It’s Saturday, April 4th, 2020.
The Sabres are in overtime at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. Jack Eichel steals a pass at the Flyers’ blueline, races down the ice and scores the OT winner for a 3-2 victory. The KeyBank Center erupts in delirium, streamers fall from the rafters, the party in the plaza is mayhem… the Sabres just clinched a playoff birth on the final night of the season, ending a long 8-year playoff drought.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Buffalo’s last playoff game was April 26th, 2011, against the Flyers. It was a Game 7 in which Buffalo lost, 5-2. At the time, no one would’ve thought it was the last playoff game for 8 years as the team seemed to be trending up with new ownership and a good batch of young players to move forward with. Fast forward to today and the team (maybe) has a chance to turn the corner, but it still feels like a bit of a climb.
So what needs to happen for the Sabres to end the drought.
Here are three different scenarios:
MOST UNSURPRISING: Eichel has an MVP-caliber season
In recent seasons, we have seen players like Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall play at a level where they single-handily take a team to the playoffs. Both were nominated for the MVP for their performances that year with Hall taking the trophy. Eichel has that potential, and last season, put up a strong 82 pts and 28 goals in 77 games.
— J Dubs™ (@JoshWrest) April 18, 2019
The Sabres would need Eichel healthy for the entire season and he would need a stat line of 40 goals and around 105 pts to put up the numbers needed for that performance. But I do believe he has that potential for a season of that magnitude.
MOST STUNNING: Linus Ullmark has a breakthrough year
New goalie coach Mike Bales is considered a goalie whisperer in league circles. and last year, he helped Carolina move to 7th in goals allowed. It’s no secret Buffalo’s goaltending played a sizable role in their collapse, finishing 9th-worst in goals allowed in the NHL.
? I-N-C-R-O-Y-A-B-L-E ?
Linus Ullmark 1
Jakub Voracek 0 pic.twitter.com/EJTdHxT3rw
— LNH (@LNH_FR) December 8, 2018
Ullmark has the talent to be the guy in net but never has put it all together despite flashing glimpses at times. Every year, a playoff team or two has a goalie who has a career year (think Robin Lehner with the Isles) or a hot hand that provides enough support to get his team to the playoffs. Bales’ coaching with Ullmark’s talent certainly offers this possibility.
MOST LIKELY: Better coaching mixed with better depth and a few young players developing sees the Sabres take the next step
Realistically, a little bit of everything mixed together would see the Sabres take the next step. Ralph Krueger seems to have a better pulse and a stronger system that fits this group of players better which should show some dividends.
The Sabres should expect an even better year from Eichel, with Skinner and Reinhart providing strong top 6-scoring. I touched on goaltending above and if Bales can just get Hutton/Ullmark into the top half of goals allowed that’s a help. Also, the additions of Jimmy Vesey, Colin Miller, and Marcus Johnsson should add needed secondary scoring and Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt should hit their next stage of expected growth.
— Buffalo Hockey moments (@SabresPlays) July 24, 2019
The biggest issues the Sabres have had for years now is the lack of secondary scoring and allowing too many goals. They have addressed both this offseason and with a little quicker development of their youth, and they should have a good chance to end the drought.