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Buffalo Sabres Season Preview

We could be in for a rough season.

New York Islanders v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s been a rough few weeks months years for fans of the Buffalo Sabres. In some ways, a lot has changed over this past offseason; in other ways, nothing has changed, or at least not substantially enough to make a significant difference in the team’s welfare. While the Sabres could certainly be in for another rough season, there are undoubtedly still storylines to follow and things to watch that will impact the team on a short-term basis, but also play into the future of the franchise.

What’s changed? Let’s start with the obvious. While Jack Eichel is technically still a member of the Buffalo Sabres on paper, he and the organization are on opposite sides of the spectrum and couldn’t be further apart. Their relationship has soured past the point of return, and while I can’t say with absolute certainty that Eichel has played his last game in the blue and gold, well.... it’s pretty much done.

Also gone from the team: Sam Reinhart, who led the Sabres in scoring with 40 points; Taylor Hall, whose short-lived stint in Buffalo shipped him to Boston at the end of last season; Rasmus Ristolainen; Brandon Montour; Riley Sheahan; Eric Staal; Curtis Lazar; Tobias Rieder; Jake McCabe; Will Borgen; Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton.

The list of newcomers is only slightly shorter: Craig Anderson; Vinnie Hinostroza; Ryan MacInnis; John Hayden; Axel Jonsson-Fjallby; Will Butcher; Robert Hagg, and Mark Pysyk. Pysyk is a particularly intriguing addition; I always enjoyed watching him during his first stint in the Sabres organization, and he’s had a few years to develop his game before returning to Buffalo.

Here are my top three storylines to watch during this upcoming Sabres season:

A Full Season of Don Granato

What can these players, plus returners like Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo and Colin Miller accomplish under a standard, 82-game season with Don Granato at the helm? Granato took over officially as head coach in March, and I’ll be honest: part of his appeal, at least initially, was that he was Not Ralph Krueger. But he also seems to work with the players better than Krueger did, and his familiarity with some certainly helped. We saw a handful of players improve under his leadership, and I’d expect that to continue.

Granato only got 28 games as head coach last season, but it was enough for the team to remove his interim tag and give him the bench boss position on a permanent basis. Now, he’ll have a full season to get his systems in place and players in line. I wouldn’t expect a huge jump in the standings or anything like that, but if nothing else, having Not Ralph Krueger behind the bench will be a refreshing change as the Sabres head into 2021-22.

What Happens to Jack Eichel?

I hate to keep beating the same drum, but it’s hard to ignore the Eichel situation when thinking about the Sabres’ present or future. As I said above, it’s pretty clear at this point that his time in Buffalo is over, but there’s still a storyline to watch here: what happens now?

Per Darren Dreger, the Sabres have shared Eichel’s medical records with some teams who may have an interest in him. Seeing what general manager Kevyn Adams can pull out of a team in exchange for Eichel is likely more indicative of the team’s future than the present. Future assets are probably going to be a big part of that deal, and once again Sabres fans are left waiting for “the future.”

Seeing how the team’s relationship with Eichel spiraled out of control and absolutely decimated has been like watching a trainwreck. You don’t want to watch; you know it’s going to be painful, and you know it’s going to hurt. But no matter how hard you try, you just can’t quite seem to look away. Perhaps that analogy works for watching the Sabres in general over the last few seasons, too. No matter how bad the team has been, or how they’ve gotten worse, you keep watching.

As I wrote back in July, there is no ideal trade package for Eichel, because in an ideal world, the Sabres wouldn’t find themselves in this situation. But they do, and now it’s up to Adams to get what he can out of it.

The Development of Cozens & Thompson

It’s been an interesting few years for Dylan Cozens. Back in the first quarter of 2020, he was absolutely tearing it up with the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. He’d recorded 85 points in 51 games when the season was stopped, then cancelled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like that, his junior hockey career ended, unceremoniously and without notice.

Amid the uncertainty afforded by the pandemic, Cozens found his first professional season starting much later than typical. He made his NHL debut with the Sabres on January 14 and appeared in 41 games of a shortened season tempered by increased health & safety protocols, limited fans and a bout of COVID that affected several teammates.

Things aren’t completely back to normal - we are still in the middle of a pandemic, obviously - but this season should look closer to what we’d typically see, and that will be a good thing for Cozens. We’ll get to see his skills develop and flourish over a full 82-game season, under head coach Don Granato for that entire term and hopefully in front of some decent crowds at KeyBank Center and throughout the league.

On a lesser note, the development of Tage Thompson is also something to keep an eye on. Thompson has two years left on his current contract, and the 23-year-old is one of the bright spots on the team. He recorded more points last season (14) in far fewer games than he did in his last real season (2018-19).

With all its eccentricities, last season was Thompson’s first coming back from the season-ending shoulder injury he suffered during his lone NHL game in the 2019-20 season. With a full, seemingly normal season ahead, it’ll be interesting to see how Granato uses Thompson and how much he can grow in his game. (Take, for instance, the experiment of putting him at center during this preseason!)

The Goaltending Situation

With Aaron Dell placed on waivers on October 6, the Sabres will begin the season with a goaltending tandem of Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski. Man, if you’d have told me that a year ago, I would have laughed. Heck, today, I still laugh a little because it’s been an absolute whirlwind in net for Buffalo.

Ullmark, who once could have been considered the team’s future in net, has shipped up to Boston. Carter Hutton, bless him, is long gone. Anderson was seemingly headed for retirement but decided to sign for a year in the blue & gold. Tokarski showed sparks last season but is generally an unproven netminder. And Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who could be the future in net, had a subpar preseason showing and will start the season in Rochester (admittedly a smart move!)

There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the Sabres’ goaltending situation right now. Goaltending is only one part of the game, but it’s a huge part - and if the responses to this Tweet are any indication, Die by the Blade readers feel just as tentative about Buffalo’s tandem as I do.

Player to Watch: Dylan Cozens

My player to watch this year for the Sabres is Dylan Cozens. As I mentioned above, it’s been a weird few years for him but we should finally get to see him have a normal, full season in the pros. With Eichel pretty much gone, and Reinhart out of the picture, all eyes will be on Cozens since he’s kind of the next “big name” in the book. (Being a high draft pick comes with its expectations, I suppose.)

Season Predictions

The Sabres won’t hit 50 points.

Last season, for all that it was, was dreadful for the Sabres. They finished the shortened season last in the league with just 37 points in 56 games, six points fewer than 30th-place Anaheim. For an 82-game season, that finish would’ve given them 54 points.

As much as it pains me to say it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sabres fail to hit the 50-point mark this season. Take into consideration their record from last season, and all that’s changed in the roster since. What offensive power have they added? What strength in goaltending exists? How’s the defense improved? Piecing it all together, it doesn’t appear that Buffalo did much if anything to improve over the offseason, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they perform even worse this season than last.

UPL plays at least ten NHL games.

This isn’t exactly a bold prediction, but I think over the course of the season we’ll get to see more of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. I know he had a bit of a rough preseason, and he certainly can benefit from time in the AHL, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he earns a call-up at some point over the year, particularly with the lack of luster surrounding the Sabres’ current tandem. UPL has very limited NHL experience to date, but with Anderson, Tokarski & Dell all on one-year contracts, the future has to be in consideration here.

The Sabres kick off the 2021-22 NHL season on Thursday, October 14.