2017-2018 Preview: Is this the year the Sabres end their playoff drought?

2017-2018 Preview: Is this the year the Sabres end their playoff drought?
Posted at 11:35 AM, Oct 03, 2017


April 26, 2011

That's the last time the Buffalo Sabres played in a playoff game.  They lost to the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 in game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoff quarterfinals. Two days earlier, on Easter Sunday, the Sabres played in their most recent playoff home game at HSBC Arena.

Only one player from the 2010-2011 team remains on the 2017-2018 roster. Acquired in an offseason deal from the Minnesota Wild, Jason Pominville returns to Buffalo with one thing in mind -- getting the Sabres back to their winning ways. 

"I think it's time for this team to make a step," Pominville said when the Sabres opened camp. "Obviously this city deserves more than what they've got lately and hopefully we can do that starting this year." 

When Pominville was traded in 2013, Ron Rolston was two months into his brief stint as the Sabres head coach. Rolston was replaced by Ted Nolan, who was replaced by Dan Bylsma, who was replaced by Phil Housley. Nolan's son, Jordan, is now on the Sabres. Bylsma is analyzing hockey on NHL Network and Ron Rolston, well your guess is as good as mine. 

There have been plenty of changes but one constant. Disappointment. 

That brings us to the question that so many fans have asked for months: Are the Sabres ready to turn the corner and make the playoffs? Let's look at some of the biggest factors and examine how the Sabres stack up. 

How much better is the roster?

On paper, the Sabres defense is drastically improved. To be fair, at this time last year there were high hopes for Dmitry Kulikov, so take everything from now until a few weeks into the season with a grain of salt.

However, it's very hard to argue that the Sabres defense isn't much improved with the additions of Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, and Victor Antipin. 

Scandella has proven in his career to be a steady, reliable, two-way defenseman. Beaulieu spent portions of last season on the Canadiens' first pair with Shea Weber, until falling out of favor towards the end of the year. He's a smooth skating, puck moving defenseman who isn't afraid of jumping into the play. 

And then there's Antipin. He's the biggest wild card after a successful, yet brief, career in the KHL. At 24-years-old, he's young enough to make the transition overseas and is worth taking a look at. 

Last season Toronto took a similar shot on 24-year-old Nikita Zaitsev. 38 points in his first year earned the young defenseman a seven-year, $31.5 million dollar deal. If Antipin has a similar year, you'd have to imagine that Botterill would be ecstatic.

So yes, the defense is much better. The offense, however, is a different story. 

I like the additions of both Pominville and Benoit Pouliot. That said, I still think they need a few more players to provide depth scoring. Can that be Seth Griffith, who appears to have made the Sabres opening night roster? We'll find out, but the career AHL player now has a golden opportunity to contribute and make an impact, especially if he's lined up with one of the Sabres top-three lines. 

Jordan Nolan, son of the aforementioned Ted, is another new face looking to make an impact. He'll likely play a depth role and spend the majority of his ice time on one of the Sabres' bottom lines. 

A new and improved defensive unit should pay dividends but if this team is going to have success they'll need contributions from their third and fourth lines. That's one of the biggest things that separates good and average teams in the NHL. 

Will a new coach make that much of a difference? 

In a word, yes. 

I'm not telling you that we need to start anointing Housley as the next great hockey mind. Hell, I'm not even suggesting that he's going to have a ton of success early on.

What I am sure of, however, is that the brand of hockey Housley wants to play will be far more exciting. How many times did we see defensemen not named Rasmus Ristolainen jumping into the rush last season? Not often. That'll change this season. 

In the preseason defensemen were joining the rush left and right. Sometimes it worked out. Other times it didn't. But with a team that has struggled scoring goals, getting help from the blue line is exactly what the doctor ordered. 

It will take time, and there will be growing pains. In the words of the other head coach in town, just trust the process. 

Where do the Sabres stack up in the division?

In 2013 the NHL realigned divisions, essentially combining the Northeast and Southeast Divisions to form the eight-team Atlantic Division. At the time, it was one of the easier divisions in hockey. 

Things have changed.

The Atlantic Division now boasts some young, talented teams, including the Auston Matthews lead Toronto Maple Leafs [you can boo here], and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who might have one of the most talented rosters in the NHL. 

Not to be forgotten, the Ottawa Senators, who were a goal away from the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. The Montreal Canadiens, who added prolific scorer Jonathan Drouin in the offseason. Newly signed David Pastranak and the Boston Bruins, who always seem to be right in the playoff mix. And then there are the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers, who are both looking to improve upon last year, just like the Sabres.

