The Buffalo Sabres have been one of the NHL’s doormats for the past several seasons, but general manager Jason Botterill is doing his best to change that. The Sabres finished dead last in the league last season for the third time since 2013/14 with 62 points. However, they finally won the draft lottery and now look poised to make the postseason for the first time since 2010/11. The Sabres did manage to add one key piece to their rebuilding puzzle when the Edmonton Oilers drafted Connor McDavid first overall three years ago as they landed forward Jack Eichel with the second pick.
Eichel hasn’t had much in the way of help on the ice since then though other than centre Ryan O’Reilly. Therefore it’s hard to understand how the club will be any better this season since O’Reilly was traded this summer. Of course, finally owning the first overall draft choice was a step in the right direction and Botterill used it to select ace 6-foot-2-inch Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin from Frolunda HC of Sweden’s Elite League. Along with Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres now appear to possess two of the best young defencemen in the game and also have Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe in the mix.
The defence certainly has unlimited potential with those two on the blue line and Botterill then went about upgrading the forward positions. He acquired Conor Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional fourth round draft pick. Sheary proved he was the real deal in 2016/17 with 23 goals and 30 assists for 53 points in just 61 contests, but his numbers dropped off last year with 18 goals and 12 helpers for 30 points in 79 games. The Sabres feel he can regain his scoring touch though by skating on the left wing with either Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt at centre.
Let’s not forget the O’Reilly trade to the St. Louis Blues enabled Buffalo to add some depth up front as Patrick Berglund was acquired along with Vladimir Sobotka, 20-year-old prospect Tage Thompson and a first and second-round draft pick. The newcomers will be joining Eichel, Sheary, Mittelstadt, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart up front in a young and versatile forward core. To top things off, Botterill was then able to pry Jeff Skinner away from the Carolina Hurricanes for a prospect named Cliff Pu and a second, third and sixth-round draft pick.
The 26-year-old Skinner is a quick, skilled winger who has cracked the 30-goal barrier three times and racked up 89 goals over the past three campaigns. Only 11 other NHL players scored more than Skinner during that span and just six players bettered his 74 even-strength goals. Skinner, the NHL’s rookie of the year as an 18-year-old in 2010/11, obviously believes Botterill has the Sabres moving in the right direction as he agreed to waive his no-trade clause to join the team. He told the media he believes the Sabres’ young core is quite exciting and he feels he can be a key piece of their puzzle.
So while the Sabres seem to look pretty good at both ends of the rink heading into the season they’re also going to need top-notch goaltending to improve in the standings. This task will fall on the shoulders of 32-year-old Carter Hutton who was signed as a free agent from St. Louis in the offseason. Hutton inked a three-year deal for $8.25 million and will be entering his sixth NHL campaign. He played just 32 games last year and went 17-7-3. But when it came to goalies who appeared in at least 30 contests he led the league in goals-against average at 2.09 and save percentage at 93.1.
Hutton will now have to prove he can be just as effective with a heavier workload. If he should happen to falter it looks like 25-year-old Linus Ullmark will get the nod. Ullmark has appeared in 26 games with Buffalo over the past three seasons with a 9-13-2 record along with a GAA of 2.52 and a 91.7 save percentage. All the stars will need to align for Buffalo to make the playoffs this year. They need to score more goals, allow fewer against, stay healthy and improve both on the power play and penalty kill. If they can gradually achieve all of those goals, the club should be playing in the postseason once again in the next year or two.