Hope. It’s what’s served up in heaping amounts for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Western New York, especially for diehard fans of the Buffalo Sabres.
This year is no different. Sabres fans are rightly excited for the season. There are so many new faces: 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin, proven scoring winger Jeff Skinner and rising star Conor Sheary. There’s highly rated prospect Casey Mittelstadt, netminder Carter Hutton and depth additions Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund. Look out, there’s even a healthy, chirping Zach Bogosian. Anything and everything seems possible.
Although there is excitement for the upcoming Sabres’ season, expectations are tempered by recent experience. It will be an improvement if the team can simply get the puck out of their defensive zone consistently. Winning hockey isn’t achieved playing games in the wrong end of the rink. A reasonably low measure of success will be playing together to finally look like an NHL-level team, not finishing last, and, borrowing an expression from general manager Jason Botterill, to not “suck.”
The season will be a triumph if the Sabres can win a few more games, perhaps climbing to .500 hockey, good enough for a middle of the pack finish. An 85-point total would pave the way for even greater success in the following year. This should be the start of an upward trend that will only gain momentum as Botterill continues to shape and build his team.
Related: The Sabres Seismic Culture Shift
Entertainment, Effort and Accountability
Given the team’s 31st-place finish last year, frustrated Sabre fans aren’t asking for much. They just want to be entertained; anything to keep them from looking at their mobile phones during the morgue-like atmosphere inside KeyBank Center.
It’d be a welcome change to have Jeff Skinner convert a cross-ice pass from Jack Eichel rather than a flat-out whiff by Jordan Nolan, Zemgus Girgensons or Scott Wilson. It would be nice to have an uptick in scoring, especially from the bottom two lines and by blueliners. The Sabres have had the worst offense in the league over the past five seasons, averaging a paltry 2.19 goals per game.
The Sabres ranked 30th last season in one-goal games. They were 11-11-12, winning less than a third of games that were decided by a single goal. Perhaps new goaltender Carter Hutton, 9-2-3 in one-goal games for St. Louis, will be a difference maker.
Western New York can stomach a losing team if it’s playing with passion and effort on a nightly basis. No fan expects their team to win every game, they just want a belief that they could. But anything short of 100 percent effort is unacceptable. If the team loses, the least every player should be able to say afterwards in the locker room is that they’ve left it all on the ice. There needs to be speed, tape-to-tape passing, and an urgency to score. They need a team that knows how to close out games, triumph in must-win games, and play consistently night in and night out. It’d be a major upgrade to see a product on the ice that’s not only watchable, but fun. Seeing more passion on the ice that might lead to a few spirited fights would be a cherry on top.
A roster with nearly a dozen new faces may take time to gel. The clichés of ‘players being on the same page’ and ‘working together’ need to be put into practice. There needs to be a winning mentality from the start, especially at home, where the team has been brutally ineffective. They should always be competitive for a full 60 minutes.
It’s time to find out if second-year head coach Phil Housley is part of the problem or part of the solution. With the roster he had last year, his hands were tied. Scotty Bowman and Dick Irvin would’ve been hard-pressed to find .500 with the same crew. Now, at least on paper, Housley has a bona fide NHL roster, capable of success.
Playoffs or Bust
At the high extreme, this team’s bar for success should be no lower than a playoff berth. Nothing short of an end to the franchise-record seven-year playoff drought would be acceptable. There needs to be meaningful games in March and April. The team needs to be in the playoff hunt, even if it’s just on the bubble in the race for a wild card spot. History tells us it’ll require in the neighborhood of 95 points, a significant jump from last season’s 62. And water-cooler conversations should be dominated by playoff talk. Tickets should be in high demand rather than given away.
Related: It’s Eichel’s Time to Shine
In addition to being filled with hope and promise, the 2018-19 Sabres are also equally filled with question marks.
- Can Kyle Okposo, a regular 20-goal scorer regain his form after a mulligan of a season in which he came back from a health scare?
- Can the team’s defense score a goal before December?
- Can Jack Eichel, entering the first season of his eight-year, $80 million contract, stay healthy and transition into a true leader and elite-point producer?
- Can Casey Mittelstadt find success and live up to lofty expectations as a 19-year-old rookie?
- Can Berglund, who had 13 of his 17 goals last season at even strength in just 57 games, continue to fill the net?
- Can veteran winger Jeff Skinner re-gain his 37-goal form from two years ago in Carolina?
- Can Evan Rodrigues find success and the back of the net with any sense of regularity?
- Will Sam Reinhart and the team come to terms on a contract before camp opens in early Sept.? And if so, which player will show up–the one from the first or second half of last season?
- Will Tage Thompson, a 2016 first-round pick by the St. Louis Blues, find a spot on the roster?
- Will Johan Larsson, Nick Baptiste and/or Justin Bailey, in their last chances, find a spot on the roster?
- How big of an impact will Rasmus Dahlin have?
- Who will be the odd-men out on defense?
- Will Linus Ullmark show signs of becoming a regular starting NHL goaltender?
- Will Carter Hutton continue his stellar play from last season?
- Will the team’s power play pick up from its stellar 2016-17 or forgettable 2017-18 season?
- Will Notre Dame product Andrew Oglevie, Swedes Rasmus Asplund and Victor Olofsson, UMass-Lowell product C.J. Smith, or Buffalonian Sean Malone crack the big club roster?
- Will Alex Nylander finally show glimpses of what made him a No. 8 pick overall?
According to a fan survey, the Sabres are likely to be one of the most improved teams in the NHL.
Throughout the month of August we asked you which teams would tally more or fewer points this year compared to last.
— NHL (@NHL) September 4, 2018
With consistency and communication, the wins will come and a new culture will emerge. Then again, last season was also supposed to be better. It wasn’t. Unfortunately, a 6-17-4 start was a sign of things to come.
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.”