Sadly, the 2018 season did not pan out quite that way and the Sabres finished the year in 31st place in the standings, which is, of course, the first time that has ever happened in NHL history.
This isn't at all to say that the hopes and the dreams of the Buffalo faithful have been dashed completely. No, far from it. The Sabres, as bad as they were in this past season, they did show signs, mostly in that prospect pool I had mentioned already and there are signs of improvement on the horizon, much like last year about this time. More on that in a bit.
All is not lost here yet. The team has a bonafide superstar, they have some great young players up-and-coming, maybe a few decisions to make on the back end, but there is some semblance of a competitive franchise, which could happen as soon as next season, if all goes well. I'm not sure how excited I would be, per se, about investing some hockey pool picks in the 2019 Sabres, but I will have a look again after this summer, just to see how they are faring.
The franchise players, forward Jack Eichel, didn't have a healthy season again in the 2018 season, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't the team's top scorer, which may say a lot more about the depth in Buffalo this past year. Eichel played in only 67 games this year, scoring 25 goals and 64 points, ranking 69th overall in pool scoring, 52nd among all forwards. His scoring rate was very good, but if he's not playing 80+ games in the season, it isn't reflecting well on the team.
Only four other forwards finished in the pool worthiness conversation and they include Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville and O'Reilly was the only other forward to finish in the top 100 at the position. Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella were the only two defensemen in the hockey pool conversation, while Robin Lehner did manage his way into the top 50 goalies, but only 39th overall, which isn't good enough for a starting goalie pick, in theory. I think there was a lot more hope for a better year in Buffalo, even in my hockey pool draft, but those teams suffered mightily and with a limited amount of worthy players, that usually translates into their final position in the standings.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
Between O'Reilly, Eichel and Ristolainen, those are three pieces you'd love to have together on any given team in the league and they belong to the Sabres. I'm just not sure that their excellence can overcome the burden of inconsistency that Kane, Okposo and Moulson are generally good for. I don't think that the Sabres goaltending is that bad, the Sabres blueline is a work in progress, so it won't be easy for them, but coming together and overcoming some attitudes is either a team building function or a housecleaning bit of trades away. I'm not convinced that this team is capable of the playoffs, until one or both of these things happen and they may still continue to struggle, despite their ever improving core.
This team was far from capable of a playoff position in the 2018 season, but they were able to do some housecleaning at the trade deadline and they were able to add some more of their young components. The struggle continues to be rather real and it will take some real work to turn this around in a big hurry and if we've learned anything in the last couple years, quick turnarounds are few and far between.
How did my intriguing or breakout player fare?
I was a little disappointed, not to see Alexander Nylander make the team out of camp, I thought that would have been a great story to see through the better part of this season, lining up against his brother in some divisional games against Toronto. No, Nylander didn't fare so well out of camp and spent the better part of the season in the AHL with the farm team. The 20-year old did have a good tournament at the World Juniors and did finally come back up to finish the season, but it wasn't what I really hoped it would be. He will, however, be one to watch next season, I'm sure.
2019 Pool Outlook
|Jack Eichel||10.000||Rasmus Ristolainen||5.400||Jonas Johansson||0.759|
|Ryan O'Reilly||7.500||Zach Bogosian||5.143||Linus Ullmark||0.750|
|Kyle Okposo||6.000||Marco Scandella||4.000|
|Jason Pominville||5.600||Nathan Beaulieu||2.400|
|Matt Moulson||5.000||Jake McCabe||1.600|
|Zemgus Girgensons||1.600||Brendan Guhle||0.698|
|Johan Larsson||1.475||Matt Tennyson||0.650|
The Sabres will more than likely bury Matt Moulson again next season, but for the purposes of going into the summer, we're looking at how their roster may shape up, using only the players that they have signed at the moment. Goaltending will have to be a point of emphasis in the summer, no matter how high they might be on Linus Ullmark. There are some pluses on that roster, to date, but it isn't glowing, to say the least.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
The 21-man roster above comes in at $62.3 million and there are rumblings that the ceiling could hit $80 million this summer, which would leave them a lot of cap space to try and shop for that top end goalie and add some depth to those key spots that are in dire need.
Robin Lehner leads the pool worthy UFAs out of Buffalo, while Sam Reinhart does the same on the RFA side. The Sabres will be busy this summer, one could safely assume, but they may not have as many pressing needs within their organization, rather hoping that there is an overflowing free agent market on July 1st.
The Sabres were able to convince their top prospect Casey Mittelstadt to come out of the college ranks early and no one is really surprised, especially at how well he dominated the World Juniors and the numbers he put up in college. He is already appearing like a mature body, even at 19 years old, and there's little reason to think that he can't be among the elite players in a couple years. The young players are slowly coming together for the Sabres and depending on where they sit in the draft this year, they could be adding some talent to their lineup right away.
Needs at the 2018 Entry Draft
Well, if the Buffalo Sabres were really to truly need anything, it would be a goalie. This year, however, since they finished last and had the best odds at the lottery... they actually won the lottery! So, I don't believe that they will be taking a goalie with that pick, not with a stud defenseman like Rasmus Dahlin available. This kid is the consensus number one across all media platforms for this draft and the Sabres would be brain dead not to jump on the train here. Their youthful core would get a huge boost, by the puck moving, shooting and skating ability of this kid and things couldn't be better for the Sabres moving forward.
Get a goalie! A good goalie. Jonathan Bernier is set to become an unrestricted free agent... he played well in Colorado. Get him! Just do something better in net. The Sabres have a lot of good pieces on their squad, they do have to overcome some bad luck and some injury bug bites, but overall, they do have some pieces that could make them competitive in the 2019 season and possibly right this ship. Add a full-time Mittelstadt and Dahlin to this mix, they'll be playing a boat load of talent and with the right amount of tinkering in this off-season, they could be looking for a wild card spot, not unlike what the Devils did this year.