with more experience, and the jettison of some expensive baggage have combined to bring hope to an exhausted and apathetic fan base.
A combination of a long, hard look at the talent in the organization, a meticulous review of mountains of statistics and a tenacious and ongoing separation of fact from hope has produced some interesting results. They are below; five bold predictions for the Buffalo Sabres 2018-2019 Season.
The second overall pick in the 2015 draft is entering his fourth NHL season. Although improving his point totals each year, Eichel has not lived up to the hype and attention that originally had him spoken of in the same breath as Connor McDavid. Not yet.
Twice injured and twice returning to the line-up well before completely healed, has, although close, kept Eichel from scoring at a point per game pace. In 67 games last season, on a team that didn’t even total 200 goals in regulation play, Eichel netted 25 goals and scored 64 points. Clearly, there is more in Eichel’s tank.
This year, with a growing chip on his shoulder, Eichel has a renewed desire to dominate personally and a maturing, confident excitement about leading the blue and gold to team success. GM Botterill has brought in two talented left wingers who should be able to play with the pace and vision required to capitalize on Eichel’s talent; consistent scorer Jeff Skinner from Carolina and speedy youngster Conor Sheary from Pittsburgh. Each will likely see time on the club’s first line to Eichel’s left.
There are many right wingers pushing for the coveted slot on Eichel’s right. Likely Samson Reinhart will begin the season in that spot. The Sabres are betting that the Reinhart they will see this year will not be the one who spent the first half of last season in a deep slumber. Rather, they are counting on seeing the Reinhart who was a point-per-game scoring machine in the second half.
Rookie sensation Casey Mittelstadt will center the second Sabres line. Sheary will likely start as his left winger and veteran Kyle Okposo on the right. There is no doubt that Mittelstadt has the talent and confidence to think that he will challenge Eichel for the team scoring lead. That winning attitude is exactly what the Sabres need. Sheary will continue to blossom and Okposo will overcome last year’s disappointing numbers such that the two will total about 55 goals. Because of this strong second line, coaches for opposing teams will have to choose when to play their top defensemen. They can pick the poison of trying to thwart Eichel’s first line or the deadly speed and talent of Mittelstadt’s second line.
First overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin and overly criticized warhorse Rasmus Ristolainen will lead the Sabres’ overhauled defensive corps. Not only will Buffalo’s blueliners be much stronger against opposition offense, but they will contribute to the Sabres’ scoring. Eichel and the offense will enjoy consistently better first passes starting each rush. The stronger, faster defense group will change the nature of the transition game, often carrying the puck themselves. The results of the changes on defense will give all the forwards an opportunity to boost their production.
The Sabres’ power play was the best in the league two years ago. Eichel had 10 goals and 14 assists that year on the man advantage. Last year, the Sabres power play hit the ground like a sack of wet cement dropped from atop KeyBank Center, plummeting from first to 20th in efficiency. Eichel still found the net three times and had 17 power play assists. With Dahlin on the first unit and the off-season-acquired younger, faster, less selfish talent up front, the team will see a resurgence; the ‘power’ will return the power play.
Surprising Prediction #1: Eichel Scores 100 Points & is an MVP Candidate
A mature, determined Eichel will have better linemates. He will have support from additional offensive talent which will challenge opposition defense. The team defensive improvements will provide significant support. And the power play will return to prominence. Jack Eichel will score 100 points.
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Dahlin has been not just a man among boys, but a giant. Moving to the best league in the world will be an easy transition. The number one overall draft pick from Trollhattan in Sweden has it all; he’s confident, mature beyond his years and is positive mentally and emotionally. He possesses the mindset the Sabres will use to rebuild their previously foundering courage and failing culture. And he has the talent, speed, vision and work ethic to back up his perspective.
Veterans Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella and Ristolainen will not only help the young Dahlin develop, but they will flourish in a symbiotically beneficial relationship.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) September 8, 2018
Sabres head coach Phil Housley will give Dahlin all the ice time that he can handle. He’ll see time on the first power play unit and will play in shorthanded situations. Hockey Hall of Fame member Housley has the first-hand experience to help Dahlin when he stumbles; he is the right man to coach the teenage defenseman.
