In a new series, we’re going take a look at how the Montreal Canadiens might fare against their divisional opponents as the off season continues and we start to see what the rosters may look like come October.
I will be evaluating the match ups based on positional strengths and weaknesses, last season’s statistics, as well as individual statistics between players.
Significant Additions: Rasmus Dahlin, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, Carter Hutton
Significant Subtractions: Ryan O’Reilly, Robin Lehner
The Buffalo Sabres had another difficult season, finishing in last place in the Atlantic for the second straight year, and failing to make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. Despite their best attempts to ice a competitive roster, growing pains with their prospects as well as teams around them getting better have led the Sabres to be one of the bottom tier NHL teams for the last few seasons.
However the NHL draft, where they selected generational defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, may signal the beginning of a new era for the Sabres who will attempt to play spoiler in a division that is as competitive as ever.
Both the Canadiens and the Sabres struggled to score last season and for many reasons, ranging from puck luck, to injuries, to simply not being good enough. Looking ahead, both teams could only look upwards, as their cores are relatively young and will benefit from having a year of growth.
However, the Canadiens gain slight the advantage due to their depth, which despite not scoring as was expected, is still one of the most underrated forward cores in the league. With or without Max Pacioretty, you have various players with the ability to put the puck in the net, such as Brendan Gallagher, as well as young players who have yet to hit their ceiling in Charles Hudon, Artturi Lehkonen, and even arguably Jonathan Drouin. The experience this group has also trumps Buffalo’s core, with a few exceptions in veterans Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville.
Losing their steady two-way centre in Ryan O’Reilly doesn’t help either, however it does open up the doors to promising centre prospect Casey Mittelstadt, who should start the season in the NHL this year, and brought in more depth with the return for O’Reilly, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund.
However, it could be in the very near future where the balance between these two teams may shift in terms of offence, as Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart grow better by the year, two players who have already impacted the NHL, Eichel in particular. Leading the team 64 points last season, he’s the prototypical centre teams wish for, and although he hasn’t put up numbers like Connor McDavid, there isn’t a team in this league that doubts his skillset or his ability to grow into a perennial superstar.
The statistics aren’t pretty, but after selecting their defenceman of the future in Dahlin, the Sabres defence core gets a huge push in the right direction. Alongside Finnish defender Rasmus Ristolainen, the two form a strong one-two punch in the backend, and could deliver considerable offensive output, especially on the power play if given the opportunity.
Round that out with Marco Scandella, former Canadien Nathan Beaulieu, and Zach Bogosian, and it’s not that bad of a group when you look at it on paper.
One can argue that with a healthy Shea Weber, another strong season from Jeff Petry and having Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen being one year older, that the Canadiens are in good shape in comparison. But it’s obvious that skating isn’t the strength of this defence, especially with Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn holding up the rest of the back end.
In short, the relatively inexperienced and young Sabres core will most likely make mistakes, but outscore most of them, due to Dahlin alone as well as growth from the rest of their core. The Canadiens struggled this season with defensive transitions, and without a true puck moving defenceman behind Jeff Petry, fall behind on this category in comparison to Buffalo.
Without looking at statistics, this one should be a no-brainer. Despite his fall from his usual form, Carey Price remains one of the elite puck stoppers in the NHL, and is matched by very few in the league. Last season should be viewed as a blip on the radar, and it’s known that the Canadiens remain a threat as long as he remains healthy and is playing at the top of his game. Career wise, he’s maintained a .935 save percentage and a 1.94 GAA against the Sabres, both excellent stats.
It should be said that the Sabres come into 2018-19 with improved goaltending depth, having separated from Robin Lehner, and acquiring Carter Hutton from the St. Louis Blues.
Hutton was great last year, surprisingly leading the NHL in save percentage (.931%) and goals against average (2.09), finishing with a record of 17-7-3 with the Blues.
However, it seems like deja vu for the Sabres, as they acquired for a goaltender who was originally a back up on his previous team, similar to the original trade for Lehner. The Sabres haven’t had a true top goalie since the Ryan Miller era, and it feels like they are taking another chance with Hutton this season.
These stats could signal a potential steal for the Sabres, especially with a modest cap hit of $2.75 million or a 32 year old goaltender who simply had a career season.
Hutton will be forced to adapt to a larger workload, both in games played (entering his first NHL season as a starter) and in shots faced as he won’t have Alex Pietrangelo or Colton Parayko in front of him. But as Dahlin gets adjusted to the NHL level, as well as growth from Rasmus Ristolainen, the pieces should fall into place.
Despite the Sabres having the better goaltender in 2017-18, it’s well too early to swing the advantage in their direction going forward.
These two teams could be seen as rebuilding franchises, however, they aren’t that far from being competitive, for different reasons. The Sabres remain a team without an identity, but this season may flip the script, and this could finally be the year they give their divisional foes a headache.
You can see them as a team on the rise, with two potential superstars in Dahlin and Eichel, waiting to break out. You can also see them as a team that has a few more years left until they catch up to teams like Toronto or Boston. They are a team with question marks at forward after trading a key centre, and one who took a significant, albeit reasonable, gamble in net.
Growing pains are inevitable, and it will most likely be the Canadiens’ experience that will allow them to remain ahead of Buffalo.