After nearly 10 months since the majority of players last played a game, the Sabres will kick off their 2021 NHL season tonight against the Washington Capitals.
The matchup embarks the start of a unique season that sees the NHL’s divisions re-aligned and teams only playing regular season games within their own grouping. Here are some headlines to watch for in this unique season:
The NHL’s division re-alignment finds the Sabres as part of the East Division this season. The seven other teams they will play against in the regular season are seen below.
Year Two Under Ralph Krueger
After an underwhelming 2020 season that found the Sabres on the outside of the expanded 24-team playoff bubble, they look to bounce back in year two under Head Coach, Ralph Krueger.
In his first season as Head Coach, Krueger looked to instill a Sabres system that would stifle their opponents on defense. The tight-checking, defensive-first system was quite the change from a more free-wheeling style previously under Phil Housley. The transition wasn’t seamless, and some players like Jeff Skinner, a 40-goal scorer two seasons ago are still trying to find their footing under Krueger.
While Krueger’s ability to lead has been lauded by most of his players, his lineup decisions still leave room for concern. Last season’s Sabres were not great at scoring goals nor preventing them.
According to Evolving-Hockey, in 2019-20 the Sabres generated the 2nd worst expected goals-for percentage in the league while placing 11th worst in expected goals-against.
Krueger’s recent comments about Jeff Skinner likely hasn’t instilled any new-found confidence in critics. It’s unclear what a player who has specifically been a goal scorer his whole career has to learn on the 4th line. Nonetheless, comments to the media don’t tell the whole story and we will see if Kevyn Adams and Ralph Krueger’s decisions pay off on the ice.
An interesting quirk in this NHL season is that each team is carrying what’s known as a “Taxi Squad,” similar to a Practice Squad in the NFL.
NHL teams get to have four to six players on taxi squads after they clear waivers, essentially expanding the size of the team beyond the 23-man limit.
The Sabres taxi squad to begin the season consists of:
Forwards: Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund
Defenseman: Will Borgen, Brandon Davidson
Goalie: Jonas Johansson
Calder Trophy Potential — (F) Dylan Cozens
After a monster World Junior performance resulting in a silver medal and 16 points (8G, 8A), Cozens cracks Buffalo’s lineup in an ideal situation for a rookie. While Sabres fans may be just as excited, the reality is that Cozens doesn’t join the Sabres with the same organizational pressure as a prospect like Casey Mittelstadt. In Mittelstadt’s instance, the Sabres shipped away second-line center Ryan O’Reilly with the expectation that Mittelstadt would fill that void. While Cozens won’t have the luxury of playing with high-end offensive line-mates to start the season — slotted alongside depth forwards Riley Sheahan and Toby Rieder — the rookie won’t be expected to anchor a top-6 line, either.
Hart Trophy Potential — (F) Jack Eichel / (F) Taylor Hall
It’s not often a team can say they enter the season with two legitimate Hart Trophy candidates but that’s what the Sabres have this season. Hall, despite coming off a bit of a down year between New Jersey and Arizona, is in great position to find success once again next to Eichel.
Eichel’s play last season should’ve been all the world needed to see in regard to cementing his top-10, if not top-5 player in the world status. If there was ever a time to convince the rest of the world, playing with a recent Hart winner isn’t a bad place to start.
In practically any given season, Eichel is capable of being the MVP. Maybe it’s this one.
Norris Trophy Potential — (D) Rasmus Dahlin
Rasmus Dahlin enters year three of his NHL career primed for a breakout. After a historic rookie season with 44 points in 82 games as an 18 year-old, he followed it up with a spectacular 40 points in just 56 games last season. After being cautious at times last season, It’ll be interesting to see if Krueger truly gives Dahlin the keys to the Ferrari. Let him loose.
Carter Hutton looks to bounce back after a season to forget in 2019-20 where he dealt with an eye-sight condition known as convergence insufficiency. This condition caused him to have struggles with tracking the puck and like contributed to his 13-game losing stretch with the Sabres last season.
Hutton has a .903 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.09 goals-against average (GAA) in his two-season career with the Sabres.
Beside him, Linus Ullmark looks to take another step after taking over the reigns as leading net-minder last season.
According to Evolving Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), which tracks how many goals a goaltender prevents based on the quality of the shots, Ullmark ranked 37th of 63 with a -4.81 GSAx. While that’s not great, the number does improve when 5v5.
The condensed 56-game schedule presents a handful of challenges and one of them is managing goaltending. With more games packed into smaller time frames, teams will have to be more flexible in using both goaltenders. Even more so than the past few seasons where splitting the crease has become more of the norm.
Sabres Head Coach Ralph Krueger seems to align with the idea of splitting the crease this season, “We’re going to take it a game at a time,” Krueger said. “If somebody gets hot here, they could get a few.”
Regardless, the Sabres are banking on their goaltending turning a corner this season. Whether it’s Hutton or Ullmark, they’ll likely need improvement to make the playoffs.
Despite being his first year on the job, it’s a critical one for new GM Kevyn Adams. Adams starts his reign as General Manager in the midst of a nine-year playoff drought and inheriting a frustrated captain (link). He made waves this offseason highlighted by the signing of former Hart Trophy Winner, Taylor Hall and veteran, Eric Staal.
Undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the off-season was Kevyn Adams and the Sabres landing Taylor Hall in free-agency. The Hart trophy winner just three seasons ago joins the team on a one-year deal in an attempt to maximize his value re-entering free agency next year. Whether the Sabres-Hall relationship will be long term or not is yet to be seen, but it will certainly depend a lot on this season. The Sabres must make the playoffs if they even want a chance at keeping Hall in Buffalo for the long haul. With other major contracts on the horizon next off-season, it’s unclear whether the Sabres will be in a position to do so regardless. Like anything these days, what Hall’s next contract looks like will depend a lot on the social climate and financial status of the NHL and it’s clubs.
The once upon a time super-villain who stole a cup from the Sabres in 2006 returns to be the piece they’ve been looking for. Staal’s edition shouldn’t be overlooked on a Sabres team that severely struggled in offense last season. Additionally, the team has had a revolving door at 2C since they traded Ryan O’Reilly.
Cozens / Quinn
It was a bit of a surprise this week when the Sabres announced the pair of first-round rookies would be on the opening roster. While Cozens was expected, it was thought amongst many that Quinn would at least start on the taxi squad, not the 23-man roster.
Eakin / Rieder / Sheahan
Eakin and Rieder were signed by the Sabres this summer in hopes of improving the penalty kill and overall forward depth. Sheahan was signed following the season-ending injury to Zemgus Girgensons at training camp.
While a lot needs to come together for the Sabres to break their nine-year playoff drought, they might just have the top-end talent to pull it off. If they make it, it’s going to be a culmination of things in this article: coaching, goaltending, new additions. While their division isn’t a walk in the park, it’s not much different than they’d be dealing with otherwise. Making the playoffs — especially in a 56-game season — can come down to a single game. The Sabres can not afford to start this season poorly or have a 13-game losing streak like Carter Hutton incurred last season. While new additions like Staal and Hall are massive help, making the playoffs will likely also require some steps from current players. In saying that though, it would not be surprising to see jumps in play from the likes of Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, and others. It’s just a matter of it coming to fruition. At the end of the day, hockey is back and that’s all that matters.
A poll of our TCB contributors:
Will the Sabres make the playoffs? 50% — YES, 50% — NO
Taylor Hall will re-sign with the Sabres — 37.5% — YES, 62.5% — NO