Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. Image by: Getty Images
The Sabres have been in a perpetual rebuild, but with a generational talent in his prime, and glut of centers, they may have something special in 2019-20.
Welcome to 2020 Vision, our new feature taking a look at how the roster of each NHL team may look three seasons from now when the 2019-2020 season begins.
Over the next month we’ll profile one team, in alphabetical order, each day and project what their roster (12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies) will look like.
There were some ground rules for this exercise. We didn’t allow any blockbuster trades or free agent signings, but we did make assumptions about teams re-signing their own UFAs and RFAs.
Therefore, this isn’t intended to be a fantasy-like look at the league in 2019-20. Instead, since this is part of the THN Future Watch family, it’s meant to be a realistic, best-case-scenario projection for each team based on players already under contract, and prospects in their system.
The Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs each of the past six seasons and this year marked a full decade since they’ve gone beyond the first round of the playoffs. But with a new coach, a new GM and a generational player entering the prime years of his career, they’re counting on all that changing in a big way.
And if it’s true you win in the NHL by loading up down the middle, the Sabres are primed to make the jump to playoff contender by the 2019-20 season. That season will be Jack Eichel’s fifth in the NHL and by that time he could be right there with the likes of Connor McDavid for the mantle of best player in the NHL. If Sam Reinhart can step up his development, he gives the Sabres some incredible depth along with Ryan O’Reilly beyond Eichel.
Thanks to the trade that brought Marco Scandella from the Minnesota Wild, new coach Phil Housley has a promising core of defensemen with which to work. In fact, as it stands now, they’ll have to make some room for Viktor Antipin, an undrafted 24-year-old they signed out of the KHL after winning a bidding war this summer. By ’19-20, though, Zach Bogosian will be in the last year of his deal that carries a $5.1 million cap hit, which could be moved by that time.
While depth on the wings is certainly an issue, the Sabres should have some outstanding top-end offensive talent in three years. Alex Nylander had some growing pains at the AHL level this past season, but he has been lights-out against players of his own age and should be ready to make a contribution by 2019-20.
After prospect Cal Petersen elected to become a free agent after his college career at Notre Dame, he left the organization to sign with the Los Angeles Kings, which creates some uncertainty in goal. One thing that is certain, however, is there’s an excellent chance the Sabres No. 1 goal in three years will be from Sweden. With Linus Ullmark and Jonas Johansson waiting in the wings behind Robin Lehner, Tre Kronor is definitely in Buffalo’s future in the crease.
Speaking of college players, the Sabres signed C.J. Smith, a small but fast winger with some scoring punch as a free agent out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell last season. His scoring totals improved all three years he played college hockey and the Sabres are banking there will be a place for a player of his ilk in the NHL within a couple of seasons.
GOT IT: Talent at the top end of every position, particularly down the middle. That will allow the Sabres to not have to rush Casey Mittelstadt, their first-round pick who is headed to college hockey this season.
NEED IT: Depth and size on the left side. Junior star Cliff Pu is a natural center, but we have him playing out of position a couple of years down the road because of the glut of centers and the dearth of left wingers. The Petersen departure blows a pretty significant hole in the goaltending futures, too.
CAP WATCH: Things are as wide-open as can be, with the Sabres having only $28.8 million committed to five players as of 2019-20, with a substantial amount added to that once Eichel and Reinhart sign their extensions coming off their entry-level deals.
BOTTOM LINE: The Sabres have been in a perpetual rebuild for a number of years now, but they’re looking as though they might have something special on their hands in a couple of seasons. If their young players continue to develop as they have, the Sabres should be selling playoff tickets in the near future.
Up next: Calgary Flames