The offseason started with Jack Eichel trade rumours, and then the Buffalo Sabres unexpectedly landed Taylor Hall in free agency and completely changed the outlook of this team heading into 2021.
Hall’s career is full of surprises, isn’t it? First, it was “the trade is one-for-one.” Now he surprised everyone by signing a one-year deal worth $8.0 million. Hall joins his former head coach Ralph Krueger in Buffalo, where he will try and help get the Sabres back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
As of now, the Sabres sit with ≈13.7 million in cap-space with RFAs Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, and Linus Ullmark still to be signed. [per PuckPedia.com]
Projected Forward Lines
The Sabres brought Hall in to keep Eichel happy, so you better believe he’s going to start the season on his left-side. Who starts on the right is more of a mystery. Eichel played 88.5 percent of his 5v5 ice-time with Reinhart last year but the addition of Hall could mean that Reinhart will be given the chance to drive his own line and spread out the Sabres’ lineup. Olofsson seems like the logical choice to complete the first line because of his great shot. Olofsson can defer to Hall and Eichel and bury his opportunities, which should be aplenty.
With the NHL season expected to start on January 1st and the WHL starting a week later, 2019 No.7 overall pick Dylan Cozens is expected to open the season with the Sabres. Krueger said that he sees Cozens as a centre in the future but it “may be good to get him on the wing right away with someone who has some experience.” If you’re reading between the lines, that suggests that Cozens will start on a line with newcomer Eric Staal and potentially Jeff Skinner on the other side. This would give Staal two elite skaters on his wings. Cozens comes up after being tied for fifth in the WHL in goals (38) and seventh in points (85) in 51 games. Staal and Skinner are re-united. They played together for six years in Carolina but didn’t play together much after the 2014 season. They had a 43.75 GF% that season, so the Sabres will be hoping for better results seven years later.
Cody Eakin, who signed a two-year deal worth $2.25M AAV, will centre their third line, that’s for sure. What we don’t know is who his wingers will be. There are a lot of different options but I think dropping Reinhart down and letting him run his own line makes this lineup much tougher to play against. Eakin’s best season came when in 2019, when he played with Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch for a good portion of the season (191.8 TOI per MoneyPuck.com). You would have something relatively similar to that with Tage Thompson on the left side and Reinhart on the right. This line would get the other team’s bottom-6 and could create a ton of goals. Thompson struggled with Buffalo in 2019 but has scored 12 goals with nine assists (21 points) in 24 AHL games since then.
The Sabres watched Johan Larsson sign with the Arizona Coyotes this offseason and that’s going to devastate their fourth line. He is one of the best fourth line centres in the NHL and it leaves them with a mixture of Zemgus Girgensons, Curtis Lazar, Kyle Okposo and Tobias Rieder to make up their last trio.
Others who will be considered for this lineup are:
- – Casey Mittelstadt, who will be looking to get his career back on track. After being demoted last season, he had 25 points (9G / 16A) in 36 games with Rochester (AHL).
- – Rasmus Asplund was their second-round pick in 2016 and he’s currently playing in Sweden. He had 19 points (3G / 16A) in 33 AHL games last year and has four points (1G /3A) in his first six games in Europe.
- – Arttu Ruotsalainenis also playing overseas at the moment, scoring four goals in his first six games of Liiga action.
Projected Defensive Pairings
From a defensive perspective, these are the best D-pairs for the Sabres in 2021. Rasmus Dahlin was better with Brandon Montour last season, but he was by far the best option for Rasmus Ristolainen. Together they were a formidable pair, posting a 64.3 GoalsFor% and giving up the fewest GoalsAgainst/60 of any Sabres’ pair that played at least 300 5v5 TOI together. Their 1.8 GA/60 ranked 18th/98 qualified D-pairings.
That leaves Dahlin to play with Miller. They were slightly above average defensively, ranking 41st/98 in GA/60. Surprisingly, they weren’t that great offensively, which you wouldn’t expect when you have a player with Dahlin’s skating and puck-moving, combined with Miller’s heavy shot.
That leaves Jake McCabe and Henri Jokiharju to make up their third pair. Jokiharju was fantastic with Marco Scandella, but he’s now in St. Louis. With McCabe, he averaged 1.66 fewer GF/60 and 0.16 more GA/60 than he did with Scandella, but they should be a serviceable third-pairing that takes a lot of defensive-zone draws away from Dahlin-Miller.
Salary Cap Figures via PuckPedia.com
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