BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — It was November 27 and the Sabres had just won their tenth straight game. Western New York was in a frenzy and it looked the Sabres were finally turning a corner.
Then everything changed.
In a matter of 49 games, the Sabres went from first place to mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for the eighth straight year. Fans went from talking about playoff matchups to potential coaching changes and it seems like after another downward spiral the Sabres are virtually in the same place as they were at the end of last season.
So what can we take away from the 2018-2019 season?
Here are seven things we learned this year:
They at least need to consider a coaching change
I'd guess there is about a 75% chance that Housley is brought back for his third season as the Sabres bench boss. To some fans, the notion that he could actually return is outrageous. The "Fire Housley" crowd has been very vocal both inside KeyBank Center at games and on social media. For the final home game of the season, there was even a “Fire Housley” sign beneath the press box.
That said, Housley was given a vote of confidence by GM Jason Botterill the last time he fielded questions from reporters. Does that endorsement from the GM mean that under no circumstance Housley couldn't be fired? Certainly not -- however Housley was Botterill's first big decision as a GM and if he's relieved after two seasons that won't be a good look for the Sabres GM.
At the end of the day, I have a feeling Housley survives and is brought back for a third season. I don't necessarily agree with the decision but that's the sense I've been getting. If the Sabres start next season slow, that’s when I think they’ll make a coaching change. Don't be surprised if the current Sabres assistant coaches are fired and Amerks head coach Chris Taylor is promoted to an assistant. This way, if the Sabres start next season slow, there is a succession plan in place.
Signing Skinner needs to be a priority
To some fans, Jeff Skinner's lack of production in March will be a major red flag. To me, it was just a player cooling down and getting a bit unlucky. As pointed out by Joe Yerdon of The Athletic, Skinner had been shooting at a startlingly low percentage [ less than 2%] during his drought. While his decline was noticeable, it’s certainly not a reason to part ways with the Sabres most prolific goal scorer.
In his first season with the Sabres, Skinner didn’t just meet expectations, he surpassed them. Finishing with 40 goals and 63 points, Skinner was the Sabres third most productive forward behind Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, two of his linemates for most of the season. When the trio was split up, all three saw a drop off in their production but none more significant than Skinner.
That said, signing the 26-year-old winger should be a no brainer for the Sabres. The question then becomes, will he want to stay after their disastrous second half? With no extension in place, Skinner could be tempted at the notion of waiting for July 1 to field offers from other teams. That’s not to say that the Sabres can’t blow him away with a deal sometime before then, it just feels like that could’ve happened months ago if the two sides were close.
From conversations we’ve had with Skinner over the last few months, he’s made it pretty clear he likes Buffalo. Playing alongside a center like Eichel certainly doesn’t hurt the Sabres cause either. Though what once seemed like a foregone conclusion is now anything but on Skinner’s future in Western New York.
Let’s stop blaming the good players
This category is an extension of the epic rant that Howard Simon and Jeremy White had on WGR 550 last week. It all stemmed from a caller who blamed Eichel for the Sabres continuous struggles, suggesting they would be better off with a player like Mitch Marner or Noah Hanifin.
Give me a break.
Eichel isn't the reason why the Sabres missed the playoffs for the eighth straight season. In his first year as the team's captain, he was their best player and finished the season with an impressive 82 points in 77 games [1.06 points per game]. I'm not implying that Eichel can't be better, because he can, but to put the blame on the best player doesn't make much sense.
The lonely end of the ice
Carter Hutton: Linus Ullmark
Record: 18-25-5 Record: 15-14-5
GAA: 3.00 GAA: 3.11
Save %: .908 Save %: .905
Both Hutton and Ullmark had strong starts to the 2018-2019 season and cooled off as the year came to an end.
Like the rest of their teammates, Hutton and Ullmark hit a wall, allowing more goals and coming up short more often than not. However, barring any major surprises, I'm expecting the same two goaltenders are on the Sabres opening night roster next season. Going into camp we'll likely see a full-on competition between the two friends with Ullmark as the favorite.
Assuming the Sabres and Ullmark agree to a new deal [RFA], the team will want to see what Ullmark can do as a starter. Thanks to an affordable deal for Hutton [two more years at $2.75], he'll be able to step in if Ullmark struggles while continuing to mentor his 25-year-old counterpart. With Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen likely spending the season in Rochester, it will be Ullmark's best chance to prove that he shouldn't be overlooked as the possible goalie of the future.
As good as advertised
In a year with sky-high expectations 18-year-old Rasmus Dahlin managed to surpass them. For months leading up to the NHL Draft, we heard from scouts, analysts, and experts telling us how good the Swedish defenseman was going to be. And in his first year, he lived up to the hype.
