Saturday, August 4, 2018

Buffalo Sabres fantasy preview for 2018-19

Jack Eichel, C (NHL.com rank: 30) -- The 21-year-old is among the points (0.85, T-28th) and shots on goal (3.51; T-7th) per game leaders (minimum 200 games) since entering the NHL in 2015-16. Eichel missed a total of 37 games over those three seasons because of two ankle injuries but still had at least 20 power-play points in each. The Sabres should be vastly improved after acquiring goal-scoring left wing Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes, selecting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and signing goalie Carter Hutton. Eichel is ranked 13th among fantasy centers by NHL.com and has an even higher ceiling.

Rasmus Dahlin, D (71) -- The rookie is likely to play at least 20:00 per game and see significant power-play time, possibly on the first unit with Eichel, Skinner and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Dahlin comes with more fantasy hype than any rookie defenseman in more than a decade but could be a plus/minus liability in the Atlantic Division with teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers. That said, the fantasy reward would outweigh the risk if Dahlin becomes one of the most productive 18-year-old defensemen ever.
Jeff Skinner, LW* (92) -- The left wing gains significant value upon joining Buffalo, where he'll likely play with Eichel at even strength and on the power play. Skinner, 26, has at least 31 goals in three of his six full NHL seasons and a consistently heavy shot volume (at least 235 SOG in each of past five). He dipped in fantasy value (164th in Yahoo; 42nd in 2016-17) last season in mostly a third-line, second power-play role under former Hurricanes coach Bill Peters. But with a change of scenery and extra motivation in a contract year (potential 2019 unrestricted free agent), Skinner has renewed bounce-back potential after the trade.
Rasmus Ristolainen, D (118) -- The 23-year-old has exceeded 40 points and 21 PPP in each of the past three seasons on the first man-advantage unit with Eichel but has struggled at even strength (minus-25 last season; minus-102 in 346 NHL games). But Ristolainen (shoots right) should be the biggest beneficiary from Dahlin (left), whether or not they play on the same pair, after being stretched thin last season (26:30 per game; fourth in NHL). Ristolainen is among NHL.com's top 30 defensemen with bounce-back potential and added value in leagues that count hits (206 last season; 19th in NHL).
Sam Reinhart, C/LW/RW - RFA (128) -- If Eichel stays healthy, Dahlin and Hutton help the defense and Buffalo returns to its past power-play prowess (led NHL at 24.5 percent in 2016-17), Reinhart should build on his NHL career-high 50 points (25 goals, 25 assists) from last season. Reinhart's chemistry with Eichel is well-documented by his strong second half (37 points in final 38 games) last season and production when on the same line in prior seasons. If you're not comfortable investing in Eichel or Dahlin so early, Reinhart is a breakout candidate with a realistic chance at 60-65 points on a line with Eichel and Skinner.
Carter Hutton, G (137) -- The 32-year-old goaltender is poised for his heaviest workload yet with the Sabres; he cut into Jake Allen's starts last season and had the best save percentage in the NHL (.931; minimum 20 games). Hutton also ranked third in even-strength SV% (.936) behind Pekka Rinne (.939) and Antti Raanta (.937) and is Buffalo's clear No. 1 goalie and a potential mentor for 25-year-old Linus Ullmark. If Buffalo's offseason moves pay off, Hutton could return value as a sleeper outside the first 10 rounds of a 12-team draft.
Casey Mittelstadt, C (226) -- The Sabres traded center Ryan O'Reilly to the Blues on July 1, freeing up the second-line center spot for Mittelstadt. Patrik Berglund, 30, may be a safer candidate to claim that role to start, but Mittelstadt, 19, performed well in his NHL stint late last season (five points in six games) and is a sneaky rookie worth targeting in deeper fantasy leagues. He'll likely have an experienced right wing (Kyle Okposo, Jason Pominville) on his line and proved he's ready for the next step by scoring nearly a point per game (30 points in 34 games) as a freshman at University of Minnesota.
Other players with fantasy upside in late rounds or off waiver wire: Kyle Okposo, RW (240); Conor Sheary, LW/RW; Vladimir Sobotka, LW; Jason Pominville, RW*; Linus Ullmark, G**; Tage Thompson, C/RW
RFA - Current restricted free agent
*Potential 2019 unrestricted free agent
**Potential 2019 restricted free agent
INJ. - Injury concern entering 2018-19

