There are countless question marks around the 2019-20 edition of the Buffalo Sabres. In the second of this two-part series, we see the glass as half full… very optimistic about the season. In the first installment, we took a look at what could happen if the glass was seen as half empty.
Finally. After eight straight seasons filled with lackluster goaltending, anemic offensive production and poor defensive play, after countless coaches, a fall from first place to 27th overall in the span of a few months, and several roster overhauls, the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres are destined for the playoffs.
This is the season they escape from the draft lottery and not only re-enter relevancy, but entertain a quest for the Stanley Cup. Veteran players will regain their edge and young players will start contributing. Playoffs, here come the Buffalo Sabres.
It won’t be easy. In arguably the NHL’s toughest division, competition will be fierce. With every player taking responsibility for their roles and pushing one another to be better, the talent-infused Sabres will prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Botterill’s Patient Plan Pans Out
Now in his third season, the Sabres are without a shadow of a doubt, general manager Jason Botterill’s team. He’s further tweaked the roster. Savvy, targeted acquisitions are bound to pay dividends. Naysayers will finally appreciate Botterill’s patient, slow build strategy that focuses on depth and competition throughout the lineup.
Out are Jason Pominville, Matt Tennyson, Patrik Berglund and Nathan Beaulieu. In are Victor Olofsson, Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Curtis Lazar, and John Gilmour. The new collection of players are versatile upgrades that will give head coach Ralph Krueger tools to roll four productive lines.
Of all the changes to the roster, perhaps none was more crucial than hiring head coach Krueger. Coaching in the NHL is about getting players to buy what you’re selling. Krueger is a motivational guru of sorts who galvanizes his rosters with articulate and optimistic messages. He’s the real deal.
The decision to tap Krueger, a man who hasn’t been employed by an NHL team in more than six years, was a bold choice by Botterill. After a whiff with Phil Housley, Botterill swung for the fences, bypassing safer choices that were available. It was a statement that spoke volumes about how things needed to radically change in KeyBank Center.
Krueger is an incredible communicator, letting players know where they stand and rallying them in the process. His optimistic tone has players, young and old, buying in to his message of playing fast and aggressive. “We’re all excited. He’s a fun coach to play for,” said Sabres forward Conor Sheary.
Similar to the rhetoric of previous head coaches in Buffalo, Krueger has a vision for the team to play an attacking, up-tempo style… an aggressive scheme that pressures opponents in their own zone and creates turnovers. However, unlike prior bench bosses, Krueger has the ability to break these tactics into tiny bits that the team can practice and actually implement. Furthermore, his intangibles and open communication style will translate into player development and more importantly, on-ice performance. That means winning more.
Eichel always had the drive to win at all costs. While his stats have improved year-over-year, this is the season he finds another level to produce. He’s stated he wants to shoot more. The goals will come as this is the year he joins the NHL’s elite.
Eichel even saw former teammate Ryan O’Reilly raise the Cup last season in person, sitting 10 rows from the ice in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. “Just seeing the celebration and the emotion that was shown from the guys, I think makes you want it that much more,” said Eichel. “You see the postgame celebrations, the fans, the crowd, everything like that, and you just want it that much more. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s why you play hockey. That’s why you do everything you do, to try to do that.”
After seasons of 42, 47, 50 and 65 points, Sam Reinhart, will continue his growth and pile up points. And if as expected, he plays alongside Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson, the sky’s the limit. He could be in for a hefty payday as he finishes up the final year of his bridge contract before becoming a restricted free agent next summer.
Casey Mittelstadt, fresh off a lackluster rookie campaign, will find his way. After adding muscle and confidence in the offseason, he’ll take the next leap into his professional career, living up to the hype that was thrust upon him as a prospect. Few players jump from college to the NHL and make an immediate impact.
With Jimmy Vesey, the Sabres have someone who will gladly crash the front of the net and pay the price to finish off plays. He’s able to play both wings and is likely extra motivated knowing restricted free agency looms in the summer.
Marcus Johansson brings 94 games of playoff experience to the team, nearly double that of any other teammate. The newly named alternate captain will be an invaluable voice in the locker room.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Conor Sheary regain his scoring prowess, putting more pucks in the net instead of into goalie pads. Last season his shooting percentage dipped below 12.7 percent for the first time in his career, lighting the lamp only 9.5 percent of the time. He already potted two in the Sabres season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After an absolutely forgettable season in which he went 42 games without a goal, Vladimir Sobotka will re-discover what makes his game valuable. Once again, social media’s whipping boy will win faceoffs, relentlessly forecheck and chip in some offense.
Victor Olofsson, gifted with a laser-like shot, has been seasoned and is now NHL ready. The left-winger is the perfect complement to Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart and should fill the net with some regularity in his first season. Extrapolating his five points in seven NHL games so far, he could hit the 60 point mark, burying 20 goals and adding 30 assists or more while competing for the Calder.
After another campaign in Lethbridge, dynamic Dylan Cozens will make an appearance at the end of the season. Had he not injured his thumb, it’s possible he would have made the team this season. He’ll be a nice addition to a line with Jeff Skinner and Mittelstadt.
There’s been so much swirl with Rasmus Ristolainen over the last few years. With a league basement-dwelling plus-minus stat, honest remarks to the media about hating to lose, and constant trade mentions, things are likely to reach a boiling point for the veteran defenseman in the coming months when Brandon Montour returns from injury and Lawrence Pilut is healthy.
Krueger could prove to be the Risto-whisperer, able to tap into the Finn’s true potential by reducing his usage or simply pairing him with a better complementary partner. Or Ristolainen could be dealt in a package to land a bonafide 2C.
Colin Miller, coming over from the Vegas Golden Knights, has a killer shot that will come in handy on the power play. He could very well be the unsung hero of the team’s blue line, contributing in the shadows and giving smooth-skating Rasmus Dahlin the green light to attack even more.
The emergence of young Finn Henri Jokiharju will continue to have Chicago Blackhawk fans scratching their heads at the trade that let him go in exchange for underperfoming Sabres prospect Alex Nylander.
Netminders Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark hold up their end of the bargain, giving the team a chance to win every night. With better players in front of them, all buying in to a Krueger’s system, the shots will be fewer and the goals against will benefit.
Playoff Hockey Returns to Buffalo
The Sabres defeated the Penguins Thursday night in their season opener, nearly 49 years to the exact date (Oct. 10, 1970) since their very first game in the NHL. That game was also played against the Penguins and ended in a Sabres victory (2-1).
On a deeper, metaphorical level, it could be viewed as a re-birth for this floundering franchise. This is a new, re-invigorated team celebrating their 50th anniversary. Success is on the horizon for blue and gold faithful. These Sabres are led by a well-respected coach who preaches playing the game with instinct. And his vision is being brought to life by players who are committed to their coach as well as one another.
It’s been a long time coming, but come April, playoff fever will fill the seats and the plaza in downtown Buffalo. Constantly crushed, fans will soon remember what it’s like to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
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.”