The Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons, and haven’t topped 80 points in three consecutive years. However, there is some optimism surrounding the organization as we head towards 2020.
The Sabres were one of the busiest teams this offseason, refining the edges of their roster with relatively low-cost moves. Their key additions include:
- — Marcus Johansson (UFA): Signed a 2-year, $4.5M contract.
- — Jimmy Vesey (Trade): Acquired for a 2021 3rd Round Pick.
- — Colin Miller (Trade): Acquired for a 2021 2nd Round Pick and 2022 5th Round Pick.
- — Henri Jokiharju (Trade): Acquired for Alex Nylander.
They also made sure that they locked up some of their key pending free agents:
- — Jeff Skinner signed an 8-year, $9.0M AAV extension.
- — Jake McCabe signed a 2-year, $2.85M AAV extension.
- — Evan Rodrigues signed a 1-year, $2.0M AAV extension.
- — Zemgus Girgensons signed a 1-year, $1.6M AAV extension.
- — Johan Larsson signed a 1-year, $1.55M AAV extension.
- — Linus Ullmark signed a 1-year, $1.325M AAV extension.
And the Sabres might not be done yet. Rasmus Ristolainen’s name has surfaced on the trade block this summer and many believe that he could still be traded before the start of the season. Offensively, Ristolainen has been excellent, ranking 22nd among defensemen in points (170) over the last four seasons. However, he has often been criticized for his defensive-zone play and the additions of right-handed defensemen Brandon Montour, Miller and Jokiharju has made Ristolainen more expendable than before. Ristolainen has three years, $16.2 million ($5.4M AAV) left on his contract (per puckpedia.com).
Buffalo is now loaded with quality top-9 wingers, some who have not quite reached their full potential to this point in their careers. The Sabres are lacking down the middle, outside of Jack Eichel. Casey Mittelstadt struggled in his rookie campaign but has top-6 potential. For Buffalo to get back into the postseason in 2020, they need Mittelstadt to take a step forward this season, which will allow Rodrigues to settle in as their third-line centre.
- — Through the first four years of his career, Eichel has been solid. Eichel ranks 31st in points (259) and tied for 42nd in goals (101) over that span. The 22-year-old has been limited by injuries in the last three seasons, missing a combined 41 games—16.7 percent of the games. Staying on the ice will be key for Eichel in 2020. He has elite shot volume (319 shots per 82 games in his career) and that makes him an easy pick for 30-plus goals this season. If he can bump up his shooting percentage at all, Eichel has 35-to-40 goal upside.
— In his first season with the Sabres, Skinner set a career-high in goals (40) and tied his career-best in points (63). Skinner played 69.9 percent of his 5v5 ice-time with Eichel and his new long-term contract means that this duo will be together for a long time. Injuries are a thing of the past for Skinner, who has missed just eight games in the last five seasons. The risk associated with picking Skinner is gone and his a lock for 270 shots, 30 goals, and 20 assists.
- — Reinhart spent 62.9 percent of his 5v5 playing time with Eichel but he could be the key to helping Mittelstadt in 2020. Reinhart is a fantastic playmaker, who set a career-high in assists (43) and points (65) last season. The potential of him moving off of the Eichel line would likely bring those totals and his fantasy value down, but ultimately helps the Sabres. Reinhart should finish 2020 with 20-to-25 goals and 35-to-40 assists. If he ends up spending most of his time with Eichel and Skinner again, Reinhart has great upside.
- — Victor Olofsson could end up being the steal of the 2014 NHL Draft when the Sabres picked him in the seventh round. Olofsson’s first year in North America was a resounding success. He led the Rochester Americans (AHL) in goals (30) and points (63) and picked up four points (2G / 2A) in a brief six-game stint with the Sabres. He has a lethal shot and is a favourite to land a top-6 role with Buffalo this fall. If he plays with Eichel and Skinner, the sky is the limit for Olofsson in 2020.
- — Sheary was acquired from the Penguins last summer and played well in a limited role in 2019. Sheary put himself on the map in 2017 when he had 53 points in 61 games, but that was largely due to playing 83.3 percent of his 5v5 ice-time with Sidney Crosby. He could not find the same success with Eichel last season and will likely battle with Olofsson and Johansson for top-6 ice-time this year. Overall, he should see an increase in shooting percentage, which should result in a 20-goal, 40-plus point campaign.
- — Injuries have forced Johansson to miss 77 games over the last two seasons. Signing with Buffalo gives him a good opportunity to land a top-6 role and get his career going back in the right direction. The veteran winger had a great showing in the 2019 playoffs, posting 11 points (4G / 7A) in 22 games with Boston. Johansson is a speedy winger with great playmaking ability and is another player who should help Mittelstadt’s development in 2020.
