Remember Buffalo Sabres hockey? You know, that team we haven’t seen take the ice in exactly 267 days. Not that anyone is counting.
In what has been the longest offseason in Sabres history (except maybe the two occasions where the league went through a lockout), fans are starving for action. Unfortunately, the 2020-21 campaign still doesn’t have an official start date, and the Sabres’ last major move came on October 11.
So, in the spirit of the season (and a general dearth of new topics), I decided to hear from the readers, in my first ever mailbag Q&A at Die By The Blade. This exercise received a flattering amount of input from both our site members, and the folks who follow us on social media, I selected my favorite 12 questions of the week to answer.
Depending on how this one goes, these will likely become a more regular thing moving forward. Without further delay, let’s get started.
Question #1 – What is your preference for the 2020-21 regular season and playoff format? (SBN User - @lassathrax)
AS: So, I have my own opinion that doesn’t necessarily jive with what is popular right now. Below you’ll find a tweet of mine where I laid out how I’d handle re-alignment for the 2020-21 season. In terms of travel restrictions, and general proximity, this seems to be the optimal layout.
If the #NHL realigns for the 2020-21 season, here’s my best shot at it:— Anthony - DBtB, xB (@DBtBAnth) October 16, 2020
Canadian - TOR, OTT, MTL, WPG, CGY, EDM, VAN
Northeast - BUF, PHI, NYR, NYI, BOS, NJ
Mid-Atlantic - CHI, STL, PIT, CBJ, MIN, DET
South - FLA, TBL, CAR, NSH, WAS, DAL
Pacific - SJ, LAK, ANA, AZ, COL, VGK
As for the playoffs, I’m in favor of an NCAA tournament style format played within a bubble. With a “Canadian Division” seeming all but imminent, in order to balance competition in the post-season, I think a 1-16 is the best move.
That way, teams in easier divisions aren’t rewarded too heavily with easy first-round matchups (looking at you, Canadian Division), and teams in more difficult divisions aren’t punished for the stronger competition they faced all season.
Question #2 – A lot of ECHL teams have already put the 2020-21 season on pause. What are the chances the AHL does the same? (SBN User - @DerryDan)
AS: This is an excellent question, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Essentially, I feel that it boils down to what the NHL does. What I mean is, how many players will NHL teams be allowed to carry? If the roster limit is expanded significantly, there may not be enough players to field a proper AHL team (at least not enough to justify the logistical nightmares).
The situation could also boil down to pure dollars and cents. The AHL doesn’t have the same lucrative television deals with major networks to help keep them afloat sans fans. Still, the league apparently plans to re-commence on February 5, 2021, so we’ll see if that holds up.
Question #3 – With nine teams currently over the cap, when do we start seeing deals again? (SBN User - @Blofanforlife)
AS: I would guess when we get confirmation on an actual start date, the current non-compliant teams will start feeling the heat, and we’ll see some more deals. Right now, there really isn’t any pressure to get anything done.
Personally, I feel that a “second wave” of the offseason will occur a few weeks before training camp. On top of cap compliance moves that will inevitably occur, there are still some talented assets remaining on the free-agent market in players like Mikael Granlund, Anthony Duclair, and Mike Hoffman. It would be surprising to see them remain unemployed for the 2020-21 campaign.
Question #4 – Is this Eichel’s last season with the Sabres if we miss the playoffs? (SBN User - @Lakers9SabresNats)
AS: I don’t think so. All of the rumors about Eichel’s alleged desire to seek a trade appear to have been fabricated. That’s not to say that another losing season won’t be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Either way, the Sabres wouldn’t be under any real pressure to get a deal done.
Eichel still has six years remaining on his current contract, and Buffalo simply cannot afford to commence another long-term rebuild. Unless the return is awe-inspiring, don’t expect them to part ways with their franchise player, regardless of his frustration.
Question #5 – How many goals can Skinner get with Staal as his center? Who is their ideal RW? (SBN User - @podunkowego)
AS: This is an interesting thought to examine. Skinner has a history of producing alongside a slate of centers who are considerably less offensively talented than Staal. It’s important to note that last season the Sabres jammed a square peg into a round hole by placing Marcus Johansson as the 2C behind Eichel. Nobody really thrived alongside him (and Skinner was no exception), so for me, I give the $9 million man a bit more benefit of the doubt.
Will he score 40 goals in 2020-21? Probably not, but I could see him produce at a 30-goal clip, or close to it. As for the right winger who could flank Staal’s other side, I think it makes too much sense to slot Dylan Cozens there.
Not only would starting on the wing allow him to transition to the NHL without the pressure of centering a line, but he’d also be learning alongside two extremely talented NHL forwards. Watching someone like Stall and examining how he plays the center position would be invaluable experience for the team’s future 2C.
Question #6 – Would you swap Quinn for Rossi at the expense of JPP? (Twitter User - Alex Fabili)
AS: This is an interesting question. I said at draft time that I would not be upset at who the Sabres picked, despite the fact that Marco Rossi was by far my favorite choice. I still won’t react until we see what Quinn becomes.
