Sabres Forced to Look to Next Season Once Again

By this point, Buffalo Sabres fans are used to their team being out of playoff contention by the time March arrives. But even in a season that started in mid-January, that’s the case once again in 2020-21.

After back-to-back 3-0 losses to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday and Sunday, the Sabres’ season is essentially over. Entering Monday they were tied with the Ottawa Senators for fewest points in the NHL with 15 (with the caveat of having played four fewer games), and were 28th in points percentage at .395%. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic has their playoff chances at 1%, while MoneyPuck isn’t much more optimistic, pegging the Sabres’ postseason odds at 7%.

“Wait ‘till next year” is an annual refrain amongst this fanbase, but it’s come even earlier than usual this season. With another lost season staring them in the face — not to mention a 10th consecutive campaign outside of the playoff picture — the Sabres don’t have much choice but to look ahead to 2021-22.

Free Agency Could Lead to Wholesale Changes

There’s a good chance that the 2021-22 Sabres could look a lot different than this season’s iteration (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). The team currently has 10 regular players slated to hit unrestricted free agency after this season: Brandon Davidson, Taylor Hall, Carter Hutton, Matt Irwin, Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour, Tobias Rieder, Riley Sheahan, Eric Staal, and Linus Ullmark.

Hall is obviously the biggest question mark. One of the marquee additions of the offseason, the former league MVP, like the rest of the team, has struggled mightily this season with just one goal in 19 games. Hall has made it clear that he’s open to signing an extension. But as the Sabres continue to sink, it wouldn’t be surprising if general manager Kevyn Adams attempted to offload Hall at this season’s trade deadline rather than risk letting him walk for nothing after the season.

Taylor Hall Buffalo Sabres
Taylor Hall, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images)

The other two big names mentioned above are McCabe and Ullmark. Both players were among the few bright spots on this team before they both went down with injuries. McCabe’s knee injury will keep him out for the rest of the season, but this might have been his last season in Buffalo even if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He’s a player who probably needs a fresh start after so many years of losing.

Losing Ullmark, meanwhile, would leave the Sabres with a gaping hole in net — you know, besides the usual ones that happen during games — with the departure of Hutton a near-certainty. Jonas Johansson’s upside is probably capped as a backup, while Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is still a raw prospect.

All of this doesn’t even account for pending restricted free agents Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, Casey Mittelstadt, and Sam Reinhart. The Sabres could have money to spend, especially if the cap bounces back as the pandemic begins to subside. But they could have a lot of holes to fill.

Ralph Krueger’s Future

Perhaps no one on the Sabres has had a rougher week than head coach Ralph Krueger. From his decision to make $9 million man Jeff Skinner a healthy scratch for three games to a great deal of miscommunication regarding Jack Eichel’s health, the fanbase is starting to turn on the second-year coach.

Buffalo’s struggles of course beg the question of whether or not Krueger’s job is in jeopardy. Even though he’s only been around for roughly the equivalent of a full season, the evidence is pretty stark. On a team that isn’t exactly bereft of offensive talent, Krueger is seemingly unwilling to abandon his defensive “principles” and allow his best players to play a more open style. The result has been one of the worst even-strength offenses in recent NHL history.

The last thing owners Terry and Kim Pegula want to do is fire another coach – since purchasing the team in 2011, the Pegulas have gone through six different head coaches. Each one of them has failed to make the playoffs.

While good sports franchises don’t fire their coach every other year, Buffalo may not have a choice if this season continues to go down the drain. And while there is no shortage of good candidates available, that begs another question: who in the world would want to come coach for this franchise?

The Jack Eichel Question

As much as Sabres fans want to avoid it, the question of Jack Eichel’s future with the franchise is a very real one. The rumours are everywhere, with many floating potential deals with teams like the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, and Eichel’s hometown Boston Bruins.

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, the possibility of Eichel being traded this season, or even next season, is remote at best. The no-move clause on his contract, which pays him $10 million a year through the 2025-26 season, doesn’t kick in until after the 2021-22 season. Until then, Eichel does not get to decide where he wants to play.

But how much more organizational ineptitude can one player take until he’s had enough? Eichel has said all the right things, but the fact is that he’s entering his prime years and has never even sniffed a playoff game. Unless something drastic changes in Buffalo in the next year and a half, the Jack Eichel question will not be going away.

Looking to the 2021 Draft

Another annual tradition for Sabres fans whenever the season appears over is looking ahead to the next crop of incoming young talent. The 2021 NHL Draft, however, promises to be a unique one.

First of all, the pandemic has already severely limited in-person scouting. Teams will be relying heavily on game tape rather than seeing top prospects in person.

The other notable aspect of the 2021 Draft is the lack of a clear-cut No. 1 prospect. Unlike the last three classes that had no-doubt number one picks in Alexis LaFreniere, Jack Hughes, and Rasmus Dahlin, there is no consensus at the top of 2021 draft boards.

The Hockey Writers’ Matthew Zator had Michigan center Matt Beniers at the top of his most recent prospect rankings list. But other candidates to go first overall include Beniers’ teammates defenseman Owen Power and center Kent Johnson, Canadian defenseman Brandt Clarke, Swedish forward William Eklund, and American defenseman Luke Hughes.

Matthew Beniers, Michigan Wolverines
Matthew Beniers Michigan Wolverines (Photo Credit Michigan Photography)

As noted earlier, Buffalo sits 30th in the NHL in points and 28th in points percentage, so a high draft pick is likely in the cards. This looks like a great draft if you need a top-pair defenseman, and that’s something the Sabres could certainly use, but the obvious need on this team is for more scoring.

Another option, and one that I would strongly consider, is trading the team’s top pick for a package centered around a difference-making forward. The time for relying on high draft picks to save the day has passed – the Sabres need to win now, and bringing in a proven commodity to help the offense is a good first step.

It’s a shame that Sabres fans have to spend the majority of a season looking ahead to next year. But that’s where this franchise finds itself once again. There are no easy answers to fixing this mess, and the list of questions is as long as it’s ever been.

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