Luckily for the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL regular season lasts just 82 games. Any longer and the club may have found themselves rock bottom in the league last season.
The team got off to an excellent start and by late November led the league with a mark of 17-6-2. Most fans were surprised since the club entered the campaign riding a seven-year streak of missing the playoffs. It appeared the franchise’s fortunes were about to change but then the roof caved in.
The Sabres went a league-low 16-33-8 the rest of the way to end the season at 33-39-10 for 76 points. This was the fifth-worst record in the league and it meant they missed the postseason by 22 points. Head coach Phil Housley was left clutching at straws as he witnessed the collapse first hand and didn’t know how to stop the suffering. Housley wasn’t the only one to blame though as the lack of quality goaltending, defense and offense all contributed to the downfall. He did take the majority of the blame, though, and was fired on April 7th and replaced by Ralph Krueger on May 15th.
The squad rode the hot sticks of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner to start the year while goaltenders Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton both played above their heads. The good times didn’t roll too long as Skinner’s production cooled off and the Sabres suddenly found themselves conceding just over 3.5 goals per game while scoring approximately 2.5 per outing. In reality, the team won several games it should have lost early in the season and lost numerous contests it should have won later in the campaign. But it all evened out and it was obvious the Sabres weren’t ready to earn a playoff spot.
Eichel gave it a good shot and managed a point-per-game over the last 52 encounters games, but Skinner managed just 36 in his last 57 contests. There were some other bright spots as forward Sam Reinhart played the full 82 games and racked up 65 points while defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and rookie Rasmus Dahlin notched 43 and 44 points respectively. Those who were considered disappointing last year were Casey Mittelstadt with 25 points, Vladimir Sobotka at 13 points and six-million-dollar-man Kyle Okposo at 29 points.
Conor Sheary, Evan Rodrigues and veteran Jason Pominville also struggled and posted 94 points between them in a combined 225 games. This means Krueger’s first year behind the bench is going to be a tough task if he can’t prod more secondary scoring out of these players to support the top line of Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart. The new coach will also have to hope for more consistency from the 6-foot-4-inch Ristolainen as well as fellow blueliner Marco Scandella.
Help is on the way for 2019/20 as general manager Jason Botterill acquired 26-year-old forward Jimmy Vesey from the New York Rangers as well as 28-year-old free agent winger Marcus Johansson from the Boston Bruins. Vesey cost the Sabres a third-round draft pick in 2021 and at 6-feet-3-inches brings size and mobility. He scored 17 goals and 18 assists for 35 points in 81 games last year so isn’t going to set the league on fire but should boost the top-six forward position.
Vesey is quite durable as he’s missed just six games since entering the league in 2016/17 and has improved his point output each season from 27 to 28 to 35. He has the potential to be a 40 to 50-point scorer with Buffalo with increased ice time. Johansson will also boost the offense after proving to be one of the Bruins’ best players in their march to the Stanley Cup final last season. He registered 13 goals and 17 helpers for 30 points in 58 contests for New Jersey and Boston and added 11 points in 22 playoff encounters.
Johansson is 6-feet-1-inch tall and weighs in at 205 lbs but the Swedish native has missed 77 games over the last two seasons due to injuries. The Sabres also have high hopes for Swedish forward Victor Olofsson who was drafted in the seventh round with the 181st overall pick in 2014. The 24-year-old accumulated points consistently while playing in Sweden and scored 30 goals and 33 assists for 63 points in 66 games with the AHL’s Rochester Americans last season. He also enjoyed a short stint with the Sabres and notched two goals and two helpers in four games so could be the real deal.
Botterill also signed center Dylan Cozens to a three-year entry-level contract after drafting him seventh overall this summer from the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Cozens is just 18 years old but stands 6-feet-3-inches tall and has scored 138 points in 128 WHL games. On the flip side, Botterill tired of waiting for prospect Alexander Nylander to blossom and traded the forward to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Henri Jokiharju. The 21-year-old Nylander was drafted eighth overall in 2016 and managed just three goals and three assists in 19 NHL games. The 20-year-old Jokiharju was drafted 29th overall in 2017 and posted 12 assists in 38 games with Chicago last season.
The blue line was further upgraded with the addition of 25-year-old Brandon Montour late last season and Botterill traded for 26-year-old Colin Miller of the Vegas Golden Knights. Miller scored 70 points in 147 games in Vegas and 19-year-old Dahlin, who was drafted first overall in 2018, is also expected to keep getting better with each passing season. There’s no doubt Dahlin will eventually become one of the best defenders in the league.