WATCH LIVE: Maple Leafs, Sabres meet in Atlantic Division clash

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tonight’s matchup features two of the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak and are 11-3-0 in their past 14 games, while the Sabres have dropped three straight, including a 2-1 loss last night to Nashville.

After missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, Auston Matthews has three goals and an assist in two games since his return. Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games this season, the best goals per game mark of any player in the league. Toronto native Jeff Skinner has been electric for Buffalo this season, leading the Sabres with 20 goals (t-2nd in NHL). He had just 24 goals all last season with Carolina and played in all 82 games.

This will be the first of four meetings between these clubs this season. They will also meet in Toronto on Feb. 25 and March 3, before ending their regular season series on March 20 in Buffalo. The Leafs and Sabres have alternated wins and losses over the past six meetings.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack EichelSam Reinhart
Tage ThompsonCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieEvan RodriguesVladimir Sobotka
Patrik BerglundJohan LarssonZemgus Girgensons

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

NHL On NBCSN: Sabres finding success after plenty of change

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

How have things changed in such a positive direction for the Buffalo Sabres? Consider this: They’re currently 9-6-2 and sitting in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They didn’t win their ninth game until Dec. 22 last season and in 2016 they hit that total on Dec 1.

There’s been plenty of pain over the last seven seasons, which all ended without a single playoff appearance. But plenty of change has done the Sabres good, and general manager Jason Botterill was aggressive this summer in upgrading areas that are now beginning to see a pay off.

He stuck with head coach Phil Housley, who experienced a disastrous first season in Buffalo in 2017-18. But with a year under his belt, the Sabres are slowly starting to turnaround and the messages he’s sending are being heard by his players.

“He comes in here, he’s positive between periods, he’s on us to get those goals and he knows that we’re never out of games,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who leads the team with 19 points and is averaging 1.12 points per game. “I think we’re starting to believe in each other. I know that we know we’re never out of games. He’s building an identity for us. I think the more and more we stick to it and believe in what we’re trying to do and believe in him and believe in ourselves it’s working out.”

[WATCH LIVE – 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

That lack of success in Housley’s rookie coaching season resulted in Rasmus Dahlin, who’s playing over 18 minutes a night. The summer also brought Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Jeff Skinner via trades. Goaltender Robin Lehner was allowed to walked and was replaced by Carter Hutton in free agency.

Skinner’s been a boon to the Sabres’ offense. Along with Eichel, he’s recorded 19 points and currently leads the team with 12 goals. He’s well on pace to eclipse his career-high 37 goals he scored with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016-17. He has also scored 10 of his 12 goals this year at even strength.

The culture of losing appears to be over, and what Botterill started to build in Buffalo following his hiring in May 2017 is becoming clearer.

“There’s a lot of proud history that we have being a Sabre,” said forward Kyle Okposo. “We want to make sure that everybody is honoring the people who came before us and the culture that they tried to build here. We want to get back to that, get back to really that pride of being a Sabre. That’s what we’re trying to build is something that people can remember.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

 

Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.