NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. Today, three important questions facing the Buffalo Sabres.
1. Can the Taylor Hall–Jack Eichel combination lead to Buffalo reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Hall signed a one-year contract Oct. 11 and should make the Buffalo Sabres much more formidable. The plan is to play the left wing, who was voted winner of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP for 2017-18, with Eichel, a center who has scored at least 24 goals in each of his five NHL seasons. The Sabres are hoping that combination will help get them to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season; at nine seasons, they have the longest active drought in the NHL.
“You have to be excited when you think of two elite forwards of that caliber attacking the opposition with the system we have,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “It will be lethal.”
2. Will Eric Staal help Jeff Skinner return to form?
Skinner struggled last season, scoring 23 points (14 goals, nine assists) in 59 games after the forward scored 63 points, including an NHL-career high 40 goals, in 82 games in 2018-19.
The Sabres are hoping Staal, a center and Skinner’s former teammate with the Carolina Hurricanes who was acquired in a trade from the Minnesota Wild on Sept. 16, can help him regain his scoring touch.
“I think that’s what separates the best players in the League is being able to bring it every night,” Skinner said. “To be able to bring it every night and compete that hard for that long is probably the most unique thing about [Staal].”
Two of Skinner’s 30-goal seasons came when he was Staal’s teammate: his rookie season of 2010-11, when he scored 63 points (31 goals, 32 assists), and 2016-17, when he scored 63 points (37 goals, 26 assists).
“I hope last year was a bit of an anomaly for him,” Staal said. “I think he’s going to be counted on for a lot.”
3. Will the goaltending hold up?
There was speculation that Buffalo would address the position in free agency, but the Sabres are sticking with Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, who are a combined 62-67-17 with a 2.99 goals-against average and .907 save percentage over the past two seasons.
“We really had stretches from both Ullmark and Hutton of strong goaltending last season,” Krueger said. “At the moment, they are our goaltenders. We are working hard to work with them through this long break.
“For the moment, this is the way it is. I would feel extremely comfortable if we begin the season this way.”
General manager Kevyn Adams said he feels Ullmark (17-14-3, 2.69, .915 last season) has the makeup to be a solid No. 1 goalie and that he looks forward to seeing what he can do in that role.
“I think everybody feels good about the steps that Linus took last year, and we’re excited about him,” Adams said.