The 2017/2018 Buffalo Sabres season was easily the most disappointing season I've experienced as a sports fan. I wasn't necessarily expecting a playoff team, but I certainly expected them to continue along their trajectory of being a low to mid 80 point team and if everything broke their way, maybe make some noise around the second wild card spot in the east.
It only took the first weekend of the season to lose all hope that had been built up during the preseason. After a promising game to begin the season against Montreal where they played with speed and demonstrated NHL quality passing, they proceeded to look worse than the 14/15 tank Sabres in their next two games against the Islanders and Devils. I almost made the trip down to Brooklyn to attend that Islanders game since I haven't been to Barclays Center yet and always enjoy attending road games. Thankfully I decided not to go and saved myself some embarrassment and money.
Unfortunately, I ended up making the trip up to Buffalo to attend that abysmal Columbus Day game against the Devils and subjected myself to one of the saddest in arena experiences I've ever had. Just sitting there as it happened to them, and me, watching this team that I thought would be ok to decent get trounced by a Devils team that all of the sudden rocketed past the Sabres in their rebuild.
I had all of these fun plans to regularly write and record podcasts for this blog during the 17/18 season, and in a 2.5 hour span, as I sat in section 112, all of that enthusiasm left me and I barely touched the site throughout the year.
A common (lame) phrase that's often espoused in sports and life in general is to keep your expectations low, that way you can't be disappointed. Some may suggest that last year hurt so much because our expectations were far too high. Maybe that's true, but I have to say, I think that way of thinking is bullshit. Who has ever accomplished anything of significance with low expectations? Expectations are good and what drive us to be and do better. Just because an expectation isn't met, doesn't mean it was wrong to have had that expectation.
Keep in mind is that there is a difference between high expectations and unreasonable expectations. It would have been unreasonable to expect last years Sabres team to compete for a cup, but it was totally reasonable to expect that team to be competitive and in the playoff discussion at least through January.
Instead, last years team failed spectacularly in what was arguably the worst season in Sabres history.
The only seasons in team history with fewer wins were as follows:
First 2 seasons post expansion
Two 48 game lockout shortened seasons
Two Tank Seasons
Now that that nightmare is over we can begin to look forward to the 18/19 Sabres season.
Jason Botterill and the Buffalo front office may have been the most active group in the NHL this offseason with a collection of moves highlighted by the trading of Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis for Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson, and a 1st round pick (a move I'm still on the fence about), trading for Jeff Skinner for a prospect and a few mid round picks (a move I loved), the signing of Carter Hutton in free agency (a move I'm fine with), and trading a mid round pick to Pittsburgh for Connor Sheary (probably good) and Matt Hunwick (bad, but necessary to make the trade happen).
First on O'Reilly: I understand and somewhat buy the argument that the Sabres bottom six was so bad that the quickest way to fix it was to trade a good player away and acquire a couple of ok players so that the bottom six actually has NHLers instead of below replacement AHLers. However, Ryan O'Reilly is a very good top 6 center in the NHL right now and I find it really tough to trade away excellent players on favorable contracts. Maybe Berglund will provide the cover necessary to shelter Mittelstadt, maybe Sobotka could be a consistent enough offensive contributor, and maybe Thompson materializes into the 25+ goal scorer he's been touted as, but that's a lot of if's compared to the certainty that is Ryan O'Reilly.
On the other hand, the Skinner trade is a total steal for Buffalo. Skinner is an excellent 5v5 goal scorer, a thing that Sabres have been awful at for most of this decade, and draws penalties at an elite level which could be a huge boon for what should be an excellent Sabres power play. Connor Sheary will be an interesting player to track. He's put up very good scoring totals on Sidney Crosby's wing but it appears he'll be playing with either Berglund or Mittelstadt instead of Jack Eichel, so he won't be playing with a top center anymore. Will he be able to contribute at a similar level with lesser talent?