That said, if I’m the GM, I would make that trade, and that’s coming from someone who loves Peterka as a prospect. If I’m playing the odds, I personally feel more confident that Rossi becomes a bonafide top-line play than the other two combined. That’s less of a slight at Quinn and Peterka than a great vote of confidence in Rossi.
There is no “wrong” answer here until we see their respective developments play out, but if I had to decide right now, I’d take what I feel is the surest bet in Rossi.
Question #7 – Who do you predict will be Sam Reinhart’s most common linemate this season and why? (Twitter User - @Brendan1423)
AS: This has been a topic of regular discussion on Twitter this offseason. If Ralph Krueger once again attaches Reinhart to Eichel for an entire season, it would be a mistake. My prediction is that he and Skinner flank Staal on the second line.
Now, what I’d prefer to see is Reinhart play alongside Cody Eakin. This would allow us to not only see if Sam is capable of driving his own line, but his presence would also theoretically account for Eakin’s well-documented defensive deficiencies.
I’m all about balance and optimization, but if the season is shortened to say 48-games, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the coaching staff lean on a very top-heavy top-six to try and push them into contention. Obviously a shortened campaign would facilitate that approach to a certain extent.
Question #8 – On a scale of 1-10 (1 being a first overall pick candidate, and 10 being a Stanley Cup favorite), where would you rate the Sabres as they are constructed today? (Twitter User - @PastaGut)
AS: This is tough. At the risk of sounding arbitrary, I’d say a solid 5. As constructed, I feel that this team will keep itself in the playoff conversation for most of the season, but ultimately they’re a fringe team.
One caveat here is the length of the 2020-21 season. 82 games seems like a pipe dream, and I think that fact actually benefits the Sabres. A shortened schedule with a lot of high-octane new pieces could make a historically streaky team more of a threat to contend. If they can rip off one of those patented early winning-streaks we’ve seen over the past couple years, their odds are much better.
Question #9 – What is your greatest source of optimism regarding this team? (Twitter User - @ZackHoliskey)
AS: I have a couple, actually. The first and most important is the fact that we’ve yet to see Rasmus Dahlin hit his ceiling. That one is huge for me. If he continues to develop, and the coaches put him in a position to contribute on offense, he’ll be a massively impactful player for years to come.
The second, as it pertains to 2020-21, is Taylor Hall. If he can put up xG and possession numbers like he did in New Jersey (which should be attainable if he’s affixed to Eichel on the top line), the Sabres have two elite forwards in the top-six. That alone could make them a playoff team, assuming the defense plays about as well as last season, and the goaltending isn’t a tire fire.
Question #10 – What is more likely – A fast start (like the past few years) and then a plummet, or do they take a while to mesh, get hot late, and finish out of the playoffs? (Twitter User - @iheartgoat)
AS: I actually think this depends a lot on how immediately effective (or ineffective, I suppose) the top power-play unit can be. We saw how much an outstanding man-advantage unit helped the Sabres in the early-going last season.
Now that players like Staal and Hall are in the fold, it should make what ended up being a very average unit (ranked 20th in the league in 2019-20) into something really special. So, to answer the question, I think a revitalized top-six, and an improved PP unit would help Buffalo burst out of the gate pretty quickly.
Question #11 – What would your #1 PP unit and #1 PK Unit look like? (Twitter User - @BuffaloWins)
AS: This question seemed like a pretty natural segue from the last one. I’ll start with the first power-play unit, which should look something like this (from the blue-line, forward):
Dahlin - Hall - Eichel - Olofsson - Reinhart
Talk about fire power! On paper, that might be the most offensively talented man-advantage quintet in the league. Hall is a natural rover on the power-play, and Eichel/Olofsson can easily man the wings. This would allow Dahlin to quarterback from the blue line. Lastly, Reinhart would go back to doing what he does best, which is handling netfront duties.
As for the Penalty-Kill, that one is a little less straight-forward. I’d imagine the coaching staff will utilize Tobias Rieder in that role (since historically, it’s the one thing he’s been really good at). From the front of the net, outwards, maybe something like this?
McCabe - Miller - Girgensons - Rieder
It’s not the prettiest group, but Colin Miller is a great zone-exit entity, and Jake McCabe is relatively good in his own end. Zemgus Girgensons was probably the Sabres’ best penalty-killing forward last season, so he’s essentially a shoe-in on the top unit.
Question #12 – If you had to trust one Sabres forward and one defenseman to make an entire Thanksgiving meal for the team, who do you select and why? (Connor Nielen)
AS: We’ll finish this exercise off with a fun one. The forward has to be Kyle Okposo. With all of those children running around the Okposo household, there is no way this man gets away with avoiding some cooking duties. Plus, he’s one of only three current Sabres who are older than me, so I guess I trust him more?
On defense, I’d go with Rasmus Ristolainen. Regardless how you feel about his play on the ice, the man is an absolute unit so, it’s probably safe to assume he knows his way around a meal. Just don’t ask him to pass out the dishes (zing!).
That’s all for this week, folks. If this is something you’d like to see more of, let us know in the comments. Until next time.