Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song famously starts off with the lyrics “We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow”.
That is a pretty fitting description of the Sabres new division for this year.
The Sabres will keep their usual division rival Boston, but the rest are new.
Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, a rising Rangers team that has #1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, and a bunch of solid teams in the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, and New York Islanders are now in the East division.
Make no mistake, if Buffalo ends their playoff drought this year, they will have earned it tenfold.
The league has stated that each division will only play the teams in it. So that means Buffalo will play the other seven teams eight times each, and we’ll likely see a lot of home-and-home sets or series of games against the same team, similar to how baseball does it.
The last time the Sabres played in a division like this was in the late 90s when the Sabres played in the Northeast division, which included Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes, along with Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.
This East Division is temporary for this upcoming season. The Sabres will go back to playing their Canadian brethren and Floridian foes hopefully in October, so in a way, enjoy the uniqueness of this setup and the opportunity to see some excellent players like Sid, Ovie, and Malkin who are nearing the twilight of their careers. At the same time, it is in the Sabres best interest this twilight speeds up a bit.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 20, 2020
The NHL stated that the top 4 teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs, so a playoff spot in this division is well earned by any team.
Buffalo’s issue are less their roster at this point and more the caliber of the opponents they are playing. The Sabres on paper finally have a Top 9 that should make waves and can go toe to toe with some of the big boys like Pittsburgh or Washington.
The issues arise, though, when looking at their defense, which is a work in progress and their goaltending, which needs improvement regardless of Linus Ullmark’s underlying numbers that say he is a decent goaltender over the last 50 games.
In a normal year, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say the Sabres could steal a playoff spot but not this year. Last season the Bruins, Capitals, Penguins, and Flyers finished 1, 3, 4, and 5 in the Eastern standings, plus the Islanders finished 7th for good measure.
The Sabres went from having two bottom teams in their division (and a Montreal team that finished just a point ahead of them) to being one of the two worst teams in the division based on last year.
Buffalo’s path to stealing a playoff spot would probably look something like the Bruins age and loss of talent finally catching them, the Islanders exposing their lack of talent, the Flyers are very up and down leading to a middling year, and the Devils/Rangers are a year off from taking the next step.
The Sabres need to be ahead of at least four of those teams to get back in the dance. I don’t think it is unrealistic for some of that to happen the Bruins didn’t add anything while losing Torey Krug on defense and gaining a year of age to an older roster.
The Islanders are due at some point for a reality check as they outplay their talent yearly.
The Flyers have talent but predicting their future is always a mystery.
The Devils and Rangers are really young teams expecting the kids to carry a lot.
For the Sabres, they have a really well-rested squad that gained two strong additions in Eric Staal and former MVP Taylor Hall. They have a few prospects who could push the needle coming soon including Dylan Cozens.
The major question comes down to the same question we have been asking since Eichel got here. The pieces look to be there, there is young talent, can they put it all together?
The only season Buffalo looked to take a step forward in was Eichel’s first year when they finished with 81 pts in 2015-16 after being in the mid-50s for pts the prior two years.
If the Sabres actually crack the playoffs it will because their offense as a whole drives the team, allowing Dahlin to power the defense out of the zone more and limit shots in their end.
Eichel will do what he can for this roster, but the rest of the offense (meaning Skinner, Hall, Stall, Olofsson, Reinhart, etc) need to do their lifting to help out.