Jack Eichel

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres prepares for a faceoff during an NHL game against Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers
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A best on best mythical tournament: 23-and-under team

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next three Thursdays.

The first team to enter the competition will be a roster comprised of players 23 years of age or younger. Think a Team North America in 2020. In recent years, younger players have made an instant impact at the NHL level and this team is filled with already established superstars.

Line Combinations

First line: Sebastian Aho – Connor McDavid – David Pastrnak

Thoughts: Leon Draisaitl has benefitted greatly from playing alongside McDavid this season and the addition of two dynamic goal scorers (Aho, Pastrnak) should produce an explosive top line. Aho’s ability to light the lamp and create plays should be a perfect fit to round out the group.

Second line: Andrei Svechnikov – Auston Matthews – Patrik Laine

Thoughts: Matthews has the puck-handling skill and on-ice vision to be an elite distributor with Laine alongside him. The size of all three forwards will be tough for most defensive pairings to handle.

Third line: Kyle Connor – Jack Eichel – Mikko Rantanen

Thoughts: Can this line match up with the opposition’s best and still produce offensively? The trio has the skill to be a top line for most NHL teams, but these three will be relied upon to play a smart, efficient, two-way game.

Fourth line: Matthew Tkachuk – Dylan Larkin – Mitchell Marner

Thoughts: The inclusion of Larkin over a Mathew Barzal or Elias Pettersson will raise some questions, but he was the best option to be a fourth line center and contribute on the penalty kill. Matthew Tkachuk will provide some toughness and size to add an important element to the group.

First D pairing: Zach Werenski – Cale Makar
Second D pairing: Thomas Chabot – Charlie McAvoy
Third D pairing: Rasmus Dahlin – Adam Fox

Thoughts: The second pairing will likely match up against the opposition’s best, but each combination has a strong mix of complementary characteristics. I initially thought it would be tough to find a strong group of mature defensemen in this age range, but these players have established themselves as high-end D-men.

Starting Goalie: Carter Hart
Backup Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Just Missed: Mathew Barzal, Quinn Hughes, Travis Konecny, Elias Pettersson, Ivan Provorov

Captain: Connor McDavid
Alternate captains: Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy

Analysis

This team should not struggle to score with a ton of fire power in the offensive unit. With two of the top three and six of the top 10 goal scorers from the current season, it will be hard to contain this prolific group of forwards.

Two areas of weakness for this team are its ability to play a strong two-way game in even strength situations and kill off timely penalties. Players of this ilk have the ability to play any style but the question will be if players like Eichel and Marner could buy in to a defensive oriented role.

Additionally, their goaltenders are unproven but have the talent needed to play against the world’s best.

Nevertheless, the amount of skill on this team should help them overcome any obstacles and be a formidable challenge for any opponent. The roster has several established leaders, but young stars of the NHL are always eager to prove they belong in the conversation with the game’s best. Channeling that emotion in the proper way could be the difference between a successful tournament run or an early exit.

Surprising omissions:

Quinn Hughes: The young blueliner has been sensational for the Canucks. He is currently in a tight race with Makar for the Calder Trophy awarded to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL. But the team will need size on the backend and cannot carry three undersized defensemen.

Elias Pettersson: The Swedish center is an excellent talent but didn’t fill a need when creating the lineup. While his talent is immense, this is a player that received the short end of the stick in order to build the most complete roster.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates his goal with teammate Rasmus Dahlin
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Pending free agents

Dominik Kahun (RFA)
Curtis Lazar (RFA)
Brandon Montour (RFA)
Victor Olofsson (RFA)
Lawrence Pilut (RFA)
Sam Reinhart (RFA)
Tage Thompson (RFA)
Linus Ullmark (RFA)
Zemgus Girgensons (UFA)
Matt Hunwick (UFA)
Johan Larsson (UFA)
Michael Frolik (UFA)
Wayne Simmonds (UFA)
Vladimir Sobotka (UFA)
Jimmy Vesey (UFA)

The Core

The Buffalo Sabres have drafted two of the hardest pieces to find in the National Hockey League. A franchise center in Jack Eichel and a top-pairing defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin.

