The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Buffalo Sabres.
2020-21 Season Review
• Record: 15-34-7 (37 points); eighth place in East Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Owen Power No. 1 overall
• Offensive leader: Sam Reinhart (54 games, 25 goals, 15 assists, 40 points)
• Free Agent Additions: Will Butcher (trade from Devils), Robert Hagg (trade from Flyers), Vinnie Hinostroza, Aaron Dell, Craig Anderson
• Free Agent Subtractions: Sam Reinhart (trade to Panthers), Rasmus Ristolainen (trade to Flyers), Linus Ullmark (Bruins), Riley Sheahan (Seattle)
Biggest Question Facing the Sabres
• What is going to happen with Jack Eichel?
This really is the only question at this point. And really it is more of a question of “when” will it happen.
With or without Eichel the team is going to struggle. They already traded Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, the roster is thin and lacking in impact players, goaltending is non-existent, and while the defense has some intriguing young pieces it is still not a great group.
But an Eichel trade seems to simply be a matter of when and not if.
The situation has turned ugly as the two sides can not agree on the best course of action regarding his desire for surgery, he is clearly frustrated with the lack of success on the ice, while the team simply looks like it is ready for another rebuild.
What’s the salary cap situation?
As of this publication the Sabres remain below the NHL’s salary floor with restricted free agent defenseman Rasmus Dahlin still unsigned. They will easily clear the floor when he signs. But if Eichel gets traded that will be another $10 million coming off the books.
Jeff Skinner‘s contract ($9 million per year through the end of the 2026-27 season) is the only other significant contract on the books. And while that has quickly turned into an albatross of a deal, they have so few commitments elsewhere that they have plenty of salary cap flexibility to work with and will have even more after the inevitable Eichel trade.
The one area of the Sabres that has some intriguing young players is clearly on the defense. Rasmus Dahlin had an inconsistent season a year ago, but he still has star potential. Owen Power was the top pick in the draft, but it not making the jump to the NHL just yet. Those two are going to be the building blocks.
Jokiharju is worth paying attention to as well.
Entering his fourth year in the league, and third with the Sabres, he is at a point now where he probably needs to take a big step forward if he is going to reach his potential. He has shown flashes of it during that time, and the Sabres thought highly enough of him to give him a three-year deal this offseason.
With this roster and playing in a division with Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Florida, and even Montreal it makes the playoffs seem like nothing more than a dream. So what do the Sabres have to look forward to here? Hopefully that Dahlin finds consistency, and players like Casey Mittelstadt and Jokiharju take big steps forward. It would also be beneficial if Jeff Skinner was able to return to form a little and maybe salvage some of that contract.
The worst case situation here is that they screw up an Eichel trade and do not get any real progression from players like Dahlin, Mittelstadt, or Jokiharju. This is going to be a long season either way, and the coming seasons are going to be just as ugly as another major rebuild starts. But they have to see some sort of progress somewhere.
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