A few months ago, it seemed like Jack Eichel was teetering somewhere between “fed up with the Sabres losing” and “fed up enough to demand a trade.” After a busy Sabres offseason, it sounds like Eichel’s outlook as improved.
Frankly, those positive feelings are justified. Despite a light staff, new GM Kevyn Adams made some shrewd moves. Landing Taylor Hall with low-risk term ranks as the move most likely to make Eichel smile. Beyond that, Eric Staal seems like a significant upgrade over Marcus Johansson.
Not a bad bit of work, and Eichel clearly noticed.
“Whenever you can add people like Taylor Hall and Eric Staal and Cody Eakin to your roster and the locker room, they not only bring talent to the ice but also veteran presence to the locker room,” Eichel said, via NHL.com. “In a situation like ours where we’re trying to find a winning culture with a young group and trying to figure out the right way to do things at times, I think having older guys can help you out especially during periods of adversity.
Sabres still have a way to go, but this was a positive offseason, as Eichel notes
Again, Taylor Hall gives Eichel someone to take “the pressure off.”
Really, Hall can help Eichel whether he’s on his line, or on a different one. As much as Eichel totes the puck, Hall is a beast in transition in his own right. Would it make more sense to have them share that wealth on the same line, or drive play separately? That’s up to Ralph Krueger.
With Staal, the Sabres add a sturdy, high-quality center. He’s not at that Ryan O'Reilly level any longer, but Staal gives Buffalo another adept one-two punch down the middle.
(Unless the Sabres view a 36-year-old Staal as more of a 3C at this point?)
Now, not every Sabres move should leave Eichel smiling.
Allowing Dominik Kahun to walk remains perplexing. While it’s a minor tweak, seeing solid defensive forward Johan Larsson leave for seemingly inferior veteran Cody Eakin isn’t so hot, either. You could also nitpick the Sabres selecting Jack Quinn at eighth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, although that’s more likely to affect the wider future.
Quibbles aside, the Sabres made Eichel’s life easier by adding Hall and Staal.
If they want to keep Eichel smiling, then it’s likely about improving from within, though.
Can Sabres get more out of the rest of the roster?
Ultimately, there are some make-or-break factors that go beyond how Hall and Staal fit in.
- Will the Sabres receive adequate goaltending?
Barring unforeseen changes, Buffalo’s rolling with the tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. While Ullmark brings higher expectations, a compressed schedule means the Sabres will likely need to lean on both. So will Hutton indeed bounce back after getting his vision issues settled?
- A transfer of power from one Rasmus to the other.
For all the progress Krueger made — subtle at times, or obvious — he continued the Sabres’ puzzling trend of leaning heavily on deeply flawed defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
While it’s heartening that Ristolainen received less absurd ice time in 2019-20 (22:48 TOI average) than 2018-19 (24:38) and before (as much as 26:30 in 2017-18), that’s still too much Risto.
Rolling out Ristolainen so often is doubly puzzling when the superior Rasmus Dahlin saw his ice time sink (21:09 as a rookie to just 19:18 under Krueger). The Sabres didn’t drastically improve their defense this offseason, but can at least make some steps with wiser deployment.
- Can other forwards rebound, or break through?
Considering a $9 million cap hit that feels eternal, most Jeff Skinner news is bad news. But consider this: at least Skinner lacked the bounces (7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20) that helped him earn such a payday (14.9 percent in 2018-19). While better puck luck won’t make Skinner worth $9M, it could at least set the stage for him to be a better contributor.
Also, maybe Casey Mittelstadt can look a bit like a high first-rounder (eighth overall in 2017) for the Sabres?
At 22, Mittelstadt is getting to the point where it’s less and less encouraging to just blurt out the word “potential” when people worry about those middling stats. If nothing else, the young forward has had plenty of time to work on his game. If we don’t see more from him soon, he might get thrown in the “possible bust” heap with former Sabres first-rounder Alex Nylander. Not good.
What if the Sabres still fall short?
The Taylor Hall signing is an interesting test case for Eichel’s outlook with the Sabres.
On one hand, only signing Hall for a year reduces risks. Considering Hall’s style of play, the physical toll really might slow him down the line. At 29, Staal may already be on decline.
So keeping that risk to just one year is smart. Yet, if things don’t work out, will Eichel and the Sabres merely be back to square one?
The future might not be all bad. While there’s uncertainty in net, both Ullmark and Hutton go off the books after 2020-21. The Sabres could look into a different goalie, perhaps someone like Frederik Andersen.
The slate is also pretty clean to explore other avenues, as Staal joins Hall in only being on the books for one season.
Overall, it’s understandable that Eichel is pleased with some of the Sabres’ offseason moves, but he still might need to be patient.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.