Sam Reinhart reached the 50-point mark for the third consecutive season and Victor Olofsson has been a pleasant surprise. However, the Sabres will need to find several more pieces to fill out the rest of the lineup to challenge in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.

Casey Mittelstadt is only 21 years of age, but after playing 77 games in 2018-19, he didn’t take the next step in his development. The young center played just 31 games in the NHL while spending the other half of the season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. The maturation process varies from player to player, but the Sabres still expect Mittlestadt to grow into a formidable NHL player.

Two of the Sabres’ top five scorers (Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen) anchor the defensive group. Ristolainen has been the subject of trade rumors for several years now, but still is a right-handed shot defenseman with an offensive touch. Brandon Montour was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in February of 2019 but is a pending restricted free agent.

Linus Ullmark has provided a boost in goal this season but hasn’t cemented himself as the long-term option. Several goaltenders could hit the free agency market this season and the Sabres could find a long-term solution at a reasonable price if they play their cards right.

Long-term needs for Sabres

The challenge for the Sabres front office has been finding the right complementary pieces to play alongside their foundational players. The Jeff Skinner contract extension is not providing the return expected with a $9 million average annual value. In 59 games this season, the high-priced forward has recorded only 23 points (14 goals, 9 assists).

The Sabres didn’t give up a valuable asset for Wayne Simmonds at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, but the idea that they gave up a draft pick for an expiring contract was strange to say the least. Simmonds’ value to the Sabres might not be measured by his on-ice performance but could be another veteran voice in the locker room. If he is extended in the offseason, Simmonds can be a sounding board for Eichel and Dahlin as the they continue to develop.

General manager Jason Botterill has six draft picks in the upcoming NHL Draft, but is missing his third and sixth-round picks from the Skinner acquisition in the summer of 2018. The Sabres have needs throughout their NHL lineup, but have limited assets and salary cap space to fill the holes.

Buffalo will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season and will struggle to break that streak in 2020-21.

Long-term strengths

Eichel and Dahlin represent two foundational pieces and should be the face of the Sabres for years to come.

Head coach Ralph Krueger is also an interesting character and has gotten a lot out of his captain and Dahlin in his first season behind Buffalo’s bench. But, after an 8-1-1 start this season, Krueger was unable to stop the skid as his team fell out of the playoff picture.

Obviously, if there was more to add in the strength’s column, the Sabres would have finished higher in the standings and have a better trajectory for years to come.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
Sabres biggest surprises, disappointments so far

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Buffalo Sabres: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres disappointment surprise
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

2019-20 Buffalo Sabres Eichel Olofsson Reinhart
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres.

2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

Record: 30-31-8 (68 points); sixth in the Atlantic Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference
Leading Scorer: Jack Eichel — 78 points (36 goals and 42 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Traded Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary to the Penguins for Dominik Kahun.
• Sent a conditional fifth-round pick to the Devils for Wayne Simmonds.
• Traded away Marco Scandella for the Sharks’ fourth-round pick, then flipped that fourth-rounder to the Flames for Michael Frolik.

Season Overview: 

Woof. What can you really say about the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres but, “Woof?”

The Sabres present a story that’s felt basically the same for far too long, only with a rotating cast of characters.

While Jack Eichel’s basically willed them from seasons that rank among the worst of the salary cap era, the Sabres remain disappointing. Whether the coronavirus claims the season and playoffs or not, Buffalo’s playoff drought will extend to nine consecutive seasons. They’re heading toward a string of 11 misses in 13 seasons, and haven’t won a playoff series since that nice run in 2006-07.

Again, woof.

Sabres fans have largely had it, as you can observe from their Duane Drain. And who can really blame them?

If new head coach Ralph Krueger made any real difference, it’s negligible, at least in the short-term. The hope is that maybe he’s building something, but you have to squint to see the potential beyond Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and others making progress.

The Sabres added to that dire feeling with some brow-furrowing trade deadline moves. The season felt long gone when they traded for the likes of Wayne Simmonds, although at least Buffalo only spent marginal draft picks. Selling probably would’ve been the wisest move, but PR-wise, fans are likely far beyond tired of that liquidation approach.

