By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Every so often in the past few years, I’ve received an email or a text from a friend of mine who is a good-sized Sabres’ fan. Such notices usually come up after a series of wins by the team. The message is usually similar: “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being a lock, what are the chances of the Sabres qualifying for the playoffs?” I usually have answered something like “three.” He didn’t believe me at the time in each occasion, but the team’s play usually has backed me up – and given me a little future credibility with him in such matters.
I haven’t heard from him yet this year, but I have an answer ready when he does contact me. I think it’s still a three.
And the funny thing is – that’s actually progress. The Sabres probably will have a better team this season than they did the last time we saw them, but that might not be reflected in the standings.
The major problem for the team is the new and temporary divisional alignment. You might have heard that there’s a pandemic going on, and it’s caused the National Hockey League to take a number of unusual and hopefully one-time-only steps. The Sabres have a brand-new bunch of playmates in the upcoming season, and the league didn’t do them any favors. Buffalo will be playing against Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey this season. Eight games multiplied by seven opponents equal a 56-game regular season.
(Note: Technically, the Sabres are in the MassMutual East Division, as the names of the groupings have been sold on a one-year basis. Usually I’d call a 10-minute misconduct on anyone who uses the sponsor’s name. However, it was pointed out by Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times that the money involved might save some jobs among the teams. And I’m all for that.)
If you dig out the 2019-20 NHL standings, you’ll see that the Sabres are in with the top team from last year’s Atlantic Division, Boston (avoiding Tampa Bay, the Stanley Cup winner). They also are playing the top three teams in the Metropolitan Division in Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Two of the other teams – the Islanders and Rangers – finished more than 10 points ahead of the Sabres last year. The Devils and Sabres both had 68 points. By the way, Buffalo had a 6-10 record against its new divisional rivals last season, and that includes two wins over the Devils.
Buffalo will need to pass four teams in order to reach the playoffs. To do that, it will need to play .500 hockey or so against those opponents. That sort of improvement is a tall order. You’d have to think that Boston and Philadelphia have a good-sized edge on the Sabres, and Washington and Pittsburgh should be good enough to be playoff contenders. Meanwhile, the Islanders and Rangers may not be as good as the rest of the division but they were noticeably better than Buffalo a year ago. That’s a lot of ground to cover.
Remember, Buffalo won’t have the chance to play anyone like Ottawa or Detroit or San Jose or Chicago this season. Every point will be the proverbial “hard-earned.” Only four of the eight teams in the loaded East will qualify for the playoffs. That’s a good-sized change from last year when the Sabres had to be one of the top eight teams out of 16 to reach the Promised Land. Since some divisions are stronger than others, the best 16 teams will not be in the postseason come May. That is the biggest factor working against the Sabres.
Meanwhile on the ice, the Sabres had a couple of pieces of bad news during training camp. The first couldn’t be helped – Zemgus Girgensons was lost for the season because of hamstring surgery. You don’t want to lose a veteran before the puck is dropped. Still, I’d rate this as unfortunate rather than devastating in the picture, since the team has added to its depth at forward.
More troubling was the apparent demotion of Jeff Skinner from second-line status to the third or fourth line, depending on how you count. I’m willing to admit that line combinations seem to last about three shifts in the NHL, and must remind myself that Skinner’s move could last until the first time his team falls behind in a game. Playing time will have to be earned this season, thanks in part to the addition of a taxi squad that is something of an insurance policy against a Covid-19 outbreak, and we can expect some lineup juggling as we go along.
Still, Skinner’s play has not impressed coach Ralph Krueger in the past year-plus. Skinner slumped to 14 goals in 59 games last season. Considering he has almost all of an eight-year, $72 million contract left, this is starting to look like the contract has a good chance of becoming a gigantic mistake. Remember, resources are finite in a salary cap world. If the Sabres are spending $9 million per year on someone who isn’t contributing much for one reason or another, that’s money that can’t go elsewhere on the roster.
That hurts, because there’s reason to be optimistic about the rest of the roster, especially at forward. Taylor Hall, a former Hart Trophy winner, has something to prove this season. Tage Thompson apparently will be given a chance to be a full-time contributor. Eric Staal should be a good fit as a second-line center behind Jack Eichel. Dylan Cozens might rank as a rookie of the year candidate if he gets enough playing time. Tobias Rider and Cody Eakin should be able to provide a little depth where needed. Jack Quinn probably is a year away, but the team’s top draft choices has turned some heads in camp.
Outside of Rasmus Dahlin, who ought to be ready for another step forward this season, it’s hard to know where the defense will improve. Many of the players are known quantities, and unlikely to be much better or worse. Henri Jokiharju, a nice surprise last season, might the other exception to that rule. The goaltending hasn’t changed from last season, and has to be better. It might take a month to figure out if Linus Ullmark or Carter Hutton can grab the No. 1 position.
In a normal year, it would be relatively easy to come up with a storyline in which enough questions are answered positively for the Sabres to reach the playoffs. This is not a normal year. That’s why they are still a “three.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)