Three questions facing Buffalo Sabres

1. Is Carter Hutton a No. 1 goaltender?
Hutton had a 2.09 goals-against average and .931 save percentage with the St. Louis Blues last season, each first in the NHL among goalies who played at least 30 games. The 32-year-old played 32 games, his second most in six NHL seasons, before signing a three-year, $8.25 million contract with the Sabres on July 1.
"We were very impressed with Carter's work ethic and his consistency as goalie," Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill said. "Not only last year but over the last couple years. We think he's ready to get that opportunity and run with it."
2. Can Kyle Okposo rediscover his game?
Okposo had 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 65 games in 2016-17, but his season ended March 27, 2017, because of a concussion and a reaction to sleep medicine that led to a stay in an intensive care unit. Last season, the forward sustained another concussion and had 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) in 76 games, his worst production in a full NHL season since 2010-11, when a shoulder injury limited him to 20 points in 38 games.
The Sabres need the 30-year-old back at his pre-injury level, and Botterill said he is confident he'll have a bounce-back season.
"Kyle has had a great offseason so far," Botterill said. "Kyle was disappointed, like a lot of our veteran players were, how the season progressed last year. Kyle is such a true professional, he really builds a lot of his confidence through his offseason training, and that gives him confidence going into the season. The fact that he's going to have an entire summer of training hard, getting his body in the best shape possible, I think will allow him to get off to a great start."
3. Who is the No. 2 center?
The trade of Ryan O'Reilly to the Blues on July 1 left an opening at second-line center behind Jack Eichel. Rookie Casey Mittelstadt could take the spot, but the Sabres don't want to put too much pressure on the 19-year-old with other options on the roster.
"So many of our players have that versatility, being able to play center or wing," Botterill said. "[Sam] Reinhart, [Patrik] Berglund, [Vladimir] Sobotka, [Zemgus] Girgensons, [Evan] Rodrigues, [Johan] Larsson, even Tage Thompson. We have a lot of players that we feel can play center or wing."

Buffalo Sabres key statistics

1. Rasmus Dahlin
Dahlin, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, will look to make an immediate impact. Each of the past five teams to have the No. 1 pick have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs within two seasons.
But how much can the Sabres expect from Dahlin? In the past 20 years, 12 other defensemen have been drafted in the top three; five went directly to the NHL: Jay Bouwmeester, Florida Panthers, No. 3 in 2002 NHL Draft; Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, No. 2 in 2008 NHL Draft; Zach Bogosian, Atlanta Thrashers, No. 3 in 2008; Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning, No. 2 in 2009 NHL Draft; and Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers, No. 1 in 2014 NHL Draft.
The average rookie performance of those five was 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 73 games.
Hedman, who scored 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) as a rookie with the Lightning, went to the NHL from the Swedish Hockey League, the same jump Dahlin is expected to make this season. In Hedman's final season in the SHL, he had 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 43 games for Modo. Dahlin had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 41 games last season for Frolunda.
2. Eichel's importance
Jack Eichel is one of two Sabres to score more than 50 points in a season since 2011-12. The other is center Ryan O'Reilly, who was traded to the St. Louis Blues on July 1.
In three NHL seasons, Eichel, a center, has scored 177 points (73 goals, 104 assists) in 209 games. That is an average of 0.85 points per game, which is 35 percent of the Sabres average of 2.42 goals per game. That ranks ninth among NHL players over that time span.
3. Shooting percentages
Over the past three seasons, the Sabres ranked last in the NHL in even-strength shooting percentage (6.4) and overall shooting percentage (8.0). This struggle carried into the shootout, when they scored on 13 of 65 attempts (20.0 percent), last in the NHL, leading to a record of 5-15 in that span.
To turn the tide, the Sabres will be relying on new-addition forwards Conor Sheary and Patrik Berglund, who have NHL career shooting percentages of 13.8 and 12.5, higher than anyone on the Sabres roster. Forward Jeff Skinner, who was acquired in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes, also could make a difference with his 10.7 shooting percentage.