Considering how tough the Atlantic figures to be for the near future, this Sabres franchise has its work cut out for it. Terry Pegula hasn’t exactly earned a lot of goodwill regarding how he’s handled COVID-19, either.

At least Jack Eichel rules though, right?

Highlight of the Season So Far:

The Sabres started 2019-20 on a heck of a run, going 8-1-1 in their first 10 games. They claimed that they didn’t fear echoing the 2018-19 season by ultimately falling apart, but, well … they did.

Again, Eichel authored many of the Sabres’ crescendos, including a robust personal point streak.

Victor Olofsson played a big role in Buffalo’s hot start with a historic early run of scoring, and while both the player and power play slowed down, Olofsson shows some promise.

Eichel, Olofsson, Dahlin and others simply need more help. Maybe Buffalo can actually build on the positives … eventually?

MORE SABRES BITS:
Sabres’ biggest surprises and disappointments
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

The Buzzer: The David Ayres show; Canucks and Coyotes win big

NHL Scores
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Three Stars

1. David Ayres, Carolina Hurricanes. Nobody expected this. He started the day as a 42-year-old Zamboni driver. He finished the day 1-0 in the NHL after stopping eight out of 10 shots for the Hurricanes in a 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just for good measure, he also recorded a shot on goal. One of the most incredible stories in recent NHL history. Read all about it right here.

2. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes and Lightning have been at opposite ends of the NHL spectrum over the past month. Tampa Bay has been nearly unbeatable. The Coyotes entered the game with just five wins since the first week of January. So of course it was the Coyotes that cruised to a 7-3 win to help keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race. Keller was one of the big stars of the night with two goals and an assist in the win.

3. Tyler Toffoli, Vancouver Canucks. The other rout in the NHL on Saturday took place in Vancouver where the Canucks put a 9-spot on the board against the Boston Bruins. Toffoli was one of the many offensive stars for the Canucks, scoring two goals and an assist in the win. He was the Canucks’ big trade acquisition and is going to need to take on an even larger role than originally expected in the absence of Brock Boeser. He made that impact on Saturday.

Other notable performance from Saturday

  • Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood stayed out for the New Jersey Devils by helping them spoil Alex Ovechkin‘s big day in a 3-2 Devils win.
  • Jack Eichel scored a pair of goals to help the Buffalo Sabres stun the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 5-2 win that was not as close as the final score would indicate.
  • Scott Laughton scored two goals for the Philadelphia Flyers in a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • Carey Price recorded a shutout and Max Domi scored twice for the Montreal Canadiens as they topped the Ottawa Senators.
  • Jesper Fast was one of the difference-makers for the New York Rangers as they beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2, on Saturday night.
  • Reilly Smith scored two goals against his former team to help the Vegas Golden Knights to a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
  • Rocco Grimaldi scored the shootout winner for the Nashville Predators to cap off an eight-round shootout win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • Joonas Donskoi‘s shootout winner lifted the Colorado Avalanche to a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin scores the 700th goal of his career. Read all about it here (and here).

Artemi Panarin helped the New York Rangers keep rolling on Saturday, and this ridiculous play set up the Rangers’ first goal of the night.

The entire eight-round shootout for the Predators and Blue Jackets.

Moment of the Night

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour addresses his team and his temporary goalie.

Factoids

  • David Ayres became the oldest goalie in NHL history to ever win his debut. [NHL PR]
  • No denying that Ovechkin is not only one of hockey’s all-time greats, but one of the all-time greats in all of major North American sports. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina’s Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 12 games, currently the longest in the NHL. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 3, Washington Capitals 2
Philadelphia Flyers 4, Winnipeg Jets 2
Buffalo Sabres 5, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
Carolina Hurricanes 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3
Montreal Canadiens 3, Ottawa Senators 0
New York Rangers 3, San Jose Sharks 2
Arizona Coyotes 7, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Nashville Predators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (SO)
Vancouver Canucks 9, Boston Bruins 3
Vegas Golden Knights 5, Florida Panthers 3
Colorado Avalanche 2, Los Angeles Kings 1 (SO)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.