Sabres 2018-2019 Season Preview: Is making the postseason a realistic expectation?

Buffalo Sabres
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Buffalo Sabres right wing Kyle Okposo, right, is congratulated on his goal by center Jack Eichel during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

It’s pretty simple for the 2018-2019 season: Just be better.

From the draft, and No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, to the wheeling and dealing that brought Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner to the Queen City along with Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, in theory, there isn’t a good reason why the Sabres shouldn’t be in the postseason conversation.

But, there is a difference between being in the playoff conversation and actually getting there.  The bench mark the last few seasons has been 90 points. The Sabres had 62 last year.

Can they get there? Sure.

Will they? That’s the biggest question.

Culture

That’s all that was talked about at the season ending press conference, throughout the summer and into the preseason.

It’s a new group and a new room, with veterans who have had success in their careers.

There shouldn’t be any chatter about not following a game plan or listening to the coaches.

As for captains — Throughout the offseason Housley has referenced a leadership group. Brian Gionta touched on it at his retirement press conference and provided good insight on leadership in today’s game:

“Quite frankly, a lot from the outside is put on the idea of a captain. But, in today’s game it’s leadership by committee and it’s about your core group of 7-10 guys that are leading in that room.  So, yes, is there a figurehead at times that has to come a face the likes of you guys (media) joyfully after games — but I think it is a group that leads the room.  It doesn’t fall on a single guy, it falls on a whole group.

Home Ice

For all the talk about changing the culture and being a consistent winner, the Sabres have a chance to do that right out of the gate with four home games to open the year.

Winning three of four or all four would be the step in the right direction, considering they won a lowly 12 home contests last year.

Come out, be ready to play for 60 minutes, give the fans what they deserve: A winning product. 

If the Sabres have a few clunkers to start the season, there’s a good chance tickets start going for cheap. For what it’s worth, at one point seats were going for $3-6 last season.

The Sabres hit the road the their long western road trip after their home stand so if they don’t get off to a good start early, it could make for a rough opening month of hockey.

More Money, More Problems

Jack Eichel’s $10 million a year extension kicks in this season.

He’s come close to being a point per game player since entering the league.  It’s now his team and his time.

Eichel should net somewhere between 85-90 points this season.

30-35 goals and 50-60 assists shouldn’t be out of the question for a generational player who now has the talent around him to be even more successful.

He’s always going to compared to Connor McDavid, who has reached 100 points in each of the last two seasons.  McDavid also led the Oilers to the playoffs during the 2016-2017 season.

Sam Reinhart

Who is the real Sam Reinhart? The winger who had five goals in the first half of last season? Or the player who had 20 goals over the final 44 games?

I’m sure General Manager Botterill and head coach Phil Housley are hoping for the latter, as is #23, who got a nice little bridge deal a few days into training camp.

If he carries that kind of point production throughout this season and next he’ll get what he’s ultimately looking for: The Brinks truck

Secondary Scoring

Speaking of scoring, after being the only team in the NHL to fail to crack the 200 goal mark last year, the good news is GMJB went out and retooled this team with speed, skill and scoring ability.

The Blue & Gold are in prime position to roll out three consistent scoring lines.

The blueline has been upgraded thanks to Dahlin, who should be paired with Jake McCabe to continue his development and transition to the NHL game.

It took nearly three months for a Sabres defenseman to score last year.  In year two of Housley’s attack style system, they should be constant contributors this season.

Above all else, hopefully the Sabres don’t endure any long or lingering scoring droughts like they experienced last season from guys like Reinhart (16-games), Jason Pominville (20-games), Zemgus Girgensons (25-games).

Line Projection

Forwards

Skinner – Eichel – Reinhart

Sheary – Berglund – Okposo

Sobotka – Rodrigues – Thompson

Girgensons – Mittelstadt – Pominville 

Defense

Scandella – Ristolainen

Dahlin – McCabe

Beaulieu – Nelson/Tennyson (Bogosian injured)

Goaltenders

Hutton

Ullmark

I know these lines aren’t similar to what the Sabres have put out since the week began. 

The one thing I keep coming back to is E-Rod as the third line center. Housley said over and over last year when Rodrigues was on the ice, he helped put everyone in the place they were supposed to be in the lineup. He fills a critical role on this team.  

That said, I’d like to see Mittelstadt on his wing or even have Mittelstadt as 3C with E-Rod and Thompson on the wings. That’d be a fun line to watch grow together.

Goaltending

Carter Hutton is the bridge to Linus Ullmark. He knows his role and what his job is — help the Sabres win games and mentor Ullmark.

He’s also an upgrade to Robin Lehner.  In one goal games last season Buffalo went 5-11.  Hutton could help turn the tide in the Sabres favor in the games.

Outlook

Make hockey in Buffalo fun again.

With all the upgrades to the roster, it’d be easy to say this is a 90 point team that can win on a consistent basis.

But, they haven’t proved they’re capable of that….yet.

80-90 points shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for this team.

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