Pandemic Punts: Two very different paths for Buffalo Sabres in 2020-21

Pandemic Punts: Two very different paths for Buffalo Sabres in 2020-21 Taylor Hall Eric Staal
Getty Images

Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

2020-21 NHL season presents fork in the road for Buffalo Sabres

Thanks to COVID-related uncertainty, plenty of NHL teams could see their seasons flipped upside down. Yet, if you throw out that overarching factor, the Buffalo Sabres face maybe the most dramatic fork-in-the-road season of any squad in 2020-21.

Down one road, the Sabres break their nine-season playoff drought. Ideally, they also win one (or more) playoff series for the first time since falling to the Senators in the 2007 Eastern Conference Final.

To still-new GM Kevyn Adams’ credit, he set up the Sabres to handle things well if they instead go down the less-ideal, and far-more-well-traveled road of being a cellar dweller in 2020-21.

Hall and Staal: Difference-makers, though maybe not so long with Buffalo?

When you look at Adams’ two biggest moves with the Sabres, both acquisitions are set up to leave the team flexible in 2020-21.

Most obviously, the Sabres managed to sign Taylor Hall for just one year. For a cool $8 million, the Sabres get to test-drive the one-time NHL MVP. While Hall received a no-movement clause, it’s easy to picture the winger approving a trade if the Sabres sink in 2020-21. He just merely gets say-so in where he lands. That may reduce some of the return … but who knows?

Although Eric Staal isn’t as splashy an addition at age 36, he’s also only under contract for the upcoming season. Considering his affordable $3.25M cap hit, someone might come calling about the veteran center.

Again, the ideal situation is for the Sabres to succeed in 2020-21. If they don’t, though, there’s a solid Plan B. In fact …

Pandemic Punts: Two very different paths for Buffalo Sabres in 2020-21 Rasmus Ristolainen
(Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images)

Could this be the year the Sabres part ways with the likes of Ristolainen?

… for all we know, Adams could also have some other moves in the back of his mind.

If things go south, could the Sabres finally trade Rasmus Ristolainen? Adams might not feel quite as chained to the oft-criticized defenseman as previous Sabres executives seemed to be. With two years left at a $5.4M AAV, an opposing GM might be more comfortable gambling on the big blueliner, too.

Actually, no Sabres defenseman is under contract long-term. Ristolainen and Colin Miller are the only defensemen who aren’t in contract years, as they’re both signed through 2021-22.

Also, both Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton are only locked up for 2020-21.

Ponder, for instance, if Hutton bounces back after (hopefully) putting those vision issues behind him. Imagine if he plays well, the Sabres don’t, and the St. Louis Blues decide they want a backup/platoon option alongside Jordan Binnington. Maybe they’d want Hutton back?

Ultimately, the Sabres have a lot of flexibility if they see things they want to change in 2020-21. Though less likely, they might even choose to move on from someone like Sam Reinhart.

Buffalo Sabres punting on 2020-21 wouldn’t be all good, of course

Naturally, losing is still far from ideal. Sure, it’s better to identify the emergency exits rather than paint yourself in a corner, but you don’t want to hear alarm bells ringing either way.

If the Sabres stink it up again in 2020-21, it will be another blow to Jack Eichel‘s patience. It’s a good sign that he gave the offseason a big thumbs up, and why wouldn’t he? But that smile can turn to a sour face quickly.

That said, at least Adams showed Eichel and Sabres fans that they aren’t just resting on their laurels heading into this season. With a still-top-heavy offense, unproven goaltending, and lingering questions on defense, the Sabres enter 2020-21 as underdogs.

At least if things go wrong, the Sabres could brighten their future during the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline — rather than just hoping for the best regarding the 2021 NHL Draft.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Scroll Down For:

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
    2 Comments

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    austonmatthews
    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

    matty beniers
    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.