So where is a realistic spot for the Sabres to finish? For reference, the top three teams in the division make the playoffs, along with two wildcard teams from either the Atlantic or the Metropolitan divisions. If you're this far into the article you probably already knew that. 

Last year Tampa Bay was plagued by injuries just like the Sabres, missing the playoffs by a single point. Chalk them into your preseason playoff projections. 

Montreal has the luxury of Carey Price, so I'd imagine they'll be competing in late April, too. And unless we see a major slip from the team down the QEW, Toronto should be a playoff team for years to come. 

Just like that, three teams who I believe have a better chance at making the playoffs than the Sabres. Will there be surprises? Sure, there seems to be every year. Last year nobody thought the Leafs would have such an impressive year.  But picking the Sabres as a division representative seems, at least to me, like a stretch. Crazier things have happened, I just wouldn't bet on Buffalo to earn a playoff spot for finishing in the top-three of the Atlantic Division. 

A wild card spot, however, doesn't seem too crazy.

Boston and Ottawa, at least in my opinion, overperformed last season. That said, Ottawa has arguably the best defenseman in the NHL with Erik Karlsson. Boston still has key pieces like the aforementioned Pastranak, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask. Keep an eye on 19-year-old defenseman Charlie McAvoy, too. He's a fun player to watch. 

Every year both the Bruins and Senators are teams that many expect to slide. And every year they prove the haters and the nonbelievers wrong. Shun the nonbeliever. Shun! 

Will they do it again? Your guess is as good as mine, but I think the Sabres belong in the mix with these teams as the 'middle of the pack' teams in the Atlantic Division. 

Detroit and Florida have some nice pieces, but I'm taking the Sabres roster over both the Panthers and Red Wings. Sue me.  

Bove's projected Atlantic Division standings: 

1- Tampa Bay

Projected Sabres MVP:

Jack Eichel

I really went out on a limb with this pick. I've said it once and I'll say it again. Jack Eichel, if healthy, is going to have an outstanding season. Last season, on a recovering ankle, Eichel nearly scored a point per game.  I think he surpasses that this season.

After a "down" stretch about a month after returning from injury, Eichel posted some head-turning numbers. With another year under his belt anda new contract signed, Eichel could join the likes of the elite players in the NHL. Buckle up. 

Projected stats -- 75GP, 33G, 48A, 81 points

Breakout player: 

Nathan Beaulieu

In his limited time with the Sabres in the preseason and training camp, Beaulieu has shown that he's going to play a big role in Phil Housley's system. 

When the Sabres acquired Beaulieu I didn't know what to expect from the former first-round pick. Everything I read and heard was that the 24-year-old defenseman has potential, he's just incredibly inconsistent. 

That may be the case, but in his first few games with the Sabres during the preseason, the good plays far-outweighed the bad. Chances are, Beaulieu will get some time on the Sabres second power-play unit, along with a good chunk of minutes during five-on-five play. 

Storyline to watch:

The curious case of Samson Reinhart

What kind of player is Sam Reinhart? A top-six forward who can contribute 40-55 points annually or a cornerstone player that can be built around?

Despite scoring five more points in his sophomore season, Reinhart has received his fair share of criticism, especially as last season came to an end.  Warranted or not, the former second-overall pick is still trying to find his niche on the Sabres roster.

Housley has said and demonstrated early on that he would like to see Reinhart return to his natural position at center. The 21-year-old entering his third season has said he'll play where he's told, but he's comfortable returning to the position where he's spent most of his life. 

The move to center brings both opportunity and challenge. Playing down the middle, Reinhart will have more space to be the creative, smart player he's shown he can be. But getting separated from players like Eichel and Evander Kane will make Reinhart carry more of the load. 

Like Eichel, Reinhart is also playing for a new deal. An improved year could go a long way and earn Reinhart some serious cash. 

Final thoughts:

Last year the Sabres finished with a 33-37-12 record, good for 78 points. It was a brutal end to the year, as the Sabres slipped out of playoff contention as Winter turned to Spring. This season, I'm expecting more wins, which of course leads to more points. 

Just look at last season and flip the regulation wins and losses. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who would say that's crazy. If the Sabres finished 37-33-12 they'd have 86 points at years end.  I actually think they'll do better than that, and finish near 90 points, while just missing out on the postseason. 

That's probably not what you wanted to read, but the team has an uphill battle. Can they surprise us all and make a playoff push? Absolutely they can. The team is too talented to not give them at least a chance. I just don't think they're ready just yet. Last year I thought they'd make the playoffs and I learned my lesson. 

This year is all about progress and the process. Trust the P's, it seems to be working alright for the other team in town. Happy hockey season. Let's have some fun.