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Sabres season preview: New coach Krueger looks to end playoff drought

Additions of Vesey, Johansson reasons for optimism

by Heather Engel / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Buffalo Sabres.

Coach: Ralph Krueger (first season)

Last season: 33-39-10; sixth place Atlantic Division

 

5 KEYS

 

1. Krueger's impact

Krueger, hired May 15, is Buffalo's sixth coach in the past seven seasons. He will try to help the Sabres reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

General manager Jason Botterill said Krueger's skills as a communicator and experience in high-pressure situations sets him apart as a coach. Those strengths will be important to a team that was fragile last season, finishing 27th in the NHL following a strong start.

Krueger has a wealth of international coaching experience but 48 games in the NHL, with the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012-13 season.

 

2. Secondary scoring

The additions of forwards Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson should help an offense that got 90 of its 221 goals last season from three players: Jeff Skinner (40), Jack Eichel (28) and Sam Reinhart (22). Vesey scored 17 goals last season with the New York Rangers and has scored 43 of his 50 NHL goals at even strength. Johansson scored 13 goals in 58 games with the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins last season and is three seasons removed from an NHL career-high 24 goals and 58 points with the Washington Capitals.

The Sabres will be counting on younger forwards taking the next step. Victor Olofsson, 24, had an impressive first season in North America (two goals, two assists in six games with the Sabres; 30 goals, 33 assists in 66 games with Rochester of the American Hockey League). Casey Mittelstadt, 20, had 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) as a rookie last season. And Tage Thompson, 21, needs to be more the player who had nine points (six goals, three assists) in eight games with Rochester than the one with seven goals and five assists in 65 games with the Sabres.

Video: Jack Eichel takes No. 42 on the list

 

3. Improved defense

The Sabres revamped the right side of their defense, adding defensemen Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju in trades with the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks. Brandon Montour will play his first full season in Buffalo after being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 24.

Despite trade rumors, Rasmus Ristolainen is part of that group on the right side. The additions will allow the Sabres to ease the defenseman's minutes; he's averaged 24:14 per game over his six NHL seasons.

 

4. Bounce-back seasons from goalies

Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark each fared well in the first half of last season and, like the rest of the Sabres, struggled in the second half. Hutton's save percentage dropped from .911 through his first 32 games to .902 the rest of the way. Perhaps he became more fatigued as he faced an average of 30.8 shots per game in an NHL career-high 50 games, a notable jump from the 24.8 he saw on average in his first 138 NHL games in the previous six seasons.

It was worse for Ullmark, who went from a .916 save percentage in his first 20 games to .890 in the other 17 games. Better consistency from Ullmark will allow the Sabres to not overwork Hutton.

Video: BUF@NYI: Hutton denies Beauvillier's penalty shot

 

5. Winning on the road

The Sabres won 12 road games last season, third-fewest in the NHL and the fewest for Buffalo since winning nine in 2014-15. Eight of their first 14 games this season are on the road, and on Nov. 8 and 9 they'll play two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Stockholm, Sweden as part of the 2019 NHL Global Series.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

 

Making the cut

There will be battles for the wings, with a surplus of left wings and an opening for a top-six right wing. Botterill said he likes the versatility of the forwards, noting the ability of Olofsson, Vesey, Thompson and Conor Sheary, among others, to play both sides.

On defense, Jokiharju is looking to make the roster out of training camp as he did a season ago with the Chicago Blackhawks, when he had 12 assists in 38 games. John Gilmour, signed July 1, led Hartford of the AHL with 54 points (20 goals, 34 assists) last season and will vie for a spot on a left side that features incumbents Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella.

 

Most intriguing addition

Miller has mobility and puck-moving skills, and brings leadership and 30 games of postseason experience, including 20 games during a run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final with the Golden Knights.

 

Biggest potential surprise

Forward C.J. Smith was second to Olofsson in goals (28) and points (58) in Rochester last season and scored his first two NHL goals while playing 11 games with the Sabres. He skated with Mittelstadt and Reinhart on the first day of training camp and could earn a spot on the roster with a strong showing in the preseason.

 

Ready to break through

Olofsson didn't look out of place during six NHL games late last season. The 24-year-old's talent and experience -- he played over 200 games in the Swedish Hockey League -- were especially noticeable at the Prospects Challenge earlier this month, when he scored in all three games.

Video: OTT@BUF: Olofsson rips one-timer past Daccord for PPG

 

Fantasy sleeper

Olofsson (average draft position: N/A) has a chance to earn a top-six role after a productive NHL trial last season (four points in six games) and has sneaky upside if he plays with Eichel at even strength and/or on the first power play. -- Pete Jensen

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Jeff Skinner -- Jack Eichel -- Conor Sheary

Marcus Johansson -- Casey Mittelstadt -- Sam Reinhart

Jimmy Vesey -- Evan Rodrigues -- Victor Olofsson

Vladimir Sobotka -- Johan Larsson -- Kyle Okposo

Rasmus Dahlin -- Brandon Montour

Jake McCabe -- Rasmus Ristolainen

Marco Scandella -- Colin Miller

Carter Hutton

Linus Ullmark

 

Photos courtesy: Bill Wippert/Buffalo Sabres

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