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?

Additions

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

Subtractions

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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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.