When the 2021 Sabres team finally hits the ice mid-January, at minimum, 310 days will have passed since the last time they stepped off as 3-2 SO winners over the Washington Capitals.
That team was just trying to get to the finish line of yet another playoff-less campaign. Eichel had done all he could to try and drag them into relevancy...but he would again come up short.
Thankfully, a lot has happened since then. Kevyn Adams has quickly put his fingerprints all over this roster, with a number of both bold and shrewd moves. However, with the new season fast approaching, the predictions have begun coming in from both near-and-far...and whether it be expert or non-expert, the overwhelming consensus is that Sabres’ fans should be ready to hunker down for yet another season where the playoffs are nothing more than a dream.
But I don’t buy the idea that this team will once again be on the outside looking in.
This could be a case of lazy research. This could be a case of people thinking that because they’ve been horrible for so long...it’ll just continue to be that way. Even Sabres fans are guilty of this narrative. We’ve become accustomed to being let down over and over, especially these last couple of years. Both years saw the Sabres ascend to the top of the league, only to crash...in near historical fashion, taking all of our faith, hope, and trust with them. I guarantee, if the Sabres were to jump out to another hot start all the fans would be concerned with..is being the one to correctly predict when the inevitable fallout will come. But when you actually analyze this team, and the changes they’ve made...the changes they’ve made are exactly the changes this team needed to make, and the rest of the team is positioned to come along nicely beside it. Are they perfect? No. Do they have weaknesses? Sure. But so does every other team in the league.
There are three things that I believe will allow the Sabres to leapfrog back into the playoffs this spring/summer.
First off, the addition of Taylor Hall.
The acquisition of this former Hart Trophy winner cannot be overstated. I don’t even know where to start on the importance of adding this player. When you look at the “elite” NHL players, and Jack has started to climb into that category with the national media types (still nowhere near to the level that he deserves), they are all...without fail...the Batman to a Robin.
Crosby has Malkin. McDavid has Draisaitl. Matthews has Tavares/Marner. MacKinnon has Rantanen. Kane has Toews. Ovechkin has Backstrom. And on and on we go.
Up until now, Eichel didn’t have a Robin. Sam Reinhart is a very good player. Victor Olofsson is a very nice player. But if Eichel had an off game...neither Reinhart nor Olofsson could be depended on to step up and put the team on his back.
Taylor Hall can be depended on for just that. Living in Edmonton, I’ve seen first-hand how he dominates every time he’s on the ice. You can’t help but notice him. His presence alone is going to take a huge weight off of Jack Eichel.
When you look at the eight teams that make up the 2021 East division...the Sabres now have a 1-2 punch that can, for sure, match up with any team...and has the potential to be the cream of the crop. NJ, NYI, and PHI can’t compete. No offense to the Barzal/Beauvilier’s, the Hischier/Hughes’, or the Couturier/Giroux’s...but they just can’t. The Bruins, who can, are going to have injury issues to start the season with both Pastrnak and Marchand on the shelf for significant time. The Penguins have Crosby and Malkin, but age is creeping up. Crosby will be 33 and Malkin 34. The Capitals can also trot out an aging duo with Ovechkin (35) and Backstrom (33). The team that I think has the duo that would most challenge Eichel/Hall would be the Rangers with Panarin and Zibanejad, two players who are in the heart of their prime years and put up 1.38 and 1.32 ppg respectively last season.
I believe Hall’s addition will push Eichel into legitimate Hart Trophy conversation. Looking at the top 30 scorers from last year, based on ppg, Eichel finished tied for 12th with Sidney Crosby at 1.15 ppg. The next Sabre on the list was rookie Victor Olofsson who at 0.78 ppg was tied for 71st. Only two of the NHL’s top 30 point-producers last year had just one other player with them before Olofsson surfaced. Chicago’s Patrick Kane (10th) with Jonathan Toews (T49), and the Golden Knights’ Mark Stone (25th) with Max Pacioretty (34th).
Player...who finished in the top 30 in scoring had THREE additional players produce at a higher clip than Olofsson. THREE! Plus themselves. Eighteen teams had multiple players appear ahead of Olofsson...and yet Eichel STILL finished 12th in scoring.
Looking at Hall, he’s never played with a player like Eichel. Sure he was with McDavid for his rookie season, a season McDavid missed half of...and wasn’t at peak McDavid yet. The year he won the Hart Trophy, with 39 goals and 93 points in 76 games the next highest scorer on his team was rookie C Nico Hischier with 52 points in 82 games. Sound familiar?
The Eichel-Hall combination is not only going to produce points for those two players, but it’s going to create a trickle-down effect for the rest of this team’s offensive talent. This leads me to my second point.
