Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt and a busy offseason have inspired a new level of optimism around the Buffalo Sabres.
Dahlin, a defenseman selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, could open the season on the top pair. Mittelstadt, the No. 8 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, could start as the second-line center after making his NHL debut late last season.
The two rookies and newly acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka could be the needed jolt for the Sabres, who will try to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.
"I think first and foremost, the young group of players they have, the young core, is exciting," said Skinner, acquired in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 2. "There's a lot of good players and I'm excited to join those guys and be a piece of the puzzle. I think you name their seven, eight youngest [talented] players, Jack Eichel's probably at the top of the list. Obviously Rasmus Dahlin, I haven't seen him play, but I've heard a lot about him."
Dahlin is looking to make an immediate impact in Buffalo.
"I'm just so motivated to win hockey games so I'll bring everything I can to this team and try to win hockey games," Dahlin said. "That's what I think about."
Dahlin could play on his natural left side on the No. 1 defense pair with right-handed Rasmus Ristolainen, but general manager Jason Botterill said the goal is to get the 18-year-old comfortable in Buffalo.
"Our biggest focus right now is trying to get Dahlin acclimated to the North American game," Botterill said. "That's why he's going to be coming over [from Sweden] a little bit earlier, get situated in Buffalo, go through the process of the [NHL Prospect Challenge, Sept. 7-10], get as many preseason games as possible just to get him used to the National Hockey League game. … We like the options we have with it. [Dahlin] has the ability to play the left or right side, which is great.
"It'll be interesting to see where the chemistry goes and which player he has the most chemistry with going forward."
Dahlin already has a fan in Mittelstadt.
"I think he really floats around out there and it doesn't even look like he's trying at all, and he's gliding by guys," Mittelstadt said. "It's pretty cool. You can see how good of a skater he is and how good his hands are. ... It's definitely really exciting and it's a big piece for us."
Mittelstadt, 19, had five points (one goal, four assists) in six games with the Sabres after he signed his entry-level contract March 26. He could slot into the No. 2 center spot in place of Ryan O'Reilly, who was traded to the St. Louis Blues on July 1.
Buffalo acquired Sheary in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 27 and got Berglund and Sobotka as part of the O'Reilly trade. The Sabres added more scoring when they traded a prospect and draft picks to Carolina for Skinner, who scored at least 20 goals in six of his eight seasons with Carolina, including an NHL career-high 37 in 2016-17, and won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 2010-11.
"You look at even-strength scoring the past couple of years in Buffalo," Botterill said. "One of his strengths, he's a consistent goal-scorer. We had to create more offense."
The four new forwards, combined with Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, will take some of the pressure off Mittelstadt. The same goes for defensemen Marco Scandella, Zach Bogosian and Ristolainen easing the load on Dahlin.
"We're very excited about some of our young players, but it's going to be important that we do protect them, that we do put them in roles have success," Botterill said. "That's where our veteran players are going to have to step up more."
The Sabres scored 119 5-on-5 goals last season, the fewest in the NHL. Skinner's 20 even-strength goals last season would have been second on the Sabres to Eichel's 22.
The Sabres also felt they upgraded their goaltending by signing Carter Hutton to a three-year contract July 1. Among goaltenders to play at least 30 games last season, the 32-year-old was first in the NHL with a 2.09 goals-against average and .931 save percentage with the St. Louis Blues.
Buffalo is hoping to do what the Colorado Avalanche did in 2017-18 and reach the playoffs after finishing last in the NHL the previous season.
"We're excited about the mix we have," Botterill said. "To me, all 31 teams go into the season believing they can be in the playoffs. … I think that hope is realistic."