By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
You wanted some changes after the Buffalo Sabres’ epic collapse in the second half of last season? You got some.
The Sabres, as you recall, went from a 10-game winning streak in November-December of 2018, which had them in first place overall at one point, to an epic slump that lasted more than three months and brought forth valid comparisons with the original Kansas City Scouts. (Note: For those of you under 50, the Scouts were really bad.)
That led to a transformation of the coaching staff. Meanwhile, the addition of some fresh faces without too many subtractions on the roster should lead to a deeper and better squad. But has it been enough? That’s the major question for 2019-20, the Sabres’ 50th season of existence (and 49th of play).
Let’s take a look around:
At least we know who the standouts are. Jack Eichel figures to lead the team in scoring again, and Jeff Skinner figures to be Buffalo’s top goal scorer for his second straight year. Sam Reinhart deserves a lot of credit for the way he has adapted his game to find some success in the NHL, and is a fixture in the top six.
Past that, who knows? It would solve a lot of problems if Casey Mittelstadt settles in a good No. 2 center. He was too often invisible last season, and needs to take at least a small step forward this time. Victor Olofsson has impressed in his time so far. You can expect him to be in the mix at some point. Jimmy Vesey, signed as a free agent from the Rangers, will help somewhere, as will Marcus Johansson.
There are other pieces to the puzzle – Evan Rodrigues, Vladimir Sobotka and Conor Sheary are around, and Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo seem like a fourth line waiting to happen. Vladimire Sobotka is still here. I would expect the Thruway between Buffalo and Rochester to be busy with transitions until the situation – on the ice and in regard to the salary cap – sorts itself out.
There’s plenty to choose from here. Colin Miller was acquired from Vegas, and John Gilmour – who might have been the best surprise of training camp – was signed as a free agent over the summer. Henri Jokharju was picked up from Chicago in a trade and didn’t look out of place in camp.
Therefore, the unit has a crowded look to it. Zack Bogosian, Matt Hunwick and Brandon Montour start the season on injured reserve, but there are still plenty of NHL-level defensemen around. Rasmus Dahlin remains on course to be a star, while Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella are back. Jean-Sebasten Dea and Lawrence Pilut came up from Rochester on Tuesday.
And that doesn’t include Rasmus Ristolainen, who may have been a little down last spring after a career full of losses (and who could blame him?). If the other pieces pan out and Ristolainen still wouldn’t mind a change of scenery, then it’s easy to picture him going elsewhere for a good forward. But he’s still not even 25 yet and has talent, so he should have a “seller beware” sign attached to him.
At least the status quo is in place here. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark split the duties in 2018-19, and are for the moment scheduled to do the same. Hutton had the better goals-against average and save percentage, while Ullmark had the better won-loss record. While they both had their moments, they both needed to be more consistent. That’s particularly true for Ullmark, who picked up the bad habit of giving up a bad goal in most games in the second half of the season.
Lurking in the background is the Goalie of the Future, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. The 20-year-old was sensational in junior hockey last season. Luukkonen should be the No. 1 in Rochester once he fully recovers from hip surgery. It’s just a matter of time before he’s a factor here.
You probably know by now that Ralph Krueger has a chance to be The Most Interesting Man in the National Hockey League. He’s only coached a partial season in the NHL, but has done some good work in international play and is coming off a stint as a top executive for an English soccer team. If nothing else, the quality of conversations in the postgame news conference will improve drastically this season.
I’ve never been able to figure out how much a difference a good staff of assistance can help. Obviously, it’s a good idea to have good help around. Krueger scored points in this area when he hired Mike Bales from Carolina to guide the goalies.
The goal is the playoffs, of course, and that would seem to be a lot to ask. Buffalo finished last season with 76 points, and that was 22 points behind Columbus – the eighth qualifier in the East last season. The Blue Jackets won’t be as good as last season, but the Panthers are an obvious candidate for improvement after some free agent signings and a new coach in Joel Quenneville.
As of October, the forwards and goaltending don’t look like playoff-caliber areas. Therefore, a lot of things would have to go right for the Sabres to move into postseason contention. Make a list – Eichel would have to take a step forward, Skinner shows that last season wasn’t a career year, the defense sorts itself out, the goaltending settles down. And that doesn’t include the entire front office, which still has to show it can put a winning team together.
The Sabres will be better in 2019-20, but the odds are with them heading home for the summer after the regular season comes to an end. They’ll need such players as Luukkonen and first-round pick Dylan Cozens (back in junior for now) to join Dahlen and Eichel as top-end NHL talent before we can start thinking about a major change in fortunes.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)