The preseason hype surrounding the Buffalo Sabres has not reached this height since Jack Eichel was playing youth hockey in Massachusetts. The buzz builds more each day as the final roster draws closer.
General Manager Jason Botterill’s tenure with the organization has created a stir, rousing a faithful fan base back onto the optimistic side of the scale. Could this finally be the year that the team’s playoff drought is erased? That possibility is alive and well in downtown Buffalo.
The regular season is long — an 82-game stretch of ups, downs, twists, turns, injuries, and surprises, all with the goal of playing playoff hockey in April. Botterill arrived from an organization that had just won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and so to say that the expectations for a team under his control are high would be somewhat of an understatement.
Botterill, his staff, the players and fans all understand that this upper echelon level of success does not occur overnight. To that end, the Sabres have made several high-profile moves since May, adding more pieces to the years-long puzzle. This 2018-19 season will surely serve as a litmus test for Botterill’s master plan of creating a perennial contender.
After a culture shock in the wake of last season’s exit, the Sabres have injected the talent, coaching, and leadership to rise from the league’s basement. However, the team’s performance night-to-night is what matters most. The following is a set of benchmarks to measure the organization from game one to 82. No one has a crystal ball, and injuries can occur at any time, but there are specific points during a season that strongly indicate a team’s ability to compete with the best.
Sabres’ Opening Night in Buffalo
Oct. 4 cannot come soon enough. After a long, eventful offseason, KeyBank Center will be electric. It is safe to say that Jack Eichel has had opening night in Buffalo circled on his calendar since the schedule was released. Beginning the regular season against his hometown team is not only a highlight for the franchise center but also a strong indication as to how prepared the rest of the team is from the start. The Boston Bruins are a division rival and considered one of the strongest teams in the league.
The black-and-gold showcase a formidable first forward line made up of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Their rising stars, including Charlie McEvoy and Jake DeBrusk, have amassed ample regular season and playoff experience to contribute consistently. Goalie Tuukka Rask shows no signs of slowing down between the pipes, either. Top-to-bottom, the Sabres will have their hands full on opening night. How will they respond, and will camp preparations resonate once the puck drops?
The Atlantic Division features three juggernauts in Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston, who are all expected to compete for the top spot. Likewise, the Florida Panthers are a popular pick to make the playoffs this season. Game one begins the journey to answer whether the Sabres are a top four or bottom four team in the division.
Team chemistry may not be as strong on opening night as compared to game 40, but the effectiveness of head coach Phil Housley’s second training camp will prominently be on display. The fans will also have their first live look at the completed 23-man roster. The storylines that have unfolded since April will turn over to a new chapter. The highly anticipated regular season is now underway.
The Sabres’ First 20 Games
Week three of this young season features the first of two west coast road trips. The league often schedules eastern conference teams to have games in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California, British Columbia or Alberta consecutively before returning home. The early 2018-19 version begins with a matchup against the Phoenix Coyotes, the west’s rebuilding franchise. The Sabres then head north to face the defending Western Conference champion Las Vegas Golden Knights, followed by trips to San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim.
The road trip’s duration from wheels-up to return spans almost ten days. And while a journey of this kind has the power to forge chemistry and bond a young team, the primary measure for success is wins and losses. How will the Sabres fare with a tough test in the first month?
The Sabres mark their 19th and 20th matchups of the season on Nov. 16 and 17. After a Tuesday tilt at home against divisional rival Tampa Bay, the team packs up and heads north to Manitoba to face one of, if not the, strongest team in the Western Conference.
The Winnipeg Jets have come a long way since relocating from Atlanta in 2011. Their seven-year rebuild has culminated into several high draft picks entering their prime, young talent contributing often, a franchise goalie, and a loyal fan base that packs Bell MTS Place nightly.
Buffalo emulates their formula for success, but Winnipeg has surpassed the Sabres’ level of execution, managing to become a major contender. After a heavyweight eastern conference contest with the Lightning on Tuesday, how will the Sabres fare on the road against a similar opponent in the west? The Lightning and Jets are high benchmarks for a young Buffalo team with sights set on joining their elite ranks in the future.
Playing on back-to-back nights is never easy. Flying to foreign cities, sleeping in hotels, and being away from family are common elements of the season-long grind. Buffalo heads to St. Paul after their game in Winnipeg to take on Minnesota on Saturday night.
The Sabres will be tired, beat up, and in need of a major league effort to pull out a win. Weekend hockey in Minnesota’s capital is nothing to take lightly. Perhaps the team can collectively feed off of Casey Mittelstadt’s first homecoming as a pro to upset the Wild.
The cherry-on-top of this quarter-mile mark for the season is a day off before flying to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Another homecoming of sorts, the Sabres come into the arena where Jason Botterill worked for almost a decade.
The Penguins won three Stanley Cups during his tenure in their back office, and still employ two of the game’s best in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The question remains, “how will they respond?” This young Sabres group, after 21 games, will have encountered tests that will demonstrate their ability to keep up with the top teams in the league.
