Boom or Bust: Five Factors for the Sabres Season

After 300 days the Sabres will be back on the ice this week, kicking off the 2020-21 season. Their lengthy layoff was punctuated by the same sort of turmoil that has followed them in recent years as Jason Botterill was given a vote of confidence before being fired shortly thereafter.

A large chunk of hockey staff were handed their walking papers along with the entire Rochester coaching staff. With additional bad press surrounding ownership due to layoffs on the business side of the organization, they landed on Kevyn Adams as their next GM.

Adams’ first offseason was a bit of a roller coaster. The acquisitions of Taylor Hall and Eric Staal were big wins but questions linger over the selection of Jack Quinn at eighth overall and the decision to let Dominik Kahun walk. Meanwhile, the jury is out on the Cody Eakin and Tobias Rieder signings. It seems the offseason was a success for Adams with a few expected hiccups.

Now, on the eve of the season, the Sabres face a tough division and yet another uphill battle to ending their playoff drought. While the East Division may not be as tough as initially thought, the Sabres are hardly a shoo-in for the postseason. But the NHL has produced its fair share of darkhorse playoff qualifiers and with just a few sly moves (and a bit of luck) the Sabres might find themselves in the postseason for the first time since 2011. So what are the boom or bust factors for the Sabres in 2020-21?

Special Teams

Kevyn Adams and Ralph Krueger devoted quite a bit of energy to addressing Buffalo’s special teams units. The powerplay, which already boasted a strong first unit, gets that much stronger thanks to the additions of Staal and Hall. Dylan Cozens will also be in line for power play time, giving the Sabres two formidable units to open the season.

The Reinhart-Hall-Eichel-Dahlin-Olofsson unit will still see the lion’s share of ice but a second unit of Skinner-Cozens-Staal-Ristolainen-Thompson offers the Sabres the luxury of another dangerous quintuplet.

Given their struggles with a quality power play in 2019-20, it should go without saying that a similar level of success with the extra man is going to be necessary this coming season.

One way the Sabres can improve their fortunes will be an increase in penalty kill efficiency. After sporting one of the worst units in the league last season, management brought in Eakin, Rieder, Riley Sheahan and Matt Irwin to help shore up the unit. Losing Zemgus Girgensons eliminates one of the club’s most common penalty killers from recent years, though more change in this department may serve the well.

My worry with the penalty kill is the reliance on new personnel to bring improvement rather than rethinking their strategy. Buffalo’s penalty kill has been average, at best, going back to 2016-17 and their general kill structure hasn’t differed much in that time. Steve Smith was retained after a coaching change and now after aiding the league’s 30th best penalty kill. Perhaps the new facees on the kill bring about some meaningful improvement, but I worry that more of the same in the systems department will leave the Sabres PK unit floating somewhere in the 13-20 range.

It should be noted that if that improvement comes, the Sabres might just be sitting pretty. A pair of special teams units in the top half of the league could go a long way towards lifting Buffalo’s goal differential. Something tells me they may be in line for a few more shootouts than usual this season, so winning the special teams battle may come in handy if they’re forced to outscore their opponents each night.

Goaltending

“Show me a good coach, I’ll show you a good goalie.”

We spend a lot of time debating how the Sabres can improve or what steps are necessary to be a truly competitive team in the NHL and so often it boils down to goaltending. Look at the most recent Jack Adams winners and in almost every case they enjoyed the fruits of a quality goaltending duo, if not a goaltender on a season-long heater.

Both Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have had peaks and valleys over the last two seasons and Buffalo’s success could simply be predicated on one of their two goalies stringing together a full year of quality netminding. Especially in an abbreviated season like this one, getting a goalie on a hot streak may be more important than ever.

Ullmark is poised to serve as Buffalo’s starter and his health – both COVID and non-COVID – may be one of the biggest keys to this season. If Ullmark stays healthy and enjoys even a modest step forward in performance and the Sabres could climb up the standings. If he experiences a dip or Carter Hutton isn’t up to snuff? It could be a long 56 games.

Youth Movement

Even 24 hours from puck drop it’s still not clear where some of Buffalo’s key prospects are slated to play. Dylan Cozens went from a line with Jeff Skinner and Riley Sheahan to riding alongside Eakin and Rieder. Jack Quinn appears to have made the initial roster but skated with the taxi squad on Wednesday – a group Krueger indicated he’d be with eventually. Quinn is likely destined for the AHL or OHL once their playing situations are determined. While he’s drawn rave reviews in practice, the consensus appears to be that he isn’t ready for the grind of the NHL season.

It is promising that he’s stepped into an NHL camp and fit in. For a player whose draft status was somewhat questionable, that’s a good sign that he could shake some of those pre-draft doubts.

Cozens seems like he’s going to be a fixture to start the season, even though the bottom six is still in flux due to injury. Ideally he’ll be put in a position to play somewhat sheltered minutes and get his feet under him with a few points early on. Of the many individual players who the Sabres need to succeed this year, getting some meaningful production from Cozens would go a long way towards Buffalo’s success.

Will Borgen and Arrtu Ruotsalainen are two other young players who might get a chance to make an impact at some point this season. Ruotsalainen should have been on the initial roster to start the season but has somehow found himself off the 23 man roster and taxi squad. The oversight is frustrating and I’m hopeful that the Sabres give him a chance to chip in offensively as the season progresses. Ruotsalainen translating some of his Liiga production in the NHL would be like found money for a club that has struggled to score lately.

How Far Does the Top Six Take Them

Depending on your point of view, the additions of Eakin and Rieder along with extending Girgnesons was either a poor evaluation of talent or a needed boost to the bottom six. Regardless of your views of the makeup of the bottom of the roster, the fact remains that the Sabres will only go as far as their top six (and goaltenders) take them.

Jack Eichel’s exploits in recent years have been well documented. He’s the driver of this franchise and you can count on him to play a major role no matter what. The addition of Staal should provide the depth needed to spread out Buffalo’s scoring and give them at least two dangerous lines. If that formula takes, the Sabres will have legitimate firepower outside of Eichel’s trio for the first tiem since Ryan O’Reilly was dealt.

For the sake of comparison, the second best line in Buffalo last year was the line of Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo, centered by Johan Larsson. While they excelled as a checking line, they were hardly a threat to score on a nightly basis. With the potential that Staal, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson can supplement Eichel, Hall and Tage Thompson, the outlook entering the year is certainly more positive.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

The post-tank Sabres have had a few things in common. They’ve been badly outscored and outshot, they’ve continued to put players in roles that are over their heads. It’s become an annual ritual for preseason statistical predictions to put the team at the bottom of the league amid complaints from the fanbase. And without fail the team finishes at the bottom of the standings, as if the continued use of so many of the same players in the same roles would produce different results.

Some of the additions they’ve made ought to provide some notable improvements. And there are young players who are in a position to make significant strides, potentially helping outpace some of the more negative predictions that have been made. The question is whether or not Krueger and the coaching staff will make the decisions to put the team in the best possible position to take advantage of their best assets. The same thing goes for Adams with regard to recalls and future acquisitions. Does the Sabres organization have the mindset to make some of the tougher decisions they’ve failed to make in recent years? Perhaps more importantly, will their acquisitions and the progress of their young stars eclipse the shortcomings of previous seasons? They won’t ace every test, but there will be some big ones which could help determine whether or not the Sabres make any strides this year.

I’m fairly optimistic about this year’s Sabres club. I don’t see a playoff team but the additions of Hall and Staal make them a better team. They have the potential to be interesting to watch each night and if some of this goes right, they could make some noise in the East for the first time in a long time.

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