In the Iffy League, you never win or lose.
Like it or not, that’s the prognosis in Buffalo for the Sabres.
Or, to put it another way, in terms of hockey in 2018-19 the “Ifs” outweigh the “Plus” and “Minuses” because — well — because there’s so much uncertainty about Western New York’s favorite hockey team.
Mostly it surrounds the club’s two first-round selections this year and their ability to play to their preseason reviews.
Brian Duff and Marty Biron go over the action in the Sabres' 3-2 preseason victory over the Penguins in Rasmus Dahlin's debut in front of the fans at KeyBank Center.
Goaltending once more is an Iffy proposition, not to mention sophomore coach Phil Housley who’s on the spot as much as any NHL mentor.
That said, there’s plenty of reason for hope if the Ifs turn into aces. Here’s my Sabres outlook:
GOAL: Arithmetically, Carter Hutton is the answer to GM Jason Botterill’s prayers. With St. Louis, Hutton possessed a .931 save percentage, best of NHL goalies with more than 30 appearances. Then again, Hutton never played more than 40 games in a season. Should Hutton fail, Linus Ullmark will be pushed into the top slot.
DEFENSE: Asking Dahlin to fortify the blue line corps will be a challenge among challenges for a rookie blueliner. The good news is that his mentor will be reliable Rasmus Ristolainen. If somehow Zach Bogosian can stay healthy, some good can come out of the Buffalo backline brigade. Otherwise, the likes of Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe and Nathan Beaulieu will have to do.
OFFENSE: Compensating for the loss of Ryan O’Reilly will require deft juggling not to mention the leadership of Jack Eichel. What Connor McDavid means to Edmonton is roughly equivalent to Eichel’s importance in Buffalo, even more striking now that Eichel has been named the captain. (Interestingly, neither star made the playoffs last year either.) Ergo, Joltin’ Jack can’t do it alone. He’ll have Conor Sheary on the left and Sam Reinhart on the right side. It looms as a formidable unit but the lines after the top trio raise eyebrows. The best bet would be a superior season from Casey Mittelstadt, a rookie who impressed after six late-season games. Hopefully, good guy Kyle Okposo can find the game that had made him such a valuable performer on Long Island.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The power play needs work as does the penalty kill. ‘Nuff said.
INTANGIBLES: How the refurbished Sabres react to coach Housley will go a long way toward determining if this is a playoff team or not. Then there’s the matter or how much leadership Eichel can provide. Big Jack is the club’s leader on the ice, and wearing the “C” puts a lot more responsibility on his shoulders.
ROOKIES: Here’s how The Hockey News puts it: “With Dahlin, Mittelstadt and Brendan Guhle, the Sabres potentially have their best rookie crop ever.”
X-FACTOR: The new faces will determine the Sabres’ future. If Hutton delivers in goal and Dahlin is as good as touted, Buffalo could surprise and make the postseason.
PREDICTION: With brand-new faces on the roster, Buffalo will need time to come together. But don’t be surprised if they’re in contention at the end of the season.
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