Buffalo Sabres’ Tearing It Up Early On

jack-eichel

When it comes to the annual NHL draft lottery the Edmonton Oilers have definitely had a horseshoe firmly planted in their backsides with several first overall picks. But the Buffalo Sabres haven’t fared too badly over the past few years either. The Oilers got the big prize in the summer of 2015 when they landed Connor McDavid, who’s arguably the best hockey player in the world right now, while the Sabres chose second and got a franchise player of their own in center Jack Eichel. The young newcomer certainly improved the Sabres’ lineup, but the team still tanked last season. They ended up winning the draft lottery though and proceeded to select Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the top pick.

With the 18-year-old Dahlin signed to a three-year entry level contract and the 22-year-old Eichel inked to an eight-year $80 million deal the Sabres have no reason to tank anymore. Therefore, the club is back to playing hockey and has been one of the surprises of the season at the quarter way mark. After 21 games the Sabres were 13-6-2 for 28 points. They sat in third place in the Atlantic Division, just two points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs and one short of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were riding a six-game winning streak for the first time since 2009/10 and were in fourth place overall in the 31-team league. Not bad for a team that finished dead last a season ago, and for the third time since the 2013/14 campaign, with 62 points.

The former doormats appear to have a bright future with general manager Jason Botterill guiding the ship and have a good shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2010/11. This is a bonus considering center Ryan O’Reilly was traded to the St. Louis Blues during the summer. But with the 6-foot-2-inch Dahlin patrolling the blue line along with fellow first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo has two of the finest young defenders in the league and also boast Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian back there. The defense corps now have a lot of potential, but Botterill didn’t stop there as he also added some solid depth up front.

Conor Sheary was acquired for a conditional fourth-round draft pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins after he racked up 53 points on 23 goals and 30 assists in just 61 games two seasons ago. Sheary didn’t live up to those numbers last season when he posted 18 goals and 12 assists in 79 contests, but the Sabres believe the 26-year-old can regain his scoring touch in new surroundings. The 5-foot-8-winger hasn’t started too badly in Buffalo with 11 points in his first 21 games. Getting back to the O’Reilly trade, he was sent to the Blues for forwards Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson along with a first and second-round draft choice.

The 30-year-old Berglund and 31- year-old Sobotka had just four points each at the quarter way mark, but were brought in for their defensive prowess. Thompson is a 21-year-old prospect and former first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues and he had chipped in with a pair of points in 14 outings. However, the Sabres already had Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt and Kyle Okposo up front in their versatile core of forwards. Botterill’s best move during the offseason though was to acquire 26-year-old winger Jeff Skinner in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes for a second, third and sixth-round draft choice and a prospect named Cliff Pu.

Skinner is a fast, skilled player who has reached the 30-goal plateau three times in his career and netted 89 goals in the last three seasons. Just 11 other players have outscored him over those three years and only six of them had more than his 74 markers at even strength. Skinner was named the 2010/11 rookie of the year when he was just 18 years old after scoring 31 goals and 32 assists. He obviously saw something positive in the young Sabres squad since he waived his no-trade clause when joining them. Skinner has proven to be a steal with 14 goals and eight assists after 21 games with Buffalo.

The only downside to the Skinner deal is the fact that he’s in the last year of his contract at a cost of $5.725 million against the salary cap. He had just two points after six games with Buffalo, but has caught fire since. If he doesn’t slow down over the remainder of the season he’ll reach career bests in points, goals, and assists. Playing on Eichel’s wing most of the time has definitely aided him, but Skinner’s certainly not riding his center’s coattails. The Sabres need to decide if they want to re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent and they’ll need to have an idea about his thoughts on the future before the trade deadline rolls around. Botterill needs to make sure he doesn’t lose Skinner for nothing though.

While Skinner has lived up to his billing, the Sabres didn’t really know how strong they’d be in net after signing 32-year-old free agent Carter Hutton from St. Louis during the summer. He was signed for $8.25 million over three years and is playing his sixth NHL season. Hutton posted a 17-7-3 record with the Blues last year in 32 games and boasted excellent numbers with a 93.1 save percentage and a 2.09 goals-against average. Hutton had played in 16 of the Sabres first 21 games with a 9-6-1 record , a 91.7 save percentage and 2.61 GAA. Linus Ullmark is the backup netminder and the 25-year-old was 4-0-1 with a 92.2 save percentage and 2.65 GAA.

There’s no telling if the Sabres can continue to roll for the rest of the season, but they’ve already accumulated close to 50 percent of last year’s point total. If they don’t falter, fans should expect to seem them lining up for the faceoff when the puck drops to begin the postseason.