The second thing helping the Sabres reach the playoffs is their accumulation of offensive depth. Additions of Hall and Eric Staal, as well as Dylan Cozens, Cody Eakin, possibly Arttu Ruotsalainen...and for all intents and purposes, Tage Thompson...this team has become incredibly deep upfront with offensive talent. Who ultimately cracks the opening night lineup, and how head coach Ralph Krueger decides to set that lineup has become very interesting...and the topic of much debate.
If...Krueger decides that he is going to in fact deploy his star forwards together on the top line, it’ll make for some interesting decisions throughout the rest of the lineup. My first thought when Hall was signed was that you absolutely split them up and make teams have to figure out how to shut down two elite players coming over the boards back-to-back. I still believe that’s the way to go...you can always mix things up throughout the game when you need a spark and pop them on a line together...but having teams have to sweat it out over how to deplore their defensive pairs to account for two lethal players playing 60-70% of the game will give opposing coaches many sleepless nights. This is how I would set the lines up with Eichel and Hall separated:
Last year’s top line would stay intact. They had great chemistry, let them continue to build on it. The second line is made up of all new faces. Tons of speed on the wings, and Staal’s talents to bring it all together. The third line center will be a battle. I’m not ready to give up on Mittelstadt, but I’m also very curious about what Ruotsalainen can bring to the table. Skinner will benefit from having a better supporting cast and easier matchups in comparison to last season, but the Sabres need more from him. Tage Thompson is a guy I would love to see play with Eichel, but not with Olofsson on the other side. I believe Thompson is going to have a breakout year and would predict 20+ goals on a prorated 82-game schedule. The 4th line is very much up in the air. I believe Eakin and Girgensons have an inside shot...but there are a number of guys who are going to be competing, including Rieder, Okposo, Asplund, Lazar, CJ Smith, and even a guy like Ogilvie.
If the plan is to pair Eichel and Hall together, this is how I would set up the lines:
Now I’m comfortable putting Thompson with Eichel. In this setup, the 2nd and 3rd lines are interchangeable. I love the makeup of the “3rd” line, kind of reminds me of a Vanek, Roy, Pominville line from days gone by. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of Skinner/Staal..and I could be easily convinced to swap him and Olofsson, but I’d be willing to test it out.
So with this lineup, regardless of whether Hall and Eichel are together or not, are the Sabres actually better? When you compare the twelve forwards who appeared in the most games from last season to the unofficial top 12 from this season there are six players who are potentially out, and then obviously...six new faces to fill their spots.
Lazar (?)/Ruotsalainen (?)
I think the Sabres have upgraded on every single player that walked out the door, and significantly on a few of these. Hall...huge upgrade on Vesey, the top winger out the door. Staal...again, a significant upgrade on Johansson, last year’s failed attempt at a 2C. I am all over the Thompson bandwagon...his offensive talent has had me drooling for a few years now. Sheary did nothing...absolutely nothing for me, or the Sabres for that matter. Larsson will get some love, but the reality is, he put up a grand total of 18 points in 62 games. I know he brings more than point totals, but I don’t think his loss is as significant as people try to make it out to be. Cozens has the chance to be something very special for this franchise. Erod...thanks for the memories, unfortunately, I can’t erase them from my mind. Eakin has been a polarizing signing...but I think he could bring some good energy, and I’m really hoping it’s from the 4th line. One thing that gets me is the overall difference in speed and size of the players coming in...it’s significant.
The final thing relates to how the Sabres stack up against the rest of the division. The East Division has been pretty much unanimously referred to as the toughest of the four this year. Seeing perennial powerhouses like the Bruins, Penguins, and Capitals, not to mention the Flyers and Islanders, is enough to scare off any Sabres fan. How can we compete? The cries to upgrade the defense, find a better goalie, and add more scoring are relentless. But the fact is, every team comes in with warts. It’s like comparing a home renovation that you did to one that someone else did. At first blush, theirs is so much better. You can picture all of the little mistakes you made, and it pales in comparison to the one you’re looking at. But then as you take a closer look, you start to see the little mistakes that they made too...and now it’s not so different.
Good balance throughout their lineup. They no longer have elite scorers, but they have significant scoring deep into their lineup. Their defense, led by Ivan Provorov, is not flashy by any means. But very solid. Goaltending is being handled by Carter Hart, who despite the name recognition, finished 6th out of 7th in save percentage amongst the returning starting goaltenders in this division.
Strengths - balanced, deep scoring...good mix of veteran stars and up-and-coming talent
Weaknesses - no stand out star player
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
As Crosby and Malkin go...so go the Penguins. When comparing this team to the teams that were winning Cups...this edition lacks the depth. They’re also seeing father time starting to creep up on the big-3. Malkin is 34, Crosby and Letang both 33...it’ll be interesting to see how the time off will affect them. The Penguins didn’t look great during the ‘return to play’. Could that be signs of things to come?
