NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Buffalo Sabres.
A coaching change and other offseason moves have the Buffalo Sabres optimistic they can take the next step this season and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011. That would end the longest active playoff drought in the NHL.
Ralph Krueger replaced Phil Housley as coach May 15 and brings international and NHL experience. He coached Switzerland to an upset of Canada at the 2006 Torino Olympics and helped Team Europe reach the World Cup of Hockey 2016 championship series, which it lost to Team Canada. He also was 19-22-7 as coach of the Edmonton Oilers in 2012-13.
[Sabres 31 IN 31: 3 Questions | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]
"The thing that we kept on coming back was those high-pressure situations that he's been involved with, and he's excelled in those environments," Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill said. "The fact that he can bring a group together, he can motivate in-game a team in high-pressure situations, was very intriguing for us."
Krueger was hired with the core of center and captain Jack Eichel, center Sam Reinhart, forward Jeff Skinner and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin on the roster. Buffalo then added another potential cornerstone, forward Dylan Cozens, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft who is expected to return to Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League this season.
"I really respect how hard everybody's been working at getting the players to where they are now," Krueger said. "I'm happy to be stepping into a team that has a foundation, has a basis that I can build on."
The Sabres appeared to be on their way to the playoffs last season when they tied their record with a 10-game winning streak from Nov. 8-27, 2018, putting them at the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 17-6-2. But they went 16-33-8 the rest of the way and finished 22 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the playoffs from the East, 13th in the conference.
Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Skinner
The Sabres bolstered their depth at defenseman by acquiring Colin Miller in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights on June 28 and Henri Jokiharju in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 9. That gives Buffalo at least five right-shot defensemen who could play in the NHL, with Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour and Zach Bogosian also on the roster. Bogosian is expected to miss the start of the season after having offseason hip surgery.
Acquiring forward Jimmy Vesey in a trade with the New York Rangers on July 1 and signing forward Marcus Johansson to a two-year contract on July 6 brings much-needed secondary scoring; Skinner (40), Eichel (28) and Reinhart (22) scored 90 of Buffalo's 221 goals (41 percent) last season.
Vesey had 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 81 games with the Rangers last season, and Johansson had 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 58 games with the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins.
Video: TBL@NYR: Vesey battles to net, notches crafty goal
"I'm pretty excited," Skinner said. "We made some pretty good moves, I think, through free agency and trades, and it's only made me more excited to get going. … We should try to build on some of the things we did early last season that paid off. We didn't sustain it long enough and we want to change that."
Buffalo will be counting on the growth of young players, including forwards Tage Thompson, 21, and Victor Olofsson, 24, center Casey Mittelstadt, 20, and Dahlin, 19, who sparkled last season as a rookie. He had 44 points (nine goals, 35 assists), moving him past Bobby Orr for the second-most by an NHL defenseman before his 19th birthday (behind Housley). Dahlin's 35 assists led rookie defensemen and ranked second among NHL rookies behind center Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks (38).
Vesey said he is looking forward to seeing what the Sabres can accomplish.
"Buffalo was right there for so long (last season)," Vesey said. "They fell off at the end, but I think this is a group on the cusp of doing something special, and I'm hoping and excited to be a part of that."
Listen: NHL Fantasy on Ice podcast