Is the Atlantic stacked against the Sabres?
Buffalo’s moves made the team better, but are they better than their division opponents?
At the outset of the offseason, Sabres fans certainly expected to see a lot of changes on the team, and though some of the comings and goings were not anticipated, Buffalo appears to have improved its staff and its roster, as evidenced by the early training camp sessions.
As the team readies for the first preseason game on September 16, questions remain about the changes that were made, though - mainly, “Did the Sabres keep pace?” The remaining teams in the Atlantic have also made changes, for better or worse. How do their moves compare with those made by Jason Botterill? Have the Sabres garnered an edge in the division?
All of the above
It’s a steep uphill climb. The division (read: league) was led last season by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who politely lost 20 games so as not to make things more embarrassing for the other 30 teams in the NHL. Behind the Lightning were the Bruins, who represented the Eastern Conference in Stanley Cups. The bad news for Buffalo is that those teams didn’t really get any worse in the offseason. Boston may be limping from the loss of Lee Stempniak, but should recover just fine. Likewise, Tampa saw the exit of Dan Girardi...but...don’t expect that to slow them down.
So, it’s a near certainty we can eliminate the possibility of a division championship - which is good! It’s all about managing expectations. But what about the teams that finished below the Sabres last year?
From the depths
Luckily, the Ottawa Senators are the same tire fire they have been. Aside from the signing of Tyler Ennis, Ottawa has made few waves on the free agent market, and their draft picks from June are unlikely to end up on the roster this season.
Detroit’s offseason can be best defined by the fact that they have invited 20 unsigned players to training camp. Neither Detroit or Ottawa are likely to ascend from the division (read: league) basement.
Fair to middlin’
That leaves Toronto, Florida, and Montreal. Have the Sabres made enough noise to overtake those teams stacked in the middle of the pack?
Florida got stronger by virtue of a coaching change, but the team also acquired Anton Stralman, who hit the free agent market from the Lightning’s roster. They also picked up Brett Connolly, who had his best season last year in Washington.
The Canadiens made a few shrewd moves in the offseason that have improved the team. They replaced Jordie Benn with Ben Chiarot. It would be surprising if they managed to fall in the standings, but Montreal has been known to rise and fall based on goaltender Carey Price’s health.
Toronto is torontoing so hard right now. One season after the William Nylander holdout, they are experiencing the same growing pains with Mitch Marner, and it really has been the focus of the offseason. Getting Alex Kerfoot to sign was a good move - at the very least, it keeps pace with the Sabres signing of Marcus Johansson. Their issue will be goaltending, as per usual. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and inviting an aged-and-injuried out Michal Neuvirth to camp certainly qualifies. If Buffalo has any chance of moving up in the standings, Toronto may be the best bet, but if Marner does come back, it would certainly change the narrative.
It is entirely possible that the Sabres have made the right moves to propel the team to a better finish from a points standpoint, but given the transactions that took place within the division, it will be difficult to imagine they can make up the 10 points that separated them from Florida last season. Are they five games better? In order to hit a playoff spot, they’ll need to be at least 10 games better than they were - that’s a big ask of a squad that will have its sixth coach in six seasons. If they do manage to garner a wild card, Ralph Krueger will be in the conversation for the Jack Adams, and if they can’t climb from the bottom three in the division, one has to wonder if Botterill will have run out of time.