Top prospects for Buffalo Sabres

1. Rasmus Dahlin, D
How acquired: Selected with No. 1 pick in 2018 NHL Draft
Last season: Frolunda (SHL): 41 GP, 7-13-20
Dahlin (6-foot-2, 181 pounds) could start the season on the No. 1 defense pair with Rasmus Ristolainen. The 18-year-old, who is a left-handed shot, set a Swedish Hockey League record for points in a season by an under-18 defenseman. He was named the best defenseman at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship when he had six assists in seven games, and he was the youngest player for Sweden at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
"Just how he shifts back and forth from one side to the other side," said Chris Taylor, coach of Rochester in the American Hockey League affiliate, who ran Buffalo's development camp. "He can stop laterally, his stride, his passing is crisp like an NHL player. Receiving passes, you probably see a lot of times pucks bouncing off of people's sticks. It didn't bounce off his stick. He's just one of those guys, you can tell."
Projected NHL arrival: This season
2. Casey Mittelstadt, F
How acquired: Selected with No. 8 pick in 2017 NHL Draft
Last season: Buffalo: 6 GP, 1-4-5; University of Minnesota (NCAA): 34 GP, 11-19-30
Mittelstadt is expected to have a big role in the Sabres' top six. The 19-year-old forward (6-1, 190) signed a three-year, entry-level contract March 26, had an assist in each of his first two NHL games, and scored his first NHL goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 6.
"We're very excited about Casey's potential," Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill said. "You saw it in the games he played last year. I thought it was a great experience for him to go into tough environments in Tampa Bay or Nashville or Toronto, to really get a feel for the NHL game."
Projected NHL arrival: This season
3. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G
How acquired: Selected with No. 54 pick in 2017 NHL Draft
Last season: LeKi (FIN-2): 24 GP, 11-11-2, 2.92 GAA, .909 SV%
The 19-year-old signed a three-year, entry-level contract June 14 and will play for Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League this season, his first in North America. Luukkonen (6-4, 196) likely will start for Finland at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship after helping it place sixth at the 2018 WJC.
"We do know he'll play a significant role at the World Juniors and that'll be another good experience for him," Botterill said. "We're going to be patient with him as we go along here."
Projected NHL arrival: 2020-21 season
4. Alexander Nylander, F
How acquired: Selected with No. 8 pick in 2016 NHL Draft
Last season: Buffalo: 3 GP, 1-0-1; Rochester (AHL): 51 GP, 8-19-27
The 20-year-old scored his first NHL goal April 6. He'll have the opportunity to start the season in the NHL after a solid second season in the AHL. Nylander (6-1, 192) averaged 0.53 points per game and was plus-3 last season, up from 0.43 and minus-24 in 2016-17.
"We're going to give him an opportunity to play with our higher-end offensive skill players in training camp," Botterill said.
Projected NHL arrival: This season
5. Brendan Guhle, D
How acquired: Selected with No. 51 pick in 2015 NHL Draft
Last season: Buffalo: 18 GP, 0-5-5; Rochester (AHL): 50 GP: 8-18-26
The 20-year-old will compete for a spot on the second or third defense pair. The left-shot defenseman (6-2, 196) impressed in his short NHL stint last season.
"He brings an element to our back end there just with his speed," Botterill said. "Nowadays in the National Hockey League, [with] teams backchecking so much, so hard, the back pressure, you have to have your defensemen be able to create offense, and he certainly brings that dynamic there."
Projected NHL arrival: This season

Inside look at Buffalo Sabres

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."