2018-19 Sabres outlook and bold predictions

October 04, 2018 - 10:39 am
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The 2018-19 campaign for the Buffalo Sabres gets started on Thursday with their season opener against the Boston Bruins at KeyBank Center.

The Sabres are looking to bounce back from last season after the team finished in 31st place with a 25-45-12 record and just 62 points.

General manager Jason Botterill was busy this offseason as he turned over several pieces with the hopes of becoming a faster and more skilled team to compete with the rest of the league.

That all started on April 28 when the Sabres won the luck of the draw and won the NHL Draft Lottery. With the first overall pick on June 22, the Sabres selected cornerstone phenom defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

From there, Botterill went to work on the trade market, acquiring assets like Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner to overhaul the offense. On the free agency market, the Sabres shored up their goaltending with Carter Hutton coming in to start the season as Linus Ullmark get comfortable in his own skin at the NHL level.

As the Sabres get set to take the ice for the first time, the starting lineup will likely feature 10 new players from the first game of the 2017-18 season against the Montreal Canadiens. In addition to the new players acquired this offseason, the Sabres will likely have 2017 first round pick Casey Mittelstadt in the fold after playing the last six games of season and scoring a goal and four assists. Casey Nelson is also likely to play on the blue line after starting last season in Rochester.

Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart
Sheary-Berglund-Thompson
Sobotka-Mittelstadt-Okposo
Girgensons (Elie)-Rodrigues-Pominville

Scandella-Ristolainen
McCabe-Dahlin
Beaulieu-Nelson
Tennyson#Sabres https://t.co/RlOBAsZRRQ

Scandella-Ristolainen
McCabe-Dahlin
Beaulieu-Nelson
Tennyson#Sabres https://t.co/RlOBAsZRRQ

Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart
Sheary-Berglund-Thompson
Sobotka-Mittelstadt-Okposo
Girgensons (Elie)-Rodrigues-Pominville

— WGR 550 (@WGR550) October 3, 2018

While this group may not be a playoff team just yet, they can certainly be a contending team throughout the season and be fighting for a playoff spot heading into late March. A team that scored the fewest goals (199) last season added some pieces like Skinner and Sheary who can fill the net, while we hope to see guys like Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart continue to increase their totals from last season (both had 25 goals). The Sabres also have some depth to their lineup for the first time in a while, and can continue to rely on depth if they have to call someone up from Rochester.

On defense, Buffalo brings back the pairing of Marco Scandella and Rasmus Ristolainen, who both showed some great chemistry with one another towards the late portion of the season. Dahlin will be paired with Jake McCabe, who has been a complimentary piece to the 18-year-old since training camp and the preseason started.

Where the Sabres should be most concerned is with injuries as Buffalo already sits without guys like Zach Bogosian, Johan Larsson and Scott Wilson in the lineup. Yes, injuries happen, but as long as some of Buffalo's top talents can stay off the shelf, the team can start to establish some consistency.

In goal, Hutton comes in to finally take over a starting role for the first time in his career. As a backup in the NHL, Hutton has proven himself worthy with a career 2.42 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. Last season, Hutton played very well as Jake Allen's backup with the St. Louis Blues, starting in 27 games and registering a 2.09 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Hutton is 32-years-old, so how well will he be able to handle the duties of a starting goalie while Ullmark waits in the wings?

So what type of turn around can we see from the Sabres in the 2018-19 season?

With the Sabres addressing their goal scoring needs and shoring up the defense and goaltending, we can certainly see this team being a much more entertaining team to follow. Are they a similar team to Colorado from last year, who went from 48 points the year before to 95 points and a playoff berth? Anything is possible.

The last two teams to win the NHL Draft Lottery (Toronto in 2016 and New Jersey in 2017) have went on the next season to clinch a playoff berth. Dahlin will change the complexion of the blue line for years to come in Buffalo, but can he immediately make that type of an impact to make the Sabres a playoff team? That's the hope.

Overall, I don't think the Sabres are a playoff team quite yet, but they will make it close when it comes down to the wire. The Sabres are, arguably, the fifth best team in the Atlantic Division, but they are not as far behind as some may think.

