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Know your Neighbor: The Buffalo Sabres have made some big changes, hoping not to waste any more of Jack Eichel’s prime

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Taylor Hall will be a huge help on the power play and in pushing their younger depth down the lineup. The team defense will still have to make a significant improvement.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Just the Facts:

Previous Year’s Finish:

30–31–8, 6th in Atlantic Division, no playoff appearances when play resumed

Record Against Bruins in 2019-20:

3-0, in Boston’s favor.
Recap links are at the end, so you can relive the glory!

Offseason moves:

  • Swapped centers and acquired Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Marcus Johansson
  • Allowed Jimmy Vesey to walk at free agency; he signed with Toronto for $900K
  • Some wicked good free agent signed with them too, I think he used to play for Edmonton? Jersey? Oh yeah, Taylor Hall. (1 year, $8M)
  • Short-term, the Sabres are looking much better on paper. On other paper, though, there’s longer-term trouble: they have $33M tied up in four forwards. Hall will come off the books again next season, but if they have any hope at re-signing him, they’ll have to pray for team-friendly deals for next-season RFAs Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju.

What to Expect:

From the Net On Out

There is some high praise out there for Linus (lee-nus) Ullmark, and not just for the local TV personalities.

The 27-year-old finally had a break-even season in Buffalo after having a few years of slow gains before being tasked with over 30 starts in each of the last two seasons. Carter Hutton, now 35, had been the de facto starter for the last two years before Ullmark started a ridiculous 18 of 20 games in December and January.

Given that he’s coming off an injury and that the season is so condensed, that Buffalo (like most teams) will probably balance the starts between these two until one of them gets hot.

Two more goalies are listed on their roster, but they should just pray to the hockey gods that they don’t have to call Dustin Tokarski into service.

Defense Makes the Dream Work...?

We’ll finally get an up-close look at what Colin Miller matured into after being claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

In the third of a four-year, $3.875M-per-year contract, he’s now pressed to make a better impression than he did last season, his first with the Sabres after being traded. He’s not long removed from a 41-point season and Buffalo looks like it will be a fast, run-and-gun team, maybe helping him tack on some secondary assists.

And, like Boston, Buffalo has a young, blue-chip defenseman. Rasmus Dahlin is only 20 years old and has scored 84 points over two years as a teenager in the NHL. Nothing to sneeze at.

The team featured him for the season start, and pointed out that he’s added 16 pounds of muscle to his 6’3” frame. Can’t teach size, blah blah. It will be interesting to see how a light-footed mobile defenseman moves around, but Dahlin seems fairly deliberate and patient already... which is great for Buffalo.

Where the team struggled last year, and where the team will likely struggle again, is the overall strength of their defense and special teams play.

Buffalo was second to last in the league on the disadvantage, and their power play was middling at best (that will improve for sure; more on that later).

By contrast, of Boston’s defensive corps, five of eight are on the good side of all the possession statistics, and all but one (ahem John Moore) are on the good side of goal share while they’re on the ice.

Buffalo has just one, and it’s not who you think it might be. (It’s Marco Scandella. I know, right?!)

Forwards, they are a-changin’

The Sabres traded away Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues, two young players who didn’t seem to find rhythm with the team - Sheary returning to the Penguins where he won a Cup on Sydney Crosby’s wing, and Rodrigues seemed to be a case of a player needing a new venue. He hadn’t hit expectations in Buffalo and other serviceable players were available.

Enter Dominik Kahun, who has played for three teams in two years (Chicago, then Pittsburgh, and now Buffalo) and was a semi-successful forward in and for Germany from 2014 to 2018.

Buffalo also added lots of intangibles in the form of Eric Staal, acquiring the veteran forward In exchange for almost-champ Marcus Johansson. Just a couple really long years ago, MoJo was a critical piece of the Bruins’ Cup Final run... and then he turned in a somewhat weak season for him, scoring 30 points in 60 games and winding up -12 on the season.

Staal, on the other hand, is 15 years removed from the Carolina Cinderella Cup, yet will be lined up on the second unit with Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson. Olofsson has lots of promise, so if there’s room for him to be a little less defensively responsible in Staal’s presence, that may well pay off.

Last and certainly scariest, the signing of Taylor Hall makes the top line for Buffalo much more of a threat, and truly boosts at least one power play unit. We here at SCoC know who the best line in the NHL is, and Jack ‘n TayTay don’t get a shot at the throne until they’ve played a game together.

Still, there is a real threat of depth and line changes might be exposed by top-flight talents like this pair. Eichel would have been a No. 1 pick like Hall in almost any other year, if it weren’t for some phenom named McDonald. (McRib? Close enough.) It’s a model that Boston has used well on other teams for years.

I struggle to think that Hall and Eichel won’t play well together, but when both players like to have a lot of impact on play, there could be a challenge.

Do Your Homework

Here’s the links to the NHL recaps and highlights/condensed games, including because HOCKEY IS ALMOST BACK AND WE NEED OUR FIX.

I suggest you re-watch the second one (12/27/2019). The Best Line in Hockey took control in the third but you do get a decent look at Ullmark’s positioning and tracking skill (except, y’know, on that PP goal by Mr. Perfect himself). Most of the blame lands squarely on Buffalo’s defense.

Game 1 - 11/21/2019

Game 2 - 12/27/2019

GAME 3 - 12/29/2019