Keep in mind, this is not guaranteed, but the Buffalo Sabres are an improved team. The 2018-19 version showed a lot of promise yet collapsed horribly during the second half. They wound up with a sub-.500 record (33-39-10).
With a new coaching staff in place and some moves made already, Buffalo expects to rise a bit more in 2019-20. However, here are five adjustments that could help the Sabres possibly make the playoffs.
First, solve the logjam on defense.
This may prove to be more difficult than it looks. However, if Jason Botterill does this right, Buffalo could benefit quite nicely. In a little over two seasons, the general manager revamped the defense dramatically. The left is from May of 2017.
Now, the right is from the current group. That is a lot of turnover and there are some rumors another player or two may be traded. Will it be Rasmus Ristolainen or Zach Bogosian? This depends on who you talk to. The key will be what kind of return Botterill gets for moving a defenseman. That will help sort out some roles and alleviate the logjam.
Second, make better coaching adjustments
The one main thing Phil Housely’s coaching staff and himself could not do well was making coaching adjustments. Nothing ever could seem to work, and Buffalo had little ability to stop the bleeding once the losing started. This was a team poised to make the playoffs around Christmas time.
Ralph Krueger and his staff must get the most out of this team and it is imperative that they avoid long losing streaks. Buffalo is a team that will not blow its opponent out of the building – at least not very often. The Sabres must learn how to handle adversity better and arguably it starts with better defense and more consistent goaltending.
Third, better utilize some players
This ties into number two a little bit. On the other hand, Lawrence Pilut basically rotted in the AHL much like how newly acquired Henri Jokiharju did last year instead of playing for the Chicago Blackhawks over the second half.
Furthermore, it will help the fact that Buffalo has increased its ability to play defense. That should have a ripple effect and allow Krueger to use his forwards up the ice even more. Buffalo has ability to score more goals, but it comes down to better use. Players like Kyle Okposo may need to be moved as well to make way for younger talent.
Fourth, the goaltending must improve in the second half
Overall, the defense was as bad as the goaltending over the final 35-40 games, but it always felt like a backbreaking goal was close at hand. That’s a problem! Both goaltenders wound up with a goals-against average of three or greater. The first half was more than a half goal a game better.
Consistency is essential basically. A team cannot have a below average penalty kill and goaltending then expect to make the playoffs. Since the goalie is often the last line of defense on the penalty kill, he must prove that often. Is Linus Ullmark ready to take over for Carter Hutton or will Hutton keep the job? Training camp expects to be quite the battle and it is a big one for the Buffalo Sabres.
Finally, for better or for worse play Jack Eichel more
Eichel will have to play more minutes for Buffalo to have a chance to make the playoffs. Besides staying healthy, him scoring more from that increased playing time would be a bonus. This is a Sabres team that should be able to draw more penalties.
The center for Buffalo played 20:26 per game in 2018-19 which is not terrible. Although, one sees some of these elite players log 22-23 minutes a night easily. Eichel seeing power play time in an increased fashion needed to happen quickly.
Either way, Buffalo will not be dull in 2019-20. Expect a few more changes between now and October. Now, can the Sabres finally stand and deliver?
By Chris Wassel