Jack Eichel will play a huge role in any success for the Buffalo Sabres this upcoming season. Free photo from wikimedia commons.

So far we have looked at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Florida Panthers. Coming in at #5 in our Atlantic Division rankings are the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres were once again a disappointment to both their fan base and to the league at large, though they did have a tremendous start last season. However, after a long run of inconsistency and defeat in the second half of the season, Sabres GM Jason Botterill decided to fire coach Phil Housley just two years into his tenure. His replacement is an interesting one in Ralph Krueger.

Krueger is considered to be, by many, the most interesting man in hockey. After spending five years in England as the director of Southampton in the English Premier League (and yes, I mean soccer), Krueger is making a return to hockey as a coach. His last appearance was as the coach of Team Europe, a squad that made it all the way to the World Cup of Hockey Finals back in 2016. Krueger only has one year of NHL head coaching experience, but he is considered to be one of the brightest minds in the hockey world. He is known for being open to new ideas and strategies. He is also a master motivator, known for getting the most out of his players in any league, sport, or business for that matter. Buffalo hopes that Krueger is the key to change this coming season.

The Sabres made a number of changes this offseason and look better than last year. However, they will once again likely be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Let’s take a look at the Sabres depth chart for this season.

Goalies

  1. Carter Hutton
  2. Linus Ullmark
  3. U-P Lukkonen
  4. Andrew Hammond
  5. Jonas Johansson

The Sabres return a rather average goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark this season. Hutton likely starts next season in the starter role again, where he played a career high 50 games. At 33, Hutton is unlikely to have a career year, but the Sabres are hopeful a slight increase in save percentage (he had a .908 last year and his career average is .913) may help the Sabres squeeze out a few extra victories next year. Ullmark had an okay season last year. Like Hutton, the Sabres are hopeful Ullmark can increase his save percentage just a bit.

Really, the Sabres are banking on average goaltending from this tandem and if they get it, they may remain in the playoff picture. Andrew Hammond (known as the Hamburgler thanks to a stellar rookie run with the Ottawa Senators years ago) will likely get the call-up if there is an injury. The heir to the Sabres’ goaltending throne, star prospect Lukkonen, is unlikely to get a call-up next year unless injuries force the Sabres’ hand. He is a prospect to keep an eye on in the very near future.

Defensemen

  1. Rasmus Dahlin
  2. Brandon Montour
  3. Colin Miller
  4. Zach Bogosian
  5. Rasmus Ristolainen
  6. Jake McCabe
  7. Mario Scandella
  8. Lawrence Pilut
  9. Casey Nelson
  10. John Gilmour
  11. Henri Jokiharju
  12. Will Borgen

The Sabres’ deepest position is their defense. They have future franchise defender Rasmus Dahlin in the fold, who at 19, will likely increase his production from his rookie season. Dahlin is an electrifying offensive talent who also doesn’t shy away from physical play. Look for him to get around 50 points this season. Montour and Miller are both similar players and recent acquisitions. They both have an offensive element to their game, something the Sabres back end has been missing for a while now. The Sabres hope that both can help move the puck up the ice quicker than in seasons passed. Both will likely play a key role.

Zach Bogosian seems to perpetually have injury problems, but when healthy, can be relied upon to be a second pairing presence with two-way ability. Ristolainen, who has been one of the most used Sabres defensemen over the past seasons, may find himself on a different team at some point this season. However, as long as he’s around, he could easily still find himself in the mix for a top four role next season. He has been somewhat of a whipping boy for the analytics community because of his terrible 5-on-5 numbers. He may benefit from less pressure and a deeper Sabres blue line next season. Jake McCabe just re-upped his contract and will provide a more steady defensive presence, likely on the Sabres’ third pairing.

