Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 NHL season preview

The 2020-21 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to preview all 31 teams. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how the offseason affected each team, the most interesting people in the organization, and the best- and worst-case scenarios. Today, we preview the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo Sabres 2019-20 Rewind

Record: 30-31-8 (68 points); sixth in the Atlantic Division; 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Leading scorer: Jack Eichel (36 goals, 78 points).

The story of the Buffalo Sabres’ 2019-20 season is all too familiar to Sabres fans. Uncomfortably, it’s becoming gratingly familiar for Jack Eichel, too.

With an 8-1-1 start, Sabres teased fans with the potential to break their agonizing playoff drought. If you rank among those who can’t even remember that hot opening to the Buffalo Sabres’ 2019-20 season, then … well, you know how that story ends.

Then again, while the chapters seemed to repeat themselves — we’ve been through rumblings of Eichel unrest before, right? — the epilogue contained some dizzying twists.

First, the Sabres said they would keep Jason Botterill as GM. In true Sabres fashion, they riled up their fans by claiming they had some mystical extra knowledge. Apparently that intel changed, because weeks later, Botterill (and far too many other staffers) were gone. With a threadbare front office, Kevyn Adams received the tough assignment of reshaping this roster.

In other set of twists, Adams made some great moves. (Not every choice was ideal, but the bigger picture looks strong.)

There really wasn’t any foreshadowing for the Sabres winning the Taylor Hall sweepstakes. They did, though, and even managed their risks by limiting Hall to a one-year, $8 million pact. Beyond Hall, Adams upgraded the Sabres by trading Marcus Johansson for Eric Staal.

Still, the Sabres enter 2020-21 with muted expectations because of the parts of the song that remain the same. Will this team still struggle to accept Rasmus Ristolainen‘s limitations? Can they really expect strong goaltending, or even good-enough netminding? In the end, will Jack Eichel feel like it’s him against the world once again?


Taylor Hall (free agency), Eric Staal (trade), Cody Eakin (free agency).


Dominik Kahun (free agency), Johan Larsson (free agency), Marcus Johansson (trade), Michael Frolik (free agency), Wayne Simmonds (free agency).

Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 NHL season preview Hall Dahlin
(Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

3 Most Interesting Buffalo Sabres

• Taylor Hall

Don’t lie; you didn’t expect Taylor Hall to sign with the Buffalo Sabres. Taylor Hall probably didn’t expect that to happen.

Upon first impact, it’s baffling. But peel off a few layers and it could be a smart move for both the player and his new team.

To start, the less-fun part: the market was probably pretty barren. Defensemen (plus Jacob Markstrom and Matt Murray) received long-term, big-money deals; forwards fended for themselves.

Perhaps the other part of the equation is where Taylor Hall was clever like a fox. Depending upon the situation, Hall may have had to take a one-year deal with a contender, but wasn’t guaranteed to line up with a top center. In Buffalo, he can pencil himself into a line with Jack Eichel. While line combinations can be fluid, the logic is sound.

(And, hey, there’s something to be said for playing with house money. If the Sabres stink, Hall will only absorb so much blame. If they prospel, Hall gets a bunch of credit.)

Yet, for all of those positives, the stakes remain high. Hall turned 29 in November, so he only has so many more chances at landing a behemoth of a long-term contract. By his standards, he struggled last season, and has been on a bit of a downward trend for a while. Another bumpy season could knock him down another tier in free agency.

Being that the salary cap could be flat for quite a while, spenders are going to be picky. Hall needs to prove that he’s worth the premium price he’s hoping to fetch.

• The promising Rasmus, and the baffling one

One of the Buffalo Sabres’ most frustrating problems comes down to how they seemingly perceive players named Rasmus. After a promising rookie season, Rasmus Dahlin saw a downgrade in opportunities, and generally struggled. Year after year, the Sabres trot out Rasmus Ristolainen as if he’s worthy of a workhorse role.

Now, it’s true that Rasmus Dahlin has room for improvement. And maybe Ristolainen would put up less troubling numbers if he wasn’t asked to do too much. To be fair, the Sabres don’t have the greatest options on defense.

(Although, again, they’d probably be better off transferring minutes from the larger Rasmus to the smaller, younger one. Even if it would mean asking a lot of Dahlin early in his career.)

Beyond differing outside perceptions of Ristolainen, the towering defenseman’s also exhibited the sort of existential crises one might expect from a long-suffering Sabre. Ristolainen said all the right things after his earlier outbursts, but that angst could creep back in quickly.

• Jack Eichel

You can only ignore Eichel for so long when it comes to the most interesting Buffalo Sabres.

Anecdotally speaking, Eichel has a decent amount of sway with front office decisions. When Kevyn Adams makes a move, he likely has to at least consider how his top player would react. (And he’d be wise to not even consider trading that star.)

There could be all sorts of domino effects from Eichel’s mood and production. Might he sour on Ralph Krueger? If Hall doesn’t mesh with Eichel, would that just about seal his fate? Could rising frustration prompt Adams to make hasty moves?

Beyond all that, Eichel is a sensational star. Maybe this is the year people realize just how elite Eichel really is?

Best-Case Scenario

High-end players can change things. During Taylor Hall’s Hart Trophy season, he dragged a deeply flawed Devils team to an unlikely playoff spot. Hall will have plenty of motivation to be at his best this season, and that could be enough to help Buffalo survive a difficult East Division. On paper, the Sabres’ goaltending looks weak, but Carter Hutton enjoyed some strong years in St. Louis, and claims he put vision issues behind him. Maybe it all comes together and the Sabres make the playoffs, with even some upset potential during early rounds?

Worst-Case Scenario

For all that changed with the Sabres, they still might have fatal flaws. Even if they transfer minutes from the lesser Rasmus to the more promising Rasmus, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. And, as unpredictable as goaltending can be, the forecast is cloudy for Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Eichel, Hall, and other top scorers might not be able to cancel out those problems. Also, if the pandemic knocks out the possibility for in-season trades, Hall and others might also be stuck on the Sabres while they hit 10 straight seasons without a playoff berth.

Pointsbet – Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup odds

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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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    Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

    They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

    It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

    Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

    “I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

    Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

    Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

    “They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

    Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

    It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

    Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

    “We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

    Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

    Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

    “He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

    A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

    “It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

    The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

    The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

    That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

    Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

    “We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

    “We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

    Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

    Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

    The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

    “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

    That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

    Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

    The outcome was determined long before that.

    After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

    Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

    “That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

    Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

    Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

    “I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

    Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

    Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

    “If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

    Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

    “It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

    The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

    The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

    It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.