What Would It Take For The Sabres To Make The Playoffs?
(A time machine. There’s the punchline to stave off the inevitable incoming snarky comments.)
Back in the Jack Eichel days, there was always at least one “if” surrounding the team that – if answered in the affirmative – could potentially have lifted the Sabres out of mediocrity and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Some of those “ifs” included:
- If Marco Scandella could be a first pairing defenseman (then the Sabres could make the playoffs).
- If Casey Mittelstadt could be a second line center (then the Sabres could make the playoffs).
- If Marcus Johansson could be a second line center (then the Sabres could make the playoffs).
- If Eric Staal could be a second line center (then the Sabres could make the playoffs).
- If Taylor Hall could revert to his Hart Trophy year (then the Sabres could make the playoffs).
The list could go on and on, but you get the point.
There were usually a couple of key questions asked before the beginning of a given season that would determine how competitive the Sabres would be that year. These questions were nearly always answered negatively, and the season would therefore go directly into the toilet. Back in those days, though, the Sabres had a higher margin for error with a stud #1 center who was expected to put up big numbers while playing big minutes, and that situation is gone. The Sabres now have far more questions to answer due to the lack of that guaranteed point-producing player, and as a result, many more things have to line up in their favor* for Don Granto’s squad to even have a remote chance at making the dance.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions, that if answered in the affirmative, will give the Sabres a reasonable chance to enter the post-season tournament for the first time since Barack Obama’s first term in office.
1.) The Sabres’ highest-performing players meet or exceed their 2021-22 output.
Jeff Skinner had a whale of a bounce-back year last season as he tied his career-high in points with 63 while potting 33 goals. The 30-year-old is somewhat notorious for answering a good season with a dud, although that may have been (was) influenced in the past by the Sabres switching coaches from Phil Housley to Ralph Krueger. Skinner will need to string together two good seasons for the Sabres to be relevant this year. The same goes for Tage Thompson who came out of nowhere with a 38-goal-campaign, Kyle Okposo who scored 20 goals for the first time in a Sabres uniform, and Alex Tuch who had the highest points-per-game output of his career. Kevyn Adams needs all of them to be as-good-or-better than they were last year.
2.) Eric Comrie plays 45 games with a .915 save percentage.
The Sabres have largely had sub-par or injury riddled goaltending since Ryan Miller left a decade ago and that will need to change if the team is to make any noise this season. Eric Comrie is the most realistic option for the Sabres to solidify their crease when compared to the alternatives. Craig Anderson is 41 years old and cannot be counted on to stay healthy or put up objectively good numbers given his advanced age. Likewise, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has not shown an ability to stay healthy, even if his NHL numbers are intriguing in a small sample size (.913/3.08). To paraphrase Star Wars: Save us Eric Comrie; you’re our only hope.
3.) The Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers both take a step back.
Here’s a hot take: The Sabres goaltending looks better than the Leafs. Sure, Matt Murray has two Stanley Cups, but his results over the past three seasons have been dreadful as he’s posted save percentages of .899, .893 and .906 during that time. Behind him is Ilya Samsonov and his career .902 save percentage. Eric Comrie looks like a better option than either one of those guys at the moment, even if the sample size for the former Winnipeg Jet is small. The Leafs still have a ton of offensive fire power, of course, led by superstar Auston Matthews who scored 60 goals last year, so they’ll likely try to outscore their defensive problems as they have for the past several years.
The Florida Panthers meanwhile traded Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar for Matthew Tkachuk in the offseason while also adding a new coach in Paul Maurice. Honestly it’s hard to see them regressing given the minor tinkering they’ve done.
Elsewhere in the division, the Bruins are bringing back David Kreijci and have retained Patrice Bergeron. The Senators and Red Wings both improved in the offseason. The pure numbers game here makes the playoffs look nearly impossible for the Sabres.
4.) 2/3rds of Owen Power, Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka are Calder caliber
The Sabres announced an interesting decision Monday when they released their Prospect Challenge roster and neither JJ Peterka nor Jack Quinn appeared on the list. Both players are on their entry level contracts and both players are 20 years old, which, one would think, would make them excellent candidates to participate in the Prospects Challenge. Not so, and the most reasonable explanation for their omission is that management wants them healthy and available for the start of Sabres training camp next week. Both players now appear to have the inside track to make the big club and the Sabres will need a real performance from at least one of them in order for the team to be good this year.
2021 first-overall pick Owen Power will also need to make an immediate impact on the roster and show why he was taken at the top of his draft class. At least two of these players will need to be in the running for rookie of the year.
Are these expectations fair? No. But the roster is constructed in such a way that at least two these three will need to have unbelievable seasons, lest the Sabres extend their playoff drought to 12 years.
5.) Someone, anyone, will need to be a 50-point, second-line center.
Ever since Ryan O’Reilly lost his love for the game and was traded to the St. Louis Blue back in 2018, the team in blue and gold has searched in vain for someone to hit that almost mythical point mark. Oh, many have tried, including the aforementioned Mittelstadt, Johansson and Staal, along with Patrik Berglund, Dylan Cozens, Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues and more. No mere mortal has been able to cross the elusive threshold, but the Sabres will need someone to do it this year. There are three leading candidates for the position: Peyton Krebs, Cozens and Mittelstadt, and of them will need to rise to the top and do what no one before him has done: get 50 points from the second pivot position.
If the Sabres can hit all these marks then there exists the possibility – no matter how remote – that the Sabres snap their streak of futility. And yes, it seems impossible for all these things (and more) to happen, but every year, at least one team hits a lucky streak and over-performs versus their expectation. The Sabres have been chronically and comically unable to hit that lucky streak, but who knows: maybe this year is the year.
*Including perhaps astrological phenomena. Is Mercury in retrograde? Is Neptune ascending? Is it still the dawning of the age of Aquarius? Let me know in the comments.