Scandella, Pilut, Nelson, Gilmour, and Jokiharju will all compete for the 6/7 defensive slots. Scandella has the most experience, but also has the biggest price tag and has been a bit of a disappointment since coming over from Minnesota a few summers ago. He is on an expiring contract and may also get moved sometime this season. Pilut, Gilmour, and Jokiharju are by far the most intriguing players of this bunch. Pilut tore up the AHL as an older rookie and played some games for the Sabres and didn’t look out of place. He is injured to start the year, but may find himself as an early call-up. Pilut has shown offensive prowess in the past and could find himself in a third pariing role easily enough.

John Gilmour scored over 20 goals in the AHL last year and was sought after by many teams as an intriguing 6/7 option. The Sabres will likely give him an opportunity as well. Jokiharju was acquired this past offseason. He managed to play over 30 games for the Blackhawks last year as an 19 year-old. Jokiharju doesn’t need waivers to be reassigned, so it wouldn’t be suprising to see him start the season in the AHL. If there is an injury, he is a likely call-up. Casey Nelson served in the 7th role last season, but with the competition on the roster, he may find himself on the outside looking in.

Overall, this group of defenders is much improved from years past and will be a big part of any improvement on the Sabres’ roster.

Forwards

LW C RW
1. Jeff Skinner 1. Jack Eichel 1. Sam Reinhart
2. Connor Sheary 2. Casey Mittelstadt 2. Marcus Johansson
3. Jimmy Vesey 3. Evan Rodrigues 3. Kyle Okposo
4. Victor Olofsson 4. Dylan Cozens 4. Zemgus Girgensons
5. Vlad Sobotka 5. Johan Larsson 5. Tage Thompson
6. Scott Wilson 6. Rasmus Asplund 6. Curtis Lazar
7. CJ Smith 7. Justin Dea 7. Matej Pekar

Like the Sabres’ defense, what they are lacking in star power, they have made up for in depth on the offensive end. The Sabres are returning three of their leading scorers in 40 goal man Jeff Skinner, franchise center Jack Eichel, and winger Sam Reinhart who had a career year last season. The Sabres are banking on these three players leading the offense once again. They’ll also be hoping youngster Casey Mittelstadt will increase his offensive production next year and make up for the terrible Ryan O’Reilly trade (the NHL’s reigning playoff MVP who was traded last summer).

Depth wise, the Sabres have a plethora of middle six forwards. Sheary and Vesey are good for over 30 points and could see 20 goals each depending on deployment. Marcus Johansson was a solid offseason signing and will provide strong defensive play and secondary scoring. The Sabres are hoping Okposo does not regress more, but that is a likely scenario considering his injury history and age.

They’re also hoping one or both of Tage Thompson and Victor Olofsson step up and provide some strong secondary scoring. Thompson, acquired in the O’Reilly trade, has shown flashes of offensive brilliance but still has a long way to go in his development. This season will be key in determining what type of player he will be at the NHL level. Olofsson, a 24 year-old rookie, scored 30 goals in the AHL last year and had 4 points in 6 NHL games last year after a call-up. He may have the highest offensive upside of Sabres secondary scorers.

Also, watch out for rookie Dylan Cozens, who signed a contract fairly quickly after being drafted this summer. Cozens is an elite skater, and at 6’4″, he already has NHL size. He may start the season with the Sabres once he returns from injury. Overall, the Sabres are a group that are going to have to score by committee to be successful next year. With some development improvements from young players, they may create more offense than last year. However, it is also highly probable this group takes a step back offensively, especially Jeff Skinner, who may score 30 goals, but is unlikely to get 40 again.  

Bottom Line

Overall, the Sabres are an improvement roster from last year. With an updated defense and some added forward depth, the Sabres will likely be in a wild card fight. However, master motivator Ralph Krueger will really have to use some magic for this group to make the playoffs. The Sabres’ best bet may be to see this year as a “transition/improvement” year and dip into a deep draft this coming offseason. Sabres ownership is seemingly impatient after many years of failed rebuild. For this reason, the Sabres may make some trades and roster decisions in season. However, Sabres fans are likely in for another year of mediocre play and little hopes of playoff success.