Strengths - Crosby/Malkin/Guentzel/Letang, reputation
Weaknesses - father time creeping up on stars? defense
3. Buffalo Sabres
I’m sure this seems like a homer pick...but I truly believe the Sabres are going to be this good. When you can build a lineup that features Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson on the 3rd line...you’ve got some serious depth. Eichel is primed for another huge step. Hall is primed for a bounce-back. Thompson is primed for a breakout. The addition of Staal solidifies the middle of the lineup and could spark Skinner to revert back to something closer to his 2018/19 self. The defense is led by two youngsters who are going to continue to get better.
Strengths - Jack Eichel, scoring depth (finally)
Weaknesses - the pressure of 9 years without playoffs, goaltending depth
At an average of just over 29 years of age, the Capitals are the oldest team in the division. A whopping 11 players will play the majority of this season at the age of 30 or older. And while to date, those ‘old’ guys are still producing...the extended time off coupled with what will have to be a condensed schedule could combine to cause an older team like the Capitals problems. Gone is Braydon Holtby, with the reins being handed over to Ilya Samsonov.
Strengths - offensive fire-power, experience
Weaknesses - age, unproven goaltending
5.New York Rangers
This team scares me. If they turn out to be as good as I think...I could almost be convinced to put them as high as 2nd..it’s going to be a long run of success out of New York. The Rangers could roll in with upwards of 4 players under 22 years of age in their starting lineup...and not a single player over 30. The talent they’ve assembled in a short order is mind-blowing. There is young talent busting out in all three position groups. Igor Shesterkin is my choice as the division top netminder, Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox put up impressive numbers a year ago from the backend, and up front, Alexei Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko will have a chance to start creating chemistry that could torment the NHL for the next decade.
Strengths - the ability to explode offensively each and every night, top-end goaltending, youthful chemistry
Weaknesses - overall team defense
6.New York Islanders
The Islanders are a scrappy bunch with no real superstar. Barzal is very good, but I wouldn’t put him at superstar level. They are an older team, second oldest in the division to the Capitals. Their strength is quite possibly in the fact that they are pretty balanced across the board. Hard-working, defensively sound. Their starting goalie, Ilya Sorokin, is making his NHL debut this year...but he comes in with plenty of pro experience, having spent time in the KHL.
Strengths - deep balanced lineup, strong team defense
Weaknesses - lack of scoring, inexperienced goaltending, aging talent
Led up front by their big three...Bergeron, Pastrnak, and Marchand. Marchand is out until at least mid-February, and Pastrnak until mid-March. Bergeron is 35 years old. Their defense took a major hit with the loss of Torey Krug, and even if Chara does return, he’s a fraction of his former self. Tuuka Rask is the oldest of the divisions starting goaltenders at 34 and is coming off a weird postseason. Losing Pastrnak and Marchand for that stretch of time is a massive blow...the pair accounted for 33% of their team's goals last season. I feel the Bruins decline is set to begin.
Strengths - big 3, goaltending
Weaknesses - injuries, age, thin defense
8.New Jersey Devils
For the life of me, I can’t figure out how there are people out there ranking the Devils above the Sabres. They’ve added Andreas Johnsson, Ryan Murray and Corey Crawford to a team that the Sabres absolutely demolished (7-2, 7-1) a year ago. They are a young, small team, with a below-average defense. I have no concerns about beating the Devils on a consistent basis.
Strengths - high-end young talent
Weaknesses - defense is a concern, five players under the age of 23, unproven goaltending
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils
Teams don’t stay good forever. Especially in a salary-cap system. It’s, for the most part, a cyclical affair. Good teams eventually age out and become the bad teams, replaced by the bad teams who rebuild and become the good teams. Obviously, not all teams reach the top of the NHL, and not all teams crash to the basement of the NHL. But age does catch up with everybody. The Caps, Bruins, Penguins and Islanders make most fans cringe. But all those teams are getting old. The cracks are starting to appear. On the flip side, the Devils and Rangers are very young. There’s going to be growing pains there. The Sabres and Flyers fall in the middle.
But the Sabres have something no one else in this division has. Jack Eichel will be a difference maker. He’s been carrying this deadweight team around since the unfortunate departure of Ryan O’Reilly. Jack Eichel finally has the support he needs. The support the NHL’s other superstars have all been benefiting from already. Jack Eichel will be the best player in the East division this year.
I think when the dust settles, Jack Eichel will be chosen as the best player in the NHL this year...
And, more importantly, the Sabres will finally return to the playoffs.