By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The hockey drought is about to end.
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t played a game since mid-March, the longest break in their history. That will come to an end on January 14, when the NHL’s season finally starts.
On a personal level, I know I won’t be watching the Sabres in person – at least for a while. Media access is extremely limited to games because of the pandemic, so few reporters made the cut. And those that did won’t be allowed on the service (bottom) floor of the arena. In real terms, it won’t be that much different to be following the team at home than it is in person, since interviews will be done via Zoom.
I haven’t missed a home game of the Sabres since October of 2017, which prompted one person to say I deserved the Bill Masterton Award for dedication to hockey. However, I can’t complaint about sitting out for a while. Chuck Pollock of the Olean Times-Herald has been covering the Bills since the days of O.J. Simpson. But he said even he didn’t moan about his exclusion from the press box this year, since the people ahead of him in line certainly deserved to be there.
Besides, speaking as a new member of the 65-and-older demographic, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea of attending games until I receive a vaccine. I’d like to make it to age 66, thank you. So, I’ll be just like you, Dear Reader, watching games on television for the time being and trying to make sense of what happens.
What’s ahead, of course, is something of a mystery. It’s a new age because of Covid-19. Coach Ralph Krueger knows it, reflecting on that while giving his training camp preview to the media virtually.
“I’d much rather be sitting in a room,” he said about the news conference. “This is how the odd team meeting will be held. We don’t know how the protocols will develop in the months ahead. We’re ready for anything. … I can’t be in contact with the players until the 31st (of December). Last year we had three weeks of small chats – one guy for a coffee, another for a meal. I try to have that, with every player, every day. I don’t know if I’ll get that even on the ice. But we will deal with it.”
Starting up front
Every training camp comes with questions in a normal year, and this one has a good number of them. The composition of the first two lines probably will receive the most attention, because the Sabres made a couple of high-profile acquisitions to that group. Taylor Hall was a biggest addition as a free agent, and he’s expected to team with Jack Eichel on the first group. Hall is a former Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, but it was still a bit odd to see him added on a one-year deal. Taylor is playing for a big contract next year, and the Sabres might not have room for another long-term signing up front.
Hall’s arrives probably keeps Jeff Skinner on the second line with trade acquisition Eric Staal. Skinner was a major disappointment last season when he was split off from Eichel. Skinner isn’t going anywhere because of his contract, and the Sabres must get him going if they have playoff hopes.
“I had a couple of excellent chats with Jeff,” Krueger said. “When a player doesn’t have a good season, I need to be the first one to look in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do to help?’ We thought he came back strongly from his injury. We looked at a lot of the video from the last 10-12 games, and you could see a lot of good habits coming. I’m excited to build on what we experienced over the summer. Players often improve though a pause and break, and it’s important about what goes on in the head during that time.”
Then there’s the case of Dylan Cozens, currently playing in the World Junior Championships. He will at least get a look once he gets back from that competition – perhaps as a right winger for Staal and Skinner. In the meantime, playing in a tournament like that can’t hurt get him ready for the NHL season.
“We felt very strongly that giving Dylan the structure and the competition … was going to be incredibly helpful in the short term and the long term,” general manager Kevyn Adams said. “Being on the stage again was a great growth opportunity. I don’t see a negative with that. He’s had a long runway to get in game shape. I think he’s a player that we’ve seen grow over the past 12 months. He’s going to need to do that.”
The third and fourth lines will begin to take shape in camp as well. The spotlight should be on a couple of young players who could make a huge difference this season if they take a step up: Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson. It’s probably time for Mittelstadt to start to live up the potential that we all thought he had when he joined the team.
“He had a really strong finish in Rochester last year,” Krueger said. “First of all, he went back to the minors to learn and to grow and to develop. He embraced that opportunity. We have to see how that transfers to the NHL. I love his competitiveness and his spirit. He gives us a lot of options. He can play on any power play. We’re very patient as to how this comes out.”
Mediocrity in back
While there is cause for optimism about the forwards, the defense and goaltending will have similar looks to last season – and that’s not great news. You can expect Rasmus Dahlin to continue his development on his way to stardom. Otherwise, it’s tough to figure where any improvement will be found.
The new season offers two new big wrinkles because of the pandemic. The first is the addition of a so-called “taxi squad,” which will have spare players in case things go wrong in one form or another. It might prove to be helpful in the case of someone like first-round pick Jack Quinn. He’s probably not ready to play in the NHL right now, but junior’s Ontario Hockey League hasn’t started its season and a date to get going remains at best uncertain.
“We’re going to see what happens,” Adams said. “We’ll let him go through world juniors and make the decision after. With the OHL not playing, you don’t want a player like Jack not getting any reps. We’ll have to look across the world for opportunities for players. There’s not a perfect answer for all players. We’ll have to look at individuals. Jack is one of many. We’ll make the best decisions we can.”
Then there’s the schedule and divisional alignment, tied together on a one-time basis. The Sabres are grouped with the Islanders, Rangers, Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Penguins and Devils. You may have noticed that there are no gimmes in that group. The Sabres will play each team eight times, broken into a pair of two-game series at home and on the road. That means all squads essentially will be playing every other night until May. That’s quite a grind.
“The focus in those games is that you have seven eight-game series,” Krueger said. “The challenge will be big. We’re excited about the challenge of this nature. With everything with the testing and the fans, why not have a season with a refreshing type of approach? We’re looking at it as seasons within a season. From a coaching perspective, it’s exciting because it’s never happened before. There are no nights off in this division. For our fans, it’s exciting. We have some big-name teams in the division. The players are looking forward to the challenge. We need to feel our way through this environment.”
Then there’s the only last X-factor – the virus. The wrong person can walk through a room and send several players at once to the disabled list. There’s a lot of chance involved as to how teams will get through the season.
Think you know how this season will go? You’ll probably be wrong.
“If anyone knows what the world will look like a day or a month from now, I’d be impressed,” Adams said.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)