The Buffalo Sabres made headlines when they re-signed forward Jeff Skinner, who scored an NHL career-high 40 goals in his first season in Buffalo, to an eight-year contract on June 7, and hired Ralph Kreuger as coach on May 15.
Those moves could help the Sabres (33-39-10) end a Stanley Cup Playoff drought that began in 2012, but underlying numbers suggest the additions of defensemen Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju, and forwards Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson, will bolster their chances.
Miller, who was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights in a trade for two draft picks on June 28, has been traditionally a third-pair defenseman who plays on the power play. In the past three seasons, he has a 56.89 percent shot attempt percentage, second to Dougie Hamilton (57.02) of the Carolina Hurricanes among defensemen to play at least 100 games. His shot attempt percentage last season was 55.98 percent, higher than any Sabres defenseman who played at least 20 games; the highest SAT% among Sabres defensemen was 54.36 percent by Brandon Montour, who was acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 24.
Video: VGK@SJS, Gm2: Miller beats Jones on the rush for SHG
But Miller has not been tasked with the most difficult assignments throughout his NHL career; in the past three seasons, he has averaged 15:34 of ice time per game at even strength, ranking 157th among defensemen to play at least 100 NHL games. His track record suggests he's likely to succeed in a role on the third defense pair, but it's possible he could handle more responsibilities.
Jokiharju, who was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Alex Nylander on July 9, had 12 assists in 38 games as a rookie last season, but he was Chicago's best defenseman in terms of shot attempts. The 20-year-old had a 54.10 percent shot attempt percentage and a relative SAT percentage of plus-5.95. Nathan Beaulieu had the highest SAT percentage for the Sabres last season (plus-4.68), but he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 25.
The additions of Miller and Jokiharju should give Buffalo a legitimate opportunity to improve its shot metrics, something that could be the difference for a team that controlled 49.97 percent of its shot attempts at 5-on-5, which ranked 13th in the NHL.
The Sabres also needed to upgrade their forward depth; Skinner, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jason Pominville were their only forwards among those who played at least 20 games to have at least 1.80 points per 60 minutes, the fewest among Eastern Conference teams. Vesey, acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers for a third-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft on July 1, and Johansson should be able to provide secondary scoring. In the past two seasons, Vesey has scored 32 of his 34 goals at even strength; of current Sabres forwards, Skinner (52) Eichel (44) and Reinhart (32) have more in that time span.
Video: STL@NYR: Vesey cleans up rebound for go-ahead goal
Vesey, 26, had 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) but had one point (a goal) in his final 19 games and finished the season with an average of 1.61 points per 60 minutes. Through 62 games, he was averaging 2.04.
Johansson signed a two-year contract as a free agent on July 6. The 28-year-old had 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 58 games last season with the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, and 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 22 playoff games, helping Boston advance to the Stanley Cup Final, which it lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games. Johansson has played in 87 of 164 regular-season games during the past two seasons because of injuries, he's been a consistent source of offense throughout his NHL career. Since 2013-14, he has generated 2.12 points/60 during 5-on-5 play, tied with Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings and Vincent Trocheck of the Florida Panthers for 115th among forwards to appear in at least 250 games in that span.
What does all of this mean for the Sabres this season?
Defensively, they should show significant improvement, with Miller and Jokiharju on the right side with Montour. They might have the flexibility to trade defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to bolster their forward group. Offensively, the additions of Vesey and Johansson should boost an offense that tied for 23rd in the NHL with 221 goals.
Video: Sabres trade Nylander to Blackhawks for Jokiharju
It's been a long road for the Sabres, who finished 22 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference last season, but it appears that with their recent moves, they are moving in the right direction to close that gap.