Here's how I think it will look in the Atlantic Division this year:

  1. Toronto*
  2. Tampa Bay*
  3. Florida*
  4. Boston*
  5. Buffalo
  6. Montreal
  7. Detroit
  8. Ottawa

Toronto may have some of the best offensive firepower in the entire National Hockey League, and will certainly be a shoe-in when it comes to discussing Stanley Cup contenders. Tampa Bay remains as one of the best overall teams in the NHL and are right in the same discussion as Toronto as Stanley Cup contenders. Florida is a high-rising team in the league with some incredible skill up front, and I don't believe Boston is as good as we lead them to be.

After the Sabres, Montreal, Detroit and Ottawa could very well be three of the worst teams in the NHL this year as each organization goes through some major turnover this season and into the near future.

Many have the Sabres locked in at finishing somewhere between 80 and 85 points for the season, which would be a pretty good final outcome compared to last season. However, there is a good chance the Sabres can exceed that number and maybe climb into the lower 90s. That would put them right in the thick of the playoff race heading into the 10 games of the season. That would be a big win regardless if they were to make the playoffs or not.

Here is how I think the rest of the divisions shake out in the NHL:

Metropolitan:

  1. Washington*
  2. Pittsburgh*
  3. Philadelphia*
  4. Columbus*
  5. New Jersey
  6. Carolina
  7. New York Rangers
  8. New York Islanders


Central:

  1. Nashville*
  2. Winnipeg*
  3. Dallas*
  4. St. Louis*
  5. Colorado*
  6. Minnesota
  7. Chicago


Pacific:

  1. San Jose*
  2. Vegas*
  3. Los Angeles*
  4. Edmonton
  5. Calgary
  6. Arizona
  7. Anaheim
  8. Vancouver
     

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS:

Wild Card Round:

  • E1 - Toronto over WC2 - Columbus
  • E2 - Tampa Bay over E3 - Florida
  • M1 - Washington over WC1 - Boston
  • M3 - Philadelphia over M2 - Pittsburgh

Divisional Round:

  • E2 - Tampa Bay over E1 - Toronto
  • M1 - Washington over M3 - Philadelphia

Conference Final:

  • Tampa Bay over Washington

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS:

Wild Card Round:

  • P1 - San Jose over WC2 - Colorado
  • P2 - Vegas over P3 - Los Angeles
  • C1 - Nashville over WC1 - St. Louis
  • C2 - Winnipeg over C3 - Dallas

Divisional Round:

  • P1 - San Jose over P2 - Vegas
  • C2 - Winnipeg over C1 - Nashville

Conference Final:

  • San Jose over Winnipeg

 

STANLEY CUP FINAL:

  • San Jose over Tampa Bay (6 games)

 

FIVE BOLD SABRES PREDICTIONS FOR THE 2018-19 SEASON:

1.) Alex Nylander returns to Buffalo by Thanksgiving and scores 30-plus points

There's no question that Nylander was one of Buffalo's best players in the preseason. The 20-year-old finished exhibition play with a goal and five points in five games played, but was sent to Rochester as he was unable to nail down a spot on the final 23-man roster.

However, as I mentioned, injuries happen. With his play this preseason, Nylander should be looked as one of those players to be one of the first forwards to be called up at any point of the season.

If Nylander can go to Rochester and continue his strong play from the preseason, Nylander will return to Buffalo and he may never see the lights of the American Hockey League again. If that's the case, he may be able to slot in as a second or third line option for Phil Housley alongside either Berglund or Mittelstadt. Nylander looked at his best when on a line with Berglund and Thompson.

 

2.) The Sabres will have two Calder Trophy finalists

Whether one of those players will win the honor as the NHL's Rookie of the Year will yet to be known, but there is a very good chance that the Sabres could have a pair of players in the top-three for voting in the Calder Trophy race.

Dahlin is currently favored second to just Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson, and it may be more difficult for a defenseman to be the best rookie in the NHL. However, his offensive upside, and his impact on the Sabres' season may be able to help swing votes in his favor.

Even though it was a training camp and preseason for Mittelstadt, he certainly has the potential to turn things around and produce at a similar rate that he did when he broke into the league late last season. If he produces at the same rate (.83 points per-game) over an 82-game season, that would result in 68 points for the 19-year-old. Certainly a respectable number in that race.