With his goal and assist during the Sabres last game of the season, Dahlin finished his rookie year with nine goals, 35 assists and 44 points in 82 games played. Dahlin becomes the first 18-year-old defenseman to play a full 82-game season. He also sits behind only his coach, Phil Housley, for the most points scored by an 18-year-old rookie defenseman.
His resume after one season is beyond impressive but the things that don't show up on a stat sheet make Dahlin such a special player. Watching him break out of the Sabres zone is a treat. His passes are crisp and when he doesn't have a lane, he takes it himself. Every once in a while he'll make the wrong decision or get cute and lose the puck. But for every mistake, there are five plays that remind us why he's going to soon be one of the best defenders in the NHL. With a little work on his shot and some added muscle, it's not crazy to think Dahlin could become a contender for the Norris Trophy [NHL's best defenseman] on a yearly basis.
A long way to go
Despite a 14-point improvement in the standings the Sabres still are a far cry from becoming a playoff team. Some of that is because of the coaching and some of that is based on the roster still not being good enough. Adding secondary scoring should be the focus of the offseason, at least if I were the one who was in charge of shaping the roster. Victor Olofsson and possibly Alex Nylander will likely start the year in Buffalo but those two bodies won't be enough, especially if the Sabres lose Skinner.
Each playoff team has their differences but almost all of them have scoring spread out throughout their lineup. For most of the season, the Sabres relied on their first-line to score and when they didn't, well, the team would lose. Adding a second-line center in the offseason should be a priority and if that requires moving someone like Rasmus Ristolainen I think the Sabres should be willing to part ways with their No. 1 defenseman for the past few seasons. The Ristolainen conversation is one for a different day but the emergence of Dahlin along with the addition of Brandon Montour makes it an idea worth exploring [if the return is fair].
Both Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville will become unrestricted free agents, clearing up $10.6 million for the Sabres to use on free agents or resigning players already on the roster. As we've learned with Moulson and Kyle Okposo, sometimes throwing big money at a free agent isn't the best play but that doesn't mean the Sabres shouldn't be active on July 1.
At this point, there are way too many factors that will shape how the Sabres attack their offseason. That said, adding secondary scoring should and will be the biggest priority for the blue and gold.
Year End Awards
At the Sabres final home game of the season, the team announced their season end awards as voted on by the players.
This is how my ballot would look:
MVP - Jack Eichel
This was a no brainer. As discussed above, Eichel just finished his best season as a pro on a team with not a ton of talent around him. When he was on the ice the Sabres were a threat. When he wasn't the Sabres were one of the worst teams in the NHL.
Rookie of the Year - Rasmus Dahlin
Unsung Hero - Sam Reinhart
I know, I know, claiming a former No. 2 overall pick is an "unsung hero" is a bit ridiculous but hear me out. In his fourth full season, Reinhart had his most productive year finishing with 22 goals, 43 assists, and 65 points. Before this season Reinhart's previous career-best was 50 points in 2017-2018. Just like Eichel, Reinhart has gotten better every single season. He's never going to be at the top of the league for scoring but there is incredible value in a player who can consistently finish with between 60-70 points. Reinhart is going to get a big raise after next season and it'll be deserved. I'm sure the Sabres front office is kicking themselves for agreeing to a bridge deal, rather than locking up the 23-year-old for a long time.
LVP - Vladimir Sobotka
Remember when idiots like me said the Sabres got a fair return in the Ryan O'Reilly trade? Sometimes you just need to admit that you were wrong. Sobotka, who was supposed to add secondary scoring and depth to the Sabres roster was virtually just an overpaid place-holder in the lineup more often than not. Despite the praise from Housley about his effectiveness on the penalty kill and his checking detail, Sobotka didn't bring a whole lot to the table. Finishing with just 13 points in 69 games was anything but a nice season for the 31-year-old center with one-year left on his contract.
Needs Improvement - Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt
This isn't to suggest that Thompson and/or Mittelstadt won't turn into high-end players down the road because that's not what I'm suggesting. But in their first full seasons with the Sabres both Thompson and Mittelstadt left a lot to be desired. At times both players flashed their ridiculous talent levels and gave fans a reason to be optimistic for the future. That said, there were just as many moments when sitting in the press box I thought to myself "are these guys ready to be full-time NHL players?"
Personally, I still think Mittelstadt is going to be a very good NHL player and projects to be a second-line center for years to come. As for Thompson, I see him more as a third-line winger who can play on the power play and utilize is ridiculous shot. With another summer of training and development, it's a safe bet to think that both players will once again be on the Sabres opening night roster next season. If that's the case, they'll need to produce on a more consistent basis and show they belong in the league every night.