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Sabres Season Outlook: A Struggle to Find Optimism

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The Sabres have added nice pieces to the roster, but some returning vets cast a cloud over the team

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few years, I’ve gone into the regular season with optimism for the Buffalo Sabres. I’ve bought into the belief that they made enough changes to be a consistently competitive NHL team.

This year, unfortunately, is a different story. I’ll be upfront at the beginning here to let you know that I don’t have a lot of confidence in this team as currently constructed, making a big leap in the standings.

In the offseason, they hired a new coach and brought in some new players that are upgrades to the roster. The problem is that the most important part of the offseason was ignored; subtraction. Jason Botterill returned every single player from the NHL roster last season, except Jason Pominville.

So, let’s break this team down and get an idea of what we could be in for this season.

Coaching Change

Perhaps the most significant move of the offseason was the decision to move on from Phil Housley and hiring Ralph Krueger. The 60-year-old coach appeared to be a good mix of a guy with NHL coaching experience and someone that could bring some fresh ideas to the club. Coming from Southampton, the analytics darlings of the Premier League, the Sabres new head coach spoke about using data to make coaching decisions. At the same time, he wouldn’t rely on it too much to hinder the creativity of his players.

We’ll see if we can get an idea of how much the numbers go into some decision making. So far, if the plan is to play Vladimir Sobotka and Kyle Okposo over Evan Rodrigues, it’s not off to a good start.

It’s difficult to measure the impact of a coach on a new team. We all saw the major impact that Barry Trotz had on the New York Islanders last season. Trotz joined the Islanders fresh off a Stanley Cup, that’s not the case for Krueger, who hasn’t coached NHL players since 2014.

Micah McCurdy did some work over the summer trying to measure the impact of coaching. He had Housley negatively impacting the offense, but as a positive impact on the defense.

Since Krueger only has a lockout-shortened season of NHL coaching experience, there wasn’t much to take from his impacts.

Thus his real impact will remain a question mark until we get through the season.

Reasons for Optimism

The good news from this summer is that Botterill did make some improvements to the roster. Colin Miller looks like a great addition early on and Henri Jokiharju has a lot of upside to his game. When fully healthy, the defense group could look a lot better than the one they put on the ice last season. It’s a group of mobile defenders that move the puck well. That should prevent the team from getting stuck in their end for extended periods.

Rasmus Dahlin is poised to take that next step towards being an elite defenseman in the NHL. He’ll likely get top pair minutes this season and be the workhorse for Krueger. He’s a special player to watch and has the potential to change the fortune of a team with his play alone. That may be a lot to ask of a 19-year-old, but he has that ability.

The forwards also have a few new faces that should help improve the scoring from last season. Marcus Johansson will at least start as the second-line center for this club. He hasn’t played that position for a few years so it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll remain in that role. He’ll bring a lot to the special teams and is another solid distributor of the puck to go along with Jack Eichel.

Victor Olofsson will make his full-time transition to the NHL. Playing on a line with Sam Reinhart and Eichel to start the season is great news for the former seventh-round pick. We all know the dangerous shot he possesses and being put with the two best forwards on the team could mean a big season ahead for Olofsson. In six games together last season that line carried a 66.67% goals for percentage per 60 and a 66.70% expected goals percentage per 60, according to Natural Stat Trick. The Sabres have the potential to have another dangerous top line this season.

The Sabres can hope to see some growth in a player like Casey Mittelstadt this season. He’ll have better linemates and some players take that jump in year two of their careers. Jimmy Vesey and Conor Sheary could give the team a good season as they both will have the motivation of unrestricted free agency pushing them.

Reasons for Pessimism

Ok, now it’s time for us to eat the veggies.

All of the players that played a part in the Sabres collapse last season are back on the roster. Such players as Vladimir Sobotka, Marco Scandella, and Kyle Okposo. They also returned a lot of familiar faces that could have used a change of scenery like Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Rasmus Ristolainen.

Sobotka is the player that is in the spotlight right now amongst Sabres fans because it appears as though the plan is to have him play a top six role to start the season. Remember, this is the same player that graded out as the worst offensive forward last season in Evolving Wild’s RAPM model. According to Moneypuck, he had a 37.5% expected goal percentage at 5 on 5 and a -12.9% relative expected goal percentage. Meaning he was a lot worse than his teammates at 5 on 5 and the Sabres were crushed in high-quality scoring chances against when he was on the ice.

According to Evolving Wild’s WAR model, Sobotka was worth -1.2 wins last season. Essentially putting him on a line with Skinner, is a good way to cancel out the positive impact you would get from a player of his caliber. There’s no reason to expect some sort of turnaround from a 32-year-old forward that has been trending in the wrong direction.

There are still a lot of question marks at forward, particularly in the bottom six, which is almost the same group that the Sabres put on the ice last season. This is also the second year in a row they will have a team without a true second-line center. The hope at this point is to stumble upon one in Johansson or that Mittelstadt is ready to take the responsibility.

Marco Scandella is another player with such a negative even-strength impact that will be a part of the team this season. He was one of the top 10 worst even-strength defensemen in the league last season based on his even strength-GAR from Evolving Wild. He’ll be paired with Jokiharju to start the season and that could be a lot to ask of a young player to make up for the shortcomings in Scandella’s game. The isolated impact chart below from Micah does a nice painting a picture of his poor 5 on 5 impacts.

After a summer of a lot of trade rumors, Ristolainen is back with the Sabres. We’ll see how Ralph Krueger plans to utilize the Finnish defender. We can all agree that he needs a reduction in minutes at 5 on 5, but is that going to happen? If not, I’m not optimistic we’ll see a change in the underlying numbers for Ristolainen.

The goaltending is also another area of concern for this team. Neither Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark gave us a lot of hope in the preseason with their performances. They had some good moments, but the soft goals continued to occur. If the Sabres want to have any realistic shot and making a significant jump in the standings they need a lot more from that tandem. There’s no way they can grade out as one of the worst goaltending duos in the NHL and the Sabres still have success in spite of them. The roster isn’t strong enough to overcome that.

Conclusion

All in all, while Botterill did some nice things in the summer, he failed to accomplish the most important goal; trim the fat off the roster. His acquisitions were not the types that are going to result in any sort of significant impact in the standings. Especially with all of the negative impact players on the roster still, that will cover up possible improvements.

This is the reason that you see Sean Tierney, Evolving Wild, Micah McCurdy, and Dom Luszczyszyn all project the Sabres to finish between 82 and 87 points this season. Sure that’s an improvement over last season, but in year three under Botterill, they need to be closer to the playoffs. They would be wasting another year of Eichel, Reinhart, and Skinner in their prime. It’ll also cross off another year on Rasmus Dahlin’s entry-level contract on a season that fell well short of the playoffs if those projections hold.

I do wish I could subscribe to a more promising view of this season, but realistically I can’t do it. There are too many questions and still too many bad players that will be put in key roles to predict any type of possible playoff campaign.

For the record, I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong.

Data and charts via Micah McCurdy, Evolving Wild, Sean Tierney, Moneypuck, and Natural Stat Trick.