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Projecting Buffalo’s 2020-21 starting lineup

*Disclaimer: Obviously, this is nearly impossible to accurately predict. This lineup is based on mythical transactions that may never take place.*

“Next year they’ll be better.”

Seems like a mantra for Sabres fans over the past decade, doesn’t it? Year after year, the blue and gold faithful bank on a strong pool of prospects to make the jump to the NHL level and recently, high-potential youngsters have left a lot to be desired. Just a few years ago, players like Justin Bailey, Hudson Fasching and Nick Baptiste were all projected to contribute significantly at the NHL level by now. While Bailey has been called up in spot duty, the others continue to develop in Rochester.

Instead of “next year”, what if we projected three years from now? How different would the current roster look? Perhaps like this….

Forward Line 1:

Casey Mittelstadt – Jack Eichel – Alex Nylander

How incredible would this be? Three high level first round picks all contributing on the Sabres’ top line. What an immense sigh of relief the collective Sabres fan base would exhale if all of these young stars met their full potential. Casey Mittelstadt is currently playing in college at Minnesota where he looks as talented as advertised. Corey Pronman called him “the top player outside the NHL,” a big endorsement for someone in their freshman season.

 

Nylander will play out the 2017-18′ season in Rochester, though at this moment he is battling a lower-body injury. After a summer where it was clear he spent a great deal of time in the gym, the 19-year-old is poised to contribute significantly for the Amerks.

Eichel signed an eight-year extension just before the start of the 17-18′ season, so it comes as no surprise that he would anchor the top line.

Forward Line 2:

Evander Kane – Ryan O’Reilly – Justin Bailey

That’s right, the Sabres chose to extend Evander Kane after a stellar campaign in 17-18′. Though this led to Sam Reinhart’s eventual departure (which we’ll touch on later), the Sabres’ brass elected to go with speed and production (can you blame them?).

With a contract that takes him beyond the 2022-’23 season, it’s all but certain that O’Reilly will be on the team. Though he hasn’t had an ideal start this season, O’Reilly has been one of the most consistent players on the roster since the Sabres traded for him in 2015.

Bailey’s presence on the second line may come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t. Bailey has continued to improve every season since being drafted, though not necessarily at the rate fans would like. Now that he is on the roster, his speed and aggression will force Phil Housley’s hand, keeping him with the big club in favor of slower vets like Benoit Pouliot.

Forward Line 3:

Andreas Athanasiou – Rasmus Asplund – Cliff Pu

Following a rocky start this season, Jason Botterill makes his first in-season trade in a deal centered around a struggling Jake McCabe for Athanasiou. Though this deal would seemingly hamper the Sabres blueline, veteran journeyman (and analytics darling) Justin Falk steps in for McCabe and picks up the slack on the back end.

Asplund continues to hold his own in the Swedish Elite League. Though he probably won’t crack the roster until 2019-’20, he will cement himself in the top-nine with outstanding physical strength and puck presence.

Fan favorite, Cliff Pu, will also play out his rookie year in 2019-’20, after spending a season honing his craft in Rochester. Pu has improved at an astonishing rate in the OHL and acquitted himself in impressive fashion at the annual Prospect Challenge.

 

Forward Line 4:

Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – J.T. Brown

Though he will likely never play up to his draft pedigree, there is no denying that Girgensons looks like a good fit for the Phil Housley system. His speed and set-up ability will keep him on the roster as a role-player down the road.

Johan Larsson remains a steady defensive center, eating ugly minutes on the fourth line and penalty kill.

In the summer of 2018, Jason Botterill decides to replace Jordan Nolan with another tough-guy in free agency, this time with a bit more upside. Brown has been a stalwart on the bottom six in Tampa Bay. Despite his large frame, Brown is a fast skater with excellent defensive ability.

But where’s Kyle Okposo? At this point, Okposo will be turning 33 years old, and will have slowed to the point where he no longer fits the speed focused system that the Sabres have in place. Expect him to be bought out, or kept on board as the 13th forward.

 

Defensive Pairing 1:

Hampus Lindholm – Brendan Guhle

Following the 2017-’18 season, Botterill begins to ponder his toughest decision as a GM. With large portions of the cap tied-up in Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo’s contracts, he must choose between Evander Kane and Reinhart. Ultimately, he opts for production after Kane leaves him no choice following a 75-point campaign. Botterill ships Reinhart to Anaheim along with a mid-round pick to secure Lindholm’s services. As the clear-cut top defensive prospect in the system, Guhle performs as advertised as a rookie in 2018-’19, locking himself into the top pair after signing a seven-year extension.

Defensive Pairing 2:

Marco Scandella – Rasmus Ristolainen

At some point, Phil Housley will figure out how to properly utilize Ristolainen instead of forcing him to play 26-minutes per night. He will settle into a second pairing role alongside Scandella, who has been the best Sabres defender this season. The two currently play together on the top pair, and have improved in terms of chemistry with each passing game.

Ristolainen will continue to quarterback the power play and Scandella will lead top penalty kill unit.

Defensive Pairing 3:

Victor Antipin – William Borgen

After growing frustrated with the inconsistent (and defensively maddening) play of Matt Tennyson, Housley allows Antipin another chance in the top-six, where he performs admirably in sheltered offensive zone minutes. The often forgotten Will Borgen crashes onto the scene in Rochester following an impressive 2017-’18 season with St. Cloud State. Borgen develops his professional game for two seasons with the Amerks before Botterill elects to bring him up to the big club.

Goaltenders:

Linus Ullmark – Mike Condon

Don’t panic! We didn’t forget about Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. At this point, Luukkonen will be 21 years old, and will need to develop as a starter somewhere (likely Rochester at this point). Linus Ullmark gets called up in January of 2018 after Botterill grows frustrated with an under performing Robin Lehner and an inconsistent Chad Johnson. In the summer of 2019, after electing to have Luukkonen continue his development in the minors, Botterill signs reliable Senators back-up Mike Condon to a two-year deal.

So, there you have it. Three years from now, this is what the Sabres roster may look like. What do you think?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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