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.

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