There are countless question marks around the 2019-20 edition of the Buffalo Sabres. In the first of this two-part series, we see the glass as half empty. In the next installment, we’ll look at what could happen if the glass is half full.
As much as the passionate fanbase in Western New York deserves to finally cheer a winner, the Buffalo Sabres’ never-ending cellar-dwelling is bound to continue through this new season.
Every team in the Atlantic Division has made changes in the off-season to improve, while Sabres general manager Jason Botterill, despite emotional promises and rhetoric, made rather insignificant moves. The division, and the rest of the league, is moving forward while the Sabres are standing still.
There is every reason to believe that the Sabres will be polishing their golf clubs by January, firmly entrenched in the wasteland of all-too-familiar draft lottery-land, treading water to stay out of last place.
A Rocky Foundation
After a miraculous and cruel ten-game winning streak that taunted the blue and gold faithful early last season, the Sabres finished the season with a whopping 16 wins in 56 games. Extrapolated to a full schedule, that would register roughly 50 points, a historically and monstrously low number. It would be hard for a talented team, short of outright putting the puck in their own net on a nightly basis, to fare so poorly. Even the Cleveland Barons of the late 1970s would be better.
On offense, the Sabres were atrocious. In 2018-19, just three forwards posted more than 35 points. By comparison, the Tampa Bay Lightning had 10 players tally 35 or more. And, inexplicably, the Sabres didn’t bother to re-sign their fourth-highest scoring forward, fan-favorite, veteran Jason Pominville.
On defense, the Sabres featured the league’s plus/minus leader, Rasmus Ristolainen. At minus-41, 7 in front of the next player, there isn’t much wiggle room for positive evaluation. The Finland native was mincing words in the offseason, all but asking for a trade. It’s difficult to imagine that Botterill would have wanted to have this very player expected to be his No. 1 defenseman in going into a year in which he expects improvement. Sabres fans don’t have to imagine it because Botterill has done little to change that situation.
In the crease, Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark played reasonably well, but no one will confuse either of them as the next Dominic Hasek, Ryan Miller or even Daren Puppa. Neither reached a save percentage of .910 and neither posted a goals-against average under 3.00.
Changes for the New Season
Captain Jack Eichel has improved in play and attitude as he has matured. If the Sabres are to have any success, it will be because of him. But even the most stout-hearted champion, faced with enough bleak days, can falter. One has to worry that maybe this is the year that Eichel’s frustrations with his failing team, his fifth year of five, get the better of him. It happened to Ryan O’Reilly, who, much to the embarrassment of Botterill, led his next team to a Selke, a Conn Smythe and a Stanley Cup in his first year after escaping Buffalo.
Botterill overpaid to retain Jeff Skinner. $72 million over the next eight years is a lot to pay a player who has only scored 30 or more goals four times in nine seasons. Skinner has already played 661 NHL games. The Sabres just bought the next 640 or so – he’ll be almost 36 when the contract is up. Is there anyone, aside from Botterill, who thinks that Skinner will be more productive in the next 600 games than the first?
Sam Reinhart is entering his sixth NHL season. His production has risen each year and this is a contract year. Players have an uncanny way, like Skinner, of having a career year when the next contract is on the line. It might happen if he spends most of the year playing with Eichel, but that is unlikely, as he will be asked to drive a second line from the wing.
Jimmy Vesey was brought in after failing with the New York Rangers. Scoring at a clip of 90 points in 240 games, with a high of 17 goals, he is clearly not the answer. Marcus Johansson has been added. Johansson, beginning his 10th campaign, has managed over 20 goals just twice in his career. Every other roster spot is being held by a veteran with an anchor-like contract or a depth player who has never contributed enough to make even the slightest difference in the Sabres’ plight. Vladimir Sobotka, Marco Scandella, Johan Larsson, and Zemgus Girgensons are all still on this team.
The lone bright spot might be Victor Olofsson, but at the time of this publication, he has been relegated to the farm team in Rochester. That is supposed to be a cap-necessary move, but time will tell.
Aside from Ristolainen, the Sabres’ blue line corps is supposed to be led by Zach Bogosian. “Bogo”, drafted third overall in 2009, cannot stay healthy. Drafted just behind Drew Doughty and just ahead of Alex Pietrangelo, he’s played 617 games. Doughty has played 852. Once again, Bogo is starting the season on injured reserve.
Brandon Montour, acquired last season via trade with Anaheim, will miss at least the first month due to a hand injury. He’s been expected to log important minutes but now will log only popcorn from the press box. It’s unfortunate.
Colin Miller, going into his fifth year after coming from Boston via Vegas, might be a quality addition as a stay-at-home defender. A second- or third-pair blueliner, Miller will have to play a much more important role than he is capable.
That leaves 19-year-old Rasmus Dahlin, who had an abominable preseason, as the one potential bright spot on the blue line. With meager talent ahead of him, unproven and injured peers next to him and mediocre goaltending behind him, it is unreasonable to think that the teenager will be able to make much difference. While his future may be bright, his present is not.
Behind the bench, Phil “Wow-wee” Housley is out, mature international professional Ralph Krueger is in. Botterill has swung for the fences with this out-of-the-box pick. For a team hiring its fifth coach in seven years, it’s odd that Botterill selected a man who hasn’t coached in the NHL since 2013. And he had a losing record during that, his only stretch as a head coach in the league.
While bringing some respectable results from international events and other sports, Krueger seems more suited to take Botterill’s place than be hired by him. It is unlikely that Krueger can step into an unfamiliar role in an unfamiliar place with a substandard set of players and pull a rabbit out of the Buffalo hat.
Botterill Clinging to Hope
Jason Botterill was once thought of as one of the next up-and-coming bright minds in hockey. Since being given the reigns in Buffalo, his teams have won just 58 of 164 games, good for 30th place over the two-season span. Charitably, he has made questionable trades, signed huge contracts and now made a very unconventional coaching choice.
Without having made substantial roster changes that were promised as frustrations have grown, the Sabres are doomed to repeat their dismal performance. And patience, having grown already thin, will evaporate. With it will go Botterill’s job.
Here We Go Again
Even if the Sabres are able to replicate a 10-game win streak as they did last season, even the most prideful, loyal fans in Buffalo will likely have a “here they go again” bug stuck in their head, full well knowing the sky will fall in due time.
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.”