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Bove: Predicting the Buffalo Sabres opening night lineup

Posted: 6:33 PM, Sep 26, 2018
Updated: 2019-01-17 14:40:19Z

It's funny how quickly things can change. With a little luck and plenty of trades, the Buffalo Sabres have become one of the most intriguing teams in the NHL as the 2018-2019 season rapidly approaches. 

They can't stink forever, right? Or can they? 

For one last time, let's look at what the Sabres opening night lineup could look like as they prepare for the puck to drop on October 4 against the Boston Bruins.

Offense: 

Jeff Skinner -- Jack Eichel -- Sam Reinhart

This was a no-brainer. While their time together during the preseason has been limited, the line has been the Sabres most effective combination whenever they are on the ice.

As expected when acquired from Carolina, Skinner adds an element of speed to compliment Eichel. Reinhart, who signed his new deal last week, has chemistry with his bicycle buddy [Eichel] and can bang home the rebounds his linemates create. 

If paired together, this will be the Sabres most prolific line this season and could really put up some impressive numbers. 

Conor Sheary -- Patrik Berglund -- Kyle Okposo

Up until the Sabres added Skinner in August, Sheary looked like he was going to be the first line left winger. Sliding him down the lineup adds much-needed speed to the second line and the gives the Sabres a player who could score 20 goals if he gels with his new teammates.

Berglund, who isn't necessarily an ideal second line center, does a lot of things very well. Along with Sheary and Okposo, he'll have an opportunity to play a bigger role than he did with St. Louis. 

As for Okposo, the Sabres would benefit greatly if the 30-year-old winger can surpass 20 goals for the first time since signing with Buffalo. Last season he struggled, tallying only 44 points in 76 games. If Okposo can play a consistent second-line role and score 20 goals and add 30 assists, the Sabres would be thrilled.

Alex Nylander --  Casey Mittelstadt -- Tage Thompson 

It's not far-fetched to think Alex Nylander has earned a roster spot. Considered a bust by many early in his career, Nylander has had his most impressive stretch with the organization since reporting to training camp in September.

At times there have been ugly turnovers and mistakes during the preseason. But it's time for the Sabres to give their 2016 first-round pick a real chance. Lining him alongside two fellow first-round picks with serious questions isn't ideal. But in order for Nylander to have a shot at succeeding he needs to be paired with other high-skilled players. 

As for Mittelstadt, despite his struggles during the preseason, there is almost no chance he isn't on the opening night roster if healthy. In his six-game tryout at the end of last season, the rookie made everyone on the ice better by creating chances and space. For what it's worth, he's one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy this season. There will be growing pains for the 19-year-old center but Mittelstadt has the talent and potential to become one of the most dynamic two-way players in the league.

Last but not least, Tage Thompson, who in my opinion secured a roster spot with an exceptional start to the preseason. When acquired from St. Louis the scouting report on Thompson was that he had a great shot but needed to produce at a more consistent level. Pairing him with two players who know how to dish the puck should do wonders for the 6'6" winger. 

If nothing else, this could be a very fun line to watch. 

Vladimir Sobotka -- Evan Rodrigues -- Jason Pominville

I'm not of the belief that the "fourth" line needs to be filled with grinders who can fight and kill penalties. During their recent struggles, one of the Sabres biggest problems has been their lack of depth and scoring from the bottom-six. With responsible two-way players like Sobotka, Rodrigues, and Pominville, this trio could be a versatile group who can move up and down the lineup, once the injury bug inevitably bites. 

Extras: Scott Wilson, Zemgus Girgensons 

It was tough to figure out what players deserved to make this list. You can argue the Sabres should keep younger players like Justin Bailey or Nick Baptiste. But with Wilson, you get a player who was solid in every role he played last season. Girgensons, who has played everywhere since his All-Star season in 2015, has watched his minutes dwindle over the years. While I think he'll make the team and could very realistically end up playing every single night, I'm not sure who he leapfrogs if some of the younger guys like Thompson and Nylander work their way onto the roster. 

Defense: 

Marco Scandella - Rasmus Ristolainen 

While together last season, Scandella and Ristolainen were asked to do too much. This year, with added depth and talent on the blue line, the combination could thrive. 

I'd expect this to still be the pairing on the ice when the Sabres are protecting a lead. But getting back Bogosian and McCabe should be a big help. 

Jake McCabe - Rasmus Dahlin

For much of the preseason, McCabe and Dahlin have worked together both in games and at practice. Dahlin, who will jump into the rush every chance he gets, will benefit by having a steady two-way defender paired alongside. McCabe, who can also contribute in the offensive zone, is fleet-footed and gives the Sabres prized offseason addition a veteran presence to cancel out the mistakes that will surely come.

These guys are good. 😍 pic.twitter.com/U2Z9aTB7WW

— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) September 26, 2018

Be warned -- Dahlin is going to make mistakes and that's okay. Having a partner like McCabe should bail help bail him out of those sticky situations more often than not. 

Zach Bogosian - Casey Nelson

Bogosian is currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury and likely won't return to practice until next week. If he's good to go by then, he'll certainly be in the opening night lineup. 

At this point, there might not be a bigger wild card on the Sabres roster. When healthy, Bogosian is an effective two-way defender who is difficult to play against. But he has spent so much time injured since joining the Sabres that his availability is a concern. 

Nelson, who was called up from Rochester halfway through last season, was solid during the 37 games he played. At this point, I'd give him a slight edge over Beaulieu to start the year. 

Extra: Nathan Beaulieu 

Some of you are probably wondering -- where is Brendan Guhle? After a so-so preseason, Guhle ends up in Rochester based simply off circumstance. 

Look at it this way...

These players will almost certainly be on the Sabres opening night roster if they are healthy next week:

-Rasmus Ristolainen

-Rasmus Dahlin
-Marco Scandella
-Zach Bogosian
-Jake McCabe

That leaves Nelson,  Beaulieu and Guhle likely competing for two spots. Of the three, only Guhle can be sent to Rochester without having to clear waivers. While Beaulieu certainly struggled last season -- I don't see the Sabres waiving him right away. Nelson would almost certainly be claimed if the team tried sending him to Rochester. 

While it may be disappointing to some fans, a bit more time developing for Guhle in Rochester isn't the worst thing. Remember, he just turned 21-years-old.  

**Lawrence Pilut was extremely impressive this summer. In my opinion, he deserves to be the first guy called up from Rochester. Matt Hunwick remains week-to-week with a neck injury**

Goaltenders: 

Carter Hutton

Can Hutton handle the increased workload that comes with a starting role? In his two preseason appearances up to this point, he has been rock-solid, allowing three goals in four periods. He'll be the starter when the Sabres take on the Bruins next week.

Linus Ullmark 

Despite starting the season as the backup, Ullmark should get plenty of opportunities to play. With Hutton signed to an affordable three-year deal, Ullmark appears to be the Sabres long-term plan in net. At times during the preseason, he's been sporadic, but that's to be expected with a young netminder. 

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