Even Nylander could get into consideration for the Calder Trophy if he is recalled and sticks with it in the NHL. However, he'd have to be called up pretty early and immediately start contributing in terms of points and overall production.

 

3.) Jack Eichel finishes as a Hart Trophy finalist

The newly-minted captain of the Sabres is a key piece to the team's turn around this season as he will look to stay healthy while putting up production on the score sheet.

The 21-year-old continues to increase his point production every year, and he's pushing to pass the point per-game pace this season. Last year, Eichel finished with 64 points in 67 games, and that could have been different if he had not suffered another high-ankle sprain in the middle of the season.

You don't have to be the highest scoring player in the league to be a finalist for the league's Most Valuable Player honor. Last year, Taylor Hall won the award and finished the season with 93 points. However, he helped turn around the Devils to becoming a playoff team in 2018, and led the team in scoring by 41 points. Nathan MacKinnon led the way with 97 points among the finalists, and also helped his team in Colorado change their fortunes and become a playoff team. Anze Kopitar scored 92 points last year, and also helped the Kings rebound from a lackluster 2016-17 season.

If the Sabres become a playoff team in 2019 and Eichel puts up a high point total similar to last year's finalists, he should be in consideration for the award.

It's certainly attainable.

 

4.) Linus Ullmark becomes the full-time starting goalie by Christmas

This is nothing against Hutton and saying that he will struggle this season. This is dealing more with the growth of Ullmark as a goalie at the NHL level.

Botterill and Housley have both spoken very highly of Ullmark over the past year, and they believe that he is the future of the franchise in goal. The 25-year-old netminder is entering his fourth season playing in North America, and has grown immensely since first joining Rochester in 2015.

When Hutton was signed back in July, he understood that he was coming in to not only have a chance to start in the NHL, but also help Ullmark grow his game more in Buffalo and not rush him into the crease. However, if Ullmark gets hot at all during the season and starts to carry the load in goal, why not play the hot hand?

Henrik Lundqvist was supposed to come to New York back in 2005 and split his time in net with Kevin Weekes, but he got hot and eventually took over starting duties for the Rangers. He ended up being their goalie that helped them to the playoffs, and he has been their No. 1 goalie since.

Not to say that Ullmark is the next coming of Lundqvist, though there are some striking similarities in their style of play, there could be a similar route in which Ullmark wins his starting job in Buffalo.

 

5.) Amerks reach the Calder Cup Final in 2019

The Amerks had a remarkable turn-around season in 2017-18 as they finished the campaign with a 37-22-11-6 record and a third place finish in the North Division. It was Chris Taylor's first season as head coach in Rochester, but he was able to take the growing pains in stride and help lead the Amerks to some big wins in the earlier part of the season. The Amerks also had a number of players go up to Buffalo towards the end of the season when the parent wanted to make some evaluations, but the team continued to stick around and eventually make the playoffs. However, it was a disappointing end to the season as they were swept in three games by the Syracuse Crunch.

This season, the Amerks are poised to return with a bunch of young and eager players ready to make their stamp in professional hockey. A number of Buffalo's prospects have finally graduated from their junior clubs, college teams, or they have committed to making the jump from Europe to North America. In addition, the team has made some nice moves to fill out the depth of the roster with some college free agents and AHL veterans.

Yes, the Amerks will likely have a number of players go to Buffalo at some point during the season, but the depth they have can really help them continue their success throughout the season. Players like Nylander, Justin Bailey, Brendan Guhle and C.J. Smith may be seeing some time with the big club this season, but others like Victor Olofsson, Lawrence Pilut, Rasmus Asplund, Sean Malone, Will Borgen and Danny O'Regan will help fill the voids and fulfill that "next man up" mentality.

The Eastern Conference will be stacked once again this season with teams like Lehigh Valley and Syracuse looking to make a push once again in the Calder Cup playoffs, while the Toronto Marlies will look to repeat as champions.

With the depth that is provided for the Amerks this season, as well as the youthful speed and skill present, Rochester could be poised to make a very deep run in the AHL playoffs in 2019.

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