Surprising Prediction #2: Dahlin Will Surpass the 50-Point Plateau
Confident and skilled top draft pick Rasmus Dahlin gets the coaching, support and ice time to excel. He will surpass the 50-point plateau.
Casey Mittelstadt and Dahlin are two of the most exciting rookies in the NHL. They will garner a lot of national media attention for their contributions to the Buffalo Sabres’ return to respectability.
Mittelstadt, the offensively gifted center from Minnesota, will benefit from playing behind Jack Eichel in five-on-five hockey and from playing with Jack Eichel on the power play. He will score 70 points.
Dahlin will score over 50 points in his rookie campaign, laying the foundation for a potential Norris-winning career. His speed and developing strength will challenge the top forwards in the league in his own zone.
Together, they will split the top vote for Rookie of the Year. While both will be deserving, likely it will be Mittelstadt who wins the Calder Trophy. Dahlin will arguably have greater impact and a more successful season but voters tend to go with high point totals instead of trying to figure out how to properly quantify the value of a top-tier defenseman.
Surprising Prediction #3: Mittlestadt & Dahlin Vie for Calder Trophy
Mittlestadt and Dahlin receive the most votes for the Calder Award.
The Sabres Offense
Last season, the Sabres offense was so ineffective, many opposing teams scheduled their second- or third-string goaltender to play against them.
The average NHL team scored 240 goals in regulation in 2017-18. The Sabres had 198. From the total, they are losing Ryan O’Reilly’s 24. To get to the league average, the Sabres will need to find 66 goals from their new group of players.
The offense has arrived. Eichel, Reinhart, and Okposo. And Dahlin. Perennial thirty goal-winger Jeff Skinner will don the blue and gold. Conor Sheary now calls Buffalo home. Blue-chip prospect Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund from St. Louis will provide secondary scoring. Evan Rodrigues is back looking to improve on his half-point per game pace. And there is an assortment of ambitious prospects who will battle hard to contribute, both on the attack and from the back end.
As mentioned earlier, Eichel will have an explosive year. Okposo will bounce back to form from last year, getting close to 30. Skinner, thriving off play with Eichel, will jump into the low-to-mid 40s. Reinhart will continue his pace from last year, reaching the low 30s.
The biggest difference will come from the defense: Last year the anemic blueliners totaled a whopping 19 goals for the entire season. Rasmus Dahlin will pass that mark by himself. A revitalized Ristolainen, a healthy Zach Bogosian, a maturing Brendon Guhle and an improving Casey Nelson should combine for another twenty goals.
Surprising Prediction #4: Sabres Score at Least 50 Goals More than Last Season
Recently considered the laughing stock of the league such that opposing teams scheduled their second- or third-string goaltender to play against, the Sabres’ offense comes to life. The Buffalo Sabres will score more than 50 goals more than last year.
Jack Eichel will lead the Sabres through a season that puts him in range of a Hart and a Lindsay Award. The team will score more than 50 goals compared to the previous year, while Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt vie for Calder accolades. And the tandem of new goalies, Carter Hutton and Linus Ulmark will play well.
The Eastern Conference sends eight teams to the playoffs. From the Atlantic Division, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins will fight a three-way war for supremacy while easily qualifying for post-season play. From the Metro Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets are all but locks to make the playoffs. Philadelphia claims one wild card position, even as they struggle in goal waiting for sensational prospect Carter Hart to arrive. That leaves one spot remaining.
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The next tier of teams in contention for that remaining birth are the New Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres. While the Islanders have a powerful offense, they do not have the defense or goaltending to keep up in the standings. The Canes may survive on the strength of their defense but cannot score enough to overcome their weakness in goal.
The Devils have no secondary scoring and will not get the season that they want from 35-year-old Cory Schneider, who is coming off hip surgery. The Florida Panthers are very strong in the opposition zone and should score a bevy of goals. But their defense is suspect and they will get questionable goaltending from Roberto Luongo and James Reimer who have a combined age of 70 years.
Surprising Prediction #5: The Sabres Make the Playoffs
The Islanders and the Panthers make a late run to clinch the final wild card playoff spot. They fall short. The Buffalo Sabres clinch their first playoff appearance since 2011.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”