The Buffalo Sabres were a team who missed out on Connor McDavid a few years ago after a very disappointing season. They got a great secondary prize in Jack Eichel. However, unlike their counterparts in the tank, they found themselves near the bottom of the standings two years in a row. Last year, their lottery lucked changed. They won the first overall selection and took Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin. Sabres fans now have their hopes much higher for the future, however, the Buffalo Sabres Season may be one more of disappointment.

It is very probable they improve on their results last season. However, the Buffalo Sabres season may still find them closer to the bottom of the league, and that’s okay.

Issues With The Team

There are still lots of issues with this Sabres team that need to be tackled. Some of the issues will take some time, meaning it may not happen this year. The Sabres have a very bright future ahead, but they are still missing pieces. So, let’s take a look at what their issues are.

#1 Ryan O’Reilly trade

Ryan O’Reilly seemed to be a very under-appreciated player while in Buffalo. From a leagues perspective, he never got the credit of being a top ten centreman in the league. However, O’Reilly is something special. Over the past 3 seasons, according to Chace McCallum’s GAR (Goals Above Replacement) Model, O’Reilly has ranked 6th, 6th, and 9th for GAR by centremen. He ranked top 20 in the league for forwards all three of those years.

GAR takes everything in to account, offence, defence, everything. If you’d like to read more about it, do so here. However, what we can take from this is that O’Reilly is great in all areas of his game. There is no aspect that is negative anywhere on the ice.

The other important factor is that the Sabres were a 46.7% Corsi team when O’Reilly wasn’t on the ice. The Sabres really struggled to control play without him. He was playing almost 30% of the time for Buffalo at 5v5. That’s a big loss to make up.

#2 Additions Will Be Asked For Too Much

Part of missing O’Reilly’s TOI is that it needs to be made up somewhere. The Sabres made some very good trades this offseason picking up both Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner for a very low cost. Skinner will be able to take Evander Kane‘s spot from last season. He should be able to fill in for some of the offence Buffalo will need.

However, the problem is O’Reilly and his missing time. The Sabres will get a full year of prospect Casey Mittelstadt, who has lots of fans excited. Mittlestadt is a good prospect who showed well at the World Junior Championships. However, this showing may have caused him to get overhyped. His PPG in NCAA definitely doesn’t suggest he is going to become a superstar in this league.

He looks like a very good prospect, but pencilling him as someone who can replace O’Reilly’s production, especially right now is dangerous.

The Sabres also have prospect Alexander Nylander possibly joining the squad. Another guy who will likely help out down the lineup, but likely won’t be able to make up for the skill they have lost this offseason.

#3 Defence Core Still Needs Help

Getting one of the best offensive defensemen prospects the league has seen in years is a huge step forward for the Sabres. However, the rest of that blueline still needs help behind it.

Behind Dahlin, the Sabres only have one defenseman on their blueline in the top 50 percentile according to GAR. That is Rasmus Ristolainen. After that, the rest of their blue line is in the 40th percentile or under for the league. Having one-second pair D and one really promising 18 year old on the blueline isn’t enough to instill confidence.

This was one of the Sabres biggest weaknesses last year. It was addressed through the draft, but it needs much more help going forward. This year, it will likely be one of the worst bluelines in the league, especially if Dahlin is asked to do a lot on his own side of the ice.

#4 Goaltending

This is what the Buffalo Sabres season will really rest on. A team can go anywhere from deep playoff run to lottery team depending on their goalie alone. If a goalie gets hot, it can be huge for a team. However, if he gets cold it can be absolutely devastating.

The Sabres felt that Robin Lehner wasn’t cutting it for them and let him walk in Free Agency. They then went out and acquired Carter Hutton, one of the biggest named Free Agent goalies on the market this year. Hutton, 32, can’t be the long-term plan and they’re hoping to split time with Linus Ullmark. So how have those two faired in terms of past results?

Corsica’s GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) measures shot amounts and distances to determine how many goals a goalie saves above the average. Ullmark only played five games in the Buffalo Sabres season last year. In that short sample size, he played very well. Using a bigger sample size of his AHL starts he also played well. He posted a .922 Save Percentage in 44 starts with the Rochester Americans. He will need to prove that he can play well over long stretches if he wishes to earn the net.

As for Hutton, he played 33 games in the NHL last year and was very good while doing it. At times he struggled a bit, but he ended up with a 9.44 GSAA. That is good for 8th best in the league for goalies with more than 30 games played.

The problem with Hutton is that he has been a career backup and hasn’t posted amazing numbers until last season. He has had a negative GSAA the three previous years, spanning from barely negative to very negative. Meaning the past three years he had between slightly below average in the whole league, and very below average.

A career year at age 31 tends to suggest that year may be more of a one-off than anything else. Hutton’s spotty record has led to some worries going forward. Hutton hasn’t played more than 40 games ever in his career. He hasn’t played more than 32 in five seasons. If he shows any signs of fatigue or struggle, it will be asking a lot from Ullmark to step up.

Why This Is All Okay

If the Sabres do end up finishing near the bottom of the league, it will still be okay. The Sabres have two amazing pieces to build around in Eichel and Dahlin. What they need now are some more good young pieces. They have three first-round picks in this year’s draft. If they finish with a high pick again, they could look to trade one of the others to get more immediate help. They could also keep all three and get a very good player and two other potential pieces for the future.

The Sabres have a bright future ahead, but it is important to remember for some teams growth is slower. The Buffalo Sabres season, in a nutshell, may be disappointing, but that could be worth it for the future.
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