- — Vesey has been a bust since entering the NHL following his 2016 Hobey Baker Award, but he is a solid bottom-6 pick-up for the Sabres. Vesey has scored 16-17-17 goals in his first three seasons but has very limited upside in the assist department. Expect much of the same with his new team.
In a couple of seasons, the Sabres’ blueline has gone from a weakness to a strength. In 2017, their six games played leaders on the blueline were:
- — Rasmus Ristolainen (79 GP)
- — Jake McCabe (76 GP)
- — Cody Franson (68 GP)
- — Josh Gorges (66 GP)
- — Zach Bogosian (56 GP)
- — Justin Falk (52 GP)
Just Ristolainen and McCabe remain and they’ve added Rasmus Dahlin with the No.1 overall pick last year, Marco Scandella in a trade with the Wild last summer, Montour via trade towards the end of last season and Miller in a trade this summer.
- — Dahlin had a really good rookie season, tying for 21st among defensemen in points (44) and tied for 30th in goals (9). Dahlin’s season ranked fourth among rookie defensemen in the last decade and he comes into 2020 as a great post-hype breakout candidate. The 19-year-old blueliner will be on the Sabres top-pair and top power-play, making him a candidate to improve on all of his rookie numbers. Double-digit goals and 40-plus assists should be doable for Dahlin.
- — Ristolainen’s future is uncertain but he’ll be a quality fantasy defenseman no matter where he ends up. He will play ample power-play time wherever he goes (if anywhere) and has been a consistent source of 40-plus points and 200-plus hits.
- — Montour has been a strong bottom of the roster defenseman for the last two seasons. Montour had 10 points (3G / 7A) in just 20 games following his trade to the Sabres last season, despite ranking third among Buffalo defensemen in PP TOI/gm. Montour will be limited to PP2 minutes but should battle with Ristolainen and Dahlin for the team-lead in even-strength ice-time. His excellent point-shot will make him a candidate for 10-plus goals but don’t expect more than 25-to-30 assists.
- — It’s going to be interesting to see how the Sabres divvy up the power-play time among their defensemen because they have four players capable of quarterbacking the No.1 unit. Miller has an absolute cannon and is a power-play weapon, that could be featured next to Dahlin on PP1. He was a disappointment last season because his SH% plummeted but he has great upside if he plays on PP1 and he will come extremely cheap on draft day.
Carter Hutton and Ullmark are back to share the net for Buffalo this season. After a tremendous 2018 campaign as the Blues’ backup, Hutton signed with the Sabres to be their No.1 and didn’t play all that well last season. Ullmark didn’t do much to unseat Hutton though and they ultimately ranked 24th in Goals Against/per game (3.27) and 25th in 5v5 SV% (.915).
- — Hutton started the 2019 season well, going 13-12-3 with a 2.63 GAA and .917 SV% through December 31st. After the calendar flipped to 2019, Hutton was 5-13-2 with a putrid 3.52 GAA and .896 SV% in his final 21 starts. Luckily for him, Ullmark wasn’t any better and Hutton remains the No.1 option as we head into 2020. He’ll start less than most other netminders, but I would expect to see a much better version of Hutton this season. He should win 25 games with average splits, making him a low-end No.2/high-end No.3 fantasy option.
- — Ullmark is just 26-years-old but hasn’t showcased enough to be the Sabres goaltender of the future. Ullmark looks like a half-decent backup option and worthy of the occasional spot-start but shouldn’t be permanently rostered until Hutton gets hurt and he takes over as the Sabres No.1.
Projected Scoring Leaders
|J. Skinner (36)||J. Eichel (50)||J. Eichel (80)||J. Eichel (8)||J. Eichel (27)|
|J. Eichel (30)||R. Dahlin (40)||J. Skinner (62)||S. Reinhart (8)||R. Dahlin (23)|
|S. Reinhart (24)||S. Reinhart (36)||S. Reinhart (60)||J. Skinner (7)||R. Ristolainen (21)|
Sabres in the DFO Top 300
- 23 — Jack Eichel (C)
- 69 — Jeff Skinner (LW)
- 112 — Rasmus Dahlin (D)
- 121 — Carter Hutton (G)
- 138 — Sam Reinhart (C/RW)
- 167 — Rasmus Ristolainen (D)
- 227 — Conor Sheary (LW/RW)
- 235 — Brandon Montour (D)
- 263 — Marcus Johansson (LW)
- 264 — Colin Miller (D)
|3||BOSTON BRUINS||45-28-9||99 PTS|
|6||BUFFALO SABRES||39-36-7||85 PTS|
The Sabres definitely improved their roster this summer, but so did the Lightning, Maple Leafs and Panthers and those teams (along with the Bruins) should all finish ahead of Buffalo in 2020. Their young pieces are in place but they lack the true game breakers to compete in the Atlantic Division right now. They’ll climb above .500 for the first time since 2012 but finish in the middle of the Atlantic.