Late-December Holiday Season
The 2015-16 Penguins held a 15-10-3 record at the mid-point of December. The team went 7-4-0 in October, 6-4-2 in November, and began the final month of 2015 with a 2-4-1 record before firing head coach Mike Johnston. The team was underperforming by their lofty standards. Mike Sullivan exited their AHL affiliate bench to take the reins in Pittsburgh and the rest, as they say, is history. December is a point in a season when a team can judge with confidence whether or not changes need to be made.
Botterill was an integral component to that change in Pittsburgh, and it is feasible to imagine that he would not be afraid to make adjustments in Buffalo. That is NOT to say that Housley’s job is in jeopardy. Rather, Botterill could choose to tweak the Sabres’ line-up with overperforming AHL players or more closely examine the trade market.
Playing tough games in late-December takes a toll on players mentally and physically. A struggling group tends to fall further in the standings while contenders find ways to overcome. The strongest teams begin to show separation from the pack around this time. Where will the Sabres measure themselves within the division? Will they need to shake things up or does their record warrant Botterill to act on next season’s needs?
January All-Star Game & Bye Week
All 31 teams receive a bye week to rest before or after the all-star break (Jan. 25-26, 2019 in San Jose, CA). The Sabres will head back out west for three Canadian tilts against Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver before returning home for a long reprieve. The team’s bye week is from Jan. 20-24, 2019, but they will not play an actual game from Jan. 19 until they travel to Columbus and Dallas on back-to-back nights, Jan. 29 and 30.
This scenario begs so many questions: First, who will be the team’s all-star(s)? Second, how will the players who are not participating spend their time off? Third, how will the team respond to two tough road tests once the season resumes?
The 2017-18 Sabres demonstrated a short spurt of dominance coming out of their bye week from Jan. 12-17. Well-rested and realistically within reach of a playoff position, the team traveled to Western Canada to take on the aforementioned Flames, Oilers, and Canucks. They would follow a game one overtime win with two shutouts, coming home with a 3-0 record and a surge of confidence.
Unfortunately, the rally would not sustain. Their record after the all-star break was a paltry 11-19-3, on their way to finishing last in the league. Extended rest works wonders on healing bodies, but what effect does it have on chemistry ahead of a push to playoff relevance? How does it stunt momentum? The Sabres, having climbed the mountain this far, will need to ready themselves for an extended break away from the daily season grind.
The bulk of that responsibility is on the captains and head coach Housley. Let the all-stars enjoy their recognition in San Jose, but every player needs to be on the same page once it is time to get back to work. Those who were with the team during the rise and fall of January 2018 should use that experience as bulletin board material. The 2019 team, if armed with true intentions to compete, will assure that history does not repeat itself.
NHL Trade Deadline
The National Hockey League trade deadline for 2018-19 is Feb. 25, 2019, at 3:00 EST. Will the Sabres be buyers or sellers? Or will they do nothing at all? The team’s record and overall story at this point will again drive Botterill’s direction. In a best-case scenario, the team will look to add an asset or more to help solidify a playoff position with plenty of ammunition to do so.
Do they need a goalie? Third-line center? Bottom-six defenseman? Who can help this team win games in late-April, May or even June? Botterill will keep a close eye on the trade market as the season progresses in hope of needing to bolster the Sabres’ chances of ending the playoff-less drought and make a run into the first round.
In a worst-case scenario, the 2018-19 season turns the Buffalo Sabres into sellers at the trade deadline as the team did not win enough to secure a top spot in the division. That situation beckons looking to the longer-term future as Botterill will sell expendable and attractive assets for future draft picks or prospects. The Sabres as of this writing already have three first-round picks in the 2019 entry draft, which is an arsenal of encouragement that fans will turn to if the team plays poorly.
Botterill is not short-sighted, and his master plan for creating a perennial contender may still be years away, but he will do what is necessary to win now if the team earns that right. Only time will tell which situation the Sabres end up in once winter turns to spring next year.
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Race to the Playoffs
The biggest question mark for the Sabres’ faithful is simply whether or not this team is good enough to make the playoffs. These benchmarks will ultimately lead to the final month of the season when positioning becomes clearer each day. Where will Buffalo be?
It is important to remember the number of young players on the roster, rookies or otherwise, who have not played this many games in a season. The amount of hockey never gets old, but that does not prevent the body from becoming fatigued after playing hard every week for almost eight months.
The level of endurance required to play into April and May is built up over time. Many teams learn how to endure by suffering through several early-round exits before getting over the playoff hump. And as may be the case in Buffalo, coming up a few points short of qualifying for the tournament before clearing the hurdle the following year. Florida is in that position now.
The Sabres’ fate is unknown, but optimism runs high. Perhaps this year’s team in all its forms ends up like the Vegas Golden Knights. While that is certainly possible, it is not a likely scenario. Whatever is in store, Buffalo’s loyal fans will be there every step of the way, the most consistent and underrated story with every single team at steps onto the ice. Oct. 4 cannot come soon enough.