Much of this season rides on the success or failure of Carter Hutton in net, something I'm not super confident in. It's not that I think Carter Hutton is bad or anything. In the opportunities he's been given he's performed well, but he's also played behind top defenses in Nashville and St. Louis, something Buffalo very much doesn't have. How is he going to perform facing 30+ shots a night compared to the 25 he's been facing in St. Louis? The Sabres defense isn't as bad as years past but it's still not great. Also an improved bottom six should improve the shots against total, but it's still nowhere near St. Louis in my opinion, so a lot rests on Hutton's shoulders this season.
In non trade additions, Mittelstadt and Dahlin joining the team full time should be a fun side story to watch. Can they adapt to the game quick enough to be regular contributors? Will they live up to their billing as 2 of the top prospects in all of hockey in their rookie years? If they manage to explode on the scene like other rookie phenom's of years past, the Sabres could go from an interesting potential bubble team to keep an eye on, to a full blown sure thing playoff team in the blink of an eye. Can the rookies bare the weight of that kind of pressure on their shoulders?
My concern heading into the 18/19 season is the amount of "ifs" that this years success hinges on. There's usually 1 or 2 for each team, but for Buffalo it seems like there's 5+ "ifs" that they're dependent on for any level of competitiveness.
If Hutton plays well (.920ish sv%)
If Sheary can put up 20 goals and 20 assists
If Skinner and Eichel have chemistry and put up 60 and 80 points respectively
If Reinhart plays like second half 17/18 Reinhart and can hit 60 points
If Mittelstadt and Dahlin adjust to the NHL quickly enough to make significant contributions in their rookie year
If Nylander and Thompson fulfill their expectations as scoring wingers that belong in the NHL
If the improved bottom six is actually improved and not total trash like years past
Despite these "ifs," we should expect this drastically remade team to take a significant step in the standings. Like I said above, expectations are good and push us to be better. I of course don't expect them to be a cup contender, I don't even expect them to be a sure playoff team, but I certainly expect them be in the playoff conversation through at least the beginning of March. In my very unscientific thinking, anything less than 85 points would be a disappointment.
Finishing fifth in the Atlantic divison should be the easiest goal for the Sabres to meet this year. Ottawa, Montreal, and Detroit are all terrible and Buffalo should smoke them this year. I think the top 2 teams in the divison are very clearly Tampa and Toronto. While most people throw Boston as a sure top 3 team in the divison, I'm not as convinced. Florida has a real shot to crack the top 3 in my mind and I don't see Boston as the powerhouse team everyone else does.
Any hope Buffalo has for the playoffs will rely on what happens with the final wild card spot. In no particular order I would expect Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia, and Columbus to make the playoffs out of the Metro, meaning at least one wild card spot will be taken up by a Metro team. Beyond that Buffalo should be competitive in the fight for the remaining wild card spot with Boston, Florida, New Jersey and Carolina.
I'm feeling a similar level unsureness as I did heading into last season with the caveat that I think this team is significantly improved. They shouldn't be a train wreck to watch this year. Games should be generally interesting enough to not hate yourself for watching. They may even be fun at points. But I'm far from convinced they'll actually be even an average team.
My unsure belief is that we should head in to this season with the expectation that they will finally look like an NHL team worth paying attention to. Should we expect playoffs? I don't think so. Should we expect them to remain in the playoff conversation through at least mid February? Yes.
Jason Botterill and Phil Housley were given a year to get a complete read on what they had in the organization. Now is the time to execute whatever vision they have for the team and this offseason was a good first step. There are no excuses at this point and if they underperform I think it would be reasonable for fans to begin questioning Management and Ownerships leadership given the amount of patience the fanbase has otherwise had with the team since the half-season lockout.
Just be more fun this year and I think I'll be pretty happy.
*Side Note* - Like I did through the back half of last season, I will be capturing a sharing GIFs during Sabres games I'm watching live on my twitter feed. I'm also maintaining a GIF database here on the website to make searching for and watching GIFs much easier. If that's something you enjoy, please consider supporting the site on Patreon to help us cover the costs for hosting the database and website.