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Sabres eye step up by Olofsson, defensemen after season ends

Will try to end NHL's longest playoff drought in 2020-21

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

The Buffalo Sabres will not make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a ninth straight season, the longest absence in the NHL.

The Sabres (30-31-8) were not among the 24 teams to make the Qualifying Round or Seeding Round Robin when the NHL announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26. They were 8-1-1 after a 4-3 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 23 but were 22-30-7 in their final 59 games, including two six-game stretches without a win (Oct. 28-Nov. 14 and Feb. 26-March 7).

Buffalo last made the playoffs in 2010-11 and hasn't won a series since 2006-07, when it reached the Eastern Conference Final for a second straight season.

Here is a look at what happened during the 2019-20 season for the Sabres and why things could be better next season:

 

The Skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Michael Frolik, F; Zemgus Girgensons, F; Matt Hunwick, D; Johan Larsson, F; Wayne Simmonds, F; Vladimir Sobotka, F; Jimmy Vesey, F

Potential restricted free agents: Dominik Kahun, F; Curtis Lazar, F; Brandon Montour, D; Victor Olofsson, F; Lawrence Pilut, D; Sam Reinhart, F; Linus Ullmark, G

Potential 2020 NHL Draft picks: 6

 

What went wrong

Lack of offensive depth: Center Jack Eichel certainly did his part again, leading the Sabres with 78 points (36 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games. But there was a large gap between Eichel and the second-leading scorer, center Sam Reinhart (50 points; 22 goals, 28 assists). No forward other than Victor Olofsson (42 points; 20 goals, 22 assists) scored 40 points. Forward Jeff Skinner, who signed an eight-year, $72 million contract (average annual value $9 million) on June 7, 2019, scored 23 points (14 goals, nine assists) in 59 games and was minus-22.

Video: CBJ@BUF: Eichel rips overtime winner from circle

Struggles on defense: Buffalo had the worst face-off winning percentage in the NHL (45.9 percent) and was 21st in goals allowed (215, 3.12 per game) with a minus-22 goal differential. Goalie Carter Hutton, who signed a three-year, $8.25 million contract ($2.75 million AAV) on July 1, 2018, had a 3.18 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage in 31 games (30 starts) and allowed at least three goals in five of his final six starts before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. 

Special teams: The penalty kill ranked 30th in the NHL (74.6 percent). A trade for forward Michael Frolik from the Calgary Flames on Jan. 2 was a nice start at improvement, but Buffalo is going to have to find more help before the start of next season. The Sabres power play ranked 20th in the NHL (18.9 percent); Eichel (27), Olofsson (17) and Reinhart (12) were their only forwards to reach double digits in power-play points.

 

Reasons for optimism

Olofsson's a keeper: It's hard to find a top-six forward in the seventh round, but Oloffson (No. 181, 2014 NHL Draft) was third among NHL rookies with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) in 54 games. He scored four game-winning goals and tied Eichel for the Sabres lead with 11 power-play goals.

Video: WSH@BUF: Olofsson roofs wrister home from the circle

Jokiharju exceeds expectations: It's common for a young defenseman to take a while to develop, but Henri Jokiharju has been everything the Sabres were hoping for since they acquired the 20-year-old in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 9, 2019. He scored 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 69 games and averaged 17:13 of ice time per game.

More coming on the blue line: Buffalo is building a solid young core at defenseman with Jokiharju, Rasmus Dahlin, 20, and Rasmus Ristolainen, 25, and there's help on the way. Mattias Samuelsson, a second-round pick (No. 32) in the 2018 NHL Draft, agreed to a three-year, entry-level contract March 25; and Ryan Johnson, the No. 31 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, had eight assists in 37 games as a freshman at the University of Minnesota.

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