We’ve made it through a busy, but long offseason. We’ve made it through the preseason without any significant injuries (knock on wood).
Now, it’s time to get this party started for the 2018-19 season for the Buffalo Sabres. It’s time for all the predictions, lineup guessing, and talk of a ‘new team’ to end.
In a little over 24 hours, all of the new pieces will hit the ice against the Boston Bruins to begin the season. On paper, the Sabres have the best roster they’ve had in a while. There’s an expectation for the team to show some considerable improvement in the standings.
With those heightened expectations, comes the added pressure. A few people will have the microscope on them throughout the season. Their success or failure will go a long in determining where the Sabres will finish in the standings come April.
The person with the most pressure on his shoulders this season will be head coach Phil Housley. He was given mostly a free pass based on how poor the roster was constructed last season, but there were still some things that caused concern heading into this year.
That free pass is gone this season.
With how the roster looks on paper with the additions of Rasmus Dahlin, Patrik Berglund, Jeff Skinner, Carter Hutton, and Conor Sheary there has to be an improvement in the standings this year. The Sabres finished with 62 points last season and anything less than a 10 point improvement will be a huge disappointment.
Unless something unexpected happens, there’s no excuse for them finishing below the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division. Those three clubs have a lot of issues on their roster and are in the midst of rebuilds.
Housley has to have his team playing the high-paced, five-man attack style of hockey he talked about when he was hired. They have to look ready to start games, which was a big problem last season.
Also, getting the power play back to the top of the league rankings will be critical in winning more games. With the talent on the roster, that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve.
Not all of the pressure falls on the shoulders of Housley. Star center Jack Eichel will have to live up to some lofty expectations this season. He’s going into his fourth NHL season and his new eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in.
The 21-year-old will have the best roster around him since he’s been on the club and will have a lethal goal-scorer on his wing in Skinner.
If the Sabres sew the “C” on his sweater this season, it’ll only elevate the pressure on the 2015 second overall pick. He’ll have to continue his strong performance on the ice and show maturity, as well as, leadership off the ice. There’s no mistaking that the Sabres are his team now.
Eichel’s linemate to start the season, Sam Reinhart, will be another player that fans will be expecting a big season from. He’s coming off a long holdout through some of the preseason and ended up signing a two-year, $7.3 million bridge deal.
We all know how last season went for the 22-year-old. Started off slow and finished the season on a 70 point pace. He’s likely closer to the player we saw in the second half of last season, than what we saw in the first half.
He’ll need to find some consistency in his game and prove some of his doubters that he is indeed a top-six right winger in the NHL.
We’re on year three of hoping to see a step from Finnish blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen. Last season he suffered an injury early on in the season that may have contributed to a down season.
He’s also had to be “the guy” on the Sabres blue line for the last few years. He logged big minutes in all situations and played against the opponent’s top line on a nightly basis.
Thankfully, that probably won’t be the case this year due to the other Rasmus on the roster. Dahlin should take some pressure off of Ristolainen. The Sabres will be able to roll out a legitimate second pair that can hold its own.
We all saw the Instagram videos of the work that the 23-year-old put in over the summer. Now, that has to translate on the ice. He needs to bounce back offensively and show some improvement defensively since he won’t have to play 25 minutes every game.
The last player who has a different type of pressure on his plate is Zach Bogosian. The big defender has played in only 74 games or 46 percent of the games played over the last two years.
It’s not so much a production issue for Bogosian, because when he plays, he provides the Sabres with some depth on the blue line. The 28-year-old hasn’t played 65 games in a season in seven years.
Once again he finds himself on the injury report to start this season. The good news is he hasn’t been placed on injured reserve, which could be a good sign he could on Thursday.
Another injury-riddled short season could force the hand of Jason Botterill. After this season, Bogosian will be heading into the final year of his contract. If they wanted to get out from under his $5.142 million cap hit after this season a buyout would save them $4 million on the cap next season. The caveat is it would cost them $2 million on the 2020-21 cap. They could decide to waive him as they did with Matt Moulson, but we’ll worry about that conversation down the road.
It’s exciting to finally get the season started and have some real games to talk about. We’ll see if this team can finally live up to some expectations and start to build towards the future.