Today, the Sabres announced roster cuts that will define opening night. Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, and Matt Tennyson were all waived while Alex Nylander, Tage Thompson, and Brendan Guhle were retained and Lawrence Pilut was sent down. Nylander and Thompson (forwards) had a very strong camp, as did Pilut (defense), while Guhle (D) was not as strong. Injuries on defense resulted in the aforementioned staying in the lineup or they might otherwise be in Rochester.
For the forwards especially, competition was tight as Bailey, among others, had nice preseason showings. These roster battles were evidence of GM Jason Botterill‘s upgrades on the wing as skill and speed were added. The sophomore manager talked up development and his philosophy is starting to pay off. Buffalo may not see the post-season but there needs to be significant improvement based on drastically better forward group.
The Sabres’ X-Factor
The most important factor in the success of the Sabres comes on the back-end: defense and goaltending. Improvement on the blue comes in the form of Rasmus Dahlin (2018 1st Overall Selection). The 18 year old adds generational talent, even in his rookie season. He made young men’s mistakes in preseason but he can still do things with the puck that forwards cannot. It is still better.
Lawrence Pilut’s audition showed glimpses of why he was the SHL’s top defenseman. His poise with the puck in all zones as well as strong passing will be a tremendous asset. The injuries to Brandon Hickey, Zach Bogosian, and Matt Hunwick presented early opportunity for Pilut to show he has a future with the Sabres. Late afternoon, however, he was assigned to Rochester. Somehow, I feel he’ll back sooner than later.
There is a chance for others to shine as well. Despite contrasting performances, Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson are still up in Buffalo. Nelson scored twice and played confident while Guhle was unremarkable. Guhle’s struggles should not be a problem but he is due to be the first drop to Rochester as he is waiver exempt. Once back in the AHL, he will play a lot and get the attention needed.
Some veterans are returning and will are due for a better season. The group of Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, and Marco Scandella were mediocre in 2018 but played more than what they should. With a little help, will this trio fill roles they are better suited for? On paper, it should but who knows? All we know is Nathan Beaulieu seems like the off man out.
Mystery in Goal
The goaltending question is not the personnel so much the outcome of the tandem. Carter Hutton (FA from St. Louis) put his name on the map as he performed well with the Blues, evident from 0.931 AV% and 2.09 GAA.
Now those are some good numbers, eh? They are but the issue is that this was over 32 games. His career numbers have been average so it is a mystery if Hutton can be an adequate starter for 50 games or so. Thankfully, he is not on a big deal, he is really a bridge goaltender for a more long term situation.
After an All-Star season in the minors, Linus Ullmark has earned a spot on the top club. It was clear that Ullmark had a future in a Jason Botterill’s franchise when he was willing to part with Will Carrier as well as extended before the expansion draft. Despite limited NHL time, Ullmark has shown flashes of a solid goaltender in the making. It is fair to believe that the 6th round pick will play significant games for the Sabres and see more time within the next three years. In his first full season, however, it is still difficult to predict whether Ullmark will be a difference maker. The team is banking on solid play but the sample size is still too small.
Season Outcome Fuzzy
In my Atlantic Division preview on the Buffalo Sabres, I predicted 85 points and fifth place in the division. It would be a 23 point improvement, which is not small, but I am thinking somewhere between 80-90 range. With so many factors and changes, the point projection is very broad. Botterill has added significant depth at the wing position while hitting the jackpot with Rasmus Dahlin. The netminding duo is 100% different and without a long track record.
Some teams can be predicted to be a Cup contender while others project to have a terrible year quite easily. No one predicted the Sabres to be the first team to be 31st. I do not believe they will be in last again this year but I find it way too difficult to confidently prophesize how they season will go. I do expect improvement but the extent will depend on the depth in the organization panning out. The season for this struggling franchise is compelling and fans have been patient. There is definite talent on this roster but is it playoff worthy? Probably not. But it needs to be fun again for Buffalo hockey fans to buy in to Botterill’s changes.