Coming into a season with low expectations around the league can both be a blessing and a curse. For the Buffalo Sabres, it comes as a blessing in disguise in that they will continue to be underestimated by their opponents at the start of the year. They will finally have a real chance to shake off the nay-sayers and prove that they are going to finally break the playoff drought sooner rather than later. The question is, what will it take to get them there?
With young talent inserted into the lineup and a coach that has given those players real direction, they are poised to have their most successful season in recent memory. Their leadership team is stronger than ever, and everything really looks like it has come together better than expected for general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams. With the Jack Eichel trade long behind them, and the core yet to be fully established, this season will see a few surprises from the Sabres, both as a team and from individual players. Whether it is a great individual season from a rookie or a collective effort that leads to the end of the 11-year playoff drought, there is a lot that can happen to make this season a memorable one should all the stars align.
The Sabres Will Make a Playoff Push
Yes, every year it feels like the never-ending cycle of Buffalo sports fans goes from “this is our year” to “there’s always next year,” and while the NFL’s Buffalo Bills have kept the city occupied, the Sabres are going to gain some real respect back this season. The division that they play in has stiff competition in the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Toronto Maple Leafs, but there is still plenty of room for them to compete late in the season. Other divisional opponents like the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators made serious offseason improvements, but they both will be relying on new players coming in and developing chemistry.
The Sabres, on the other hand, have developed from within. The players brought up through the system are familiar with the gameplay and teammates they will encounter in the NHL, and the new talent brought in through free agency is more of a complement to the current roster. The camaraderie and chemistry will be much further along than many of the other teams vying for the other playoff spots, so the Sabres have the advantage there. Combine their team chemistry with the effort and work ethic that coach Don Granato can get out of his players, and the Sabres will find themselves legitimately chasing a playoff spot for the first time in years.
Jiri Kulich Will Make His Sabres Debut
The odds of Jiri Kulich making the main roster at the start of the year are slim, but he does possess the talent to do so. The only things standing in his way are his position on the depth chart and Adams’ current motto of letting young players develop. He will see American Hockey League (AHL) action with the Rochester Americans as it was recently confirmed that he would not be returning to his Czech club, so he will be given every opportunity to show his adjustment to the North American game will be seamless.
During his time in Rochester, Kulich will show exactly why management was so excited to take him so late in the first round. His two-way play and amazing shooting ability will continue to be his best assets, and will make him a prime call-up candidate if the Sabres run into any injury problems. He has some NHL-ready skills and could definitely make the opening roster on a less deep team, but as things are right now, he will be a great depth option to debut later in the season. Even if the Sabres have no key injury struggles, he will see NHL playing time to see how his game has expanded and grown throughout the year. He has the drive and skill to perform, so putting him in a position to succeed will only make him better in the long run.
Owen Power Will Win the Calder Trophy
In the modern NHL, it takes more time for young players to develop. Just because a young and talented player is taken first overall in a draft does not mean they will have immediate NHL success anymore, as the game has grown to be faster and harder than ever before. The adjustment period can be brutal for some players, and for defensemen, it can be even harder. For Owen Power, this adjustment period will be shorter than most, as he made his debut at the end of last season and showed that he has both incredible defensive and offensive capabilities. His transition game makes him a threat as both a scorer and playmaker, so offensively he should have a noticeably good season.
Defensively is where young defensemen struggle right out of the gate. Adjusting to the speed and power of the NHL puts a lot of pressure on young defenders to catch up physically, but again, Power is already there. His frame is massive at 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 213 pounds, and he can still get even stronger beyond that. He has the size to compete with the best in the NHL and has shown in a small sample size that he can do it. Combine his defensive prowess and poise with his offensive potential and he will easily be in the running for the Calder Trophy; should everything come together perfectly, he will win it too.
Consistency is Key For the Sabres
Establishing themselves early and getting into good winning habits will be what matters most to the Sabres this season. Having big seasons from players like Power, Dylan Cozens, and many more will be great, but having consistent performances from their core players across the board will matter significantly more. Making the playoffs is harder than ever, so slumps and bad attitudes will only drag them back into poor habits. There is no more room for selfish players in this organization anymore, and Granato will make sure his roster stays on track.
Related: Sabres’ Top-6 is Getting Crowded
This season is not about making the playoffs right away, but rather more about showing that they CAN compete for a spot; proving that they can be competitive and play some meaningful games down the stretch. This team has the skill and ability to accomplish the goal of making the playoffs, but it is contingent on the consistency of the roster regardless of any injuries or problems. As a bonus prediction, should the Sabres finally break the playoff drought this year, they will also make it past the first round. A group of young and hungry players on the back of accomplishing the franchise’s greatest feat in over 10 years will power their way through the opening round and make it to the second round.