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Atlantic Review: Buffalo will live and die on the word “if”

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s 2019 Atlantic Review in which we take a team-by-team look at the other seven teams in the Atlantic Division. Today, we have the worst NHL team of the decade, the Buffalo Sabres. 

The Buffalo Sabres are looking for a fresh start as the world enters the 2020s. The 2010s, uh, were not kind to this organization.

They made the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 but got bounced in the first round. Since then, though, it’s been a disaster in Buffalo. The Sabres have won just 230 of their 622 games during an eight-season playoff drought and they’ve finished in the bottom five in the league five times in that span. Calling them Oilers East would be rude to Edmonton.

Despite year after year of futility, the Sabres shockingly don’t have that much to show for their struggles. Jack Eichel was a great consolation prize to missing out on Connor McDavid in 2015, Sam Reinhart is finally looking like a No. 2 overall pick, and Rasmus Dahlin is probably the best young blueliner in hockey, but the Sabres have made a lot of mistakes over the years to bog things down.

They had two first-round picks in the incredibly cursed 2012 draft and ended up with Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko. To be frank, they didn’t become the one-two punch down the middle Buffalo hoped. Rasmus Ristolainen was a fair pick at No. 8 in 2013, but he’s being paid like a No. 1 defenceman when he’s far from it. They made two more solid picks in 2013 with Nikita Zadorov and JT Compher, but both of those guys are proving their potential in Colorado now. They sold the farm to acquire Ryan O’Reilly then sent him to St. Louis for virtually nothing. All he did was go on to win a Conn Smythe Trophy. Alex Nylander, another top pick, is already headed down bust territory, and if Casey Mittelstadt’s rookie year was any indication, he might be following.

Last season, the Sabres showed a faint glimmer of hope. But just as they were raising their Good Month of November banner, their three good players cooled down and the whole thing imploded. In order for things to go different for the Sabres this year, a lot of things are going to need to fall in their favour.

What did they do this off-season?

Notable additions: Colin Miller, Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, Henri Jokiharju. 

Notable subtractions: Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson, Matt Tennyson, Alex Nylander. 

Jason Botterill, in his third summer at the helm of the Sabres, put together a very strong off-season.

First and foremost, Buffalo hired what appears to be their coach of the future. The Sabres haven’t found a consistent replacement behind the bench since Lindy Ruff was let go back in 2013. None of Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, or Phil Housley could hack it, but motivational guru Ralph Krueger might be the guy.

Krueger really got the short end of the stick when he was in Edmonton. He coached the team during the 2013 lockout-shortened season and it really, really looked like the team was ready to turn a corner under his leadership. Unfortunately, the Oilers canned him over Skype, proceeded to hire Dallas Eakins, and everything went to hell. Krueger would spend five years learning new things with Southhampton of the English Premier League.

Botterill also made a handful of nice additions to improve the team’s roster. He capitalized on the Vegas Golden Knights’ ugly cap situation, paying very little to acquire the critically-underrated Colin Miller to add depth to the blueline. He also added solid middle-six winger Marcus Johansson in free agency, who had a nice playoff run with the Boston Bruins. Finally, Botterill dealt struggling prospect Alex Nylander for a quality young defenceman in Henri Jokiharju, turning back the clock on what appears to be a bust.

There’s no doubt the Sabres are a better team than they were last year. That said, they were so bad last year that even with these major upgrades, they’re far from a guaranteed playoff team.

How does this affect the Leafs?

Everything could come together for the Buffalo Sabres. There’s enough of a foundation that if things go right, they could surprise everyone and snap their playoff drought. That said, there are a lot of “ifs” that need to go right.

IF Casey Mittelstadt has a better sophomore season than his ugly 25-point rookie season, the Sabres will be able to run a couple of good forward lines. This would be huge in taking the pressure off of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Jeff Skinner, who were pretty much the whole team last year.

IF Brandon Montour takes a step forward and nicely complements Rasmus Dahlin, the Sabres could have a legitimate top defensive pairing. This would push Rasmus Ristolainen down onto the second pairing where, ideally, he would be able to thrive in a more sheltered role.

IF Carter Hutton can be anywhere near as good as he was in St. Louis, goaltending won’t be as issue. Neither Hutton or backup Linus Ullmark have been successful as a starter in the NHL and the Sabres don’t have the offence to compensate for poor goaltending.

IF veterans like Kyle Okposo and Zack Bogosian can have a fully healthy and productive season, the Sabres’ roster would be a lot deeper. Both veterans have been massively disappointing in Buffalo considering the salary cap they eat up. Getting something out of Okposo and Bogosian would be huge for a roster lacking depth.

If all of those things go right for the Sabres, they’ll most certainly be in the mix for the playoffs. But, how often does everything go right? More than likely, the Sabres will be a slightly better version of what they were last year, which was a top-heavy roster bogged down by a lack of quality depth. Still, it’s more likely things go right for the Sabres this year than last. They’re a better team than they were in 2019-20.

If you were dreaming about heading down to Buffalo for a Leafs and Sabres playoff series, you’ll probably have to wait another year or two.